Hopscotch: A New Kind of Conference

Photo Courtesy Port of Raleigh

By Emily J. Potts

Going to a design conference always brings anticipation and excitement, as I look forward to meeting and engaging with creative people, learning new ideas, and seeing great design. I was in desperate need of some inspiration, and Hopscotch Design in Raleigh, NC, was the perfect antidote. Raleigh is a thriving hub of design and cultural experiences. The number of locally owned restaurants and bars is impressive for a city of its size, and they’re all within walking distance of each other, so if you can’t get into one — which is typical, because of the delicious offerings — you can go a couple doors down and sneak a bar stool. It’s a fantastic backdrop for a design conference.

Hopscotch Design was conceived by Matthew Muñoz and Jonathan Opp from New Kind to merge with the annual Hopscotch Music Festival. Design inspiration by day, music by night. It doesn’t get any better. Now in its fourth year, they’ve managed to harness the best local talent and bring in folks from around the country who are doing incredible things in the design spectrum. There were six different venues within walking distance, so we weren’t stuck in an air-conditioned conference center the entire day. The weather was beautiful, so it was a welcoming way to explore Raleigh and get a little exercise between sessions.


Here are some of the highlights of the event:

Social Change Through Human Centered Design Ideas

Hopscotch Design kicked off with Neighborland founder, Dan Parham. He enthusiastically shared his vision and passion for helping neighborhood leaders communicate with residents to shape the development of their communities. He helps them imagine the possibilities and distill the information into an actionable plan. “We’re tending the community garden,” he said.

Jo-Ann Tan from Acumen followed and reinforced this idea of making impactful, social change in areas that are resource strapped. She noted that there are three types of problems to overcome: Problems of self; Problems of self in the world; and Problems of the world. The middle one is easy, but overcoming your own problems and what holds you back is the hardest to identify and overcome. Tan said we need to live with the uncertainty of and, and not hold on to this philosophy of one or the other, as in Profit or Purpose, Rich or Poor, Private or Public. “We’re being trained to find the answer, but it’s better to live with the questions.”


Function and Beauty

After such an impactful duo, I was ready for more, so I headed down to Nash Hall for a breakout session led by Natalie Phillips and Mayela Mujica from Good Thing. Collaborating with outside artists, Good Thing designs and sells functional, yet beautiful products. Case in point: A dustpan and brush, designed by Christopher Specce. The brush slides into the pan handle for a seamless storage solution. It’s a stunning, simple design. Mujica said, “While I’m thinking of how we’re going to design it, Natalie is thinking how we’re going to sell it.” They are thinking of the end, at the beginning of the design process.

Important Cultural Cues

Jacinda Walker was enjoying a great career as a designer working for the city of Cleveland [Ohio], but she realized she was the only African American designer in the room, and she desperately wanted that to change. So, she left her cushy city job, and founded designExplorr, to expose African-American and Latino youth to design-related careers and opportunities. She not only wanted to help others, but in a sense, help herself get past the “black female designer” label, and just be recognized as a good designer.


Sadie Red Wing is a Native American graphic designer and educator and proud of it, but she’s sick of seeing her culture and people so often misrepresented by stereotypical symbology and art. “There’s massive misappropriation of Native American design,” she said. Throughout her presentation, she showed how indigenous art has been misused for campaigns and protests, like Standing Rock—often by well-meaning people. So, she created a new poster with the proper imagery, and offered it up to the protestors. Oftentimes the most important tool in your arsenal is research and knowing the audience you’re representing. If you get it wrong, it’s not only bad design, it’s offensive and potentially harmful.

The People Factor in Technology

Josh Silverman, from Twitter, and Jonathan Lee from Google, had separate sessions with interesting overlaps. Coming from the high-tech sector, each talked about the challenges of working with so many people at different levels in the organization on a daily basis and what that looks like. As Silverman noted, it’s about utilizing the right people at the right time, and working in a collaborative environment without ego. “’Help me understand’ is a very powerful opener,” he said. “What’s obvious to you, isn’t obvious to everyone.”

Coming from Google material design, Lee points out that there needs to be more outreach to the developer and design communities. “We’re entering an era of ‘Do.’ We’re designing our way back to being better people,” he says, advising, “Finding your voice and purpose is your leverage, and what you bring to the table.” The most important take-away from both presentations is that the success of high-tech businesses has little to do with technology. “When you take care of people, then you can take care of product,” Silverman said.


Allison Williams is the architect behind the design of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh

A Lesson in Vulnerability

Architect Allison Williams presented “Thoughts in the blur,” in which she examined the importance and potency of her life’s work and what it means to be successful. She laid out her vulnerabilities, in a sense, and in doing that, came out more confident and assured of her personal and professional choices. She said we all need to be unapologetic about shaking things off in order to move forward.


Pure Design Inspiration

Herman Miller creative director, Steve Frykholm, ended day one on a high note, regaling us in stories of the past, and lessons he learned from his predecessor, George Nelson (design director from the 1940s through the ’60s). His enthusiasm and excitement for design has never waned in his 45 plus years at the furniture maker, so when he exceeded his time limit, we all wanted him to keep going … and thankfully, he did. It was fun to see not only his work for Herman Miller, which included annual reports printed on garbage bags and rain coats, but also the way he conceived and designed his home, with his late wife, Nancy. Like most designers, the guy has design on the brain 24/7!

Mike Rigby from RG/A, talked about his humble beginnings in northern England, and then showed us three of his earliest design projects, which were logos for new businesses in Australia. He then said that all three businesses had gone belly up shortly after they opened, but he learned a valuable lesson: “I realized I didn’t want to design a veneer over a flawed product.” And he likely hasn’t ever since. RG/A has done some of the most potent social design experiments in recent history with the #lovehasnolabels campaigns that went viral, to challenge our unconscious bias about who and how we love others. “Design in action can be a potent game changer,” he said.

This is just a sampling of what was offered, but the big take away from Hopscotch is to challenge ourselves to make a social impact, whether it’s within our company or community, by creating better user experiences through human centered design. The topics and presenters were dynamic and inspiring, but we all know that the best thing about these events is catching up with friends and meeting new ones. Hopscotch provided plenty of opportunities to network at after-hour events at unique local establishments. After this experience, I am invigorated and ready to take on new projects and challenges. I’ll be back Raleigh!

Emily J. Potts has been a writer and editor more than 25 years. In that time she has managed a slew of publications, people, and events. Currently she is an independent writer, editor, and consultant working for a variety of clients in and out of the design industry. www.emilyjpotts.com