Industry News

HOW Design Today: How to Be a Zero-Waste Creative

As our annual post-event surveys reveal, people attend HOW Design Live for a variety of  reasons. Some come to learn new software tips and tricks. Others come to network. Still others, to level up their leadership skills.

Everyone unanimously checks one box alongside all the others, though: They come for the inspiration. 

Which is why we are utterly delighted that Fe Amarante and Brandi Parker will be delivering a keynote at HOW Design Live 2024 this September. To chat with the duo is to walk away utterly creatively renewed.

When they take the main stage, the two will be discussing Zero Waste Creatives—their energizing new platform designed to break us out of the cycle of burnout and creativity fatigue, and to help the industry realize that the way we work doesn’t work anymore.

In this exclusive interview, the duo details exactly that—and gives us a look ahead to their session at HOW Design Live in Denver, which will reveal the results of an industry-wide survey they are currently conducting to find out how we’re all really doing as working creatives today.

Fe and Brandi, in a nutshell, what in your career and life put you on the path to create Zero Waste Creatives?
Amarante: I went to design school after being raised by an architect dad and a psychologist mom, in Brazil, while navigating the ups and downs of being in the middle class and trying to make ends meet. I started working very young—first doing freelance graphic design work as a high-schooler, then starting as an intern during my first semester in college, and being employed full time as a graphic designer for the first time at the age of 19. Very early, I was exposed to the realities of being overworked, underpaid and under-resourced, often running on exhaustion and fumes, all the while working in environments filled with toxic practices toward creativity. As I “progressed” through my career in other creative full-time positions, both as a designer and a strategist, I quickly learned that I had to expect the eventual shoe to drop: from the stretched-too-thin sensation while working on a project, all the way to expecting or witnessing harassment, my experience being part of creative teams had incredibly rough ups and downs. 

After moving to the U.S., it was no different—before embarking on an in-house creative career path, my experience freelancing and/or working with agencies was filled with wasteful practices, toxic environments and overall chaos, all of which damaged my ability to have creative ideas, which is my income-generating craft. On the in-house side of things, I still saw the behaviors and practices within agencies and creative firms I worked with, as I was the “creative director from the inside of the brand” interacting with the creative teams from the outside. The conditions that caused me to see my craft suffer were various: poorly managed timelines, poor communication within creatives and clients, ups and downs of project shifts, lack of time and material resources to get the job satisfactorily done, all the way to toxic work environments and even sexual harassment. 

It all accounts for circumstances that made what I was selling to a client or what I was being paid to do very challenging, causing me to tap into my own resources to keep me afloat; those resources were my mental and physical health. From my very early years as an intern, all the way to when I was in the leadership role on the agency or client side, the question that kept nagging me was consistent: If we all know, deep inside, that this way of working isn’t sustainable, is anyone going to do anything about it? Meeting Brandi in her journey created the opportunity for our answer to be: We will do something about it. And this something is Zero Waste Creatives, a platform that has the podcast as a repository for the conversation, the Creative Voices Heard survey (currently ongoing) as a way to give voice to the makers of our industry, and a suite of speaking engagements and workshops aimed at teaching our Zero Waste Creativity principles to those who want to do something about it with us.

Parker: One of the reasons I joined my last agency, Pearlfisher, was because sustainability was a big part of their creative philosophy, and they largely were ahead of the curve, especially for the U.S. market. So quite naturally, as I was involved with getting things made—from printing to glass-making to cardboard engineering (you name it, as manufacturing is wide and varied in the world of packaging)—I began to have a voice in helping clients make better sustainable choices. And, eventually, this became my full-time job and title, as head of sustainability at Pearlfisher. I felt strongly (and still do) that designers, agencies, all have a huge role to play in pushing sustainable consumer products forward. The uphill battle has been in encouraging behavior change in folks seeking design agencies, understanding they can seek these sustainable solutions here. When I officially met Fe at the 2023 PAC Conference in NYC, it was like instant connection—and our conversations created a way through helping creatives embrace sustainability from an entirely new dimension and angle. It’s like I gave myself a platform and enabled the possibility of not just speaking and working from expertise, but most importantly, lived experience.

When did you begin to think of creativity as a finite resource?

Parker: Labor laws are still pretty recent history—we only recently have understood the need for breaks as they relate to physical labor and tangible outputs. We’re still behind understanding creative labor, or knowledge workers and craftspeople that create something from nothing, because creativity is seen as such an ethereal thing. The perception is that there can’t be a limit to something that isn’t physical.

Historically I’ve been intimately involved in how things get done, having had oversight in agency operations as well as production. And I’ve seen the waste that the agency-linear-operating-model produces—the fatigue, the overworked, the ever-shrinking timelines as technology outpaces human ability. If you spend any time in the agency world, the burnout is palpable. It’s nagged at me for years, as I’ve tried unsuccessfully to change these processes from the ground up at various places.

This process is so ingrained, because for the agency world this is simply how it’s always been done, even though everything else about the world has changed. For example, in the early days of agencies, in the analog world, there was a big reason for things to be linear—first design was sketched and conceived, then the mechanical artists put all the finalized pieces together in paste-up. There was a natural stop-start to it. Also there was a really obvious differentiation in how the jobs were approached. However, in the digital age, much of this has merged, with design concepts looking more or less finalized. In a way, we’ve looked at the advance of tech all wrong—while, yes, computing speeds have helped expedite processes (sometimes maybe too efficiently for humans to keep up) they also have meant we can actually work more organically, more like humans default to working: in roundtables, as groups, non-linearly.

If you’ve lived it, you know creative resources are finite. However, if you haven’t, or haven’t paid attention, or perhaps have always just been tangential to it, Zero Waste Creatives hopefully offers other ways to understand it.

Amarante: Since my first agency job as a creative designer, back in Brazil, the nagging feeling of this isn’t sustainable was in the back of my head as I navigated the pressures, ups and downs and overall practices in our industry. The feeling never went away, despite my career growth. Another common thing I’ve always noticed is that creativity is often talked about as this subjective, abstract “thing” that happens in some imaginary cloud-like amorphous universe. We hear things like, “you can’t frame creativity” … and these aren’t lies. However, the last few years of my life have been plagued with mental and physical health issues, and healing my body from these took me into a journey to look and study the psychology, neuroscience and overall physicality of creativity. As I dug my way out of the incredible amount of burnout that I went through, there were moments I truly believed I could no longer have creative ideas, lead a creative team, remain in a creative profession. 

Between 2020 and now, I’ve embarked on a deep journey of self-(re)discovery after reaching a tipping point: My health wasn’t getting better, what I was doing wasn’t working, and I was aware I couldn’t keep going at the rate I was going. Therapy was one component, but I also engaged in a yearlong training with a Boulder-based organization called Humanity Shared, founded by Taylor White Moffitt. The training, called Humanity First, is a program that essentially taught me how to lead myself and to stay in my own embodied experience as a human being through practices of movement, mindfulness and nervous system regulation. I had always participated in creative retreats, conferences, both speaking and attending, but a shift started happening as I started speaking openly about my struggles instead of concealing them under a shiny LinkedIn resume layer. 

Tell us a bit more about the unsustainable side of the way we work today—and how human resources are tied to finite environmental resources.

Amarante: It’s actually both incredibly simple and jarring at the same time. Think of a company—any sector or industry—and an imaginary creative project budget of $100k (for simplicity of calculation). That budget came from profits that company made from selling their products or services. Those products and services consumed real resources that are finite on Earth.

Now, let’s think about the way we work: Creatives are asked to work under incredible pressure, deadlines and timelines that are often not realistic compared to their workload and how many projects they are handling simultaneously. We have psychological safety and trust issues plaguing all corners of the industry—layoffs, toxic work environments, or even unprepared leadership making misguided decisions that impact real lives. Team environments, internally in their own creative teams or externally in the client relationships they have (regardless of them being in-house or not), have the power to make or break the interdependent factors necessary for an ecosystem of creativity to exist and thrive. Having creative ideas for a living—the very product any creative maker sells and makes a livelihood of—requires creativity to be present and possible. From a psychology and neuroscience perspective, creativity simply can’t be sustained under constant threat response. When our bodies are constantly flooded with cortisol, when our nervous systems are overloaded and overstimulated, we have very efficient mechanisms that prevent us from doing the very things creativity requires: taking risks and getting lost in problems that require us to be “in the zone” while trusting that the world surrounding us won’t crumble.

We engage in projects where different parties gather together around a goal—create a brand, a campaign, a new product, (re)imagine a reality that doesn’t exist—and creative makers aren’t able to engage in creativity due to the conditions being not there to begin with. The commissioning side of these projects (company or in-house) also has humans that need their own creativity to be fostered and respected. When the conditions for those don’t exist and aren’t created, we are engaging in an unsustainable practice by definition, as creativity isn’t the thing being produced in that environment. Performance, in the stage sense of the way, takes place: We see repetition, risk avoidance, skepticism and compliance taking place. It’s a degenerative cycle that requires significant humility and self-awareness to observe.

We know there’s an “Earth overshoot day”: the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. Last year, it was Aug. 2. Brandi and I wonder about the “human overshoot day”: When would we measure our own tipping point, if we could, as creatives in this industry?

Parker: Industry-wide: along with deadlines shrinking, budgets are getting smaller, too. This has equated to doing the same amount of work in less time with fewer people. Somehow, we’ve all agreed as an industry that this is OK—that we can agree to do what would have taken months in weeks because this is what the clients expect. Fe talks a lot about this in episode two of the podcast, by the way. So we all begin the project journeys committed to being overworked. And, often, this doesn’t end well, because we’re not setting ourselves up to deliver our best—meaning rework, additional work, additional scope—waste. 

The most exciting revelation that has come out of Fe and my conversations around Zero Waste Creatives is equating budgets with material resources from the Earth. For that client to give you that 100k, it likely means that they sold “X” amount of product that uses Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water, truckloads of plastic, lots of energy, logistics or produce, agricultural resources, etc. (For clients selling service versus product, this is more of a human-to-human equation with energy resources, but you see how this works.) 

When we’re not aware of this equation, as creatives (makers) or as clients (commissioners), we are wasteful. When we commit to a journey that isn’t realistic, it will likely waste resources both human and material. It’s never just wasting money or time—it’s the whole lifecycle tied in.

I believe the very baseline of what we’re talking about here is that there are limits to everything: ourselves, the planet, creativity. And with sustainability movements happening in many exciting forms all across the globe, it’s time for this realization to be a part [of them]. 

Tell us a bit about the survey you’re conducting, and what you hope to do with the data.
Parker: The survey was an exciting concept that Fe came to me with. This is what sparked our conversations and what has driven us to develop the entirety of the Zero Waste Creatives platform. The first few iterations went very deep and detailed, but with some work and some outside opinions, it’s taken the very succinct form it is now.

Amarante: We wanted to make the survey as accessible as possible to answer a question I have asked and been asked a million times as a creative leader and maker: “How are you doing?”

The thing is: a lot of people say “well, you know, it’s crazy …” or “I’m fine.” And we wanted to really, really know how they’re really, really doing. This survey is made of eight questions, taking 10 minutes or less to be completely answered. We are truly hoping for a volume of responses that helps us produce a comprehensive and first-of-its-kind report giving voice to creative makers and their take on the conditions they’re working in. 

What have some of the responses been like so far? Are they confirming any of your hunches?
Parker: I’ve only seen a few of the already amazing responses. And from those, it seems like folks were ready to talk! Everyone has opted in to the optional long-form responses and have pretty much bared their entire heart. Just talking about mental health isn’t enough. Asking people questions from a place of lived experience is what the survey has become. The responses (anonymized) will become data that will fuel our research and eventually our solutions. In the meantime, we see it as a huge opportunity to open-source this data and other data we acquire through our work to fuel global change.

Amarante: The amount of information these respondents are providing us is unreal, and such a huge responsibility for us to hold with care and to honor with a very open report to showcase what we’re seeing. Unfortunately, most of our hunches are not just being confirmed, but truly painting a picture of an industry made of creative makers that need a space to voice their concerns and their perspectives. To summarize what we have seen so far without committing to these being final results, what we’re seeing is that a lot of people are tired, depleted, and they need change. And they need it now.

Tell us a bit about your session at HDL 2024. What can we expect?!
Amarante: First and foremost, expect us to unveil what we find in our survey right then, live, to the audience. We plan on following our talk with the publishing of the report on our website. We want to present a different perspective on sustainability from a creativity perspective, and to leave everyone with both content they can use in their daily lives, inspiration to be hopeful toward a different future that is possible, and tools they can use. HDL 2024 isn’t the culmination of decades of work for us: It’s actually a snapshot of the beginning of a very long journey toward a future yet to be created and explored. We are so honored to be able to share this moonshot with this audience, as HOW Design Live itself, as a conference, paves its own path toward a new future. The Denver venue and location is especially near and dear to my heart, as Colorado is the home I chose in 2019 and returned to in 2023, so I’m really excited to welcome HDL attendees to the beautiful place that healed me and made my partnership with Brandi in creating Zero Waste Creatives a possibility in my life.

Lastly, what is the future of the creative industry if we keep working as we are now?

Parker: We talk a lot about AI, and Fe is way more of an expert on this than I am, and how AI will take our jobs. But, we’re doing a great job of taking them away from ourselves, staying on this wasteful path. So what we’re actively working on with the Zero Waste Creatives platform is helping to redefine the industry, its path, and strategies for changing how we work.

Amarante: I’m going to pull a Brandi on this momentarily, but it’s important to recognize that we launched Zero Waste Creatives because we believe we need to do something to make the future of the creative industry a better one. The current conditions are not sustainable. They are putting a toll on the humans behind the creative industry—creative makers of all types and disciplines. Mental and physical health issues are very real consequences of the way we are proceeding, and there’s no amount of AI that can solve this very, very human problem. 

Now comes the Brandi I need to pull: We believe our humanity is the very thing that will solve this. We can absolutely work in a different way. But it requires naming the problems, imagining and experimenting with new ways to solve them, and proving the business impact in doing so. As we said already: The lack of sustainability isn’t just conceptual or subjective. It’s real. And if we waste resources working this way, we save them working differently—which is good news for everybody, including businesses: They get actual creativity when they’re budgeting for it. And creative makers get to do the work they intend to when they’re hired for it. It’s a beautiful future, if you think about it.