Reflections on XOXO 2019

XOXO felt like many things.

There’s a feeling I get around genuinely creative people. I remember feeling it in college, surrounded by artists, photographers, actors, and designers, many of whom continue to be artists, photographers, actors, and designers.

I don’t get to feel that feeling very often. Sure, I may go to a design meetup or other function, but it’s not the same.

I felt it again at XOXO, along with a few themes that percolated into view.

Twitter then and now

The feeling of optimistic connection reminded me of SXSW in 2007. That was the year Twitter really first really appeared. Virtually everyone at the conference learned about Twitter for the first time while at that conference and singed up. It was still SMS-based and very limited compared to what it is now.

I remember coming home from the conference and telling other designers I worked with, “well, I don’t know what it is, really, but I know it’s going to be something.”

The story about Twitter at XOXO in 2019 is very different. It is an algorithmic Nazi reward system. It is an addiction. It is a weapon It is the drug. It is the network of support for your dearest community. There were calls to log off, and examples of how it saved lived. Needless to say, our relationship to Twitter is now far more complicated, and not all for the better.

Imposters are people too

But maybe more importantly, SXSW 2007 was also a time when I was in a funky place about design. I was working as an Associate Art Director in a marketing firm, stumbling my way through some campaign work for a DSL ISP and not doing a good job of it. I was lost.

2019, I spent 6 months without full-time work, stumbling my way through freelancing and really not sure what was next. Somehow, the previous 15 years of design work weren’t quite the asset that I would have liked them to be, instead weighing on me as an obligation and expectation for what I should be achieving.

When I first lost my job this year, I thought it was going to be like launching a startup on a vacation–an amazing journey. Instead, I spent the next six months disappointing myself and feeling ashamed of it. I didn’t invest the time to learn the prototyping tool I thought I would need. I didn’t reach out to meet developers who could help bring an idea to life. I didn’t test the popularity of my idea with some kind of vaporware sign up page.

I didn’t do any of the things that I have coached startup founders to do. I didn’t do any of those things, even though I had the resources to do it–and that’s probably the most shameful part–as if I spent six months of the year betraying the creative trust.

My only reconciliation of this time is that depression played a huge part in it, too. The suppression of creativity, the amplification of personal shame, it’s all in depression’s wheelhouse. I’m still working through it, slowly and quietly.

I confirmed my attendance for XOXO during this time, booking travel and making commitments, but not really sure what would happen.

A cleansing breath

During my first day at XOXO, I was texting with my wife a bit, checking in. She asked how the conference was going and I said that I could only describe it as “a detoxifying sensation.” Due dates, competing interests, prioritization, responsibilities… they all sort of left the body for a time. The pressure of my own creative future, while uncertain, was relieved.

At XOXO, those stresses were replaced with nourishment from attendees and speakers. Attendees were open, friendly, and welcoming. Many attendees have their own creative works that they were sharing with others. Each speaker at XOXO is at the height of their game; creating, sharing, reflecting, struggling, persevering through struggle. The galvanized the room with their vulnerability and candor.

And it is in stark contrast to what I’m seeing in other parts of my professional life, where a sexual predator is suing a conference where he committed multiple acts of harassment because that conference is following its own code of conduct and forbidding him entry and he’s mad. It’s disgusting. And reading about it, mostly on Twitter, makes my blood boil.

So grateful

This being my first time at XOXO, I’m left to connect my own dots for what makes this event so special. Attendees and speakers are a huge part of it, but it doesn’t happen on its own. And so I am left with immense gratitude for the Andys, the fearless founders and organizers of this conference and festival. They have created this event with visible attention and care, listening openly to the community and curating a thoughtful and welcoming event at every step of the way. I will never forget it.