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Next week, The Secret Handshake — a two-day conference geared for young creatives looking to learn about things that school just didn’t touch upon — takes place at the ADC Gallery here in New York. Jason, you founded The Secret Handshake, but beyond that, you’re an interactive designer. Jason: It was still the 1990s when I was in college, and that meant that design was still a very tactile experience, with T-squares and isometric drawings and whatnot. Fast-forward a number of years, and after working for several startups, I opened my own interactive agency in Chicago. While in undergrad, I had discovered that the secret to kickstarting your career was not about learning Photoshop tricks but more about seeking mentorship, and learning from others who have been in the business longer than I have. As a result of that, I started a small side project interviewing designers and posting their advice online. The idea is that if young people can meet and talk to people who have already been in the business for a number of years, they can learn all about the stumbling blocks they’re likely to hit. Now on paper, “Accounting Tips” doesn’t sound nearly as sexy as “Internet Famous Designer Shows Off His Work”, but these are the things that schools really haven’t prepared their students for.
Laura: When we first started planning The Secret Handshake, we asked ourselves “does the world really need another design conference?” We were wondering if students would feel like they were already getting this kind of information from school. Jason: We saw that attendees really loved the fact that they could really engage with the speakers instead of just listen to them.
Laura: And it’s not just the engagement between speakers and attendees that has been fascinating. We’re not vetting speakers specifically for gender or race or sexuality, but we work really hard to check unconscious bias.
Jason: My goal is to have everyone walk away with that one kernel that will change how they think about their day job, how they handle their own identity as a designer, or a plan to change workflow and their personal business of design. It’s almost as if you needed an in of some sort, to get you in the door of the most beneficial ones. ADC sat down with Jason Schwartz and Laura Helen Winn, co-leads of The Secret Handshake, to discuss how the whole idea of such a conference took place.

I knew that I wanted to do interactive design, but I was about a decade too early (Laughs) I went into industrial design; I fully enjoyed learning about making things for people.
I called it Bright Bright Great, and it more or less became the jumping-off point for other projects, such as our own type foundry — Avondale Type Co. For the first few years, its focus was in-person, face-to-face events where we would be speaking to and advising graduating students. I had originally gone to school for photography, but I quickly discovered an interest in graphic design, which brought together a number of personal interests, from psychology, illustration and communication. When I moved to San Francisco, I was invited to turn that into an event series at Makeshift Society.
I used to go to a lot of conferences, and kept hearing what I consider to be the worst piece of unqualified advice for anyone to give at a conference, “Quit your day job and follow your dreams!” In reality, that’s pretty scary for someone who’s scraping by financially, or someone without a bunch of clients to keep them busy everyday, or someone who doesn’t know how to run a business. A freelance designer who’s just getting out of school probably has never had to write a contract. They’ve never had to fight a contract. We held the first one in San Francisco at Adobe in April of last year, which drew in over 250 students from across the Bay Area. We made sure to incorporate even more engagement into the second conference in Chicago, such as a post party where sponsors, speakers, organizers, professional designers and students could sit and talk in mixed groups.
When we were planning for New York, our board made a dream list of speakers, and then we went after them.
One thing we’ve learned in preparing for this event is that the design industry in New York is quite different than the one in Chicago, which is in turn different than the one in San Francisco.
We’ve heard quite a bit of these from attendees who tweet at us or email us with “Remember when x speaker said this? Eventually we moved some of that knowledge sharing to the website, but in recent years we’ve been making a move to return to creating in-person conferences and other events. This eventually led me to teach myself web design, which in turn brought me from Tennessee to San Francisco, working for various startups. I was surprised to learn that my classmates were afraid of getting into in-depth conversations because they didn’t want to ask stupid questions.

Although San Francisco is known for tech, our lineup of speakers ranged from product designers to traditional agency leads to freelance designers.
That event sold out pretty quickly, and confirmed to us that there is indeed a market for this type of conference. They realize that their portfolios are lacking in some way, or they need some assistance in achieving some goal, and the Secret Handshake becomes a launch pad for creative collaboration. There’s definitely a spirit of community, but it can be very difficult to break into if you’re on the fringe. I wanted to take everything I was learning and share it with my design peers because I felt like there was vital information they were missing out on.
Don’t worry, there won’t be any talks on how to track your expenses or anything like that, but there will be lots of valuable information that young creatives should think about. I think it’s good for people to see women on stage as voices of authority in their respective fields. Even if you’re attending as a traditional designer, you need to hear from people in other fields who are going through similar successes and obstacles.
The Secret Handshake New York conference is for those young people To be looped into the fold. The second time we Skyped, I asked Jason to join forces to run a conference and he said yes! We spent the next nine months planning our first event, and actually met face-to-face the day before our San Francisco conference last year!

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