Preparing for your #MLCC2017 Debut

Last year was my first time at the Major Level Creative Connect conference in Houston, TX. It was such an incredible experience for me to be in the presence of other sports design nerds for a weekend and to learn from a strong list of speakers. I found my tribe! I was thrilled to see that 2017's event had sold out, as that means more and more pro and college sports designers are investing in their growth and raising the level of excellence in our industry.

While it pains me to miss out on this year's conference, with the incredible speaker lineup and the chance to reconnect with friends I met last year, I am happily redshirting to be home with my wife and our newborn son, our first child. He's pretty awesome. I really hope to be back next year. After reading back through my recap blog posts from 2016, I thought I might share some things I learned that might be helpful for 2017 MLC Rookies:

What to Bring

  • Sketchbook
    • There's going to be a ton of information coming your way. School's back in session, hope your note-taking skills are still sharp. Sometimes doodling and sketching your notes can be helpful too.
       
  • Casual attire
    • Some teams have strict dress codes. MLC is laid back. No suits required.
       
  • Business cards
    • Yeah, they're old-school, and maybe it's just an extra step in connecting with others on social media, but they're still fun to trade. It's awesome to collect and look through all the team-issued cards. If you want to bring some personal cards, you might still have time to order some. I've loved mine from MOO.
       
  • Swag
    • I'm not saying you'll be more popular if you bring some team gear to share, but it couldn't hurt...
       
  • Running shoes
    • More on this later.
       
  • Battery pack
    • Keep that phone charged. This is the one I use. I can charge my phone 6 times before the battery needs juice.

Connection Checklist

At MLC, connection is so important, it's in the name, You’ll have a chance to meet all kinds of talented creatives at MLC. Over the course of the three days, I’d suggest you try to meet and have a conversation with at least one person from each of these categories:

  • Rookies
    • Find out what new ideas they're bringing to their work.
    • Could you be a mentor to them or connect them with someone in your network?
       
  • Veterans
    • What was their career path like?
    • What advice might they have for your next steps?
    • Could they be a mentor to you, even from a distance?
       
  • Someone from each league
    • A different vantage point could help you have breakthrough on a problem.
    • Do you know the designers from the other teams in your market? If they're not at MLC, maybe someone here can help you connect with them.
       
  • Volunteers
    • The volunteers last year were incredible, and I have no doubt this year's team will work so hard to make it a great experience for you. Take a moment to learn some names and thank them for their efforts.
       
  • Board members
    • The amount of work it must take the leadership to coordinate this event each year (in addition to the normal crazy workloads of their day jobs) has got to be immense. Let them know their work was worth it!
    • I could easily tell that they wanted the product to be as excellent as possible, so I'm sure they would appreciate your feedback (delivered in a gracious manner, of course).
       
  • Keynote speakers
    • One of the coolest parts of MLC is how small it is, which means you'll get to spend time with the speakers throughout the weekend. What other conference gives you that opportunity? In my experience last year, I was treated like an equal in conversation despite the fact that I was a designer from a smaller university. There's no ego—you're family here. 

Conversation Starters

Many designers tend to be more introspective or introverted. This doesn't mean shy or socially awkward; it just means there is energy being exerted in social situations, and that energy is restored with some alone time. If this is you, then you might be pretty spent by the end of each day. Since I want you to get the most out of all of the connection opportunities, save a little of that energy with some starter questions to keep conversations flowing:

  • What was your career path to your current role? What’s next?
  • Who helped you get where you are?
  • Most life-giving project this season. Why?
  • Most life-sucking project this season. Why?
  • Your team(s) had a great/terrible season. How did that affect your process this year?
  • If sports disappeared tomorrow, what industry would you design for?

Do Something that Scares You

  • Logo vs Logo Speed Design Tournament
    • Definitely one of the highlights for me last year. At some point on Friday, there will be a chance to opt in for this event. You must sign up. Later that evening, you'll be in a bar, 2 iMacs back-to-back, your adrenaline pumping as you're given 10 minutes to crank out a logo based on a prompt and slay your opponent. All of your new friends will surround you and watch you fumble around Illustrator like a toddler, even though you've used it for 10 years. Sound fun? It is. Do it.
       
  • Morning run
    • I wanted to do this so bad last year, but then 6 a.m. came and went, and I chose sleep. Don't choose sleep like me. Go for a run with cool people in a cool city. It's a super-unique conference feature, and you'll be hardcore if you do it. We could all use a bit more exercise, in our lives, right? So pack those running shoes, and set the alarm.
       
  • Follow up
    • It would be really easy to attend the conference, have some surface-level conversations, and then vanish back to your office. What if you did the hard work of following up with someone you met to maintain a relationship, for both of your benefit? One way I've been able to do that is through the Makers of Sport Slack group. It's a thriving group of sports designers brought together by Adam Martin and his Makers of Sport podcast. Make sure you meet Adam at MLC.

Trust the Process(ing)

"I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” - Field Notes

On Sunday, as you make your way back home, you’ll likely have time on a plane to catch up on emails or sleep or work on projects you’re behind on. I challenge you to take at least part of that time to do some processing about what you learned at the conference. Last year, I knew that if I didn’t expand my notes into processed thoughts while it was still fresh, I’d get home, jump back into the work/life sprint and lose the majority of what I heard at MLC. So I did something I’d never done (and honestly haven't done since): I blogged about it. Here. And here.

The speaker lineup this year is incredible. You're going to learn from the best of the best. But how will you digest that information? You could blog about it, journal, sketch, or design something to work through it. The key is to do something with it before it leaves your brain. Was there something that was discussed that you'd never thought of before? Was there a workshop that pertained to exactly what your team is working through? Perhaps there was a follow-up question you didn't get a chance to ask. If you're not sure where to start, think through each session, reading through your notes if you took them, and ask yourself "What can I apply tomorrow when I go into work?" Your boss sent you to this conference because it was going to make you a better designer. How did you improve this weekend?

As designers, we can often let our writing skills suffer at the expense of the visual work we do. How you communicate via the written word matters. It's how we interface with clients and colleagues. It's how you state your case for design decisions. In this case, it's a helpful method to process what you've learned. The week after the conference, I hope to see blog posts up from attendees. If not for yourself and your own learning, do it for all of us on the sidelines this year. Let us know what we missed.

Closing Thoughts

I hope there has been something of value in here for MLC rookies. It was such an impactful experience for my career last year, and I can't wait to be back in 2018! Be a sponge: soak up everything you can. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. Build relationships, and keep up with them after the conference ends. Our industry is better because this event exists and you went to it.

Veterans: Did I miss anything? What would you tell your first-time self?

Speaking of conferences, if any of my sports design friends are planning to attend the AIGA National Conference in Minneapolis this fall, I'd love to connect with you there and show you where to get the best cheeseburger in town.

Major Level Creative Connect 2016: Recap Pt. 2

If you missed Part 1, the recap of Friday's sessions, you can check that out here.


We were back at it on Saturday morning with another full slate of sessions. I had planned on getting up early and taking part in the organized run through Houston (which is a really great idea and a unique experience for a conference), but this introvert (ISTJ if you're into that kinda thing) needed a few more hours of sleep in the lovely Westin hotel. 5 morning people did go for the run/swim through the humid air and it sounds like they had a great time. Just another cool feature that a conference of this size can offer. Now on to the action:

SESSION 7: Uniform Design & Rebranding. Zach Alvarez & Sara Bielski (Diamondbacks), Ross Yoshida (Dodgers)

Zach and Sara kicked things off with an in-depth look at their Clubhouse Creative-designed uniform set for the 2016 MLB season. They took us on their three-year, behind-closed-doors journey of taking a young franchise into its next visual iteration.

Being a '90s expansion team, the D-Backs were required by sports law to have purple and teal in their official color pallette. At least, that's what it seems like. Arizona evolved in 2007 by introducing a new logo set and ditching the purple and teal for Sedona Red, Black, White, Sonoran Sand. They would wear that look for the next nine seasons. At some point in that near-decade, a need arose for the team to consider a revised look that would capture the attention of the next generation of fans, without alienating the older fanbase. This is a theme that was threaded throughout the conference. How do we embrace new ideas and progress without casting off history, wisdom, and experience?

The D-Backs' creative team—in secret—sought to answer that question with a look that is quite futuristic for tradition-honoring baseball, but doesn't stray so far from the heritage of the team that it feels unusual. The reintroduction of the teal accent served as that bridge to the past and does a good job of creating the pop of color they were hoping for, without being overly trendy.

Hearing about a three-year long project that wasn't a new facility was probably a foreign concept to many of the MLC attendees, in a time when everything is needed faster, cheaper, and better. Zach, Sara & Co. had to work with Majestic over that time period while still fulfilling the daily list of tasks from other departments. 

I think the new look suits the team and the region they represent. Zach and Sara don't need to read another commentary on their work; we all get enough unsolicited feedback as it is. I was fascinated by the process and thankful for their transparency in the struggles and celebrations.

Ross Yoshida was also on the panel, giving us a quick look at some of his work with the Dodgers' uniforms, brand activation points, and even some of their Minor League work as well. Ross noted that one of his greatest personal accomplishments with the club was getting their Dodgers' chest script to be correct across the organization. It's those minute details that were the uniting factors for all of us in the room. Someone has to care about those things!

Something I was intrigued by was the handful of attendees who have been with their teams for more than a decade, Ross being one of those. In our industry, and the creative industry at large, there's a lot of job-hopping that happens (often for good reasons), but it's good to see loyalty valued on both sides. Pretty cool. 


SESSION 8: Sports + Design. Todd Radom (Radom Design)

The Toddfather.

I've been to other design conferences. I had great times and learned a lot. Sometimes, at their attendance scale, a "hero-worship" culture forms. Sure, it's good to honor those who have much experience and have achieved great things for our industry. That's worth commending. But one of the coolest aspects of this conference and its small, intimate approach to connection, is the camaraderie and family atmosphere that emerged after only a day together. Todd's a legend in our industry. There isn't much he hasn't done or influenced in sports design in the past few decades. His work is worthy of the acclaim it's received. Todd was just as pumped to be at MLC as we were though, and that's the cool part. So we got the pleasure of hearing him tell stories and show us the breadth of work his hands have crafted.

Of the keynote speakers, I was most familiar with Todd's work coming in, but the case studies were really fun to hear. As a former Milwaukeean and a longtime Brewers fan, the case study on the 1994 rebranding that Todd did was fascinating. As we look back now, the old ball-in-glove logo is well-loved and revered as a simple but very effective '70s style mark. It's what the team wore during their most successful era, leading up to their only World Series appearance in 1982. If you go to a game at Miller Park, you'll see it everywhere, so it's hard to imagine where the love was lost. Well, speaking of losing things, the Brewers did a lot of that in the early '90s (okay, and late '90s and early 2000s), and whenever a franchise is really struggling, you've got to do a few things: 1) Fire the coach. 2) Fire the GM. 3) Have a fire sale on your talent. 4) Rebrand!

Todd got the call on #4, and created the interlocking MB with the crossed bats mark, which was used between 1994 and 1999. I thought his response to a question about whether it was hard to see your work replaced, especially only five years later, was mature and thoughtful. He spoke about it being the natural way of life for many of the things we make. They exist to serve a purpose for a moment in time, and then when their useful life is over, we move on to the next thing. It doesn't negate the quality of the work, it just means another change occurred. Maybe Surf's thought from the day before about not being a fan applies not only to the organizations we work for, but to our own work. Don't be such a fan of your own work that if it's hated by some or painted over eventually that it breaks you. We're more than what we make. And as Todd also mentioned, the haters gonna hate. There will always be negativity about something we make. Don't let it crush you. And be kind to your fellow designers. Take care of each other. 


SESSION 9: Asset Management & Maximization. Michael Benford (Falcons), Alex Bierens De Hann, Chris Garcia (Astros), Dustin Pence (Widen)

In a nice followup to the previous day's talks on process and photography, Dustin from Madison-based Widen led a discussion on the management of creative assets and some of the solutions that Widen offers to help teams store, organize, and access terabytes worth of files. Michael from the Falcons and Alex & Chris from the Astros talked about their teams' adoption of an organized process where their photographers diligently tagged and organized their photos before uploading , access to the photos and logo files was given to key people around the organization, and an easily-searchable database was maintained. 

All of this was done in the name of efficiency. Because of the number of projects that our teams are expected to complete each year and the ever-increasing speed of the industry, it's more important than ever to build out processes for storing and using our visual assets.


Session 10: Examining Brand DNA. Bill Frederick (FanBrandz) + Mike Sulick & Michael Raisch (Q&A)

This one was really fun. Since I was a wee lad, sports and cars have been deep passions of mine. I love seeing the evolutionary process of auto design, so when Bill began by doing three case studies comparing the lifecycle of a car model to that of an MLB team that Fanbrandz worked with, I was locked in.

Bill gave us great visual histories of the Ford Thunderbird, Mustang, and Taurus models and compared their evolutions to the Houston Astros, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays identities over the years. It was a really unique way to think about where sports and transportation design were in different eras and how that played out. Ultimately, just like the Thunderbird and Mustang, the Astros and the Jays returned to their original looks with a modern touch. I loved what Fanbrandz did with both of those franchises and even their reimagining of the Rays after dropping the "Devil" from their name was fun to see.

The piece I really took away from Bill's talk was how thorough he and his small team are when taking on an identity project, whether for an NHL Winter Classic or an MLB All Star Game, they do such a good job of researching the host city and honoring its history and defining features. Check out their work on the Cincinnati ASG here. The research and attention to brand activation is pretty stunning, as is the amount of equally great work they do for each client that doesn't get picked. I was really impressed by these guys.


SESSION 11: Panel Debate: Snapchat: Good or Bad for Creative Branding? Jose Lopez (Rockets), Maigen Sawyer

Really fascinating debate that had the whole room involved, which is another benefit of the size of the conference. It was less of a debate and more of a large discussion about how we're to handle this beast of a platform that is insatiably hungry for content, and at times can make it challenging for those of us who spend so much time crafting pixel-perfect visuals to ensure our brand quality stays intact. 

I'm sure this debate is being played out in every team's creative office. The time and resources necessary to put out great content that engages fans on Snapchat can be enormous, but there could be benefit too. Recent counts show that Snapchat has bypassed Twitter in user count. We've got to adapt and meet the fans where they live.

At UNW, we've taken a more hands-off approach for the time being because of higher priority items. What we do take advantage of is Snapchat's policy of allowing universities to include their logos within custom geofilters. If we don't have the time to generate our own content, we can at least provide students, fans, and visitors to campus with the tools to make their own content with our branding attached. Current and past students are our greatest recruiters, so if we have a chance to get in front of their younger siblings, friends, and followers in a really authentic way, we want to be all over that.

Example of one of our custom geofilters that Snapchat allows us to upload for free.

Example of one of our custom geofilters that Snapchat allows us to upload for free.


SESSION 12: Ambassadors of Sport. Adam Martin (Makers of Sport Podcast, Mtn. & Co.), Brian Gundell, Todd Radom

Plain and simple, I went to MLC this year because of Adam's gift to all of us with the Makers of Sport podcast & community. I'm the only designer working on athletics at my institution, so I needed external mentorship and career development, and finding MoS has met those needs for me. Not only did I hear about MLC through the podcast, I also developed relationships with members of the community, so I was able to arrive in Houston with friends already there. After meeting many others at the conference who were in the same place of isolation in their organizations, it just confirms the importance of what Adam's doing. It was really great to meet he and Brian (an OG of the MoS community) in person, to spend time with them and hear about their journeys.

It makes perfect sense for Adam to have recorded this panel discussion on the topic of serving as ambassadors from the sports design world outward. Todd's gifts as a storyteller and communicator in many forms, Brian's pursuit of excellence and encouragement to be the type of person you'd want to work with ("Don't be a d*ck" - Brian Gundell, poet laureate of Oregon), and Adam's vantage point as a true connector for many of us in attendance is available here for your listening pleasure.

Here's where I will gladly plug the Makers of Sport podcast and community. If you were at MLC and want a taste of the goodness every day, or you didn't get to go this year, or you work outside of the major leagues/NCAA and just want to find your tribe of people who want to continually improve, nerd out about the stitching on the commemorative sleeve patch on your team's uniform, this group may be for you. Adam gives the podcast away for free (non-ad supported) and the community is an opportunity to vote with your dollars for the type of content you want available to you. Many of this year's and past years' speakers have been guests on the show, so it's a great way to hear more of their stories.

One of the major takeaways for me was a reminder that success in this industry is not a zero-sum game. The teams we work for may compete against each other and only one will win, but we as creatives are allies, not enemies. Your great work does not prevent me from creating great work too. While it is hard to break into the sports industry, MLC proves that we're a community built to help each other get better, and whatever level you're working in can be a great place for you if you allow it to be. One of the most successful college football coaches in history, Frosty Westering, wrote a book called "Make the Big Time Where You Are!" That title alone reminds me that working at the D-III level doesn't prevent me from making great work. I can learn from those in positions above me and bring my best everyday. My goal is to be a creative leader in our conference, division, and ultimately the NCAA and beyond. I'm thankful for a community that is helping me work towards that end.


SESSION 13: Changing the Game. RiCardo Crespo (Jacknife, League of Shadows, probably)

If Dos Equis recasts The Most Interesting Man in the World, they should probably give RiCardo a call. When he's not surfing, fighting MMA. or running creative at Mattel or 20th Century Fox...who knows what he's up to. He's a busy guy.

RiCardo was pretty quiet and observant all weekend leading up to his closing session. He cleared out the room and had us sit on the floor. Kind of a 'bonfire at the end of camp' sort of thing. I can't imagine anyone took notes during this session; I know I didn't. He was too dynamic and engaging to disconnect from, even to write stuff down.

Even now writing this recap, it's difficult for me to remember exactly what was said, but I remember how I felt. He talked about the necessity of this "tribe" that was forming. This group of creatives, not just designers but creatives, that were here to form deep bonds because we're build for community in that way. He spoke about being worthy of inclusion in the tribe. That it wasn't exclusionary just to be mean, but that a tribe has to evaluate its members to make sure that they're being contributors for the health of the whole and not just takers. "Are you worthy?" he asked.

He recounted his experiences over many years with major companies and the challenges of creative leadership. I don't know if I could be or even want to be just like him as I look to the future of my career, but I do respect him and his wisdom and experience. We need all kinds in our tribe, and I'm glad I was there to learn from him. He talked about the difference between a label and a description when it comes to how people regard us, and one of the ways people describe him is "ninja". And not in the "I'm a social media ninja-rockstar!" way that everyone has on their LinkedIn profile, but in the sense of deep skill, intelligence, and undetectability. Go ahead and Google him. Try to find stuff. He's a ninja. His company doesn't even list clients or show a portfolio of work (which baffled many of us in the crowd. "How do you get hired then?!")

He closed with a case study of a project that if we ever released information about, he promised to do terrible things to us, and I believe him. So if you weren't there, you missed out.


SHOUT OUTS

  • Shout out to the MLC Connect Volunteer Crew. Hard-working group that busted their tails to make sure we had a great experience. 
  • Shout out to Chris Garcia's wife & kids for giving him space to make something like this happen for us.
  • Shout out to Chris, Gareth, Mike, and Ross for assembling a great variety of speakers and activities.
  • Shout out to Houston for being everything I expected of it: hot and humid. That's it. Oh and the BBQ was legit.
  • Shout out to the Astros for being a leader in our industry and supporting creatives like us.
  • Shout out to Will Tullos for the sweet MLC shirt design.
  • Shout out to my colleagues at UNW who supported this trip for me: Matt Hill, Marita Albinson, Jay Hilbrands, Colleen Bemis
  • Shout out to #MLCC2016. I'll be back next year for sure!

Major Level Creative Connect 2016: Recap Pt. 1

It feels fitting to time the launch of a lot of new things in my personal design practice with the triple shot of career espresso that is the Major Level Creative Connect conference in Houston, TX. If you're in the world of design for sport and you aren't familiar with MLC Connect, allow me to introduce you. Under the humble, but visionary direction of the Houston Astros' Chris David Garcia, the third Connect conference brought together 100 designers from MLB & Minor League, NBA, NFL, MLS, NHL, NCAA, and independent creatives at Minute Maid Park for two days of networking, discussion, teaching and learning, inspiration, and bond-forming.

As the designer for NCAA Division III University of Northwestern — St. Paul Athletics, I knew coming in that I'd likely be representing the smallest market of all the attendees, and I wasn't wrong. I also knew that I'd get the pleasure of trying to explain where I worked in more words than "I'm with the (insert singular team name here)." I worried a bit about being an intruder into their club, but I was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed into the Tribe (more on that in Part 2) by phenomenally-talented designers who were there for the same reasons I was: to get off of our isolated islands and get into a room with people who spoke the same language, experienced similar challenges, and wanted to grow and develop their skills while making new friendships along the way.

I took notes throughout the two days of programming, but with so much good information coming rapid-fire, I've taken some time to process what I heard and saw. The fine folks at Field Notes say it well: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” Therefore, here's Day 1's recap from my seat:

SESSION 1: Change by Design. Chris David Garcia (Astros) & Peter Wilson (Lakewood Church)

I was intrigued by Peter's listing on the speaker lineup when I first saw it, but as the Creative Pastor and Worship Leader for the largest church congregation in the U.S. (Wikipedia says over 43k attendees each Sunday, which is more than some NFL teams) there are definite connections that can be drawn between his work and the work of the creatives in the MLC audience. He and Chris kicked off the programming with a discussion about affecting culture, both internally in our organizations and within the markets we're engaging, taking ideas from inception to tactical strategy, and the ever-present dynamic of honoring older fans/members/leaders while connecting with, recruiting, and making space for newer generations within the community. I resonated with one of Peter's points: "If we have a vision to reach the next generation, but our internal culture is resistant to the changes we'll need to embrace to do that, we likely won't be successful." As a millennial, I've been used to being that emerging generation that's being wooed by every brand and organization, but now I'm in a position of needing to learn how to woo Generation Z, to show them in an authentic way why we matter and why we can be a legitimate option for their college education and athletic experience. Peter encouraged us to hire people nearer in life position to that newer generation and give them things to own, which is a practice I know I've benefitted from at UNW (and I think there was return benefit to the institution for their trust in me as well).


SESSION 2: Building a Creative Culture. Surf Melendez (Dolphins)

Culture-building was a significant thread throughout the conference. In our context, Chris defined the elements of culture as the collective Interests, Social Activities, Retail Preferences, and Influence within the market. In this session, Surf Melendez, the Managing Director for Content and Creative Services with the Miami Dolphins, shared his experiences in building a creative team and environment that's conducive to high-quality creativity and fan culture engagement. As a manager, he sees his role as bringing in the right people (No turds allowed!), constructing and maintaining efficient processes that help the work actually happen, and owning the results of the team's efforts by measuring and responding to quantitative and qualitative responses to campaigns.

Surf has built his very talented team with a mix of experienced veterans to hold the rudder, skilled craftsman to execute the strategy, and hungry interns and junior creatives to bring energy, ideation, and upward motivation and management to the department. He advocated for teams to recognize and respond to the difference between being named 'Creative Services' and simply 'Creative'. The former positions the department as a drive-thru output office. The latter asserts the department's abilities to ideate, conceptualize, and implement strategic initiatives that come from within the department itself. Creative Services seems to be a common structure across pro and college organizations, but leaders like the Dolphins are helping to create appreciation for design thinking and the value it can bring to the success of the franchise/institution. Brands and organizations that invest in good people, follow process to save time and effort, and hold its members accountable for what goes out the door have a chance to be very successful, and those principles are true for building teams on the field or in the creative office.

Other quick takeaways: Good enough sucks. // Creative feedback is a gift and a responsibility for both the giver and the receiver of the critique. // Good process works, but often will have to be 'sold' across the organization as to how it will benefit them and contribute to accomplishing the goal, which is where measurement of results comes in. // Don't be a fan. A love for sports is what got us into this crazy world, but we can't let the team's performance on Sunday dictate our mood on Monday.  // Consider your department's dress code & environment. What simple changes need to be made to create an atmosphere that breeds creative excellence?


SESSION 3: Scoreboard User Interface. Ross Yoshida (Dodgers), Tyler Munie (Cardinals), Chris Garcia (Astros)

I also knew coming in to MLC that not every talk would be applicable to UNW's situation. Unless a kind donor wants to help us acquire a video board to improve the gameday experience at Reynolds Field, there's not much I can apply when I get back to work on Monday. So, no disrespect to the great guys on the panel and the amazing work they've each done with their clubs' board designs, but I wasn't super present during this talk. Themes included visually integrating the design and layout into the aesthetic of the ballpark/arena, even to the point of blurring the lines between digital and physical in the Astros' case.


SESSION 4: Imitation vs. Inspiration. Bethany Heck (Microsoft, Eephus League)

Now we're getting to the part of the show where my notetaking diligence began to drop off, but that's because the quality of the content and the engaging visuals made it difficult to take your eyes off the speakers and the screens. Bethany brought it for a full 90 minutes of design history, some fantastic samples of maker's marks and how to see the design hidden in plain sight and to use those treasures as inspiration (a point of reference and a place to start) and not as something to be imitated (which comes off as inauthentic to the brand). I see this in my work as a result of hearing Bethany's talk. I'll spend time looking at work on dribbble or wherever and I'll want to imitate what I believe to be successful. When Bethany works, she tries to be inspired by found work and she operates from a personal "Rule of Two". She can pick two things that she likes from a piece and implement them in a way that's true to whatever she's creating for. It can be a color or a shape or a type style, but for her it helps rein in the desire to make direct copies. Bethany did a great job of taking us beyond the typical "Look at these cool logos that people made before computers! Aren't they sweet? Go and do likewise." She called on us to be more aware of the design rules we follow, understand why we follow them and whether or not it's worth adhering to them, and explore the non-designed world around us for inspiration.

As someone who really enjoys old logos and all things #badgehunting (even rocked my official Minneapolis Badgehunting Club shirt later that night), Bethany's session was both a visual delight and a challenge to be a more "consciously-competent" designer.

Other quick takeaways: Do yourself a favor and spend some time checking out Bethany's amazing work with her Eephus League project and pick up a Halfliner or two (check out those bundle prices!).


SESSION 5: Design Process & Tracking. Gareth Breunlin (White Sox), Brian Bisio (SF Giants), Rob Munz & Brian Ondrako (InMotionNow)

One of the areas that teams I've worked on at UNW have been strong in is the area of process. I met many designers this weekend who said they were the entire creative department. From work order intake to delivery, it was all on their shoulders. I've benefitted greatly from working with an excellent project manager who had such a talent for understanding the needs of the partner, asked the right questions, and really paved the road for myself and my copywriters to do our best work. This session was co-hosted Gareth and Brian from the White Sox and Giants and Rob and Brian from InMotionNow, a North Carolina-based project management automation company for creative departments. In this session, I really connected with Rob's thoughts on the project feedback loop. Surf had mentioned it before and riCardo would expand on it the next day, but that feedback opportunity can either put too much power and responsibility on the executive or requesting partner to make a subjective call "I like this" or "I hate this", or it can be done in a way that gives necessary context before work is shown and then an invitation to help reach the best solution on specific points of the project can be extended. The latter option creates a partnership grounded in trust and desire from both parties to achieve the objectives of the project and the organization. This was an area I know I can improve upon and it's simple enough that I can make those changes to my workstyle starting right away on Monday morning.

HALFTIME: On-field tour of Minute Maid Park, a first for me.

HALFTIME: On-field tour of Minute Maid Park, a first for me.

SESSION 6: Photography Panel: Alex Yocum-Beeman (TX Rangers), Marissa McClain (Red Sox), Surf Melendez (Dolphins)

This panel brought insights from different vantage points, as Alex and Marissa both have or do serve as team photographers for the Rangers and Red Sox, and Surf spoke from the perspective of coordinating and using photographers to create really powerful stories and brand experiences. Surf spoke highly of his director of photography Jon Willey (and for good reason!) and encouraged us to challenge our photographers to try different angles, work hard to capture a story in a moment, and to use compelling imagery to shift cultural perception of your organization. Using Bethany's talk on inspiration is helpful here for me because as much as I'd love to just take Jon's style and apply it to UNW's situation (or better yet, just steal Jon himself), I can be inspired by his work, appreciating elements of it that fit our brand voice and athlete experience and direct my photographers to learn from his skills.

I appreciated both Alex' and Marissa's approaches to capturing the fan experience, too. There are so many stories unfolding between snaps or pitches that a skilled photographer can find. As I serve in more of an art director role than a photographer, I can improve my abilities in crafting a vision for my photogs so that they have the boundaries and freedoms to explore. Their success in a day of shooting can ultimately lead to our team's success in a campaign.

Other quick takeaways: Creative cropping can help a photo tell a better story // In an age where everyone's an insta-photographer, skilled retouching and photo treatments are an art form and when done well, can be an important piece of your brand's visual story.  //  The management of photo assets is a hugely important thing for saving time and increasing effectiveness. (more on that on Day 2)


OVERTIME: Logo vs. Logo Speed Tournament

So, MLC has this thing.

Somehow it turns accomplished, award-winning, competent designers into complete wrecks as they enter the Thunderdome of speed logo creation. 16 enter, 1 leaves with an iPad Air. MLC staff set up 4 iMacs in the middle of a bar, and the 4 contestants working during each round get the pleasure of having their creative process put on display for the other 96 attendees to watch and critique. 

You get 2 minutes to set up your workspace, but let's face it, we've all got our machines dialed in to specific preferences, so it's a bit like driving someone else's car without much time to adjust the mirrors and seat before you've got to drive it in a race. Anyways. At this point, the 2 designers going head-to-head on each side of the bracket get a prompt for the name of a made up, non-sports related company, and then they have 15 minutes to push Illustrator to its limits and make something respectable. 

After passing on the sign-up sheet the first time it went around, I decided I'd regret not jumping in on this action, and was able to enter. After nervously observing the first round, It was my turn to take the hot seat. It's amazing how the pressure of time, noise, competition, and the eyes of people you respect send you swiftly back to freshman year of design school and deeply-ingrained key command muscle memory suddenly vanishes.

I went up against soft-spoken but big design stick-carrying John Baker of the St. Louis Cardinals. Our prompt was "Go Tea". I won't post what I was able to muster in 15 minutes, and to make this long story short, John defeated me and proceeded to take down the rest of the very talented field to bring home the hardware. Well done, John!

Takeaway: Just jump. Do stuff, even if it makes you nervous. I had a blast and totally would have regretted not taking part in the tourney. 


That wraps up a long-winded recap of what I took away from Day 1 of MLC Connect. If you were there, what did you learn from speakers or from side conversations with your peers? If you didn't make it down this year, start thinking about how to make it happen in 2017.

Part 2 of the recap is here.