Now that pandemic restrictions have finally lifted, conferences and professional development events are making their triumphant return around the country. And since they’re such a great opportunity to learn and be curious, that has us pretty excited.

The Brand New Conference is a two-day event in Austin, Texas, organized by UnderConsideration, and is a direct extension of the Brand New blog. The 16 sessions offer a broad range of perspectives with speakers from around the world working in different environments—everything from small, independent firms to global consultancies.

We weren’t about to be left out of the fun. So we sent three of our designers to explore the conference and learn more about what turns ordinary brands into smart, creative juggernauts.

Here’s what they learned.

Strategy First. Design Second.

How does a designer make their work stand out in a society inundated with advertising?

According to Art Director Nicholas Reese, it’s all about strategy and resonance.

“You can’t just be a graphic designer,” he said. “You also have to be a strategist. During the conference, one of the speakers, Shruthi Manjula, said our job was to build bridges between human beings, not walls of limitations. And that’s what we do as designers: We strategize how to build those bridges.”

For Nicholas, the biggest takeaway from the conference was the importance of strategic thought and communication when creating good design work.

“You have to actively engage with your audience and communicate a product or message that improves their lives,” Nicholas said. “You can’t do that by putting a logo or product image in front of them. You need to make a connection, build a bridge into their space, and be special to them.”

There are plenty of innovative ways to make these connections. Patagonia, for example, wears its purpose on its waterproof, PFC-free, Fair Trade Certified sleeves. In its latest act, the Patagonia Purpose Trust was created to hold 100% of the voting stocks while 100% of nonvoting stocks were given to Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the earth. Additionally, 1% of profits—which the company has always donated—will now be used specifically to combat climate change, with founder Yvon Chouinard proudly stating that the earth “is our only shareholder.” As a result, Patagonia gained a ton of positive brand recognition, marking itself as something special to its customers.

AI on the Horizon

Designer Chad Wysong noted the growing concern among artists that the profession could become obsolete as more and more people resort to using AI-generated art and design. As Chad put it, so much more goes into design than just the work itself. There’s a lot of deep critical thinking involved, and that’s something machines and algorithms can’t replicate. Working alongside AI is completely possible, and all it really takes is a small change in how we work.

“AI can make things that have high craft value and are efficient, but what it can’t do is create strong original creative ideas,” Chad said. “If we shift our mindset to focus less on craft and more on creation, we can commit more time to generating better ideas and strategy.”

How does AI fit in? AI can take the repetitive work that goes into creating things like ad variations off designers’ hands. That means more impactful work moves through the shop more efficiently.

Better Not Best

Production Designer Chad “Von” Borstel said good design was about pursuing one simple concept: progress over perfection.

Von said speaker Jeremy Mickle of MCKL Inc. changed his perspective on his own work as a designer. Mickle told his audience that he often struggled with wanting to create the “perfect” design, and that climb to perfection hindered his work.

“As creatives, we are always comparing our work and ourselves to others in the industry, and it can be hard to not look down on yourself or your work.” Von noted. “But even in quiet times or with simpler projects, you’re still learning and gaining skills, progressing as an artist.

“It’s about having a further understanding of your field and the steps you need to take to make a design good and explain why it works.”

As design evolves, so too must the strategies designers use to create and relate to the world around them. It’s all about staying curious and being willing to learn and adapt. And getting a Brand New perspective is something we can all appreciate.