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The Brutally Honest Tale of My First Web Design Meetup

You should connect with the web design community in your area. At least, that’s what you keep thinking. It’s one of those bucket list items that you always mean to do but never really get around to pursuing. As someone tirelessly dedicated to brining you the scoop on all things design related, I took the plunge for you.

I researched local gatherings of web designers, chose a group, made the drive and talked to real people face to face about their pursuits in web design. I’ll walk you through the entire experience, including that inevitable part where you’ll simply decide not to go, so you can follow in my footsteps and do something similar in your area. Was it difficult to find a meeting to attend? Was the entire experience a socially awkward nightmare? Do I recommend it? Will I go back? Read on to find out.

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The Web Design Community Rocks

I’m ceaselessly fascinated by the web design community that I’ve found online through various outlets like blogging and social media. This thriving and ever expanding group is comprised of amazingly talented individuals all ready and eager to freely share the things they’ve learned as well as the projects they’ve built.

When I was in print design, I was one of two guys sitting in a small office isolated from the world. As a web designer I genuinely feel like a part of something larger and owe my entire career to the community. I mean that in a very literal way. If you don’t read, I don’t get paid. If you don’t write, I don’t learn anything or generate new ideas.

Going Local

Given that I’m so fond of the worldwide community of web designers that consciously make an effort to connect online, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I need to get plugged into my local community. I live in Phoenix, Arizona, the sixth largest city in the United States. In such a vast sea (well, desert to be more accurate) of people, surely there are at least a few opportunities to meet with likeminded individuals and contribute in some meaningful way.

Once this decision was made, it was time to do something about it. My first instinct was to look for a conference of sorts. Unfortunately, it turned out that I had missed a couple recently that wouldn’t be rolling around again for some time. I considered starting something on my own, but once again, my connections in the industry are of a global nature so I wasn’t quite sure how to approach a more targeted venture.

Meetup.com

Obviously, at this point I turned to that wise, all-knowing purveyor of knowledge that is Google. I didn’t really know where to start so there I sat, fingers poised over the keyboard waiting for inspiration to strike.

Alas, for some reason entirely unknown to my conscious self, my brain chose to pull the entirely artificial word “meetup” out of the ether. I had likely seen this term referenced in a tweet or two and had it locked away in the vast collection of strange things that designers often say.

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Google of course did not disappoint, and as always it felt the need to remind me that it does indeed know everything about me, including my location. The very first result was from a site called Meetup.com and it promised to show me meetups in Phoenix. Huzzah!

Finding a Meetup

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Of course, since Meetup doesn’t know what I do for a living (I’m sure Google does), the initial offering was all over the board: support Ron Paul, join a singles group, go dancing at The Tilted Kilt, etc. Narrowing the results was easy enough, but I was skeptical that there would be anything like what I was looking for after seeing these initial results. Ignoring the half empty glass attitude, I trudged on and ran a search for “web design” in Phoenix.

My labor did indeed bear fruit. Sixteen search results were revealed, almost all of which were at least partially relevant. Some, such as the “Phoenix Magenta Users Group” were far too targeted for my liking. Others had the words “SEO Professionals” in the title, a questionable phrase that I ran away from whenever possible.

Sitting quietly at the top of the list though was the proverbial “just right” bowl of porridge: the simply titled “Web Design & Development Meetup Group,” which meets once per month. The next meeting just happened to be in a few days. Fate had smiled upon me.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

I eagerly joined the group on the site in order to discover the oddly covert, undisclosed location for the meetup. I expected a local bar or restaurant, something casual and familiar like where those dancing kilt wearers were meeting, but instead I was dismayed to find that this particular group met at a nondescript office building behind a small airstrip (the wise sage revealed this in a magical three dimensional Street View map).

“A tiny little fact that threatened to shake the very foundation of this entire venture: I’m an introvert.”

Admittedly, this sounded a little rape-tastic. Even if it didn’t prove to be an evil ruse developed by a soul eating clown, it definitely seemed a little more formal than I was expecting. Suddenly, I realized something that had entirely evaded my thought process up until now, a tiny little fact that threatened to shake the very foundation of this entire venture: I’m an introvert.

Online, we nerds are bold. We rant, rave, form friendships, create enemies and thrive behind the odd balance of openness and anonymity that only the web can provide. In person, we tend to be quite shy and entirely uncomfortable when surrounded by unfamiliar faces who seem intent on communicating with us.

Predictably, I chickened out. The whole thing was going to be awkward and terrible I told myself. I’ll find something else though, it’s not like I’m dropping the idea altogether (I was).

The Chicken Crosses the Road

The night of the meetup came. My wife asked if I would be going to “that designer thing” I had mentioned, I mumbled some work-related excuse for abstaining. Work is a faithful friend who will get you out of all manner of social events.

She then left for the gym, leaving me to run to that ever seductive mistress that I always turn to when my wife leaves, Lynda. Then something strange happened. I didn’t watch a single web design tutorial. Instead, I grabbed my keys and before I knew it I was barreling towards the aforementioned creepy office building that would no doubt be the last building I ever stepped foot into.

The Meetup

Google Maps brought me right to the location of the meetup, which was indeed remote enough to send my spidey sense tingling. Fortunately, as I pulled up, I noticed a couple of guys my age walking into the building. Surely I would hear their screams if the monster from King’s novel proved to be waiting inside. After waiting the appropriate amount of minutes to ensure that I would not be awkwardly early, I gathered my courage, bade the world a fond farewell and walked inside.

Inside I found a few people gathered around a boardroom table. I bid them hello and looked for my name on a sign in sheet, knowing it wouldn’t be there since I only just RSVP’d in the parking lot. Fortunately, they saw fit to not eject me from the premises for the faux pa and even had some blank spaces prepared for my kind.

“Most of the group also seemed to be Ubuntu users, as a lifelong Mac evangelist I have never felt so mainstream.”

Once everyone had arrived there were about fifteen people total. There was a broad spectrum of ages, a few guys who had been using computers since keyboards and mice first hit the scene and a few young guys to not be impressed by such statements. Predictably, females were in the minority with only two present, though one was in fact the moderator of the group.

The dress code was nonexistent with most in jeans and a few in standard issue computer guy cargo shorts (winter in Phoenix is a beautiful thing). A tentative list of discussion topics was handed out and promptly ignored for the rest of the night and the meeting started off with the obligatory grade school style introductions: my name is x and I do y.

Though the lady who started the group was a designer like myself, most of the attendants were developers: PHP, Rails, .NET; all the major players were represented. Given that they were all developers, most of the group also seemed to be Ubuntu users, as a lifelong Mac evangelist I have never felt so mainstream.

The Discussion

The meetup was set to last for ninety minutes: 6:30 to 8pm. After the initial pleasantries, a new guy, one of the old timers, asked a question and the conversation topic for the night was chosen. The next thirty or forty minutes were a blur. New guy was a programmer, not a web developer. He had an app idea that he couldn’t tell us about (but of course eventually did) that he wanted to convert from a desktop platform to a web app, or so I gathered.

“The few designers in the room began to lose interest and turn to their iPhones and iPads for entertainment.”

One of the young guys seized the opportunity and dominated the conversation for most of the evening. Every possible web programming language was laid out, suggestions were made, acronyms were meticulously defined and given historical background, on and on it went as the few designers in the room began to lose interest and turn to their iPhones and iPads for entertainment.

Such is of course the problem with putting designers in the same room as developers. Our worlds are just close enough that we seem like we should go together but far enough apart that the meetings can make both sides feel like aliens. At this point I had firmly decided that my experiment with society had failed. Nice try, but go back to your desk you filthy hermit.

The Tides Turn

Eventually, the moderator and another bored soul began to steer the topic away from the top secret web application and the history of WAMP towards something that perked my ears. Everyone began talking about their development environment: apps, tools, etc. that they use for work. At this point I couldn’t help but join in as I’ve tried every text editor, IDE and FTP app around.

“I soaked up the experience and thoroughly enjoyed it.”

From here the conversation somehow turned to my absolute favorite topic: CSS. Before I knew it, instead of the two person dialog from before we actually had a lively group discussion going about the merits of CSS preprocessors and how LESS, Sass and Stylus differ. As someone who works from home and rarely has an opportunity to really talk about this level of nerdery in a live setting, I soaked up the experience and thoroughly enjoyed it. This truly represented a topic that I’m genuinely interested in right now and it was great to meet others in my area who felt the same.

Before I knew it, we were out of time, just as the meeting was getting good. A few of the people went out for beers after, but I had a long drive and an ice cream date with my wife so I said my farewells and headed home.

Will I Go Again?

So there you have it, the undoubtedly verbose tale of my first web design meetup. I’m positive that your experience will vary but I hope this at least gives you some insight into how to find a group and what to expect.

Let’s start with a few of the harsh realities. Unless you find a nicely targeted group, you’ll no doubt find that not everyone wants to discuss topics that you find remotely interesting. You’ll often be left either hoping that your luck will change or forcefully guiding the conversation to where you want it. Also, there will no doubt be one or two people that attempt to dominate the conversation to the annoyance of the group as a whole. If you can’t identify that person, it’s probably you.

“Free advice, intellectual conversation and professional opportunities make local meetups an incredibly valuable resource that you’d be crazy to pass up.”

Now to the good stuff. The people that come to these things are the type of folks that are probably a lot like you: they genuinely want to make contact with others who like what they like. Consequently, you’ll find that most of the attendants are really nice people who are more than willing to engage in conversation, answer questions and help you out in any way that they can.

Further, forming professional associations in your area is a positive thing not only from a social standpoint but more importantly from a professional one. A few of the attendants in my meetup were even on the lookout for people to hire or create partnerships with.

Free advice, intellectual conversation and professional opportunities make local meetups an incredibly valuable resource that you’d be crazy to pass up without at least quick stop in to see if it’s for you. Despite the fact that half way through the meeting I had decided to never attend again, I find myself already looking forward to the next meetup and even considering starting my own.

Ultimately, I highly recommend that you give it a shot too. It may not be the best thing you’ve ever done, but it does have a good chance of surprising you and turning into a thoroughly enjoyable venture.

Tell Us Your Story

Now that you’ve heard my spiel, it’s time for you to pipe in. Have you ever attended a web design meetup of any kind? Good or bad, we want to hear the tale. Leave a comment below and tell us all about your meetup.

If you’ve never been to one, has this post encouraged you to try? What’s holding you back?