An Epicurrence: Embracing vulnerability can make us better designers

4 min read
Stephen Olmstead
  •  Mar 24, 2015
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It’s 7:20 a.m. and I’m getting ready to board Southwest flight 4126, Phoenix to San Francisco. I’ve got butterflies in my stomach because I’m honestly not quite sure what I’ve gotten myself into. Landing at SFO, I catch a ride with my coworker, Michaela, and make the drive up to Lake Tahoe. We chat about some of the projects we’ve been working on and then venture to guess at what’s in store for the attendees of Epicurrence No 1.

Epicurrence is the brainchild of designer Dann Petty. It’s an “unconference” born of Dann’s desire to connect designers across the globe in a deeply personal way.

A small group of 40 or so attendees arrive with a shared passion for design, but leave deeply bonded by the genuine relationships they’ve forged living under the same roof, breaking bread together, and sharing personal insights. Spectator event it is not. It’s a gathering that encourages everyone to venture into deeply vulnerable territory.

And it’s that vulnerability that makes an event like this work so well.Twitter Logo It’s a big risk opening up to a group of your peers, but it’s also the quickest path to deep, authentic friendship and professional growth. Its something I’ve been thinking about a lot post-Epicurrence and I’m realizing just how important small, intimate events like this are for our industry.

When we cast aside the meticulously crafted fronts of our portfolios and social media accounts, we can develop meaningful relationships with our peers while enriching our profession. Here’s a few design insights I walked away with…

Embrace fear as an opportunity for growth

Before Epicurrence, I had never skied or snowboarded in my life. I was terrified of the fool I’d make of myself in front of such an amazingly talented group. But my fear was completely unfounded. Turns out there were plenty of folks in a similar boat and happy to help. I tip my hat to the amazing Phil Coffman, who stuck with me the first day as we watched parents teach their little kids how to ski—and mimicked their every move (“Ah, so that’s how I disconnect from my skis … French fries and pizza …”).

It wasn’t embarrassing. It was hilarious … and fun!

The always-awesome Joselle Ho joined us newbies on the bunny slopes to embrace an opportunity for growth. It’s not about falling, it’s about getting back up again. Photo: Rico Castillero

Questions to ask yourself about fear and design

How often, as a designer, do I waste time worrying about the skills I don’t have? Do I let that fear paralyze me and keep me from digging in and adding a new skill to my toolset? How often do I miss out on a fantastic opportunity for growth because of that fear?

Make empathy a transformational part of your design process

People don’t make decisions in a void.Twitter Logo The clothes we wear, the foods we fancy, our taste in music, our experiences, and upbringing—all help shape the way we design.

At Epicurrence, I was given the unique opportunity to converse with an amazingly diverse group of people. From Tobias Van Schneider’s cool, calm, and collected demeanor to Marc Hemeon’s boisterous, fill-the-room energy, to Matt Spiel’s down-to-earth, hometown genuineness—everyone possessed a personality uniquely their own. What’s more, these personality differences weren’t barriers to friendship—they were an accelerant.

Eating meals together, at the same table, created a real sense of family where attendees felt free to be themselves. Photo: Rico Castillero
Dann Petty, Marc ‘The White’ Hemeon, and Ben Cline get ready to hit the slopes. Photo: Rico Castillero
No keynotes, computers, or cue cards here. Topics were set and real conversations were had. Photo: Rico Castillero
Daniel Burka and Marc Hemeon set the tone for vulnerability and honesty in a safe zone known as ‘The Nest’. Photo: Rico Castillero

Questions to ask yourself about empathy and design

Do I take the time to walk in my users’ shoes—or my colleagues’? Do I celebrate their approaches to solving problems? Do I let their unique outlooks transform my own way of thinking and allow it to make me a better designer in the process? At the end of the day, do I temper that empathy with context and action?

Be balanced—let the journey inform the destination

People often say, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” But I’m afraid I just don’t buy it. A terrible destination is still a terrible destination, regardless of how fun the ride was. Of course, if we get too preoccupied with reaching our journey’s end, we risk alienating everyone around us along the way. The answer, as is the case with many things in life, is balance. In other words: let the destination inform the journey.

This casual chat around the fire was perhaps one of the most memorable and comical moments of the event. Photo: Rico Castillero

At Epicurrence, I met many driven peers with some impressively lofty destinations in mind. But what really struck me was how those individuals back-translate their destinations into daily decisions that pushed their journey forward.

Questions to ask yourself about journeys, destinations, and design

Do my daily decisions push me toward a destination? As a designer, do I understand my users’ destinations?Twitter Logo Do my decisions help them achieve those goals?

It was an honor to facilitate conversation about the current creative tool landscape and to discuss the future of our industry. Photo: Rico Castillero

I’m thankful for the introspection Epicurrence afforded me and am excited to see what it will bring for future attendees. Vulnerability is an ingredient crucial to growing as a designer and as a person. And while vulnerability in and of itself doesn’t guarantee growth, it’s the environment in which it most easily thrives. Thanks to the entire crew for a headful of memories, deep thoughts, and laughs.

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