I’ve been thinking about it for days. Twitter threads full of inside jokes continue to grow as new dribbble follows and Facebook friend requests trickle in. I’m literally seeing potential collaboration ideas form right in front of my face. I’m talking about Valio Con 2014. “You’re hung up on a conference?” you ask. Not really. It’s not about the conference, per say — it’s what I came away with that has my brain spinning.

Valio Con is an annual conference that brings designers together from around the world to share work, processes, and beginnings. Set in the most laid-back of environments along the water at the Catamaran Resort in San Diego’s Mission Bay, Valio Con is an intimate setting that encourages people to connect as friends, instead of straight-up networking (read: schmoozing).

Valio Con created a framework for something much bigger and got me feeling quite philosophical. A community was grown at the conference and was reflective of design culture as a whole. It got me thinking about the idea of an authentic design community, what already exists among designers, and how we can grow it. Valio was a great representation of that potential.

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As designers, we have so many commonalities. Here’s an extreme example: at the conference I met my proverbial design soul sister. She not only had a similar birthday, but was married in the same month as me to a husband who has close to the same birthday as my husband. We have the same prescription for eyeglasses, similar stories about childhood, and all signs pointed to us having the exact same wardrobe (this became apparent when we showed up dressed the same on one of the days).

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“twins” on twins

Fine, maybe a lot of this was coincidence, but it did have me pondering the shared experiences we have as designers. We relate in the way we think as daydreamers and idea makers — aesthetically inclined, detail-oriented, big idea people. It’s true that many of us have similar stories of being creatives in a linear system (think standardized tests) and similar feelings about how those experiences impact us today. They do say that “the creative is the child who survived” and we relate in that – it the foundation of our very own Design Culture.

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In a lot of ways Valio Con was a typical conference. Amazing talks were given themed around autonomy, the size of inspiration, and having a “just do it” attitude. From demoing prototype tools and introducing cool startups to more well-known companies sharing their processes and constraints to words from illustrators and a 3D artist, we were told to just go and do something. Stay true to yourself, your ideas, and your goals for a balanced lifestyle. And be open to where an idea can take you. Be empowered in who you are as a designer and start creating. In the end, a celebration of all things that make Design Culture great.

But here’s the biggest thing that happened at Valio Con: We celebrated design and the work of our hands and imaginations. We celebrated humble beginnings and the growth of a good idea. And, most importantly, we celebrated, empowered, and related to each other. We established a camaraderie based on sticking together, supporting each other, and a love of making stuff. And just like that, a design community – on the foundation of this Design Culture – was built.

Impromptu after conference dinner with 40 people. Note folks standing in the background!

Impromptu after conference dinner with Amy Hood, Scott Andrews and about 40 other conference friends. Note folks standing in the background! Must have been right after the big toast!

A great example of this community is found on dribbble. Designers provide feedback and encouragement to one another on dribbble and share their work (yes, sometimes to show off) but also to provide inspiration for other designers. We aren’t an overly competitive pack, us designers. The greater designer good hopefully trumps all of those things for us.

To use a more micro interaction, this Q&A with the graphic designer on the Grand Budapest Hotel is a good example of the goodwill between designers. Graphic designer Annie Atkins recalls how she became involved with the film.

“…I remember the first call from Wes’s producer. It was a shock – I remember trying to sound really professional and calm on the phone, but I was actually doing cartwheels around the room. I’d been drawing some graphics for Laika’s new animated feature […] and a designer at the studio had recommended me to Wes (Nelson Lowry, who had designed Mr Fox). He’d tried to give me some warning, I think, by emailing me with the line “Something wicked your way comes…” but to be honest I had no idea what he’d meant, or exactly how wicked it was going to be!”

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We believe good work should be celebrated and we look out for our own. More importantly, we believe that the innovation of good ideas should impact the greater good. A great example came last week when Elon Musk released his patents to “accelerate the advent of sustainable transport.” Mind. Blown.

Perhaps the most significant example of a warm and authentic design community, as of late, came in the recent response of the dev and design community after Eric Meyer lost his 6-year-old daughter to cancer. People tinted their avatars to purple as a sign of solidarity and in hopes of providing comfort for this grieving father. It signified something far deeper than our avatars and our bodies of work: we are people, spouses, friends, and parents. Through this expression of purple, the connectivity and understanding we have as designers was truly expressed.

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Family and connectivity is something we all want, but as Josh Williams is expressing in his tweet, it isn’t completely manifested in the web form. Considering others in the design and dev community as family has the potential to be quite powerful. Call me idealistic, but through our collaboration we could be the great inventors of our time. Our goodwill toward each other could produce infinite potential. But what makes this true family of designers possible?

At Valio Con, it happened around the table over meals, drinks, hot tubbing, and lots of laughs, as folks got deep into sharing their journeys as designers and as people. We were standing on common ground and common experiences as creative individuals and connections were forged. It wasn’t about networking or rubbing shoulders. It was about being a part of something bigger than ourselves. It was about authenticity.

DTers making friends from InVision and Pixate!

DTers making friends from InVision and Pixate!

Ben Jordan, Vice President of Customer Experience at InVision, quickly became a friend at the conference. His goodwill toward other designers at the conference was evident by throwing together hilarious websites (artsnacks.diamonds anyone? It’s responsive!) and good vibes. He also came to the conclusion and share that “this was one of the first conferences where a meaningful community was built in a short time.” He shared that, “people left motivated to go change the world and meaningful collaborations were built for that purpose. I can’t wait to see what amazing things that will be built that started as an idea at Valio.”

Valio Con left me feeling empowered but it also left me with this question: How can we create an authentic design community that continues to encourage and fuel creatives? Maybe it is around the table, maybe it is online, and maybe it is through organized events. Or maybe it can’t be manufactured? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

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