Design Forum Pulls in Designers Firmwide for Festival of Sketching, Discussion, and Bonding

September saw Cushing Terrell’s Design Forum resurrected as team members from various disciplines and locations met in Boise, Idaho, to sharpen design skills, make friends, and rejuvenate the soul. Design leaders Joel Anderson and Bryan Hallowell — who planned and moderated the two-day event — took time to debrief afterward by answering a few questions about the experience.

What, exactly, is a Design Forum?

Joel Anderson: We have so much to share as designers that can help strengthen each other, ourselves, and Cushing Terrell, that I’ve made it my mission to improve our creative community and how our firm conducts ourselves as designers. The Design Forum brings together designers from different places and different skill sets and allows us to realize the strength of our collective talents.

Bryan Hallowell: As a company that specializes in the practice of design, I see the tradition of the Design Forum as a venue where we can focus on practicing and exploring our process and design stance. It is a place where we can be open to sharing ideas, observations, and experiences — and most importantly, what often is gained out of the experience is the comradery of colleagues across our company. The event normally takes on a subject that encourages the methodology of practicing our craft, which is rooted in more analog forms of design and expression like drawing and model-making.

A huge component of every Design Forum is drawing, sketching, and rendering imagery by hand, usually with tight time constraints to simulate real-world conditions and inspire speedy ideation.

What unique activities did you plan for the latest Design Forum and why?

Bryan Hallowell: We wanted to focus on expression through drawing, and in our time together over two days, we had about eight activities planned. While it was important for us to get into a creative “flow state” and loosen up with sketching early on, the actual design activities were kicked off with a “parti”-style sketching session, where designers completed a series of quick, timed sketches reacting to abstract notions or statements. Then we gathered in small groups to compare our drawings.

We also spent time learning drawing tips and tricks from Design Director David Koel. He spent about 90 minutes teaching everyone a variety of hand-rendering techniques — ranging from rudimentary impressions to more technical — that he has learned and deployed successfully throughout his life and career.

Joel Anderson: The pandemic taught us that we can work on Zoom with digital models really well, but our final products are still physical. We intentionally ditched technology and focused our attention on physical realities like unique interiors, active urban environments, hand drawing, and face-to-face communication. The immediacy and effectiveness of our hand-drawing skills were demonstrated through concept parti and perspective drawing exercises.

Our roundtable design discussions — covering topics like simplicity/harmony and barriers to growth as designers — were significant in letting everyone listen to each participant’s diverse experiences, and allowing us to better comprehend what it means to be a design professional at Cushing Terrell.

The Design Process Workshop took ownership of focused design time. Spending four hours working through designs via drawing, discussing, and decision-making collectively as a team highlighted the challenges we face as design professionals, but also the possibilities of innovation when we focus on being process-driven versus product-driven.

With a focus on sharing and capitalizing upon unique perspectives, major components of the Design Forum included group discussions and problem-solving.

What were your takeaways from this Design Forum? What hit home? What surprised you?

Joel Anderson: Frankly, we need to do this more frequently — in a forum format, but also specifically on projects. Focused chunks of time, like a solid afternoon or a few afternoons per week, for collaborative design research, exploration, and decision-making could benefit all of our projects at nearly every stage.

Bryan Hallowell: The design forum hit the spot this time. It was intended to be invigorating and creatively energizing for our design folks; and for me, it accomplished precisely that. Overall, it was a disciplined, well-planned event that allowed folks to be loose, nimble, and expressive!

I have found that during a venue like the Design Forum — where folks with similar mindsets and disciplines, yet representing various locations and backgrounds — even in moments of downtime (like simply touring the city you are visiting), you experience bonding and memorable realizations through the eyes of design. In short, at the Design Forum, even the downtime is exceedingly valuable.

What did participants in this year’s event have to say about it?

“This may be an overused adjective, but the Design Forum was reinvigorating. It was nice to connect with like-minded individuals who hold design and architecture in high regard. The information exchange and idea generation reminded me of why I chose this as a profession.”
–Corey Stremcha; Billings, MT

“The Design Forum gave me a chance to get to know people within Cushing Terrell that are passionate about design, and at the same time, reminded me to polish my hand-drawing skill and design knowledge. During the two days, I learned more about what our company does in different markets and how there are so many opportunities within our company.”
–KuoChao Tseng; Seattle, WA

“It made me wonder if we are practicing team collaboration enough at Cushing Terrell. Should some of our charrettes look more like the forum charrette where we are problem-solving as a group?”
Jennifer Moore; Austin, TX

“There is a lot of talent out there and this event helps cultivate future coordination and culture between the offices and staff. Additionally, I appreciated some of the more time-sensitive design exercises that reiterate real-world constraints within the office.”
Art Malito; Denver, CO

“The Design Forum was such a great experience of touching up my design skills, remembering how to be inspired, and learning from a wide range of designers with different backgrounds and skill sets. I also loved getting to meet so many people that have been my Zoom work ‘penpals’! Each day was enriching with relevant content and topics, and I appreciated getting to end each day with fellow coworkers, sharing about our backgrounds and personal lives, too.”
Claire Hunt; Austin, TX

“I didn’t know what to expect heading into the Design Form; I was just excited to participate. Heading back to my home office, I got to reflect on how much was gained in just a few short (and thoughtfully planned!) days. I really appreciated getting to step out of my day-to-day role, work with other designers from around the firm, and challenge and flex creative muscles and skills I don’t always get to use.”
Paul Goss; Denver, CO

“It was a reminder of how much I enjoy sketching, alone and in groups. We need more regular exercises in thinking abstractly. I loved every single activity we did, and hearing other perspectives on design broadened my thinking.
–Stephanie Donovan; Billings, MT

“My favorite quote from the Design Forum: ‘Every decision is a design decision.'”
Sarah Shearer; Austin, TX

Meal breaks offered attendees the opportunity to further discuss design topics — all while experiencing the unique built and natural environments of Downtown  Boise.

What’s next, in terms of upcoming Design Forums, but also in the firm’s continual exploration of creativity and expression in design?

Bryan Hallowell: We have developed a great format for this event that can easily be adapted to fit new locations, venues, and goals in the future; and I look forward to seeing the forms it takes as it continues. We must remember that design is an expressive discipline that takes practice; and it requires inspiration, experiences, and observations to help refuel our creativity to continue to do great work!

Joel Anderson: We want to host another Design Forum in the spring, maybe on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. We want to enable and encourage project teams to focus on the process within their own work. We collectively resonated with the structured format of our time spent together, but we see opportunities for adaptation as well. Our initiative, narrative, and documentation of the Design Forum should be seen as directly linked to our value of design at Cushing Terrell. Our future thoughts and actions about design at Cushing Terrell should continue to focus on enhancing our creative culture through the design process experience.

Many of the Design Forum concepts transcend design education. I think it’d be great to use this format as a design camp in partnership with university students and summer interns, but that may yet be down the road.

Participants in Cushing Terrell’s 2022 Design Forum assembled for a group photo in Boise’s famed Freak Alley outdoor art gallery.