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Going Analog in a Digital Era: The Importance of Disconnecting

“Have you tried powering it off and powering it back on?” – Eddie, resident IT savior

In life as in tech, sometimes the solution is simple. Turn it off and back on again. Do a hard refresh. Unplug it for 30 seconds. Like our hard-wired helpers, sometimes we need to disconnect from the digital world. As a digital designer, my days are consumed by technology. And despite the obvious benefits of having the world at your fingertips, sometimes you just need to get away and power down for a little while.

The Downsides to Digital

Physically, staring at a screen for long periods of time—say 8 hours—can actually cause something called “Computer Vision Syndrome.” Symptoms of the condition include eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, neck/shoulder pain and dry eyes. Raise your hand if you now think you have Computer Vision Syndrome. Maybe we should have listened to our parents when they warned us about sitting too close to the TV screen.

Creatively, there are some definite drawbacks to constant digital use. We can easily get distracted by time-devouring rabbit holes on the interwebs. And as creatives, we can lose sight of the tactile, multi-medium design possibilities of non-digital work. We search the internet for hours to find the perfect texture instead of simply putting paint to paper ourselves. In design school, we were constantly told to wait before using the computer. Our professors encouraged us to start with pencil and paper and to use–dare I say it–books and other materials for inspiration. At the time it didn’t seem necessary but, looking back now, it was probably because the other hours of the day were spent experimenting with other mediums and studying around outdoor tables. We had a balance between digital and analog.

Going Analog at Design Ranch

The challenge is to rediscover that balance in our daily lives. Our team of designers was able to experience this recently at the AIGA Austin Design Ranch—billed as “not your average design conference.” It was an amazing, rejuvenating experience that I’ll be forever grateful for. It’s like an adult summer camp for designers. Design Ranch describes itself as “an intimate, three-day, hands-on, workshop-driven design retreat in a rustic setting,” and involves “putting down your mouse, getting your hands dirty and reviving your creative spirit.” It promises to send you home with “something a little more timeless: a fire in your belly and a fresh take on design that can only be achieved by unplugging and gettin’ a little dirty.” And when they say unplugging they really mean it: no cell service and very little access to the internet.

The major upside to unplugging this way is your heightened ability to absorb information and let your creativity run wild. In an article for the Harvard Business Review,  Zachary First argues that “although screens have their strengths in presenting information … they are lousy at helping us absorb, process, and retain information. And good old handwriting … better deepens conceptual understanding.” Being in an environment like Design Ranch forces you to not only write notes by hand, but also overcome the impulse to reach for your phone to solve a challenge. Instead— you have to let your mind wander, look to your surroundings for inspiration and really be present in the moment.

Key Takeaways

Through this year’s workshops we were able to learn about some great hand-based techniques including DIY foiling, sign painting, paper folding, small-scale muralism, paper-making, collaging/found object art, letterpress/printmaking and (although more of a lesson in patience, but my personal favorite) wood-whittling. Getting hands-on with these activities was really inspiring and definitely left me with a renewed love for the many design possibilities in the physical world.

Another major benefit from attending Design Ranch was the opportunity to connect as a team. Design can sometimes be a solitary practice, so being able to connect with a strong, close-knit team is invaluable. Instead of being glued to our computers all day, we were able to spend quality time with each other and learn together. It’s a great time for newer teams to let loose and get to know each other, or for seasoned teams to rekindle their bond—a campfire with s’mores is even provided. Connecting through an instant messaging service like Slack is no substitution for the physicality of sitting in a semicircle in the grass and having a real conversation with another person. The many activities offered at Design Ranch–including everything from line-dancing to kickball games–encourage you to come out of your shell and try new things. It’s a fertile environment for team building, which though cliche, is essential. As Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of O2E Brands puts it: “Team building is the most important investment you can make for your people. It builds trust, mitigates conflict, encourages communication, and increases collaboration.”

Find the Balance

While I know we’ll never abandon the digital world and go completely off-grid (and really, who would want to?), I would highly recommend participating in a fully disconnected, unplugged experience like Design Ranch if you have the opportunity. Hopefully you’ll also feel revived creatively and as a team—but even if you don’t, you’ll still get a much needed break from your digitally connected daily life. If you find yourself staring blankly at your screen, uninspired and adrift, then it might be time to try restarting yourself—metaphorically speaking, of course.