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Reflections of the 2013 AIGA Design Conference

I have never been to a design-only conference. Before this AIGA 2013 Design Conference I’ve always had a good excuse. Not enough time. Not enough money. It’s too far. After attending the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in Minneapolis, hand on heart, I will never make those excuses again.

More than 1,800 professionals and students came from all across the country to the Minneapolis Convention Center, one of the largest in their 100-year history. Being surrounded by a lot of talented people reminds me why being a designer is the best job on the planet.

Designers were here

How can you tell you’re in a room with designers? Many empty coffee cups. And this was at 4pm.

Before I arrived, I set out some goals for myself before attending more than 16 sessions and listening to 50 different speakers. First and foremost, to recharge.

Being a designer requires a lot of self-care and nurturing. Reading blogs, thumbing through industry and design magazines and even walking to work provide a tremendous amount of stimulation. But nothing compares to being in a room with 1,800 designers. I tell you, it’s a great way to focus.

Parts of this year’s sessions were specifically designed for educators. And although I am not a teacher, my second goal was to boost my abilities as a mentor, one of the most components of being an Associate Creative Director. I wanted to be a better mentor not only to fellow designers but also my peers.

Finally, a design conference isn’t complete without some speeches from true legends. Their words of wisdom and their presentation style have always helped me be a well-rounded designer and leader. And I was blown away: Eric Baker, George Lois, Kurt Andersen, Danny Yount and Aaron Draplin to name but a few. These legends are key individuals from diverse worlds: corporate, design, motion graphics, and sustainability.

In honor of the conference theme I have nugget from each of the 50 speakers I heard from and placed them into the three words representing this year’s theme.

Excited beyond belief


Suzanne Powney of Mississippi State University and Roselynn Newton of Texas State University have incorporated letterpresses in their coursework. Because so many people are visual learners, the interactivity helps the content sink in. This really got me thinking about the role of computers in our work. I am an avid sketcher and for it I feel more connected to my product. As we move more toward digital, I am reminded not to forget my roots. (It also reminds me to start saving money for a letterpress.)

My very first letterpress

I made this myself! (Just added that magenta 0, really.)


Jennifer Kinon and Bobby Martin Jr of Original Champions of Design (OCD) based in New York also reinforced something we do every day at the CBD: “Strategy and design are inseparable.” At OCD, there are no dedicated account managers, strategists or production managers. They do it all are from start to finish. I find that it’s a wonderful way to stay engaged. Using the two halves of the brain give you effective communications that really do make a difference.



Eve Claxton of StoryCorps presented “Stories and the Art of Persuasion”. A writer presenting to designers? Absolutely. Designers are storytellers and gave me some great insight into telling a good story. She showed us this scene from Mad Men,

then dissected it into these five tips:

  1. Make it personal
  2. Keep it short
  3. Tell the story in a sequence
  4. Include rich details, but avoid jargon and clichés
  5. Stay focused

If you couldn’t be there, take a look at my key takeaways in this SlideShare presentation:

My visit to DK

Back in February, I visited Digital Kitchen, one of the foremost digital production studios. They’re known for the intros to shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter and most recently the new BMW ads about their 3-series. Thanks to a AIGA’s Small Talk, I spent two hours learning about them. Here are the quick notes:

  • Crazy hours. It’s not uncommon to be pulling multiple all-nighters.
  • They have a great relationship with the client
  • 20 to 30 concepts presented!!!
  • To get things done, they need boundaries
  • An average project could take 2 months
  • In terms of getting the best and most ideas, they spend most of the time thinking, last minute putting tight comps together
  • Really tight comps sell the idea (especially in this day and age)
  • Most of the workers are comprised of a super-flexible team of outside people freelance, 30 in Chicago office
  • I noticed that the deck they’re presenting from is gorgeous, black & white deck with video popping
  • Their reel is done in fashion model idea
  • Production and designers work tightly together in a circle
  • Most people who work there are musicians
  • However, clients usually bring in music to design to

My visit to Critical Mass


As part of the AIGA Chicago Small Talk series, I visited Critical Mass last night and boy did I learn a lot. Here are some of the notes I took:

  • They think multi-channel distribution to all creative and they have a department that deals with that.
  • They do a lot of persona research, which is great for us creatives to visualize the audience.
  • One of the folks in the audience asked how to keep up with the latest trends and how they do it. They responded by literally keeping up on latest sites like FWA. Similarly, they suggest that folks new to social media get immersed in it by starting small and working your way up.
  • I asked about selling a challenging proposition to clients. They recommended quick prototying and clickable wireframes to get the point across. Also, you always want to continiously educate clients on what’s out there and what is the next big thing. You don’t want to wait until the presentation to show them.
  • Their distribution on teams: 5-10 creatives per team, additional 5-10 developers. And that was for a small budget. It always depends, of course.

Their space is really neat. I didn’t want to take photos inside because it would freak them out, but suffice it to say it’s very collaborative with waist-high work spaces and a big, open space for gathering (which is where the presentation was held). Be sure to check out their work.