Community + Culture: Column
Creating Community for Austin Designers
by Candice Digby
It started with a late-night email.
As a marketer for an educational institution focused on tech, business, data and design, one of my main jobs is building out our community. One night, I was brainstorming ways to integrate our design programs into the local creative community with my then-boss Danielle Barnes. We knew the key to bringing out the best in our internal community was to get them integrated into Austin’s larger creative class.
Danielle had lived in New York and San Francisco, both cities where Design Week events are central to the design scene. When she suggested participating in Austin’s Design Week, I assumed, as an Austin native, that there might still be an event I hadn’t yet discovered—as almost always seems to be the case in this city. We started researching and discovered there was no Design Week in Austin. Austin, with its unique voice and creative culture, didn’t have an official gathering of the inventive, diverse minds and makers that are a huge reason our city is one of the most desirable in the country. That night she sent me an email with an exhaustive list of all the other cities around the world that have a Design Week under the subject line “We should do this.” My feeling was immediate: we have to do this.
Why this? Too many of the Austin designers I worked with day in and day out were isolated within their respective industries. Even though our city has promising talent in the variety of design fields, there was no sense of community encompassing them. We couldn’t stop ourselves from imagining the fusion: user experience designers working with architects, fashion designers paired with organizational designers, all learning from each other and expanding their craft. Certainly, such collaborations existed, but how could we amplify them?
Our guiding vision was born: to create the community, grow the talent, attract new promise, and ultimately cultivate Austin as a world-class design center. What we were looking for didn’t yet exist; it was going to have to be created.
I spent my early and mid-twenties in the music industry, and like many, it took me a while to reach clarity around my place, my purpose. I found it though, in creating platforms that help develop and support creatives, whether that be through educational resources, creating a place to showcase talent, or providing a means for people to support themselves through their art. With Danielle and Amber Atkins of IBM Design, two powerhouse women dedicated to supporting designers and creativity in Austin, we took a leap.
It took lots of late nights and weekend work to pull it off, but we were overwhelmed by the support we received from communities and individuals who had been waiting for this. The ideas in and of themselves were inspiring. We involved the community intimately in programming and were rewarded with an array of craft refining workshops, inventive takes on design process, inspiration and resources for contributing solutions back to the problems facing our city, and so much more.
After nine months of planning, we launched our first Austin Design Week last November with almost 40 events: workshops, studio tours, panels, evening events and a design installation—all free to the public. More than 800 designers and design enthusiasts participated in the first year.
It may seem odd that three non-designers would take this on, but we believe design can radically change our daily lives. It doesn’t matter if it’s in our city’s transportation system, the way in which you fill out forms, the clothes we wear, or the spaces we live in. Design, for better or worse, can completely transform our present experiences and influence our future. We saw a need and an opportunity, and we acted. It’s as much action that informs inspiration as it is the reverse.
The first year was about making Austin Design Week a reality. This year, as we grow, and as our design community grows, our advisory board has chosen the theme “finding place” for our second annual Design Week. I find it especially appropriate for where we are and where we’re trying to be, as individuals, as artists and creatives, as a community, as a city. Place is so much greater than a location, and design can serve as a powerful compass.
What role is design currently taking in our lives, and how will it affect the future? We decide together, as a community. Have an idea? We’d love to hear it.
Candice Digby is co-founder and programming lead at Austin Design Week. The second annual event will take place November 6 – 10. Visit austindesignweek.org for more information.