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In Review: steep 2020, Crema’s First-ever Day of Design Immersion

Tyler Hilker
January 27, 2021

Amidst the end-of-year tumult of 2020, we carved out some time to enjoy each other and our craft.

One of the things I love about Crema’s designers is that they pay attention to different aspects of the design world and bring insights and examples back to the team. This practice helps us grow together. Whether it’s evaluating & adopting Figma as the standard design tool or sharing new plugins, tools, or frameworks, there’s a deep commitment to Crema’s core value of constant improvement.

They’re also hard-working folks, highly-productive and growth-minded. This is obviously great—yet a potential risk in teams like this is the “I-can-always-do-more” burnout. In stressful times, we reactively “tunnel” to keep up with the short-term demands at the expense of big-picture flourishing.

Teams can get focused on acquiring things to learn but not bother to look at the collection itself. So, our design team decided to set aside a day to simply rest and absorb what we had accumulated, adopted, and adapted over the past few months.

steep is not a conference

Conferences are typically harried, skipping from one thing to another, and chock-full of information. It’s hard to retain, let alone enjoy, time like that, especially virtually. Our team doesn’t necessarily need more information; more time to process the information would be nice.

Here’s how I originally pitched it:

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“[A] day to immerse ourselves in a few aspects of the craft: education, collaboration, and inspiration. It’s less a workshop and more a… “restshop” to soak in and absorb what we tend to overlook or just not get to in our busy days.”

The idea was intentionally non-productive. I’m often reminded of this post by John Maeda in which he lays out Gordon MacKenzie’s excellent analogy for creative work in Orbiting The Giant Hairball. To summarize (you really should read the whole post), a cow produces visible results — that is, milk — only as a result of the time it has spent grazing & laying about, behavior that at face value can only be generously described as “work.”

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Images via John Maeda

“The invisible portion is equivalent to the time the cow spends out the in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.”

This was a day to spend “in the pasture,” as it were, basking in invisible creative activity, fostering & replenishing our creative reserves.

Process & agenda

To start, I threw together a Miro board with a lightweight agenda. It changed a bit over time: we had to reschedule to accommodate a new client coming on, and so brought in the design process exercise (replacing a concluding book discussion around How to Make Sense of Any Mess, which is a must-read for product people) so we could get that in before the holiday break.

Miro board plan for steep immersion day for design

Each designer was asked to provide suggestions for each segment and from that set, I previewed the links to get a general sense of the material, and then selected the final items with a sense of coherence & flow.

Segment 1: Process Review

A bit of background: We’re a shop that believes in the power of small cross-discipline teams. That means Crema’s designers don’t usually work with other designers on a project. And given that we’re an agency that designs & builds software for other teams with their own structures & disciplines, designer processes will differentiate over time. We don’t see this as a weakness, but a superpower: if we’re able to work within a variety of contexts, adjust when necessary, and share with the rest of the team, our overall processes and products will get better over time.

We regularly get together for critiques and craft chats, but it had been a while since we’d taken an in-depth look at each others’ (and our own!) processes for bringing work into the world. We now had a good chunk of time together, dedicated to mapping and discussing our design process from end-to-end.

Before the day of steep, the designers had time to map out the steps within their process in Miro. Several sections like Research, Exploration, Organization, Sharing, Prototyping, & Dev Collaboration were provided as guidance-not-conformity.

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As each designer walked the team through their process, the other designers asked questions, made observations, and compared experiences. They then used emojis to mark the stickies that they each wanted to grow in and where they thought the team needs to grow as a whole.

From that second batch, each designer prioritized the list of team growth areas from their perspective. This wasn’t a voting session; it was more a way of seeing how each other saw the team’s opportunities. There were some consistencies as well as strong differentiation—”Why did you vote that higher?! I thought we were great at that!”—which made for great discussion and clear commitments towards improvement.

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Segment 2: Inspiration

The first talk we watched was Jessica Abel’s Creative Mornings talk on Flow (so many good talks on CM!). It gave great encouragement & context to her creative process as inspiration for our own. Afterward, we captured some thoughtful moments & discussed how her points might influence the ways in which we structure our work, time, and disciplines.

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The second talk we watched was (incidentally) another Creative Mornings presentation, this time by IDEO founder David Kelley: Design is Magical. I admit that I bristled at the “magical” in the title (it’s hard work, too!), but it truly is an inspiring talk. Design isn’t one person making something attractive; good design is a matter of different perspectives coming together to define and meet a need so well that the result is unexpectedly elegant.

This talk is a great reminder of the potential for design thinking—not as an innovation buzzword-methodology, but as a way of looking at the world and approaching problems.

The final piece of the day was the classic design documentary Objectified by Gary Hustwit. Building on the day’s theme, this was another look at how people think about problems in the world, addressing those problems, and working creatively with a wide variety of people to (hopefully) make a significant impact.

Peeler image referencing objectified by Gary Hustwit

Outcomes & reflections

The day was long but refreshing. Spending this kind of time together was good for all of us. As the leader of these shenanigans, it was a joy to hear how these designers discuss these things and how much they enjoy learning from each other. It wasn’t just about being better designers, but flourishing within the craft.

Some post-steep commentary from the team:

Design means a lot of things to a lot of people. It encompasses so much, you may actually be designing something without even knowing it. Ultimately, design is to problem solve in a thoughtful way.

My biggest inspiration takeaway was observational learning to design, and how observing help us define those important touch points to make them enjoyable. More tactically, all the organizational tips, it was awesome to see everyone sharing their process and see places where I can improve on.

My favorite part of the day was walking through our process and formalizing what we can work on as a team. I think every one of us mentioned we’d never written that down anywhere. I’m selfishly really excited to better my skills and learn from you all next year.

“I loved the way we analyzed our processes to optimize the collective norms but also spent time dreaming about other design influences and the future of product design.”

Creative does not equal artistic. Everyone is creative.”

“I really enjoyed the insights into your all’s process and day-to-day and am excited to set intentions for 2021 and continue to learn from you all!”

BONUS: Logo exploration

Part of the fun of this was coming up with a conference-like concept to get excited about, to bring home the idea that this is a day set aside for a different kind of work—not just a long day of watching Vimeo. This eventually made it into a sticker and of course, killer Slack emoji.

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Steep 2020 design logo


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