When you hear about “design hubs,” your mind may not instantly jump to Tallahassee. But small communities have just as much passion for design as larger metropolises—they just lack the resources to attract the same attention. Though I live in a big city now (Boston), I learned a lot about the importance of community from working and growing up in small towns in Florida.
Small cities provide the character that comes from not having the world’s largest corporations on their hips. Communities are close-knit and form at a slower, more intimate pace. And cultural spaces in those locales are stronger for being able to bring people from diverse backgrounds together to have a dialogue that goes beyond a town hall meeting.
Designing a design community
After graduating from Florida State University and working professionally in Tallahassee, I started to realize that there were a lot of talented folks who were brought up in the community only to eventually light out for a larger zip code—taking their skills and passion with them. At the same time, I saw the community starting to rally around Domi Station, its growing co-working space and tech incubator,.
Wanting to pull those threads together, I quit my job at the large ad agency where I worked to form a creative collective called Foremost, which does international design work and supports local startups and events to help grow Tallahassee’s design community.
Today, when I’m not busy with my day job designing emerging technology at IDEO’s CoLab, I volunteer with Foremost. Our latest project, led locally by my business partners Jake Kiker, Lucas Lindsey, and Micah Widen, is a physical space created for the local community. We call it Happy Motoring.
Finding our station
It all started with an abandoned Esso gas station on the Southside of Tallahassee. I was ecstatic when Foremost bought it in 2015 to create a community space. The mid-century design of the building was (and is) beautiful, something to be preserved, and we knew that creating something locals would get excited about meant bringing them in as co-creators.
So we organized an event where Southside inhabitants could tell us what they wanted, inviting our friends at Street Art Tallahassee to put together a pop-up gallery and Juniors Roasted Coffee to host a campfire that would bring people together.
A shared vision
Part of what I wanted to do in creating Foremost was to show the city how many talented creatives live here. So, for the community event, I rallied five of the best young artists I knew in the illustration scene to battle it out in a Battle of the Boards (based on Ink Wars, an awesome event series put on every year in Georgia at Creative South.) The illustrators were each given an inspirational word and an hour and a half to fill an eight-foot board. The theme was "knockout."
We reserved two of the boards for the Southside community to write down their ideas—big, small, impossible, and plausible—about what the space might become.
Building community comes from listening to diverse voices. Too often, we divide ourselves into bite-size neighborhoods or groups that lack a space for hearing each other out. We hope Happy Motoring will become that space—by giving everyone a chance to contribute, we’ll have all of the pieces we need to start building something local and real.
Want to do the same in your hood? It might be easier than you think. Organizations like the Knight Foundation fund grassroots urban innovation in cities. You can start small—create a meetup group, find someone with an empty lot and start a weekend market, or invite some food trucks and organize pop up events. Plant a community garden. Hold group bike rides. Whatever feels right to gain trust and start a dialogue in your hometown.
And if you’re interested in joining the next event in Tallahassee, be sure to follow our updates here and join us for Happy Motoring Station’s official launch on March 8, 2018!
Jacob Waites is a visual & interaction designer. With a background in product design and development, he likes to build digital projects that are paired with physical forms and experiences.