According to co-founder Danielle Barnes (center with microphone): “The beauty of Austin Design Week is not just what happens during the week but the conversation and connections that continue afterward.”

Austin Design Week’s Danielle Barnes Previews the Upcoming 2020 Event

The Forrest Files: October 23, 2020

Hugh Forrest
8 min readOct 23, 2020


Danielle Barnes is the CEO of Women Talk Design, where she works with hundreds of speakers and event organizers to get a more diverse group of speakers on stage and to inspire more women and nonbinary folks to raise their hands to speak.

She also co-founded and co-organizes Austin Design Week, a week-long event celebrating the design community in Austin through free community-hosted talks, workshops, and events. This year’s edition of Austin Design Week runs November 9–13.

Previously, Barnes worked at the education company General Assembly where she founded and led the Austin campus, launched the San Francisco campus, and championed the first full-time User Experience Design Immersive program.

A strong believer in the power of community, she also volunteers with CreativeMornings Oakland, a monthly lecture series for the creative community.

As for the best book that she has recently read, Barnes replies: “Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. I think everyone should read this book, particularly those who haven’t been victims of sexual assault. It’s a painful, beautiful, and incredibly personal account of the aftermath and lasting impact of sexual assault, the ways in which our legal system fails so many, and the resilience of survivors.”

“Design” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. When putting together Austin Design Week, what is your working definition of this word?

Design is all about problem-solving. And while tools and deliverables may differ from discipline to discipline, I think designers have more in common than not. When we first were organizing Austin Design Week, I was working at General Assembly (where we taught digital design) and I reached out to an architecture firm to invite them to be part of Austin Design Week. One of their first questions was “how do you define design? because our design is different than your design…” and in my head, I thought “it is, but it isn’t.” Both fields are solving problems for people, they have constraints, they go through a process of moving from sketch to finished product. Everything is designed and so at ADW we take a broad approach to design — the design of systems, products, experiences, buildings, services, environment, and the intersection of design and art.

Slightly rephrasing the previous question . . . does one need to be a professional designer to understand the content at Austin Design Week?

Austin Design Week is for designers, the design curious, and those brand new to design. Everyone is welcome. When we first started Austin Design Week, we had a couple of different goals. The first was to bring together designers across disciplines to share their work, collaborate, and learn from one another. But equally important was to invite the rest of the Austin community in to experience design. Design affects all of us — from the products we buy, the neighborhoods we live in, the streets we drive, the services we use. And so we wanted to make sure anyone who was curious about design could learn about it. Most of our events are very beginner-friendly and you do not need to be a designer to attend!

How big is the team that organizes Austin Design Week?

It truly takes a village to organize Austin Design Week. My co-founder and co-organizer Candice Digby is working tirelessly behind the scenes year-round with a team of more than 20 volunteer organizers connecting with event hosts, collaborating with our partners, and onboarding our week-of-the-event volunteers. I work with a small team of individuals and companies that donate their time to run our communications. We have 10 Advisory Board members made up of design leaders across industries and disciplines in Austin that choose our theme and curate the week’s events. We have dozens of hosts and dozens more volunteers who help out the week of the event. We partner with communities serving creative people year-round. Everyone is volunteering their time to make this free event possible. It truly is a labor of love by and for the community.

What is your favorite Austin Design Week memory from the event’s first four years?

Last year, now ADW Advisory Board member Leslie Barrienatos organized an event with Azalia Marinez, Rene Cardona, Camille Vargas, and Asif Ali called “A Community Coil Pot — Unwinding Assimilation and Remolding our Spaces.” It was held at Nepantla USA, a small space on East Ceasar Chavez, and the room was packed with such a richly diverse group of people. The panelists spoke about authenticity in the workplace as individuals from marginalized groups and in the end, everyone in attendance took a piece of clay, shaped it into a form, and added it to a clay pot. This experience was intended to highlight everyone’s unique perspective and the beauty that happens when you bring them together to create a sense of unity. The energy in the room was powerful and that event led to more conversations as Community Coil created “a space for creatives who feel under-represented in critical parts of their lives to unwind the world’s understandings and remold our future” that continued after ADW.

The beauty of ADW is not just what happens during the week but the conversation and connections that continue afterward and this event was a lovely example of that.

The theme for the 2020 Austin Design Week is “Embrace.” Tell us more about that theme. When did your team settle on that term? Can you share some of the other themes that were considered for this year’s event?

Our team put together a great write-up when we announced the theme to share our intention behind it. Every year, the first task of our Advisory Board is to decide on a theme for the year’s event. That meeting was just weeks after we started to learn the severity of COVID-19 and we were all sheltering in place. It was a time of a lot of change and uncertainty. We had no idea what November would look like. Those themes were discussed — change, evolve…Ultimately it was decided that those terms felt passive and to design is an act. The board wanted a theme that gave us all agency. Because so much was unknown, the theme became Embrace _______ . This would leave space for our community to fill in the blank, to be open to what was to come, and to allow for a variety of conversations.

“In both celebratory times and in tragic times we need community. We want to be able to take action, to understand the impact we as individuals and we as a community can make. And that’s what Austin Design Week is all about.”

Location is less of a factor in the online world (as opposed to the physical world). With this context in mind, are all the speakers for ADW 2020 from Austin?

There is so much incredible talent here, so many of the speakers are still Austin-based, but we do have a few speakers from outside of Austin! One I’m extremely excited to hear from is Cheryl Miller. She is doing a residency with UT Austin and will be giving a talk as part of that series during Austin Design Week on “Where are the Black Graphic Designers? 50 Years of History and Advocacy.” Yiying Lu, an international designer (and a past SXSW speaker!) currently based in San Francisco, will be leading a session on “Embracing Community Through Cross-Cultural Design,” where she’ll tell her story about using art and design to create community, solve problems, and tell cultural stories and attendees will have the chance to customize one of her iconic character designs. We’re also using this opportunity to partner with Nashville Design Week (Oct 26 — 30) to host a two-part discussion with speakers from both cities at each of our events. Our panelists will start the discussion around Reshaping the Face of Design at Nashville Design Week and will continue it during ADW a few weeks later.

Who is your pie-in-the-sky, white whale, dream speaker for Austin Design Week?

This is perhaps a boring answer, but I have to say, Austin Design Week is much less about the individual speakers to me. Instead, it’s about the collaborations that happen. I also love seeing several people partner on an event, or what happens when different organizations come together to facilitate a conversation. Some of the most thoughtful, provoking conversations have been with designers I had never heard of who were maybe up-and-coming or challenging the status quo. I want more of that.

Austin Design Week begins on November 9, which is a mere six days after the General Election. How do you think this timing will impact the feel / vibe / tone of the 2020 event?

I honestly have no idea. This election may be messy and that means there’s a chance that by the time ADW starts, we won’t know the outcome. I do know, however, that in both celebratory times and in tragic times we need community. We want to be able to take action, to understand the impact we as individuals and we as a community can make. And that’s what Austin Design Week is all about.

In addition to your new media work, you are also very experienced as a long-distance runner (having participated in several marathons including ones in Havana and Patagonia, and an ultra-marathon in South Africa). How is planning an event like Austin Design Week similar or dis-similar to one of these extended running efforts

They both take a lot of time and energy, are incredibly challenging, and incredibly rewarding. They also are about a lot more than just the event itself, or planning for the activities of the event. One of the hard lessons that I learned training for a marathon is that it’s not just about training to run — it’s about eating right, cross-training, and resting, too. The same goes with a planning an event. There are so many elements that come into play — it’s not just about the event itself but the team, the communication, the partners, the design.

One major way they are different (for me at least) is the purpose. While some people run in groups or run for reasons greater than themselves, running has always been a selfish activity for me. I do it because it’s a personal challenge, it makes me feel good, and it’s become my therapy. The reason I help organize Austin Design Week is because of the community. I believe it needs to exist and I’m one person within a much larger team working to make it happen.

Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.

He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.

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Hugh Forrest

Celebrating creativity at SXSW. Also, reading reading reading, the Boston Red Sox, good food, exercise when possible and sleep sleep sleep.