HUE DESIGN SUMMIT 2017: Designing an Un-Conference for Creatives of Color
In 2016, a few creatives of color converged into a digital space and through the prism of design, began to discover the many bonds that tie us together, whether that be through our work experiences, interests that we share outside of the workplace, and the paths we each took to get to where we are in our careers. Being able to discuss these topics with a shorthand we rarely get to engage in at work, some of us saw that there was an opportunity to translate the feeling of that digital space into a physical realm. Here’s the way we did it.
How We Arrived
We knew that there were already places and spaces where designers, developers, and creatives from underserved communities already existed. We’ve attended a lot of them, whether they were small Meetup groups or regular conferences that occupied entire convention centers. Our aim was to complement that ecosystem and not directly compete with our colleagues by offering the type of event that while striking that middle ground, was also not as intense and allowed for free-flowing conversations and organic encounters, where we believe the most value is shown: the retreat.
The goal was to create a space that conversation was fostered naturally but wasn’t forced by the hour, and to meet new designers from different disciplines while being able to spend the time together to get to know the full picture of the creative and the many interests they have that comprise who they are. Somewhere where we can engage in that shorthand of being this kind of face in this kind of place; somewhere that allows for conventional design discussions as well as debate about who’s the best at NBA2K; somewhere where we can meet others in a casual setting that gives us the opportunity to cultivate substantive relationships with each other.
Driving the retreat was also creating a unifying theme. We wanted a purpose to tie the weekend together, to have something that attendees could take back, build upon and contribute to. A theme that couldn’t be solved for over 3 days, but could be supported by breakout sessions and interactions throughout the time we spent together that could answer that overall question, “Why are we here?” With that in mind, we searched for venues, brainstormed activities, and reached out to design leaders that we thought would bring that vibe and purpose to life. We found a gorgeous estate in a downtown Atlanta neighborhood that would allow us all to both reside in and have our daily communal activities. We found a great yoga instructor who would stimulate our minds and bodies to start the day off with a positive attitude. And we found three inspiring creatives who would challenge our thinking and provide commentary for us to leave the retreat with and ponder on as we continued that exchange of ideas with our own circles of colleagues, friends, and designers.
The Night Before
Once we arrived on site, we began our arranged dinner where we sat around a large dinner table while a chef prepared a meal for us to serve to and with each other, family-style. Starting the summit off in an intimate environment where it was necessary to interact with each other to dress your own plate enabled us to talk in an informal way, without the spectre of having to go through conversational pleasantries. It hastened the process of learning about our fellow designers and allowed us to connect as people first, professionals second.
The First Day
We began each day by making community breakfast and breaking bread (literally) with each other before diving into the first topic of the day. It continued the goal of making this event more laid-back and allowing time to build camaraderie that would then spill over into interactions where we could bring our whole selves.
The day contained a presentation from our first keynote speaker, Jacinda Walker of designExplorr. Jacinda described what her organization does in the way of providing opportunities for those designers coming behind us, her own path to unlocking her potential as a creative and learning how to use that superpower, as well as providing 5 specific actions that black creatives can do to improve the design profession.
From there, we explored a bit of Midtown Atlanta during lunch, managing to grab a passerby to take a picture of all of us in front of the MIDTOWN sign on Peachtree Street before we headed to Colony Square for our food break. Not only did we want to build meaningful relationships with each other, we as a group of creatives thought it was important to extend that mindset to the cities we’re inhabiting as guests and orienting ourselves.
Our own Shaw Strothers resumed the day once we returned to the house with his presentation on the tenets of being a great user experience designer and how those competencies manifested themselves in a handful of projects he’s contributed to and led at his current job. He gave a crash course in what types of responsibilities and tasks are necessary and valuable to forming that mindset of serving the user and their needs, in a way that demystified it for any attendee that may not be adjacent to that field of practice, but found things that resonated with the work that they do, so that they might absorb and use that information to improve their own output.
The Second Day
We began the day bright and early at 8:00 in the morning with Bianca Spicer serving as our yoga instructor, making use of the living room as her studio where we meditated, concentrated and stumbled over ourselves a couple of times as we attempted to balance our bodies on yoga mats.
Dayle Bennett was the next keynote speaker we had on the agenda, and she gave a presentation on color and what it means to paint a picture (ha!) and communicate with color. One of the most memorable quotes from the conversation we had with her was when she offered this useful nugget: “We don’t use color as a weapon enough, especially as designers of color.” It resonated because it gave space to the thought that perhaps we can stand to expand our palettes and be more adventurous in the ways we communicate with our communities through color. We also engaged in an exercise where we did something simple but profound: we spent 5 minutes thinking of some of our favorite colors, and then spent another 5 minutes writing down adjectives that we thought described said colors. Dayle’s directive was to use those words throughout your design process to reinforce your design choices all the way to the end. “You can have the biggest palette you want, but your palette has to tell a story.”
The field trip portion happened next, where we visited Atlantic Station for the attendees that hadn’t previously been to Atlanta, in order to give them a chance to see one of the city’s highlights, before we returned to the house to conclude the day with open dialogue between different groups of attendees that ranged from how best to transition from one field of design to the other and the similarities we may have in seemingly disparate fields, to how effective sustainable clothing design can be in the face of fast fashion and how we can contribute to that with simple tweaks to our daily shopping behaviors.
The day ended with a visit to Ormsby’s, a neighborhood tavern and gathering spot where there are games to exercise our competitive natures — we definitely played Taboo and some folks’ feelings were hurt once the game was won — and food to grab that ended up watching us play these games more than we ended up eating it. It also was a celebration because through all of our efforts, organizing a long weekend of activities and discussions through digital means, mostly without having met anyone else in the group for the first time until arriving at the summit — we did it. We saw our vision through and it came alive right in front of us.
The Last Day
The HUE Design Summit concluded with entrepreneur and Google Coach Justin Dawkins’ keynote talk about ushering in a new generation of creatives, and being part of a generation that can help us maintain ownership of our voice, history, and most importantly, our future. Are we opening doors for those that come behind us and educating them to make less mistakes than we did, to take advantage of our successes and build upon them? What form does that take? Are we sharing our knowledge with each other to build together and networking across as well as networking up? Sharing his observations and what he’s learned from using his entrepreneurial spirit to fuel his coaching to tell us how we can make tangible impact in how we work and what we can do as creatives of color was the perfect way to end the last day in a most fulfilling way.
To cap the day off before we went our own separate ways, we commemorated the first summit with a group photo in front of the estate, including our keynote speakers to share in the accomplishment of pulling off and attending the inaugural HUE Design Summit.
Growing This Effort
As we took that last photo, a feeling of pride, happiness, and relief came over all of us. Was the weekend perfect? Not at all. Did we do everything we wanted to in the way we wanted to do it? Not even close! But that’s the value in at least putting it out there to see how people would react — and their positive reactions confirmed our belief that we have something here. As designers putting on an event, we constantly had to remind ourselves to stay the course and remember that in order to know what to improve upon next time, we have to be able to iterate on a minimum viable experience! Throughout the summit, we had a tablet set up near the kitchen to get feedback on what people liked, as well as what they thought we could improve upon the next time we held the summit. Getting input like that is valuable to us, so we can see how best to serve the audience that supports our vision. The great thing is that the positives people listed fell in line with what we wanted them to take away: the dialogue that occured, the connections that were created, and the overall vibe of the weekend.
We started HUE in order to come together and learn from one another in a comfortable space. That’s a feather that we can definitely put in our cap now. Like all realistic creatives, I also can say that we have a lot of room to grow; so that we may continue to inspire and expand the continuum of black creatives. It wasn’t until the last day of the Summit, while making breakfast with newfound friends, that it was crystallized that our roles as black creatives is to not only design to advance ourselves; but to continue to find ways to encourage, support, and provide an accessible community for black creatives.