Why Do A Town Square?

My background with the Town Square(TS) began when I moved to Durham from Norfolk, VA, 3 plus years ago so my wife could start her residency at UNC. Telecommuting as a designer for a company out west, I was getting bored of talking to my pets all day. I heard about the AIGA TS in Durham and decided to go—it was at a nearby bar, held every month at 6pm on a Monday. The lady hosting was the creative director of a small in-house group of designers at a local corporation and her attendance was mainly her coworkers with a couple local freelancers like myself. After a couple meetings she told us that she has given it a year and needed more time to spend with her kids, so I volunteered to take over (this was march of last year). I volunteered because I wanted to:

1. Network with other designers (learn the lay of the land regarding design jobs/agencies)
2. Take ownership of something fun and worthwhile (get involved)
3. Discuss design trends/ideas/resources (learn something)
4. Make new friends/socialize (stop talking to my pets)

I can honestly say all 4 of these requirements have been met.

The first order of business for me was to move the date and time- right after work Mondays are a bad time for social/meet-ups- most people just want to survive Monday and get home. Get-togethers right after work are also tough if you aren’t in a bigger city/ as this suburban environment means heavier traffic and longer distances- making the pressure of getting to an after work meeting too high. I decided Wednesdays (or Thursdays) would work better, and starting them at 7:30 pm is a way better time. This gives people the ability to get home/eat/see family/loved ones—basically take care of business, and then when they drive back out at 7 or 730 pm it’s a lot easier and they can enjoy themselves for a bit. So for consistency I hold the TS every 3rd Wednesday of each month, no matter what.

Since the meeting I went to was near my house—in the middle of suburbia land—I decided to take the meetings to the people. So I alternate months in Chapel Hill and Durham—small downtown scenes that make for more attractive venues. This makes it a nice change up for the people attending, but also so I don’t get bored going the same place every single month. It allows me to say that if you can’t come to me, I will come to you—so people living/working near these areas have no excuse if I am the one doing the moving. I get regulars at both spots. The point is that I have established consistency, attendance may fluctuate— but if I am always there they know they can come back. And since it rotates people won’t feel TS overload. As far as the venues go I try to mention to the bartender/manager that we hold these events alternating months and they are usually great about accommodating people—no need to pay for space—they are happy to have patrons.

The Town Square Meet-up Itself
Meet at a casual venue where drinks/food can be purchased (but after dinner hours so people aren’t there to have a full meal) and then as the host, do my best to make everyone feel welcome and get the ball rolling. I try to get to the venue 15-30 minutes early with my satchel ready containing the table tent card with the AIGA logo on it, business cards, a notepad and pens/pencils to get email addresses/twitter names. I alert the manager/servers/bartenders who I am and why I have a table card—they usually clear space for me. Every month I drive out to the venue anxious on how many people will be there—but then I always drive home happy.

The participants don’t show up at the same time and for them it’s kind of a risk to go somewhere new with people they probably don’t know. I love icebreakers but it’s kind of odd in this setting with other patrons around. So at first it was tough because we would assemble and go around a circle and introduce ourselves—I found this kind of ineffective and stressful. I even did name cards but I don’t like that—if I am going to learn who they are I shouldn’t use a crutch and either should they. Over time I learned it was best to have my first pitcher ready (or pay for the first few arrivals drinks when they got there) so I could start the conversations with them before others got there—this way I could learn about them and introduce them to the next people arriving. Instead of one circle at a bar, now I can get a hold of who is there and mingle around to make sure everyone gets some attention and none feels left out. I generally dislike when we get seated at a table because I feel constricted hosting and I feel the participants are constricted to the people around them. So an area with high top tables or lounge sofa/chairs where some can stand and others can sit works well. It’s supposed to be informal and fun anyway! The attendees have been great too, a great mix of freelancers/in-house designers (rarely agency folks—they must work all night) illustrators, artists, copywriters—creatives of all types. Everyone passes out cards, finds someone who they know or may have known—I just try to fill in the gaps the best I can—once the ball gets rolling each meeting is great. I do try to push people who want follow-up to venture to the free AIGA Raleigh Community meetings if they want to get more involved—hopefully it has worked.

I found a place in Chapel Hill called the Crunkleton that I love and I hold it there every month because it’s unique, not crowded, and the participants love it. In Durham I have moved around—using Fullsteam Brewery the most, but their parking has gotten difficult and it gets hot there in the summer. I have a feeling it will move around there more. But that’s the fun thing about the TS—it gives everyone a chance to try new places that they have never been—keep it fresh!

I have been fortunate to have great publicity through AIGA Raleigh with the online blog posts/calendar/email newsletter mentions/etc. I usually post the event on Twitter the Monday before it happens as a reminder (AIGA Raleigh peeps usually RT) then again once or twice on the event day. A lot of times curious folks ask if anyone is going so I try to tweet them directly saying they should come—engaging people works! I will say it is important to do the email—back in January I only tweeted the event and had my first ever no-show—after purchasing appetizers and a pitcher of beer I was the sad kid all by himself—lesson learned—ADVERTISE BETTER. Two Months later I was back at Durham with almost 30 participants, and now 8-15 each month since. I take down emails from everyone who shows up and just add them to the list of the emails I send out pre-meeting. I sometimes directly email people that I had a good conversation with. Again, I get some regulars and always some new folks so it’s a good mix. Seeing the returners is great because now we catch up on work/family/etc.

Overall, it’s been a fantastic experience. It started slow, with some months being slower then others due to weather and/or travel months, but slow now means 8 people. If you have a budget it would be great to put it towards appetizers. I don’t have a budget to work with so I pay out of pocket for a pitcher/round of drinks and share it with the first few arrivers- it’s my way of thanking the people who have shown up, and hopefully, makes them feel good. I also met a guy who has a small agency and we have developed a great working relationship—so only good things can happen from the TS!

Going forward with the TS I would love to have it evolve. I think the social/casual meet up like the one I host is great because people can come and go. The risk of doing a focused TS (for example: a TS that focuses on coming up with a local online zine showcasing local talent based on a topic and then gets distribution to the agencies in the area—this is something I tried to start) is tough because those who participated the first month might not come back and those who missed a meeting might feel too left out. Also re-explaining where we are with the focused TS may make it cumbersome—plus it’s hard to get things done one meeting a month for a larger group. But if there’s a way to offer variety I would love to make that happen.

I also think it’s great if you have multiple hosts or co-hosts.  I hope more people will get involved who want to take ownership of their own TS. Again—getting people to take ownership over things always makes them more successful.

By Seth Patrick
Published August 26, 2012