Stephanie Haworth | Design + Life + Thoughts

I am a designer living and working in Tempe, Arizona.
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There are two versions of Phoenix — the Phoenix known by Phoenicians and the Phoenix perceived by everyone else in the country. The last few years have been a bit of a battle for the city’s national reputation. Regardless of our differing stances on politics and culture, everyone can probably sympathize with the responses we receive when, perhaps on a vacation, we tell people we’re from Arizona.

For example, Paul and I went on a weekend trip to San Francisco and stayed at a bed and breakfast where we met a couple from Austin. When I heard where they were from, I immediately struck up a conversation about SXSW and their local music scene. When we replied with our state of origin, we were greeted with raised eyebrows and the topics of SB1070 and Joe Arpaio. Yay.

What people seem to wonder about Phoenix.

I usually remark with some rambling explanation of our hipster scene or our affinity for third wave coffee or the growing design community. In fact, most people are surprised we have a design community at all.

If you’re a part of the #phxdc (“Phoenix Design Community” for anyone not hip to the lingo), you’re probably on Twitter. And if you’re a designer or developer on Twitter, you’re probably following the big designers from the big design cities. You know who I’m talking about — Jessica Hische, Frank Chimero, Jeffrey Zeldman, Chris Spooner, et al.

We frequently respond to the big designers’ tweets, dribbble posts, and blogs. We promote our grassroots conference Phoenix Design Week. We’re all up in each other’s design business, adding comments to online portfolios. We’re everywhere online and SHOUTING!

And now there are whispers that we’re being noticed by the big designers.

The AIGA 2011 conference will be here. Local companies are landing big clients. Studios and freelancers are being featured on big blogs.

With all of this fresh in my mind, I had a conversation last night at Lux with @matthewpetro. I commented on how our city is growing in culture and national recognition. We’re becoming competitive in the areas of design, development, coffee, restaurants, and small business ownership. Studios and business owners are comparing philosophies, coordinating efforts, and pushing for higher quality products. I explained that, subsequently, this gives us cultural legitimacy in the eyes of cities known to already possess those things, like San Francisco, Portland, Austin, and Minneapolis.

Then, Matthew asked me a good question in regard to our community involvement, “What are the designers doing?” I was unsure of how I should answer. Most of our meetups are for fun times and beer. The conference is generally for ego-stroking. Our twittering is either because we’re bored and want a distraction or we’re starving and we need promotion. The only design endeavor I’ve heard of to actually better the community was the recent portfolio night held at The Duce, which was meant to serve design students.

That’s when it really hit me. We’re everywhere online, but it seems pointless when we’re not really doing anything to better our community. It’s digital sprawl.

In a city often criticized for it’s flat landscape and outward, superficial growth, it seems we’ve managed to transfer that same mentality to our online city. It’s big, generally superficial, and spreading outward without regard to it’s infrastructure or substance.

In San Francisco, designers and artists work together to tackle social issues like their city’s newly instituted “No Sitting Law” in an effort to protect and support the homeless community. In Detroit, a student designer created convertible clothing to help the homeless survive the winter elements. That effort resulted in a large company donating supplies and creating minimum wage jobs for the homeless to earn money by making the clothing, which is then donated to more homeless people. There are countless other stories from other large “design cities.”

"Design cities" like San Francisco, Portland, and New York house designers who are designing to help people. What are we designing for? Ourselves? Our portfolios? Our wallets? Maybe the reason we still aren’t considered a design hub is because we’re growing as sprawl, digitally and physically, shouting louder and LOUDER to be noticed, but not solving any problems or helping any people other than ourselves.

Some of you may be thinking, "Hey Stephanie, do you need a sugar cube for that high horse of yours?" Well, I’m admitting that I’m no better than anyone else. When I think of making great design my mind usually equates that with something trendy, aesthetically pleasing, and generally devoid of any meaning outside of a witty pun. That’s not how I was trained as a designer and that’s not how I should steward my talent. I have a deep desire to make things that help people, not inflate my ego.

Maybe instead of wondering when we (Phoenix designers) will be noticed, it would better serve everybody if we noticed our poor and needy community first.