Drew Elrick Design
Designed for the Finish Line
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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 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!