• Michael Dooley

Voodoo, Guns & Whiskey at the AIGA National Conference

Everyone on stage at the AIGA National Conference started swigging and sharing Southern Comfort, and the two thousand designers in the audience went wild with joyous laughter. First were the five young contestants. The bottle was then handed to host Sean Adams, and then to the judges: Gail Anderson, Aaron Draplin, Robynne Raye, and Marc English in the guest seat, who took the longest, heartiest guzzle. After all, it was celebration time back in New Orleans.

And it was part of round two of Command-X, always the event’s least-programmed, most-enjoyed feature. Despite my disappointment with the figuratively arid Arizona atmosphere of AIGA 2011 – see my report here — I was drawn back by 18-year-old memories of the “exuberant, freewheeling thrill” and “madcap excitement” of the first national conference I’d attended, also in New Orleans. This year’s theme, “revival,” was also cause for positive thinking.

1997’s was “jambalaya”-themed and based right in the French Quarter, with conferencing and carousing — often simultaneously — that concluded with an actual Sunday morning church revival, complete with a spirited gospel choir. This time it was at a convention hotel some distance away. My expectations dipped. A Trollbäck “Discard everything that means nothing” motion graphic mantra kept popping up throughout the conference but being an existentialist, I promptly discarded that whole notion. Once beyond that, the good times started rolling and my four days became a constant flow of enjoyable experiences, such as…

• In the main ballroom: conference chair Stefan Bucher’s time-travel report on future AIGA conferences; intergalactic experiences designer Nelly Ben Hayoun’s subversive speed-rap Situationism; and Capitol Records creative services V.P. Nicole Frantz’s meta-talk about how she fears public speaking.

• Roman Mars, “the Ira Glass of design,” as the new and, with any luck, regular general sessions moderator.

Louise Sandhaus, Karin Fong, and other revelers spontaneously jumping up and dancing to a brass band onstage.

• Elsewhere: breakout sessions such as author Virginia Postrel’s discussion about glamour’s persuasive power with Debbie Millman.

• After-hours book release parties for Nikki Villagomez, Michael Bierut, and D.J. Stout upstairs in a nearby live-jazz saloon.

And then there was the “X” factor…

Sean Adams and Amy Nicole Schwartz. Photo by M. Dooley.

Suave, beaming Sean Adams subbed for Bierut as host this year. Sean, of course, was born for the role; in fact, he may have actually been produced in a 1960s-Television-Emcee factory. It began with seven finalists, and each day there were two eliminations, determined by audience app votes…

• The seven had a week to develop their first of three projects: updating the identity of the French Quarter’s Voodoo Museum. On Thursday its director, Jerry Gandalfo, joined the core celebrity judges Anderson, Draplin, and Raye.

• On Friday the remaining five had 24 hours to rebrand Southern Comfort. One contestant decided to bring along a bottle of the product to share during the judging. And everyone did; see above. The debauchery ended after two who were dismissed grabbed the bottle on their way out, as a consolation gift to themselves.

• The top three designers pulled a second overnighter through to Saturday to create a gun control campaign. Guest judge Allan Chochinov and the others singled out one particularly smart approach for praise; it involved honoring the shooting victims, producing grassroots agit-prop, and generating direct legislative reform. And its creator, Amy Nicole Schwartz, clearly earned the grand prize.

Sure, Amy Nicole was the one who’d plied the judges with alcohol. But this designer has skills to spare. All three of her projects were top contenders on their own, and each was intelligently conceived and deftly executed. Plus, whenever I’d visit the Design Fair’s public workstation area – yes, they always produce in plain sight of everyone else – she was inevitably working away, and invariably pleasant to us kibitzers.

As a design history instructor at Chicago’s DePaul University, she develops her students’ critical thinking and sense of community involvement. As the creator of Liminal Space, which initiates workshops, lectures, panel discussions, gallery shows, and residency programs, she blurs the lines between art and design. And as a self-described “design troublemaker,” her work for Cards Against Humanity and her self-initiated projects keeps her unbound by any specific style, medium, or audience. As she put it to me, “Nothing is off the table.”

I also connected with Matthew Muñoz, who was the first runner-up in the first-ever Command-X, about his own experiences back in 2007. Eight years after he’d walked off that AIGA stage, Matthew’s now celebrating the seventh anniversary of New Kind, the company he co-founded. “We weathered the economic downturn, we grew from two of us to 15, and we’re grateful to be able to do meaningful work with people we like.”

What follows is my exclusive post-X interview with this year’s design champ, Amy Nicole Schwartz as well as Matthew’s memories and reflections.

AIGA is now doubling the conference’s frequency, from every two years to annually. Will its 2016 build on the New Orleans revival of ’15 with an even more spectacular show? Personally, I’m ready to take a gamble.

After all, it’ll be in Vegas, baby.

Michael Dooley: What was your process for the Voodoo Museum identity design?

Amy Nicole Schwartz: The first challenge was to find time to work on it! It’s busy season at Cards Against Humanity, and I tend to over-commit myself to side projects. I spent a pretty large chunk of time researching Louisiana Voodoo through online searches, physical books, and consulting with people who have lived in New Orleans and/or have had experiences with Voodoo. One of my coworkers who’d lived there is a practicing witch, so I treated her like a mock client. She helped answer my questions about the background of Louisiana Voodoo and the museum, and gave great feedback on my design. I developed about five different rough directions for the identity, including hand lettering, variations on the snake, and purely typographic options. I eventually had to commit and refine one, and spent the final day before the deadline refining it.

Dooley: How were you feeling during that first on-stage crit?

Amy Nicole: My stomach almost dropped out of my body before we went on stage. But fortunately Roman Mars’ familiar voice soothed my nerves. Once you’re on stage, you have no choice but to breathe, smile, and have fun with it. I feel like I was well prepared for the judges’ feedback, as their major criticisms with the work were also my criticisms of it. Overall, it was less terrifying than I expected.

Amy Nicole Schwartz in the Design Fair. Photo by M. Dooley.

Dooley: What sort of interaction did you have with your competitors?

Amy Nicole: It was the complete opposite of a reality show competition. Nothing was cutthroat or dramatic. We joked around together, ate meals together, gave each other supportive feedback, and became fast friends. Command X is a very absurd experience that we were all thrown into together, so we felt more like comrades than competitors. We’ve kept in touch and some of us have plans to see each other soon, since we live only a few hours from each other.

Dooley: How did your work-area mentors assist you with the other two designs?

Amy Nicole: Both [Command-X creator/producer] Bonnie Siegler and Maria Giudice were instrumental in preparing the presentations. Bonnie really helped me focus my idea for the final round, which resulted in a strong, succinct campaign. Half of the work of Command-X is pitching, and the mentors were really helpful in having us organize our thoughts.

Sarah Azpeitia and Russell Shaw flank Sean Adams while Amy Nicole Schwartz presents to Robynne Raye, Aaron Draplin, Gail Anderson, and Allan Chochinov. Photo by M. Dooley.

Dooley: What judges’ critiques did you find most useful?

Amy Nicole: Robynne and Aaron pointed out that my first two designs were visually similar, due to the use of color and line art, which really motivated me to avoid that aesthetic for the final round. My final presentation hinged more on the experience design than the visual design, but I definitely took their feedback to heart to design a campaign that felt urgent and real, not commercial and hip.

Dooley: How would you describe “Enough”?

Amy Nicole: The campaign was inspired by America’s history of protest: bold, sans serif protest signs, succinct language, and conversations that happen outside of the digital space. The most crucial part of the strategy was funneling our collective frustration into a clear call-to-action: electing government officials who will change gun control laws. Once I locked that down, I started to create ways to spread the word and build momentum, including a traveling, pop up memorial to victims of gun violence, advertisements, and a national day of protest.

I’ve also spoken briefly to AIGA’s Julie Anixter about how the Command-X contestants can turn our collective ideas into a larger initiative. And I hope you’ll hear more about it soon!

Amy Nicole Schwartz’s 2014 exhibition graphics with custom icons, at the Cranbrook Art Museum (with Jesen Tanadi).

Matthew Muñoz:

I remember opening up that email: the one that invited me to compete as a part of Command-X. It was pitched as “design reality TV show” on the main stage of the 2007 AIGA National Design Conference in Denver.

I remember the judges, the projects, the presentations on stage! The rest was a blur: three days fueled by adrenaline and powered by a chance to the make the most of the moment.

It’s over. Or is it beginning? I made it to the final round, I walked off stage, I carried with me a deep gratitude for how much I had learned from a first-time experiment. Heading behind the curtain, Ric Grefé pulled me aside and said, “That’s exactly the type of thinking that we’re looking for.” A moment I’ll never forget: a validation of being on the right track.

You know, it was exactly the type of encouragement that would propel my final year at North Carolina State’s grad school program, where I focused on using design methods to visualize and organize public policy discussions.

I’ll always look back at Command-X as a huge growing point. It validated my interests and provided exposure to a passionate network of designers across the country. It’s a network I’ve had the chance to serve as AIGA Raleigh president and now as a National Board member.

Matthew Muñoz’s first round project for Command-X 2007.

I feel strongly about AIGA. Working with a passionate community of designers to actively elevate the practice of design. To actively nurture and spread the use of design into hard-to-reach places — into the streets, the communities, the boardrooms — the places where we can make a tremendous impact.

This and more, I owe to the designers who came before me and the people who encourage me now. And it’s my time to give back to a community that has so much opportunity ahead of it. To my fellow Command-Xers, I’ll repeat what host Michael Bierut said to us before that first nervous moment before going out on stage: “We’re on.”

Yes, Michael. Yes, we are.

Roman Mars and the Lagniappe Brass Band. Photos by M. Dooley.

At the Emerging Designers Symposium, Ric Grefé introduces Ellen Lupton and Andrea Pippins presents. Photos by M. Dooley.

At breakout sessions: Debbie Millman and Virginia Postrel respond to audience feedback for “Decoding Glamour” and Paul Shaw presents on “The Eternal Letter: The Persistence of the Classical Roman Capital.” Photos by M. Dooley.

Nicole Frantz: “What Freaks You Out?” and Michael Bierut: “What I’ve Learned.” Photos by M. Dooley.

Beyond the conference: Nikki Villagomez at her presentation at the Little Gem Saloon, a night on the town at the Palm Court Jazz Café. Photos by M. Dooley.

Closing party at Mardi Gras World. Photos by M. Dooley.

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