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Coming Down From the Conference High

On returning to the real world after an inspiring Circles Conference 2013

As a designer, I survive off of small stints of everyday inspiration. Whether it’s interesting type on a sign on the side of the road or the bottle arrangement at a table in a bar — it’s all fair game. However, after being exposed to only these subtle moments of beauty, I had the privilege of attending Circles Conference in Grapevine, Texas a couple of weeks ago — pretty much a consolidation of my kindred spirits in one venue. Needless to say, it was awe-inspiring; not only because of the incredible speakers and attendees (many of which I have design crushes on), but also because this surge of inspiration contrasted so sharply with the small tidbits I normally receive. Truthfully, saying that coming back home after an experience like that is a kick in the face is an understatement.

Let me explain. I currently make my home in London, Canada and I can honestly say I fucking love my job. Like, really, seriously. But in the day-to-day hustle of an agency, its easy to get caught up in the routine and feel uninspired, unmotivated. After months of not-so-fulfilling client work, I felt lacklustre. My designs were still pretty but became boring and predictable. Even my leadership skills were dull and I could tell my team was feeling it too. After all, I’m a creative lead, I’m supposed to be awesome and inspiring on a daily basis, right? Wrong. I needed to do something. ASAP. So when I heard about Circles, a conference to fuel the creative soul, I knew it was exactly what I needed to recharge.

A couple of weeks later I flew myself to good old ‘Murica and landed in Dallas two days before the conference. I got to jump on hotel beds, see old friends, go to a wicked aquarium (talk about penguinspiration) and ate all sorts of deep fried everything. Life was good. Circles began and I experienced two full days of an amazing lineup of creatives speaking about the very things that I used to do, always said I’d do, and never even thought of doing but knew I should. Life was great.

I got to see over 400 designers awake and surprisingly lively before 9am (a rare sight), met amazing colleagues and walked away with some great contacts and new friends. I was feeling more inspired than ever. After the conference I looked through the seemingly endless notes that I made on every speech and encounter, and then consolidated it into a list of things I learned from each that I would apply when I arrived home. It goes as follow:

Manifesto (of sorts)
Always create depth behind beauty. Build a process and solve problems, not just pretty lines.
Build design through good team interaction and be proud of what we can do together. It’s not my work, its our work.
It’s good to be critical of your work, but if you don’t believe in yourself, no one will either. Loving your work makes it better.
Let the work lead you, instead of trying to control it. You need to make a lot of ugly shit to arrive at beauty.
With every project, make the client stoked about their own product but you must be satisfied also. Don’t be afraid to get emotionally attached to your work. It shows you care.
Client/designer relationships must come from a place of trust. Always. Don’t put yourself in a situation where that isn't the case.
Take care of your team, but trust them enough to have the freedom to fail.
Figure out what’s essential, the rest doesn’t matter. No more multiple solutions. Make one solution. Make it fucking awesome.
Don’t give yourself so much time because you’re good at filling it with bad shit.
It’s in the details. Focus on the little big things. Don’t ship until they’re perfect.
Write. Tell a story. Clients that matter will connect with your story, not your portfolio. These will be truly fulfilling projects on all accounts.
Just make shit. Internal projects are key to renewing creativity. It’s not all about the client work.

The next night, with a billion trillion plans in mind and heart skipping every other beat, I get on a plane and bid farewell to Texas. Hours later I am home and the anticipation for Monday begins. I text my partners at the agency and tell them to brace themselves for the “badassery” that is about go down. Then Monday comes.

Like every doomed high school relationship, you don’t notice it at first because it starts off all unicorns and rainbows. After two weeks of rushing deliverables, shitty feedback and distasteful client interactions, I was sitting at home feeling defeated and eating my feelings in front of a stack of old movies from my film school days. So what happened? Well, reality did.

As awful as it is, going to an inspiring conference can be your best friend or your worst enemy. For me, the very thing that was supposed to recharge my batteries, ended up draining them just as quickly. This happened because I failed to actually think about what I learned and put it into the context of the structure I had already set up with my team. This structure worked for us and when I tried to force these new ideas in without presenting them properly, none of them integrated well. For example, when a client asked for several more concepts of a brand design, I gave them a sassy no, saying that we had already given them more than enough (refer to list item #8). However, up until that point, we had established a highly iterative process with that client and my expectation to change that mid-swing was highly mistaken. This led to some sharp conversations that shouldn’t have occurred in the first place. I messed up. Life sucked.

My lack of understanding for how to handle such an overwhelming amount of inspiration left me at an awkward position and only after falling on my face did I actually figure out what was happening. I did something unheard of. I actually considered my team when implementing my ideas. We talked things out and they brought up a lot of great thoughts of their own that complimented each other perfectly. This ended up being an incredibly inspiring event all on its own and our creative process has continued to grow and improve based on this ongoing open discussion.

That’s the thing about attending conferences, sometimes you run the risk of your ego exploding, thinking that you’ve got this enlightened insight that you must impose on everyone who isn’t in the know. Truth is, being filled with a surge of inspiration is only great if you actually put it to work properly; And being a leader, that means inspiring your team in the ways they need, not just following your conference notes to the letter. So go out and seek inspiration often, return to your team with a full tank, but remember to always check your ego on the way home.

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