Unlocking Creative Potential: Inside Dropbox’s ‘Blank Space’ Design Summit

Staring at a blank page can be daunting. The prospect of populating that empty space prompts many of us to retreat into our heads, a challenge that can stamp out innovation and limit the potential for groundbreaking ideas.

A design-first organization, Dropbox gathers its creatives for an annual design summit. This year, the company chose the theme “Blank Space” with a clear mission—to craft an experience that helps creatives conquer their fear of the blank page, embrace new things, and reconnect with their creative mojo.

Charmie Shah, the summit’s creative director and designer, conceptualized an event alongside the VP of Design at Dropbox Alastair Simpson and Sally Croom, Design Operations, to inspire and invigorate participants, encouraging them to embrace the unknown and venture beyond their comfort zones. The event’s core ethos of “Boundless Exploration” permeated every facet of the summit, from its logo to the physical space.

As someone who struggles with a fear of the blank page, I spoke to Shah to learn more about Dropbox’s strategies for tackling entrenched creative inhibition. We also explored how the summit’s spirit of boundless exploration manifested in its design and atmosphere.

Our conversation, below, has been edited for length and clarity.

Creatives often struggle with the blank canvas. How did you approach creating an experience that acknowledges this fear and actively empowers them to embrace experimentation and rediscover their creative agency?

Many things went into this event because it wasn’t just a branding project; it was also a physical space where we ensured that each element, every installation, and everything the creatives would experience would empower them to create. We didn’t want a sense of creation on demand; we didn’t want to force them onto a canvas and ask them to paint or draw; we just wanted them to feel empowered that they could create.

When we started this project, one of Dropbox’s main problems was that the company noticed the creatives were afraid of creating freely. Dropbox has a lot of product designers, and many of them would get mechanical and into the execution mindset rather than appreciating craft or playing and innovating. Dropbox felt the creators needed a sense of creative exploration, and that’s where this idea came from.

I started researching to understand this feeling of creative exploration and how we could bring it to life through various touchpoints rather than just a brand identity and ending it there.

The first element was the invitation; we wanted to send it out immediately to excite everyone about the idea. The event’s location was Palm Springs, which is really beautiful, so when choosing materials, I wanted to make sure that they would reflect the environment and the environment would reflect in the material. Dropbox wanted creatives to feel a sense of boundlessness—an open, free, and ethereal feeling— without actually having to meditate, so it was essential to create unobtrusive installations.

In my conversations with the leadership team, a sense of boundlessness kept coming up, ultimately informing the choice of materials. It all started with that desire to create an open space.

How did the abstract concept of “boundless exploration” translate into tangible design elements, such as the logo and the materials?

For the logo, I wanted to ensure fluidity and low contrast when it existed in graphic spaces or on all the branded elements, so it was pretty simple. The fun part was how the logo broke open and interacted across the edges of spaces; it would move around, spread open on the edges, and act as if it were exploring the borders.

We also used the exploration idea in other aspects of the branding; for example, different keynote slides with animated type that broke open and animated around the edges. When the logo opened up, it created this space in the center — evoking creative space.

I worked on a fun initial animation in which the logo would show up, hesitate a little bit, and then come back in place before fully opening and moving—synonymous with how we hoped the creatives would behave on this journey in Palm Springs.

The decision to have all the materials be reflective and unobtrusive came from the desire to encourage creatives to immerse themselves in the creative act. That’s where the idea of using metallic surfaces on the name badges came in.

We had planned one final surprise event for the Dropbox attendees: a fun dinner at The Invisible House at Joshua Tree. Nobody knew the location. It’s such a beautiful, mirrored venue, reflecting the environment around it and blending in. The creatives didn’t know it would be their last stop, but we wanted the reflective event materials to give them hints.

I loved the thought that went into this event. We could have made generic name badges, but the material choice made them much more fun, and the creatives wore them with pride. The badges were so reflective that you could see the palm trees and the sky. Rather than featuring the attendees’ titles—the event included designers, producers, project managers, product designers, art directors, and brand designers—we used their Adobe Creator Types test results, which Dropbox had their staff take internally. We designated a color for each of the eight types represented on the metallic badge. When everyone walked in, they weren’t just a product manager, producer, or designer; they were all creatives identifying with other creative types.

For the badge installation, we created a wooden, umbrella-like structure. Because of the badges’ reflective nature, when the sun hit them, they reflected splotches of color around the space. There was even a custom cut-out of the Dropbox logo in the structure—designed to be unnoticeable until the sun hit the right angle, subtly reflecting the logo. We wanted it to feel like a Dropbox event without it being overly branded.

We created a badge installation where the creatives would walk in and they would see the badges displayed a certain way. The idea was to have an umbrella-like structure set up and because the badges were so beautiful and reflective, the Sun would just hit the badges and the metallic surfaces would reflect and you could see the splotches of color being reflected all around.

The wooden badge structure itself had a custom cut out of the Dropbox logo in it so nobody would really notice it but when the Sun hit the right angle, the shadow would reflect the Dropbox logo which was a fun hint of making it feel like it’s a Dropbox event without it being overly branded.

“Blank Space” suggests embracing openness and possibility. How did you balance this theme with the need for structure and flow in the event’s programming?

We worked with the event production agency OTHR to bring the event to life. The installations we created were critical because it was a design event, so all the little pieces — for example, an outside area for the creatives to sit with their notebooks and complete exercises — had to feel warm and welcoming but also sleek and on-theme.

We purposely limited the number of speakers because last year, we noticed that having too many panels every day exhausted the attendees and left little time for them to reflect and work on assignments. We didn’t want this to feel like a work event, rather, it had to feel like a space for them to be creative and feel free to explore.

We had Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist, who spoke about finding inspiration in various sources and transforming those ideas into our own, even if they may not be entirely original. He led a creative exercise called Blackout Poetry, where participants blackout portions of text to create new poems. Afterward, the creatives got time to complete an assignment rather than jump into another thing. The spacious flow of the event produced an atmosphere of calm and a sense of peace. It’s really fun to play around with the design of the materials and the event space, but it’s also fun to design attendee moments like this — to engineer time to create, be free, and not rush from one thing to the next.

What other insights or advice do you have to encourage creatives to embrace the blank space?

One concept I came across during my research, which I still remember and thought was beautiful, was that ideas have states of matter.

When you think about an idea, that state of matter is vapor (a gas), so it cannot be held or easily seen. When you start speaking about your idea, it turns into a liquid state, visible but not easily held. When you write your idea down on a physical piece of paper, it becomes solid and tangible.

So many of us get stuck in the vapor stage. I also go through that. I have so many ideas, and I don’t progress because it can be overwhelming. But once you start talking about an idea and writing it down, your idea evolves and becomes more tangible. You’ve progressed out of the vapor stage!

This idea of the three states of matter, from vapor to liquid to solid, helped me visualize the progress from ideation to fruition. I hope it makes embracing the blank space a little less daunting for other creatives, too.

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