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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Belle-Miller


Updated: May 23, 2018

So I spent the majority of last week surrounded by designers – some seasoned (Can you say NPR, SFMOMA, Businessweek, Facebook, Pinterest, Google, 3M, etc.), some at the beginning of their careers – at the AIGA Design Conference in Vegas! This was my first time in the Sin City, so I was equally excited to be a tourist and to learn from some of the best in my industry.

Design conference swag!
Design conference swag!


After spending an evening with Boyz II Men – we were in the second row and I was thrown a rose by Wanya and touched by Nate…ahhhhh….I was ready for my first day of the conference. I started with a Practice Management Symposium, where I learned about the financial side of having a design business. We designers aren’t usually known for our math skills, so it’s best to have people who are good with math on your team – in addition to wise counselors to advise you on various matters. Next, I learned about copyright as it relates to graphic design, i.e. what does and does not qualify for copyright protection in regard to things you create.

That afternoon, Command X kicked off. This is a semi-live design competition for emerging designers. They are given 24 hours to complete an assignment and are judged live by four judges, in front of the entire conference. Yikes! Their work area was also smack dab in the middle of one of the large conference areas, where the design fair was held each day. So people walking by could catch a glimpse of their progress and/or offer their feedback. Major props to these folks for having the courage to enter the competition and open up themselves and their design work for critique. After judging, we, the audience, were able to vote through the conference app. The first assignment was to create a new identity for Gamblers’ Anonymous. I didn’t even know this was a thing. Guess you learn something new each day. The second assignment (Day 2) was to create a new delivery solution for Zappos, and the third assignment (Day 3) was to create a solution to encourage millennials to vote. The designer I voted for each round ended up winning. Great minds think alike!


The second morning kicked off nice and early at 7:45 a.m. with a roundtable discussion with Sean Adams, who was the moderator for Command X throughout the conference. He started as a designer at the New York Public Library and went on to start a business, called AdamsMorioka, with Noreen Morioka. They have done work for Adobe, Sundance, Nickelodeon, and Disney, to name a few. Adams also has a series of videos on about a variety of design topics. After Adams joked about not wanting to be the only one eating breakfast (for the record I ate before I came; everyone else seemed to be existing on coffee alone), designers around the table discussed challenges they face in the workplace — the lack of brand enforcement, the juggling act of designing and assigning projects in the absence of a traffic manager and project management system, etc. Adams discussed his experience designing for Nickelodeon (developing brand guidelines and such) and stressed the importance of getting involved in your local AIGA chapter to network with other designers and build relationships. Adams was super down to earth and quite humorous. I left feeling like I made a good choice for my roundtable.


After hearing from designers who worked on the rebrand for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which was quite bold and refreshing, Dontrese Brown (Capital One), talked about being bold in your design, actions, and life:

be bold. be daring. the shy ones seldom make history.

• Following your passion WILL DEFINE your purpose.

• Increase your social capital. Surround yourself with people smarter than you.

• Ensure your company’s moral compass matches yours.

• Set the standards for creative excellence

• Ensure you are doing design for good, not just for art’s sake.

BOTTOM LINE When you are not excited about work and the products you create, it’s time to be bold and make a change. Hmm…

Next up…Tracy Ma. She talked about her time at Businessweek and the dramatic transformation of the look and feel of the publication, proving a financial publication doesn’t have to be boring. (See below.)

At lunch, I signed up for a session called the “Impact of Inclusion.” I sat at a table with designers from places like California and Alaska. And I thought I had a long flight to Vegas! When they found out I lived in Charlotte, I got the typical, “I heard Charlotte is such a cool place.” When this happens, I always try to respond in a way that doesn’t crush their hopes and expresses that I have lived in Charlotte far too long to consider it “cool.” I would switch places with Cali dude in a second – minus the insane gas prices. Any way, the session focused on the lack of diversity in the design industry and discussed the importance of not only having diversity (in terms of race) within companies, but also having diverse points of views and experiences that can enrich the workplace environment.

The afternoon sessions were filled with (1) Sebastian Padilla, who has dabbled in everything from package design, to branding for restaurants, to a clothing line – showing all the different ways creativity can be channeled (2) John Maeda, who gave us his cell number and encouraged us to text him questions – which he answered live and (3) Gemma O’Brien, aka Mrs. Eaves, who painted a mural throughout the conference. She shared some of her illustrations and hand lettering work, as well as her infamous and witty motion sickness bag illustrations. Check out #spewbagchallenge.

One of Gemma’s masterpieces 🙂
One of Gemma’s masterpieces 🙂


Is this pretty enough?

I started the morning with a branding workshop with 3M, that included a group activity at the end. We had to think of a brand, identify the core audience and a design solution for a marketing tactic, and then think of possible barriers to carrying out the solution and how to overcome those barriers.

General takeaways

  • Designers create to drive business and add value. We are not there to just make things look good.

  • Partnerships with key individuals in your organization is key. Will help get your ideas approved.

  • Do pilot projects to convince leadership of the value of good design. Celebrate small wins.

  • Know how to sell your work. Influence others positively.

  • Branding is NOT storytelling. It’s a journey we take that results in an experience.

Later in the morning, there was a session about David Bowie, who was a designer among many other things. The speaker, Alina Wheeler, was a HUGE fan, and showed examples of his art and played clips from his concert. And yes, she sang along. At one point, she invited us all to stand up, clap, and sing along. I thought to myself, am I at a conference or a concert? 😆 While I am not really a fan of Bowie’s music, I can respect his artistry.

Yo Santosa shared her work with Hustler, redesigning packaging for their sex toys. She brought up a good point: if the majority of the products’ buyers are women, why were there so many half-naked women on the packaging, as if they are marketing to men? So by changing the color palette (think brighter colors and a refined palette) and adding illustrations and fun names to the products, an entire new look was born. They even added the number of calories buyers can burn using the products on the packaging. Pretty clever, huh?

So, let’s land this plane, as my pastor likes to say. By the end of the conference, my head was spinning from all of the speakers and information my brain tried to retain over the week. But it was wonderful to be surrounded by like-minded people who share the same passion as I do and understand the highs and lows of our industry. Let me leave you with a few questions from the conference to ponder:

Questions all designers should ask themselves:



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