Dava Guthmiller makes the invisible visible
In this episode, I’m talking to Dava Guthmiller, founder and Chief Creative Officer at Noise 13, a brand strategy and design agency based in San Francisco. She’s also cofounder of In/Visible Talks, and annual conference that celebrates the art of design and creativity, and In/Visible Project, which includes a collection of other events that bring people together over the process, inspiration, and challenges for design and creative professionals.
Throughout the conversation, we touched on diversity in the worlds of design and branding. I asked Dava what it was like to start Noise 13 as a young, female designer, and how In/Visible Talks is giving a platform to a racially diverse and heavily female-leaning group of speakers.
Next, we got into the weeds a bit on how Dava built the In/Visible Talks brand. She told me where the name came from and how the visual identity for year one involved a trip to the dollar store.
We rounded out the conversation, as we often do on the podcast, with book recommendations and advice for young professionals in the branding and design industry. Dava recommended The Empathy Edge by Maria Ross (see Maria’s post on How Brands Are Built) and Marty Neumeier’s Brand Flip. And she had several pieces of advice for young designers, including encouragement to try many different internships and jobs until you find the best fit.
Take internships. Find a mentor. Try it on. Try a small company. Try in-house. Try something big. This is your life. This is your job. Find the right project team fit for you, so that your life is not miserable.”
Below, you’ll find the full transcript of the episode (may contain typos and/or transcription errors).
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Dava Guthmiller episode transcript
ROB MEYERSON: Dava, thanks so much for joining me on the show.
DAVA GUTHMILLER: Hello, nice to talk to you.
R: So, tell me a little bit about Noise 13. How and why you started it and how it’s grown over the past (I guess) almost 20 years now, is that right?
D: Almost 21.
D: I know. I went to school for design. I went to the Academy of Art. I was working at another design agency in my senior year. About two years into that job, I finally took my first big vacation. I came back from vacation and got into an enormous fight with my boss. It’s when you realize that you’re not the right fit or that the culture has changed around you.
R: You had some kind of an epiphany on the vacation or something like that?
D: No. It was when I returned. The day after I returned, we met. We got into an argument and I quit on the spot. It was not planned. I did assume that I will have my own business someday. I grew up, my parents had their own business, and it just seemed like something I wanted to do but maybe not when I was 25.
I had one freelance client at the time. That was October-ish of 1999. One client turned into many. By January of 2000, I started Noise 13. Yeah, I started with an intern.
R: That’s an interesting time to have started a business as well. That was the dot-com bust. You’ve been through the 2001 bubble burst and obviously, 2008 as well. Maybe fast forward a little bit for us. It’s gone from you and an intern to what is Noise like now?
D: Those first few years, I would say, probably even the first 10 years, we worked with really small companies. We fluxed in that 6–8 people range. Then in 2013, we moved offices and started working with Uber, at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014. We had to really quickly shift a lot of our processes and put a lot of things into place because over a one year period of time, we went from 6 people to 14.
It was really to accommodate the growth of Uber. We were working with them from 20 cities to 200. That span of time of their crazy growth. It was about 2½–3 years that we worked with them. When you’re working with a brand that is growing globally at a rate that’s just insanity, you’re forced to put processes in place both for your own brand but also for the brands you’re working with.
It’s very much learning on the job which is the way I have tackled Noise all along. I had two years’ experience in another agency and then started. Right now, we are nine people. I have to say we are incredibly grateful for the clients we have this year.
In March, it was definitely, “Oh my goodness. What’s going to happen?” A lot of our clients are these wonderful mixes of services that are really needed right now. From the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation to Instacart and Twilio, to direct to consumer brands that are still really connected to their customers, still producing products, or starting new brands in that space. So, we’re busy.
R: Another thing that I’ve noticed having worked with you guys and also just looking at your website is the team always seems to be quite diverse. Is that something you planned for or that just happened naturally? Is it a conscious effort or is it the result of just how you think about business?
D: I’ll be honest, Noise started out really, really, small. A lot of our employees started out as interns and we trained them up. We aren’t a big company and we don’t have big budgets. People had to really want to be here. They needed to be both diverse in their thinking as well in their skillset.
At one point, I think Miriam, one of our strategists, said that we hire Swiss Army Knife talent. Really strong as one tool but they have all of these accessories that are really powerful. I think those types of people, at least the ones who’ve been attracted to Noise and to working with me, have been a really diverse set.
Because I am so used to training people into the job, starting with a lot of interns and guiding them up, we’re okay if somebody doesn’t have the typical schooling. We’re okay if somebody doesn’t have the big-name company background. They need to have the skillset and the creativity to do the work, but we can train for a lot of other things. It makes for amazing team members.
Unfortunately, they grow up here and then they go off and they’re super-fantastic and famous other places. Part of my ethos and the company has always been to support people and companies that I believe in to thrive. Doing that means that you’re open to having employees who are better than you at certain things, or that don’t have exactly a perfect skill set because you know that you can guide them up.
Short answer, it’s been kind of a natural thing. I wasn’t really aware of how diverse our team was until recently when we looked back. Now, we’re putting really thoughtful plans in place to make sure that that continues because I’m not the only one doing the hiring now.
R: You mentioned that as a small agency, sometimes people come to Noise as interns. They train up and maybe they go to some bigger agencies. I’m sure that’s not the career path everybody chooses to take, but it is a somewhat typical one. In that way, I suppose your diversity as Noise is perhaps a benefit to the industry in that you’re putting more diverse talent into those bigger agencies.
First off, just the premise, do you feel like there’s a lack of diversity in the design world or in the brand consulting world? If so, I suppose, what I just mentioned about Noise is the way of improving that, but are there other things that you think need to be done to change hiring practices or anything like that?
D: I can speak primarily to what’s happening in the Bay Area because I’ve been in the Bay for 25 years. Yes, I do think that there’s a lack of diversity, especially at the leadership level. As a female business owner, I noticed a lot that there are fewer females; there were when I started. It’s gotten a lot better.
One of the things with diversity in general—I learned this from Creative Reaction Lab—you need to clarify on how you’re using the terminology. Diversity, especially when we’re talking about design and tech, is very much focused on people of color—black and brown, Hispanic and African-American, and making sure that those backgrounds are represented. Especially in the Bay Area, all Asian cultures have been in the Bay Area for a really long time, and they’re going to the schools here. It’s how the schools are marketing themselves to affluent Asian countries. I’m being very broad in the term Asian from India to Japan to China. There is that level of diversity but I think the access to design, even classes, is something that needs to be worked on.
I grew up in a really small town in Sacramento Valley. Obviously, I’m older but design is not a thing. It’s very much focused on trade, blue-collar, and those kinds of things. That’s what was around, still what’s around, and still what the focus is. Providing access to even the awareness that those jobs exist, that there are mentors and leaders who look like you who are there to support and help, I think is super, super, important.
R: Speaking of diversity, this is one of the other things I really wanted to talk to you about. You’re quite busy because you’re running Noise 13 but you’ve also taken upon yourself to start an entirely new venture here with something called In/Visible Talks. It started about three years ago. You’ve launched this brand, In/Visible Project, into the world. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and what led you to create In/Visible?
D: In/Visible came about because a really good friend of mine, Arianna Orland and I were working on the AIGA Design Week in 2017. She was on the board of Design Week and had asked me to help with the launch party.
In that process of planning for AIGA Design Week, we really realized that a lot of the design conferences out there or organizations that we have been a part of for a really long time weren’t serving all the needs that we had as more senior creatives. I’m still a member of AIGA. Controversy or not, I think they do a lot of great things especially for younger creatives and the industry at large.
Arianna and I were in this same mental space where we had about 20 years of experience. We’re behind the scenes. We’re the people who create the designs for others. We get others promoted. We support other team members. You get into the day-to-day of design leadership and you realize, “I need to get out of my circle. I need to meet new people.” We need to use all of this experience and this insight that we have into our industry, and be in front of the stage not just behind it.
There’s a combination of this emotional need of wanting to connect to our peers, wanting to have a stronger voice in the industry, and just really wanting to talk about the bigger subject matter. I think there are amazing conferences out there that are super inspiring. You get to see beautiful work, technique, and process.
What was jazzing us was when a designer talks to an architect, talks to a photographer, talks to a writer. She and I are both really huge advocates for all of those people coming together to solve a problem and not just sticking to your one medium.
R: Ah, yes. The interdisciplinary nature of it or the cross-pollination, so to speak.
D: Yeah. All of those things together plus the fact that we do this for other people all the time. I’ve been planning events for 15 years with other organizations. We could totally do this. Out of total naiveté of, “We can put together a 300-person event. Let’s just try it out.” Worst case scenario, we’re doing it one year. We have fun. If it fails, we move on. That wasn’t the case.
R: Yeah. This is How Brands Are Built. I want to get into the weeds of how you built the In/Visible brand. It’s funny that you said you did it for clients a number of times. I’m sure it’s quite different once you become the client.
Before we get into that, I do just want to mention one other thing. We talked about diversity at Noise. One of the things that’s immediately clear when you look at the In/Visible Talks website and scroll through the speakers from last year and the year before, it’s mostly women, and it’s a very racially diverse group.
Just kind of tying back to what we talked about diversity in the industry at Noise, it looks different from other conferences in a good way that is not (again) primarily white men speaking. Is it a different process? Again, is that a conscious effort or you’ve sought out different speakers from different backgrounds and from different groups?
D: Yeah, a very, very conscious effort, but I will say year one, we realized that we did not do a very good job. If you look back at the year one conference, you are totally correct. It is a ton of ladies and we were so excited to not have a bunch of dudes on the stage, even though we went into thinking diversity both in experience, medium, background, all of those things. We got to get women on the stage. We were so focused that we didn’t realize until the day where we’re like, oh my god, they are all so white.
R: Not just white, but so white.
D: We did have a little bit of diversity up there, but we were so conscious of going into it with diversity and making sure that there are women that we weren’t paying attention to ethnicity. I think it’s a total fail on our part. We were excited, but then we need to do a better job.
Year two, one of the things that we do in the beginning when we’re sort of kicking off the project is that we put together this list. All the time you’re meeting people, hearing about creatives that you want to meet, that you want to talk to, that are doing great things. We just put this huge spreadsheet together and we had to start actually putting their background, their ethnicity to make sure that we were having a representative set of people. Part of that spreadsheet, we also look at their age. We do not have or we need to have one Asian person, one Black person. We don’t do that at all. It’s really just a mix.
R: Sure, it’s not quotas but it just helps you stay mindful of not accidentally winding up with (what you said) all white people. You could correct for that and then realize everybody is 30 and now, we have no people representing different generations.
D: Exactly. We have all of these levers and we really do want to make sure that we are very representative, but the other thing that we did in the second year is we started the diversity and inclusion program because we know that part of diversity is also budget. Design conferences are really expensive. They cause a lot of money to produce. We’re doing this as a side job. We don’t make a payroll doing In/Visible at all. It is a passion project. Everything that we raise—sponsorship, dollars, whatever—goes into the program itself and sort of like the year of marketing and work that it takes to actually produce it.
R: What is the diversity and inclusion program you mentioned? How does that work?
D: We did have a partner, both 2019 and 2020 for conferences in January, with Google. We have an application process where people put their portfolio and a little bit about themselves, including what type of diversity are they bringing to this community. We leave that very open because it could be diversity in anything, from age to background, to training, to ethnicity.
We look at all of those things and we choose with Google how many people they are going to sponsor, or basically pay for their ticket to attend. Both years, we have had so many great applicants that we usually—out of our own pockets—throw in a couple of more tickets. We’re like, “Oh my God, these people are so wonderful.”
We would either convince Google to do a few more or we kind of pony up for that cost. I think the other thing, too, is really hearing from that audience after they attend the conference of what they’re looking for, if it was valuable to them; those kinds of things. It is helping those people cover the cost, but it’s also ensuring that we have a diverse audience because it is super important to us. We know that we’re only as good as our audience and our speakers.
R: About how big is the audience, typically?
D: Around 280–300. The first three years we had the event at The Pearl here in San Francisco which has the capacity of that. In 2021, which we have just decided recently that we were going to do it in January, so we’re quite behind the game here. We will do a virtual conference, so we’re hoping for a much more broad audience. The ticket price will be lower. It still costs money to produce this so we have to charge, but the ticket price is significantly less. We’re hoping that because people don’t have to travel, because the cost is less, because it is virtual, that we’ll have a much larger audience this year. It is also a shorter time, so not a full day.
R: Great. I will make sure to collect all the details about that from you once we’re off the air so I can put that on the website and people can find links and everything.
R: Really quickly, you mentioned something to me before about In/Visible Ventures which I think you started even more recently. What is it and why did you start that?
D: I think that goes back to the question that you asked prior around how we built that brand. Providing a space for designers to have a seat at a table, to have designers be part of the whole process, to really solve bigger challenges is part of In/Visible’s positioning.
The venture side of that was a way for us to support creative-led businesses and encourage (and almost train, especially tech) about the importance of making sure that their designers are not just service providers. That they are these valuable team members and they need to be supported, not an afterthought, after development on a product, and that all of these makers and designers have the opportunity to invest in those companies.
A lot of times, the people who are investing are the people who have a financial background, a business background, and a tech background. They’re not the creatives. I think putting your money and your advice into companies as a maker and a creator creates more of the same of having that conversation at a more full business process level even when it comes to finance.
R: It becomes a proof-point and sort of substantiates the positioning to use your word for In/Visible Ventures. Since we used that word, let’s get into the nerdier part of building that brand. Like I said before, you are the client this time. Maybe it is a little bit different creating this event and the branding for it than what you’ve done. Let’s talk about how you did it and what you’ve learned along the way.
D: Year one, because we didn’t know how well we’d go or if we would continue, we were like, “You know what? We’re doing this because it’s our passion, it’s because we want it to be this exciting, fun thing for ourselves. So, we gave ourselves a challenge—Arianna and myself—just full-on experimenting the first year.
I’ll take a step back. We started with a name. Here is what we want to have. This is the kind of conference that we want to produce. What do we call it? Arianna used to work with and was mentored by Hillman Curtis. He had this great book that talked about design making the invisible visible.
R: So that is the thinking behind the name?
D: Yeah. The name with the slash so that can be read as invisible-visible. The reason being is because we, as In/Visible Project and Talks and whatever, are trying to talk about the process, inspiration, and challenge behind creative work. We love seeing beautiful things, but let’s talk about how we got there. Let’s talk about the good client, the bad client. Let’s talk about the emotional part of collaboration. Let’s talk about why it failed.
That was the naming process around it. We sort of set up this basic set of values and what we wanted from the conference and that is sort of where we stopped as far as the strategy and the positioning on it because we were like, okay, again, let’s try it out. Year one. Like most companies. We throw the spaghetti on the walls and see what sticks before you invest all the time and the effort into the visual system and messaging. Even with the first year’s visual identity, we just got this crazy idea that it might be fun to just try to dip things in paint, covering them up part way, and making the invisible visible. We were just kind of riffing on the name itself.
We literally went to the dollar store, bought a bunch of junk, bought a couple of gallons of paint, sat here in this room, and dunked things in paint. We were like, oh, we should video that, we should take photos of that. That became the identity for the year or the visual system which was really fun and experimental. Then, the next year, we tried something else. Because it is an event that happens in one day and we have this other subsequent programming throughout the year, it allows us to be more playful and experimental than having this identity that needs to last for 10 or 20 years.
R: I wonder if that’s unique to events or annual conferences. They have their themes, usually each year, and then a lot of times they have a lot of completely different visual identity. I’m thinking of the Brand New Conference. They obviously put a huge amount of work into creating something unique each year.
D: Bryony is so passionate. She was our speaker when we’re at In/Visible and we talked about that really process-oriented designing for designers. I wish that I had the time and the stamina to do the in-depth work that she does. We definitely don’t do that. It’s coming out of our pockets to do this design work and Noise is the team that does that design, but we have other clients, and those clients come first.
We don’t probably go as deep or as experimental as we would like to visually, but the visuals for In/Visible Project and In/Visible Talks are really there to just get the people there. They are there to support the speakers, the theme if we have one.
To that point, by year two, we said that this is going to stick, we are going to keep doing this. We should put together a proper brand positioning. We did our values, our audience drivers, and our brand promise. All of that great stuff. We developed this more stable identity for In/Visible Project and In/Visible Talks it carries year to year but then the system around that isn’t what gets to change.
R: It sounds like you started with a minimal viable brand, the MVP of branding. It is so fascinating because there is this tension. Strategically, we tell clients generally you do all of the strategy work upfront in an ideal world. You do all the strategy work upfront before you even come up with the name or the visual identity. Also, that then stays pretty consistent for a long period of time because consistency is such a big part of building a strong brand.
Here, you have the name first, which, I don’t think is atypical. You guys had such a clear idea. It sounds like that of what you wanted this to be. It was just the two of you. Maybe there was less need to document all of the thinking and to sit in the workshop to figure out what you wanted it to be if you guys just instinctively knew or have had enough conversations to know what the strategy was without putting it into words.
You just kind of got it out there for that first year to see what would work and whether it would work. It makes a lot of sense especially for a conference like this because inherently, there’s no commitment necessary to do it forever. I assume you did not say this is the new annual conference that we will be doing for the next decade. It was just kind of something that we are doing and then when it worked, then you start talking about next year. It gives you an opportunity to be a little more playful and to take some risks knowing that if it backfires, then it was still fun, maybe you got something valuable out of it, and you don’t necessarily have to do it again.
D: You’re right. It is a dream when somebody comes to us and says, hey, I’m going to start this company tomorrow and I need my brand positioning. I want to know my clear space is in the market. Let’s come up with a name, messaging, and all of those great things.
It is very rare that a company has the budget to really go deep when they kick off. We were in that same position as a lot of companies out there where you need to put out that MVP. You need to try it out, get feedback, and then say yes, totally going to go forward with this. Now, let’s make sure that we’re investing time and energy. As much as I hate it, that is why businesses like 99designs exist.
R: Yeah. A cheap identity that’s good enough.
D: You ask your nephew to throw a logo together for you. Sometimes you just need the most basic thing to test it out. That’s what we did in the first year. You are right. We had a very clear idea of why we were doing it, who we were doing it for. We were both the audience and the client. After that, we had a much bigger team and we had people helping us with our social media. We had volunteers, we had partners, and we needed to articulate it much more clearly which is why we put the brand positioning together.
Then year three, we put together the manifesto, which is obviously a more public version of how and why we do this conference. A manifesto is not something that every company needs. It is sort of a rule book or guidebook of why we exist. But there were so many reasons. When you’re doing your positioning pillars, you try to narrow it down to three. When you’re doing your values, you want to narrow it down. In brand strategy, you want to focus and narrow things down, and the manifesto was a way for us to elaborate on the examples of how those things came to life. Because this is a community, we did it in a manifesto that we could share.
R: I’ve read that and it’s really nicely done. I’m sure it took quite a bit of effort to have creative things like that. If you do it right, it looks like maybe it’s simple to write. Of course, you probably had debates over every single word in that manifesto.
I’m curious. Now that you have it, did it change your thinking into other aspects of the brand? Do you feel like in the future it will somehow influence decisions that you make around the brand or is it mostly just a public statement that you want to put out there as a way of reinforcing what In/Visible is all about?
D: It was done as that public statement. These are all the values and the ideas that brought us into this place anyway. Arianna and I have a really hard time saying no. When we sit down and we think about the future of In/Visible Project and all the things that could be, we want to take over the world. We have this problem of just wanting to include everybody, to do everything, and we have to put limits on ourselves. This is a good guidepost for us, but we’re also hoping that it encourages this behavior for the community that we are trying to create.
R: I suppose it also potentially creates a little bit of opportunity for there to be a self-selection bias because one audience for the manifesto is your potential speakers, so people that you invite or people that maybe just heard of the conference and want to come to speak at it. They can read that and maybe it’ll influence their decision whether they’re a good fit to come to be a speaker.
That’s critical because it occurs to me that so much of the brand experience for a conference like this is the speakers, which is kind of interesting. They’re not your employees, you haven’t spent hours training them on how to express the In/Visible brand that you’ve worked so hard to create. It’s really relying on them to be the right fit for the audience and to create that type of experience and the type of brand that you want.
D: Yeah, and one thing that we’ve always done with our speakers is that we create this big dream list and we reach out to people but we also allow people to submit ideas to us. But just because they are really interesting creatives, or just because they’re really well-known, does not mean that they will be a good speaker and not every talk, pitch is the right fit for the audience.
We do have conversations with every single one of our speakers and we talk about what are the types of things that they could talk about, what would be valuable. We can suggest, we can guide, and we can explain what people are coming to this conference for, but they still get to represent themselves. They’re going to get on the stage and say whatever they want. Each year, we learn more and more about what our audience is craving. We also get feedback from audiences of what they want to see.
R: It’s a constant feedback loop.
D: Yeah, and you’re right. We are only as good as the experience somebody leaves the conference room with. Just like every brand, you are the lasting impression. You are what your audience makes you to be. You are not the design, logo, or the message that you put out there. It’s what they remember.
R: That is a great note to start to wrap on just a really universal principle there of brand building. It’s fascinating to hear how it applies to something as unique as a conference which I’m guessing that most people in our line of work maybe haven’t had the opportunity to build that kind of brand. It still applies. All the basic rules to apply.
I have a couple of hopefully quick wrap-up questions. I’ve been especially curious this year. 2020 has been messed up for a number of reasons. It’s made me think a lot about what I do and what we do as people in branding and design. I’m just curious. There is an argument to be made that branding can have a negative or positive impact on the world. Is there a brand or just anything in the branding world that you’ve seen that you think is making a positive impact or something that you’d want to encourage people to learn about or support?
D: It’s not necessarily a brand and it’s probably just because what I’m paying attention to the most, what my team’s paying attention to the most but I would highly, highly recommend that designers, creatives, anyone working on those types of projects follow-up with the Creative Reaction Lab.
That team of people are doing amazing things for the design community, in educating people around diversity and inclusion, how it affects, and how design affects it. They have workshops, they have training, they have all kinds of tools and resources. Creative Reaction Lab, for sure everyone needs to know about them.
I would say the other one would be the Inneract Project which is supporting Black and Brown designers through mentorship and access to design education. We love both of those organizations and we’ll be partnering with the Inneract Project this year and In/Visible for our diversity program as well. I think those two things.
R: Any book recommendation? Anything somewhat relevant to branding or design?
D: Recently, I read The Empathy Edge by Maria Ross, it’s a new book that came out. Obviously, empathy also needs to come with humility but I think that all brands and people who are working on brands need to be thinking about how empathy impacts what they do.
The other one is an older book, but I know you have a few books by Marty Neumeier on your list. I’m recently just rereading The Brand Flip, which is a book I’ve had for a while. I think I probably read The Brand Gap, Zag, and these other ones but it is one of the three that I hadn’t read yet and it very much speaks to the fact that the customer, the buyer, the consumer are the ones who make your brand, and you need to focus on them. We think about that at Noise through something we call the Lifestyle Lens, but this goes into a much more very in-depth way to think about it. That’s always a great one.
R: You’re hitting lots of notes here that I want to comment on. Marty, of course, fantastic. He’s been on the podcast as well. I’ll go encourage people to listen to that. Maria, who wrote Empathy Edge, also wrote a blog post that they can find on How Brands Are Built. I’ll link to that for people. And the Lifestyle Lens, we have a blog post about on the site as well. I think it was Miriam, you mentioned earlier, that wrote that.
Last question, some of our listeners are not in branding but are hoping to get into it, or they’re junior and are trying to grow a career. You’ve had a very successful career and built Noise from the ground up over 20 years. Is there any particular lesson that has stuck with you or advice that you would give to people trying to grow their own careers?
D: Maybe they’ve changed it in school, but when I was in school, the branding class is where the identity class is. Depending on how large the company is, a lot of times, the strategy piece is separate from the visual piece, and I would recommend, even as a student, making sure that you get to hear about the strategy part of the work even if you’re not an active participant in that because it really will impact the way that you approach the visuals that go with the message.
I would say for all creatives, please take internships. Find a mentor. Try it on. Try a small company. Try in-house. Try something big. This is your life, this is your job. Find the right project team fit for you so that your life is not miserable.
R: That’s great advice. Thank you for helping people make their lives happier. Dava, thank you so much for being on the show. I appreciate it and hope we’ll connect again soon.
D: Sounds good. Thanks so much, Rob.