Design a difference locally, not globally
This year’s Made by Few conference was held in beautiful Bentonville, Arkansas — woooopigsooie! Now, your first thoughts from reading that sentence could look something like this: “a DESIGN conference….in ARKANSAS?” Or “where the hell is Bentonville (pronounced by some: ‘Are Kansas’)…isn’t that in Walmart headquarters land?!”
If you identified with either one of those thoughts, rest assured — you’re not alone. Yes, the good ole Walmart home office is located in NW Arkansas. A mecca of vendors trying to be the next big thang on a Walmart store shelf.
But I Know a Change Gonna Come
You see, things are changing for Bentonville. The quaint little town that used to be known as the home for the mega conglomerate is now turning the tides of its interface for the world. Crystal Bridges Museum, 21c Museum Hotel, which houses chef Matthew McClure, a James Beard semifinalist, the very first Walmart, and a whole host of local eateries and art galleries.
All located within a four square-mile walking distance provided itself to be the perfect spot to host this year’s Made by Few. A conference that was conceived five years ago to inspire designers, developers, creatives, and entrepreneurs in the startup space.
Not yer grandma’s craft show
Not only did I get to see some of my favorite artists in the industry speak, but the whole thing kicked off with a craft show. Yup, a craft show! This wasn’t your run of the mill, grandma’s closet either. The Handmade by Few Craft Show was put on by a local, Amber Winters Perrodin. She started The Little Craft Show in the area several years ago, a curated show to include some of the most talented artisans in the area. You also found a couple of tables featuring the speakers from the conference as well. All in all I thought it was a nice touch for a design conference to incorporate a way to showcase handmade work for us to possibly buy and take back to our humble abodes.
After the morning of perusing the handmade goods and drinking the delicious local coffee, everyone commenced into the newly-constructed Record building to hear our fave artists talk about what inspires them the most.
Like many other modern-day tech conferences, I found myself intertwined with the familiar hip wearing millennial thinkers, sticker’d out Macbook pros, and the always-present debate of print versus digital. Gotta love being a designer in the twenty first century! Amidst the love of type, pen & ink, and UX talk, I grasped the feeling that we were on the edge of something extraordinary…but didn’t quite know it yet.
A plethora of design icons were on the lineup for mxf 2016 and they did not disappoint.
Becky Simpson — a petite figure that hails from Austin, Texas — kicked off the conference with her message: pick one thing to work on, and start working now, because it’s better than starting later. AJ Leon took us to church with a little bit of democratic design: “revolt and rebel” were his driving themes for the brave-at-heart. James Victore and Mike Monteiro gave us all design fodder to munch on and a little bit of drama to boot.
Of all the speakers at the conference, though, these four stuck with me: Becky and James talked about impacting design on a local scale whereas AJ took us on a journey to other countries as a design nomad. Monteiro made us believe we aren’t special and that we can change the world. These combinations turned out to be a perfect storm of inspiration. Urging creatives to break out of their everyday monotonous roles and take just one step towards changing world problems with good design. Trying to discern a happy medium for these two broad spectrums though, turned out to be daunting.
So it made me wonder before we can impact our world shouldn’t we be starting locally?
As a designer in this modern age how can we impact our local government, cities and rural towns with a positive and lasting impression? Becky Simpson does this in Austin by connecting to the culture around her and grasping a better understanding of every individual and then producing illustrations that resonate those messages.
James Victore talked about a project that him and his crew were hired to bring a new type of branding to the local NYPD offices. They struggled with just putting a “thin veneer” over everything and calling it a day but instead took from original inspiration posters and applied a modern day spin to the final design.
So why, you might ask, can’t our local government institutions have a somewhat amicable, fun feel to them? They can. But first we must assume the role of our predecessors like Victore, Simpson, Leon, and Montiero.
Let’s put more empathy and humility into our work. By being more humble, it affects what projects agencies and designers are willing to take on. You pile empathy on top of humility and change will take effect.
Bentonville is a prime example of this: just 6 years ago, the town suffered from stagnation. It was only known as the house for Walmart headquarters. But then came along a unique opening of an American art museum, Crystal Bridges. The museum’s opening spurred local designers, investors, and restaurateurs to rethink their downtown.
Bentonville began to bridge the gap between a hillbilly town and Corporate America. Just a few years ago, the town was drowning in franchises, chain restaurants, and big-box stores. Now you can’t turn a corner in the town without seeing a fully thought-out branded experience for restaurants and local handmade shops.
Maybe that’s why Made by Few organizers picked this locale for their conference.
To them, good design doesn’t just live in big cities anymore.