Community, at its core, is a difficult thing to keep in check. On one hand, we’re plugged into the internet for intravenous social stimulation; weathering a world where our very conversation is carried on the backs of tubes and wires with little or no audible speech actually transferred. Here, we can rely on the predictable safety of the “enter” button—keeping us forever self-edited by way of 5 or 6 second intervals. But on the other, it becomes easier, maybe even tempting to lose sight of those tactile relationships where the only thing standing between your face and that of another is a cup of coffee, a tall pint or two. I can tell you now, I’ve seen both the darker sides of isolation as well as overwhelming constancy of social bombardment.
The baggage I’ve carried with me on the ideas of healthy community isn’t something I’m going to work out in the next few months (or even years), but I think they played a large part in what made my experience at Creative South such a dynamic and poignant one.
To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ever been one to fully trust the conference model. In the past, it’s admittedly ranked somewhere between high-fiving ourselves for non-specified jobs well done or a convention for people who really like to wear hoodies and want to talk to other people who also like to wear hoodies (I brought a few just to be safe). Part of the uneasiness is surely spurred from the idea that the very concept of the “design conference” seems oddly self-serving at best, and purely self-congratulatory at worst.
But what I found was something different altogether. I stumbled headfirst into a large group of people that came to the same place because we happen to have related fields of work and shared interests, but stayed because we believe in the idea of community as it can be lived out with thinking, breathing, sensing individuals willing to be human more than they’re willing to be merely professional.
And while the speakers were a delight to get to know, the workshops such a wealth of information, it’s the times outside of the formal events that really come to shape my memories of this April in Georgia. It was during the intermissions, in talking with people I’d never met before; hearing a bit of their story and sharing some of my own. Laughing over common, seemingly inconsequential complaints. Pouring over our shared heroes in art. Those moments we talked about anything but our body of work. It was in the times we went to the bar to order a drink and ended up buying a round. Especially those moments we went searching for food as two or three, and snowballed into having to ask for a table for 20 because of all of the people we picked up along the way.
For a long time, I consciously made a decision to only be represented by my body of work. In that way, it allowed me to be anonymous, and far from the public’s eye of speculation and even criticism. I resolved to be defined solely by my output of work maybe because it was easier to deal with the public based on something I’ve made rather than something or someone that I am. The world may get to have what I create, but who I am—well that was just for me and a select few others.
I made another conscious decision over a year ago to work towards changing that. To not just hide behind my work where most things are agreeable, but rather to put myself out there as a flawed, learning human that doesn’t have it all figured out. It was terrifying to come out from behind the pixels and start writing, to start using my own updated photos places, and to talk about more than just design; because it’s but one facet in my big, diversified life.
The time I spent at Creative South was a reminder that this is where I’ve found the most joy in what I make. It’s in having a shared human experience where there’s vulnerability in the possibility that you’re not who someone thought you were—and that’s okay. Hell, sometimes, it’s even great. What it is is more real, and it feels more honest. And having conversations where you can talk someone through your own experiences and hopefully shed some new light onto where they are with their own is worth more than any number of likes, comments, or appreciations. Getting the opportunity to talk with students, and even long-time heroes of mine in such an eclectic setting was instrumental in reminding me that community happens in these intermissions where nothing feels planned and it’s all left up to happenstance or serendipity.
So here’s my informal thanks to anyone who put themselves out there and shared a beer (or two, maybe three) with me. For those that made a point to give some minutes of your own life to pair with a few minutes of my own. For those who shared wisdom with me, encouraged me, or those that allowed me to attempt to share some of mine. Your impact in my life is bigger than you’ll know—it’s bigger than even I know at this point. Talks over drinks, over terrible food, over the roar of music that’s far too loud to be pleasurable: It’s these conversations that have sparked more thought and more creativity than any of those heard from the stage.
I don’t know what you think about conferences at this point in your career or if you’ve ever found yourself curious about attending. I can tell you that not all conferences are created equal and that I’ve had my fair share of those that felt a lot like duds for my personal preference. But if you’re looking to experience something that will pull you out of your shell and get you across the table, eye-to-eye with some incredible people who are willing to teach, occasionally dawdle, and learn, I don’t have many recommendations over Creative South in Columbus, Ga., Front-End Design Conference in St. Petersburg, Fl, and Weapons of Mass Creation Fest in Cleveland, Oh. Look these things up. If you missed it this year, plan on it next year. I know I will. Let's get a beer.
Take a chance, get out there and surprise someone that you’re not who they had in their mind. Chances are, you’ll like who you find yourself becoming as well.
If you're interesting in pawing through my talk from Creative South, the Speaker Deck is up here.
Some incredible people I met at CS that you should totally check out:
Mike Jones: The man, the myth, the legend. Found of Creative South.
Anyone from Focus Lab: Like seriously, anyone. No, but really.
Drew Roper: Smiles + good vibes, seriously serious design, co-creator of TypeFight.
Bryan Butler: Bearded wonder, type, logos, illustration, co-creator of TypeFight.
Amanda Cheung: Front-end mastery, killer painting, can totally dance.
Justin Pervorse: Stupid good illustrator, stupid amazing dude.
Meg Robichaud: Her illustration work is as great as her personality.
Eric Stanley: This guy knows how to treat your brand, take it out for drinks and call the next day.
Barak Tamayo: One of the kindest, most humble people I've met who also does great work.
And so many other amazing people that I can’t list because I have to get work done today, too.