What I Learned in 2020 – Dava Guthmiller, Noise 13.

By thesanfranciscoegotist / /

In 2020, Noise 13, the branding and design company I founded, marked its 20th anniversary. We had Big Plans for a party with a guest list that included current and former team members, mentors and partners, and a roster of clients that would make any business owner proud.

Then, well, 2020.

We weren’t the only company that was forced to pivot. Despite our disappointments, I’ve come to realize this crazy year provided us with opportunities for lessons and growth, opportunities we might have ignored during a time when “good” things were keeping us otherwise occupied.  Here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned.

1. There is a difference between WFH and working remote. As much as the Noise 13 team has excelled this year from their home offices (i.e., couches, beds, backyards), we still crave those spontaneous collaborations, shared playlists, lunchtime banter, and random bursts of energy that only come from being around people IRL. Working remotely for a few days at a time, maybe even a week or two, can be a creative reboot. But being stuck at home, in a space you never designed to be a workplace, can be a real energy drain.

2. Checking my white privilege will be a lifelong pursuit. I am learning how to better listen and have empathy, and I will make mistakes. Personally and as a brand consultant, I need to keep up the work of becoming the best anti-racist I can be. Checking myself and our processes around our work is a great place to start.

3. Our planet needs all of us. We all know this, but it feels like most of us have been waiting for big companies and the government to set the goals, do the work, and lead the way. We all need to take action. As designers and consultants, it’s our job to find ways to use less and more sustainable resources, and to advocate even more for all the little ways a brand can be a better steward for our planet. We can use messaging to educate humans on the values and benefits of buying, using, and consuming less. We can encourage consumers to insist upon better-quality products and pay the real price of food. As a strategy company, we can find and highlight the core attributes of those brands that are doing it right and call them out (privately, of course) whenever we find the crap that’s lurking in the corners.

4. Outdoor space is a luxury. There’s an old adage about how we don’t fully appreciate something till we’ve lost it. We are lucky to have so many outdoor resources available to us in the Bay Area, and I’ve taken it for granted. That hit home for me in 2020. We’re losing national parks and we lack natural shade in hot cities. Far too many people around the world don’t have backyards and are unable to leave their homes during quarantines. Outdoor space is something that should be protected, accessible, and available to everyone in some way.

5. Company values make collaborations shine. We have been extremely fortunate to have an amazing collection of clients in 2020 that have worked with us as partners. They’ve demonstrated respect for their team and ours, paid their bills, and had fun with us along the way. I have both our internal values and theirs to thank for how teams were hired, trained, and empowered to work together.

6. I need other people and miss them a lot! I’m a connector and community-builder by nature and am used to doing that in person. I miss smiles, hugs, laughter that you can feel. I miss long lunches and dinner parties. I even miss the mess that has to be cleaned. Okay, yes, I really do love food, but it’s about the sharing. It’s about really connecting and getting a vibe on how people feel. That powerful exchange of energy just isn’t possible over a virtual meet-up.

7. Art is best viewed in person, and with another person. How many virtual gallery shows and museum tours do you remember, if you attended any at all? Art, be it paint on canvas, dancers or musicians on a stage, or sculptures violating the space in the room, is a physical experience. The dimension of the piece, the sound or lack thereof in the room, and the conversion or silence you experience with your viewing guest are all part of how we experience and process our thoughts on a work.

8. Matte finish puzzles are the best for nighttime play. I love puzzles. I have a lot of them, and completing puzzles together has long been a family holiday tradition. This year they’ve helped me stay sane through all the seasons. The big revelation was realizing what a pain in the eye the glossy ones are when you are doing them at night and then discovering the matte-finish lovelies from Piecework. I’m addicted.

9. Collaboration is key to creativity. I have always known this, craved this, but also completely took it for granted. We need to listen to the humans we are designing for. We gain insight and inspiration from other creative works and ideas, and we find our best solutions when we also learn with people who are not designers. Finding new ways to collaborate successfully as we continue to WFH is critical to our process.

10. It’s easy to be kind. In an early online meeting, one of our contractors noticed a tub of antibacterial hand wipes in my office. Her husband is an essential worker and needed some, but every place was sold out. A couple days later I dropped a pack off at her home. She came to the door as I got to my car, and the look on her face, a mix of gratitude and delight, was amazing. Many times since I’ve been the giver or recipient of small acts of kindness, and every time my spirit is lifted.

I suppose the biggest lesson I’ve learned is awareness. There are things I no longer take for granted. I feel gratitude for the many ways my personal and work lives are blessed. And I more deeply appreciate the people I’m sharing this journey with. Still, very much looking forward to a new 2021.


Dava Guthmiller is the founder and chief creative officer at Noise 13.


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