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.