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Lessons from #SNDmakes: Building a more collaborative design community

Rebekah Monson

This past weekend, the Society for News Design held an event called "SND Prototypes: The story experience" at the Ball State University Indianapolis Center. A sizable group of talented designers, developers and product thinkers arrived in Indy with great ambition: designing solutions for real-life problems that exist in online journalism and defining new story forms.

If you're interested in reading about the cool prototypes that came from this past weekend, check out Rebekah Monson's great write-up of Sluice.js or Mike Swartz' breakdown of Backstory. Additionally, the concepts have been well-documented on HackDash, the tool we used to collaborate with our teams. There's plenty of great information out there about #SNDmakes, and I'm not here to rehash that.

Instead, I want to talk about the benefits of building a collaborative design community.

When I got off the plane in Indianapolis, I had no idea what to expect. At that moment, my only connections were to my fellow Vox Media employees -- Tyson WhitingHuge MaTed Irvine and Yuri Victor. Outside of that small circle, I had never met any of the people that were in town for #SNDmakes and for this year's voting for SND's Best of News Design.

Instead of a carnival-like convention experience where I felt lost in a sea of people, this small collection of bright minds quickly bonded over shared experiences in the digital media realm.

Why aren't I doing this in DC? What's stopping me from feeling these positive vibes all the time?

The daily schedule was hugely supportive of both networking and building friendships: our sessions ended at 6 PM sharp, and instead of everyone going their separate ways, great conversations were had over delicious meals.

Rather than cramming into a loud bar on Friday night, a group of us walked to the banks of the White River, enjoying an unusually warm evening among new friends. The quiet of the water allowed us all to actually hear each other, and the result was a very humorous and enjoyable evening.

On Saturday night, a different group piled into my spacious hotel room, watched the NCAA Tournament and talked shop while an incredibly dedicated trio continued to hack on their project, Skim.

It's not hard to see why the group of people that attended #SNDmakes were able to bond so naturally. Our passions lie in similar areas and the work we do revolves around solving the same kinds of issues. We all think about these things, and it's incredibly validating and powerful to bounce thoughts back and forth with likeminded individuals. We all want the same thing, and that's to help our editorial staffs tell beautiful stories that connect with the user on a meaningful level across every medium.

On the way home, Tyson and I marveled at how easy it was for us to spend time with all of these people that were strangers just days before. We felt like we had built friendships and made connections that would last, all while meeting some of the smartest minds in news design today. The organic way it all came together was compelling.

These strong feelings may fade with distance and time, but it brought us to believe in the power of a collaborative community. Why aren't we doing this in our home cities? What is stopping us from feeling these positive vibes all the time?

Spending all your time at work and with your coworkers can lead to insular behavior. "We're building all this cool shit! Lets focus our efforts 100% on our brands and crush the competition." There is absolutely nothing wrong with being competitive and striving to win, but there is so much out there that we can learn from other news designers in our area if we take a step back. Bringing people together can make our work product better while enriching our personal lives.

I grew up in a small town, and there was a lot of community awareness and human interaction between neighbors. You might not have known their life stories, but you knew who they were. With a similar mindset, we can make our city's design and technology communities more collaborative and neighborly.

It's easier said than done. SND has been working to bring news designers together for a long time, and many other grassroots organizations have tried to accomplish the same things. Ultimately, there are two ways to get in better touch with the news design community in DC: volunteering your skills and being open to new experiences.

An exceptional program across the country, Code For America, has its own branch right here in the District called Code For DC. Their mission is to help create new connections between citizens and government through technology.

There are also annual events called Open Data Day, and in DC it was held last month at the World Bank. The goal is to improve the open data community and also bring you together with people who share a passion for collaboration on interesting topics.

Other events focus on developing the skills of women in tech, including the TechLady Hackathon + Training Day that was held in December. Over 100 women participated in the event, and another is tentatively planned for June.

All of these great networking and workshopping opportunities are right in our backyard. Not only can you work on great new things, but you can also make those special connections that can last. Rob Davis, Brigade Captain of Code for Ft. Lauderdale, summed it up perfectly at a recent Code for Miami data jam. "We live in these places together. Shouldn't we talk about our experiences too?"