For the fifth year in a row, I had the privilege of representing AIGA Santa Barbara at the national Leadership Retreat, hosted this year by AIGA Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas. AIGA’s Leadership Retreat is the time for chapter leaders from around the country to gather and collectively plan the future of AIGA. For the first time in three years, I didn’t go alone—our San Luis Obispo board liaison Rachell Newburn went with me. You read that right: Santa Barbara was represented by SLO and (via yours truly) Ventura. You’re welcome.
This year’s retreat had a new format, not unlike the larger Design Conference last fall—a multitrack, symposia/workshop-based program that proved a little easier to navigate thanks to us double-teaming it. Rachell and I didn’t see much of Dallas due to thunderstorms all week, but it was still a big win. Since this is my third retreat recap in three years, and (counting this post about event branding) my second recap of this particular retreat, I’m switching up the format too, with a day-to-day journal of events. Here’s what happened:
Day 1 (Wednesday, 5/31)
First off, let’s all pause and raise a glass to direct flights. SBA to DFW was a great way for Rachell and I to kill three hours by cramming last-minute for the retreat—divvying up the workshops, symposia, and topic lunches to make the most of AIGA SB’s first two-headed delegation in three years. Despite that, and a further 50-odd minutes experiencing an adult dose of Dallas-rush-hour-via-cab, we barely finished in time.
None of that mattered once we got to the Westin downtown, however—and were immediately met by the AIGA Arizona and Baltimore delegations also arriving. For a one-time rockstar like me, it felt good to get a grand reception, and that held up through the (boisterously loud) AIGA DFW opening night reception. I lost my voice almost immediately—a good omen.
Day 2 (Thursday, 6/1)
The initial general session didn’t start til mid-day, but your thriving 805ers had been wired for a few hours by then, thanks to morning coffee with our chapter advisors and breakfast with AIGA Blue Ridge (a fellow small chapter). Things kicked off with an AIGA DFW introduction featuring guest speaker Chad Houser, then a state-of-the-organization by AIGA CEO Julie Anixter, and finally a keynote from Adobe’s principal designer Khoi Vinh.
I won’t lie—I was only partly paying attention, because later that night I had a job to do. Yep, I got drafted to be the dancing-bear sideshow for that evening’s icebreaker party, which meant proudly flaunting my superpower by doodling a fast-and-messy United States map. It was quickly (and gloriously) defaced by chapter stickers and more doodles from my fellow attendees. We capped off Day 2 with a successful search for late-night tacos, accompanied by leaders from at least six other chapters.
Day 3 (Friday, 6/2)
Your SB delegates jumped right into the heavy work on Day 3. I grappled with a chapter management symposium (featuring long-term strategic planning and a new cloud-based accounting package) and Rachell took on a leadership session (for both design and business) plus longevity best practices (succession, legacy, and knowledge transfer). Personally, it was a lot to handle—so I tried to decompress at the “Communification” workshop, but that was still fairly rigorous even for an ex-Communications Director like myself. All of that speaks much better of the material than your reporter; it was top-notch!
True decompression, for me, came at the President’s Lunch. While Rachell was off discussing the ups and downs of wearing multiple professional hats, I sat down with my fellow presidents and vice presidents for a pep talk from AIGA National leadership and staff. They delivered—and not just with the legendary enthusiasm of new Chapter Development Director Nick Prestileo. AIGA CEO Julie Anixter noted that 50% of the attendees were new presidents or VPs, so she solicited advice from the rest of us veterans. My tip? “Don’t get chapter envy!” Small chapters may not have the resources of LA, SF, Chicago, DC, or New York—so we need to capitalize on what we do have.
Later that night, the threatening weather all week finally rained on our parade; Mailchimp’s party was moved inside by thunderstorms, but we rolled with it and had a great time anyway. After that, we did what we always do: found a nearby dive bar and created an all-night dance party!
Day 4 (Saturday, 6/3)
If it’s hangovers and post-it notes at the Leadership Retreat, then it must be Saturday. This year’s IBM design thinking session paired up with the Winterhouse Institute for a Social Design Pathway workshop for board work, career goals, and community leadership. I broke away for a topic lunch about potential “regional retreats,” but made it back to the big room in time to see my own AIGA chapter cartogram on display as part of the Diversity & Inclusion presentation. Two Keir maps in two days? I’ll take it!
The retreat closed out with brief introductions for incoming national board members, remarks from new AIGA National board president Dana Arnett, and a preview from AIGA Baltimore of the retreat they will host next year. We briefly plotted a meetup with AIGA Los Angeles during the following “unconference” time, but put that on hold to check out the closing party, also hosted by AIGA Baltimore 30 floors above downtown Dallas in the “Thanksgiving Tower.” The night was still young when that bash wrapped up, but your heroes had an early flight the next day, so we beat a path home—yet failed to fall asleep thanks to a mini-shindig at the hotel bar.
Day 5 (Sunday, 6/4)
We lived to regret missing our bedtimes, but still managed to get up and out to DFW, arriving home before noon. On the flight home, I wrote down my top five takeaways:
- If you have wisdom to share, then don’t be shy. Ask for the mic and speak your piece, because it’s worth hearing.
- If you get the chance to show a brilliant newbie the ropes, do it. They will shine and impress everyone they meet.
- If people sincerely call you nice names like “mentor” or “my favorite president,” say thank you and *believe them.*
- If people in charge give you the opportunity to show off your kickass superpower, flaunt it proudly.
- If you leave some of your dignity behind—on, say, a pool table—make sure you get paid for it (and yes, I did).
The AIGA leadership continues to be the most welcoming group of people I’ve ever met. Thanks to AIGA SB for sending me and Rachell to represent the 805. Thanks to AIGA National and AIGA Dallas-Fort Worth for their well done hard work producing everything. Thanks to old friends and new friends and friends who couldn’t be there this year. I may take that endurance test next year myself; I don’t know if this was my last retreat, but another thing you learn at these things is that AIGA Baltimore (next year’s host) is a force to be reckoned with and anything they do is not to be missed.