Fostering community thru STLDW

Aaron Speropoulos

By: Aaron Speropoulos, Head of Design + Founder of bigtoygun.

As a product of small-town MO in the 80’s and 90’s, instilled in me was a very different meaning of  the word “community” than it does today.

I grew up on a dead end street in a time before this whole internet or social media thing so we literally spoke to our neighbors in a real-time fashion. Yep. Face-to-face. And we did things together and formed real-life friendships and spent time with one another in a physical space. I regularly experienced things like neighborhood bonfires, covered dish parties and riding bikes and stuff. That’s where I’ll be coming from with all of this.

I was introduced to this thing called “the internet” in 1995 during my yearbook class. (As I write this, I’m also weirdly realizing how that was basically the exact moment my design career started!) My teacher – Ms. Harris – had us gather around her computer as this weird noisy robotic sounding thing logged her on to the internet and all of a sudden we were off; cruising the information superhighway thanks to Al Gore or someone like that!

Next, she opened this huge phonebook like tome that had a bunch of businesses & other jargon in it but also had their website “address” as well. At that very moment in time, my pubescent mind was absolutely blown away when she began to explain how it all worked and how we could look at museums in France from our small town classroom during 5th hour if we wanted to or how we could chat with other people on the opposite side of the world (assuming they were awake and online and wanting to chat with us for some reason).

Little did I know, it would replace your normal, everyday lifestyle and interaction between human beings. It would reconstruct our version of the idea of “community” into something so lifeless and unsatisfying as it kind of does today.

So, after living life in the age of the world wide web and digital-this and mobile-that, I still find the original definition of the word “community” to be the anomaly instead of the standard. Definitely more so than I did at that moment in junior high. It slowly morphed itself into a digital form without any of us realizing it was actually happening.

High school gave us digital barriers like chat rooms and AOL Instant Messenger. College provided virtual communities such as Myspace and Facebook. Then Steve Jobs in his black mock turtleneck gave us the infamous iPhone and essentially all hell broke loose. We lost touch with the true sense of our surrounding “community” as we replaced most of it with our online presence & interactions. Hand shakes and hugs were traded for “likes” and “retweets”. A birthday card became a simple “HBD” post on our wall and the rest needs no explanation because it’s all too commonplace for me to keep going.

In the twelve-ish years of my creative career, I’ve seen a lot more of the digital form of community and less of the physical one. I’m talking about things like Dribbble or Instagram comments, LinkedIn or Facebook friend requests and the ever-present – but slowly-dying while still trying to hang on for dear life – Twitter convos.

Back in 2015 when I opened up shop as bigtoygun full-time, I figured I needed to step out and rub elbows with a few of my fellow creatives to start being part of something bigger than myself and this one-man shop I just started. I had very little clients (zero to be exact) and quite a lot of time (all of it if we’re being honest) so I thought I try my hand at this thing I kept seeing on Facebook: Saint Louis Design Week. It just seemed like a logical place to start. “

I live in St. Louis. I design. I have a full week at my disposal. Let’s give this thing the good ol’ college try!”

Plus, that year they were bringing in my design-crush at the time: Aaron Draplin.

After showing up at nearly every damn event,  I learned on thing very quickly: the only reason I perceived the design community was only online was because I was only interacting with the design community online. STLDW was my onramp into the local creative community that actually already physically existed. It was my chance to become part of that established physical community that – up until that moment – had mainly existed solely in the digital space for me.

In doing so, I was presented with opportunities to have passionate, insightful and slightly drunken conversations with other designers that I normally would A.) never meet to begin with, or B.) only exchange small, surface-level quips with in some sort of online, social environment.

Design Week gave me facetime (not the Apple version) with my local (and not local) “design heroes”; quickly humanizing them and empowering me to take them down from the pedestals upon which I had placed them and begin seeing these men & women as equals.

In the larger scheme of things, STLDW gives us – a greater-body of designers from Saint Louis – a chance to flex our creative muscle to the broader design community around us. It’s our brief opportunity to say “Hey! We’re here and we’re actually really effing good at all this stuff!”

Bringing outsiders into our little artsy world is a symbiotic relationship, of sorts. From their perspective, it tells them how much our local community respects & appreciates what they do for the greater good of the industry; validating the path they’ve chosen for themselves and adding worth to all the times they’ve shared their gift with the rest of the world. In turn, they begin to recognize St. Louis as a larger body of people who deserve the same sort of validation & respect for the work this community is doing to add to the greater good of the industry as a whole.

My hope is that as STLDW continues to grow, and as this local design community of ours continues to gain more respect & recognition nationally, some of our very own, homegrown talent will begin being the ones invited as outsiders into other similar events around the country and validate us, the Saint Louis design community – no longer as a flyover city – but as a true contender in the greater creative industry.

Aaron Speropoulos, bigtoygun.


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