Drew Elrick Design
Designed for the Finish Line
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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.