When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in 2020, designers in the IBM Austin Studios went remote to continue our work-life like everyone else in the world. We have been pushing through, begrudgingly, with virtual meetings and figuring out how to mentally and physically cope with the lack of face-to-face contact. We have been missing the casual hallway conversations, peaking into team workspaces, greeting new IBMers and guests wandering around for a dose of something different. We were planning, thinking, wishing to return to the studio we were so fond of in the back of our heads.
After almost a year of working remotely, I got the news that all of the IBM Austin Studio spaces were flooded due to winter storms Uri and Viola. Our IBM Studios were “destroyed,” said one IBMer who posted on Twitter. “A bit dramatic, but yes, it’s severely damaged. Our community is still strong.” was my reply to their post. At the time, I focused on my responsibilities: family, team, and work, in that order. I took care of my family and my team members based in Austin, dealing with the storms’ aftermath while still getting work requests. I had moved on past the studio.
It’s been a year since we have sat in the studio — less than a year since our team met to move our stuff out. But, what I said in the Twitter reply still stuck in the back of my head, “Our community is still strong.” And then it hit me. Like, hit me with a box of tissues, I’m crying, hit me. The IBM Studios Slack channel received a message from our sister studio in Böblingen, Germany. The studio leader had organized a Box folder of unscripted, personal, and heartfelt video messages from our studio mates. Many of them were people I trained, currently mentor, or leadership peers. The studio brought us together, yes. But, I realized through all of the virtual meetings, conversations, and late-night brainstorming that we formed a community.
And then it hit me. Like, hit me with a box of tissues, I’m crying, hit me.
Community is about growing with others. At the studio, I was around a culturally rich and empowering community that shaped my identity and pride as a designer. I have been fortunate to be around people and families ever engaged in improving their community’s vitality. Even without the studio, every day, I get to meet new people. I have the opportunity to be there in their lives during some of their most proud and distressing moments. Because of who these people are and the kindness I have received, I strive to be the best designer I can be and serve those who need me most.
So, why is community important? Because community saves us from the isolation and alienation we fear. Because the community is about finding each other and a place we can call home. Building a community is compelling. Not only because we are survivors in the existing world order, but because we bring differences to a society that erases our differences. By dealing with differences, we confront the question of the social and economic foundations of our society. By building community, we put some order in the fragmented world.
Now, more than ever, we need our design community to come together. I’m not looking for a community of sameness or reflections of myself, but a community of differences. We need to come together for reasons beyond our work requirements and do so by any means necessary.
I will miss the studio. I will miss it for so many reasons that I can’t list them all. But the next time you want to chat, shoot the bull, bounce an insane idea off someone, remember, your community is closer than you think.