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Thoughts on Design Camp 2018

Our content team voyaged north to Design Camp for inspiration from leading creatives, technique sharing and time together. Here were some takeaways from the team:

The theme of this year’s Design Camp was “Inside Out” and the goal was for everyone to put it all on the table—personally, professionally and creatively. As a classic reserved Midwesterner, my first reaction when I heard this was, “No, thank you.” But as I listened to the speakers and presenters share their stories, the more I started to think that maybe I do have a story of my own to tell. I have always shied away from doing personal work, believing that my purpose as a designer could only be derived by creating things for other people. But the presentations left me questioning the assumption that creating something for myself is inherently incompatible with creating things for other people.

This idea culminated in the final keynote from illustrator Andy J. Pizza who talked about how looking at gig posters had helped him dig himself out of a depression. Something that was meant to be functional and ephemeral had become someone’s lifeline. As designers, we have very little control over what happens to our work once it has been released into the world. Most often, we worry about people misunderstanding or even ruining our work, but isn’t magical to think that our work could be thing to turn someone’s life around?

So, still being a Midwesterner, I of course did not voice any of the ideas that were running around in my head during the actual weekend, but it has got me thinking about how I can use design to tell my own story. Because, maybe, there is someone out there who needs to hear it.

– Kirstie

Design Team in Brainerd, MN

Plaidurday 2018

Design Camp 2018 was a great opportunity to glean new techniques and meet skilled designers, but the most important takeaway I had from the experience was that even the most veteran designers out there undergo the same brief moments of doubt and near-burnout that all creatives do. Not only do they have these moments, but their experiences have taught them how to systematically push through these obstacles and return to creating their best work. We able to hear these and learn from these stories thanks to the vulnerability the keynote speakers were willing to show us, so I think we can all agree that we’re endlessly thankful.

– Joel

Design Camp was a fantastic weekend of fellowship and learning for our design team. We studied and discussed the creative process, inspiration, and collaboration and came home with some great tools to improve our work. One teaching theme emerged for me from a number of the speakers, and reflects a comment from a famous athlete:

”It seems like the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

A number of speakers reflected on how they fought through low periods of creativity or dead periods of work. For those that found their way through these periods, a common theme was ”just keep working.“ Work projects, personal projects, passion projects—find a way to keep working and producing. It was often this work borne in low periods that created the exposure or inspiration for future successful work. This kind of ”luck,” obviously, is created through dedication and intentional focus, and all creatives need to find a way to fight through their low periods and breakthrough. At MJM, having a great team of creatives around to work with and create with definitely helps support each individual creative as they work hard and create more luck!

– Logan

I have one core or foundational belief about creativity. It’s that new ideas are simply new combinations of familiar things. This concept of combinatorial creativity is only reinforced by conferences like Design Camp. It’s incredibly invigorating to spend a weekend retreat with like-minded designers and thinkers, getting inspired by the journey others have taken and the things they’ve learned along the way.

One of the workshops outlined a technique for ”Bulletproof Ideation” by combining ideas in a methodical fashion. We learned about the Bedno Diagram – a tool invented by designer and educator Ed Bedno—which provides a framework for seeing and exploring the intersection of multiple ideas. The process was very familiar, but I had never seen it implemented so thoroughly and methodically. And I was inspired by the suggestion to use the technique to reverse engineer ideas that have inspired me, to understand how their creator may have arrived at that solution. It was a good reminder that good ideas don’t come out of thin air, delivered by a muse in a ”eureka” moment. They are intentionally crafted and combined, and are accessible to all who are willing to work rigorously for them.

That last point connects back to the final keynote speaker, Andy J. Pizza. He shared the highs and lows of his creative journey, and wisdom he gained along the way, with the ultimate conclusion that there are no shortcuts for a fulfilling creative career. You have to do the work. And sometimes you have to struggle for it. That struggle might look like an exhaustive Bedno diagram, or piles of discarded concepts on the way to one workable solution. Learning to enjoy the process and to see it as intrinsically valuable is the key to going far.

– Brady

No matter what you want to learn, most skills and ideas are available to anyone who is interested through YouTube tutorials and Skillshare classes. You don’t need to drive halfway to Canada to find inspirational speakers or to learn interesting new techniques, but our design team does exactly that every year.

AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp is a yearly retreat just outside Brainerd, MN. Each fall the MJM design team makes the trek up to northern Minnesota, and while the workshops and the speakers’ portfolios are interesting, to my mind they are not the most valuable part of the experience. The reward that compels me to make the trip is perspective.

This year that perspective had less to do with design methodology, new paper options, or printing techniques—it was something deeper. I felt like I heard two different answers to the question, “What is your work for?” Some of the speakers I heard and the designers I met talked about the scope of their portfolio and the size of their audience; they spoke about their personal brand and their career path. Good work equals more glory. Other people focused on the lives they had touched, the students they had taught, and the relationships they had formed with clients and colleagues over the course of their career. Good work means better relationships with people.

“What is your work for?”

Looking at my own past work, some of it has held up well, but much of it has not. Projects I worked on even 6 months ago can sometimes cause me to cringe. But the relationships I’ve developed with coworkers, students and clients are evergreen. Last year’s projects are getting stale; last year’s relationships are still a source of joy. Do the work, and enjoy the process, but don’t look to your work to make you happy. The work (whatever it is) is valuable, but it’s really only a backdrop to the things that matter most.

– Tim

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Designers Tackle the 36 Days of Type 2018

#36DaysofType

Each day a new character, and in our case, a new designer as we passed around the alphabet to explore type, animation, illustration, storytelling and more. Designers and illustrators around the world participated in 36 Days of Type by posting to instagram and connected with the #36DaysOfType hashtags. We decided to tackle the challenge as a team this April and May. Repetition invites creativity and crafting. We also invited the opportunity to try new techniques. We stuck (somewhat) to our original color palette and prescribed dimensions and dove in.

Each designer chose their favorite letter and gave some background. (Check out this reference for a quick guide on technical type terms.)

C

Joel

I always appreciate projects like 36 Days of Type for creating opportunities to try new tools and solutions in a design setting. I used much of that opportunity to explore computer-generated three-dimensional design and animation. While there are quite a few examples of this in the library of type we created, this “Inflatable C” is one of my favorite results of that exploration. While it’s quite minimal, it shows off some of the new options that the third dimension can create for designers like convincing depth in the subject and a more robust use of simulated physics. Along with all of that, this piece just makes me think of summer.

G

Kirstie

The double-story (or looptail) “g” is one of my all-time favorite letterforms. Even though it’s mostly superfluous, difficult to write and unrecognizable to the majority of population, I love how it seems to capture all of the personality of a typeface and its designer. For this illustration, I wanted to take full advantage of the letterform and do something playful to link the two counters. The shapes reminded me of pools of water, so I turned them into little ponds and, in the name of the letter “g,” added a goldfish leaping between the two. It’s a quirky little fish at home in a quirky little letter.

J

Alison

I think the most interesting part of a capitalized J is its arm. Many sans serif fonts do away with it for simplicity’s sake, but I like the way it can balance the otherwise asymmetrical form. I started with a grid paper sketch to articulate my idea. On paper I could visualize how to fit the two scoops of each J shape together and experiment with softly curved terminals. Then I moved to the Procreate app for iPad. I used a chalky brush to give body to the letter, and then used the eraser tool to define the edges and corners. Procreate allows layers so I could add illustrated florals between the tall, narrow J and the more squat, overreaching J tucked in where I wanted—and still have each piece editable. I fit organic shapes and ornaments in and around the ribbons to complete the bright composition.

K

Tim

One of my favorite aspects of the 36 Days of Type project was that it gave us freedom within a rigid structure. That sounds like a contradiction but it’s not—the project was completely open-ended, with no direction or client feedback, but at the same time, the content was inflexible (the letter of the day), the timeframe was limited (one letter each day) and as a team we also chose to limit ourselves to a common color palette. Freedom within constraints can lead to remarkably creative solutions.

For some of my letters I tried to build a formal letter shape, conforming to typographic traditions and crafted for legibility and grace. This K is an example. After looking at other K shapes in a variety of fonts and calligraphy I identified some of the geometric “bones” that I wanted to build my K around.

In other letter explorations, I chose a more conceptual approach. I thought it would be fun to build the letter P shape out of large, oversized pixels. In the animated version of this “P is for Pixels” composition, I created a digital sort of shimmer by slowly fading each block between a few different values of blue.

X

Brady

I love projects that require a series of explorations around the same prompt. Eventually your typical approach to the problem starts to feel tired and uninspired and you are forced to try something you might not normally consider. 36 Days of Type was that sort of project for me (even in just the 7 or so iterations I completed as part of our team approach).

Part way through my initial explorations began to lose their initial spark and I started looking around my environment at home for inspiration. We have a variety of patterned fabrics and other materials around the house, from curtains to coasters, and while studying them one evening I started to imagine how those patterns would look in motion. One pattern in particular happens to feel very much like a grid of geometric letter X’s.

Once I tested the idea with X, I wondered about the same concept applied to a different pattern-letter combination. It was interesting approaching the problem from the other direction the second time around, starting with a particular letter or number and trying to discover it in an already existing pattern.

You can see the whole set from the MJM design team on our Instagram account or by watching the video below!

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How to Fall in Love with Your Audience

I love being a graphic designer. But there are days when I find myself feeling listless—like everything I make is nothing more than meaningless, ephemeral “stuff.” To combat this problem, I’ve been trying something new: falling in love.

I don’t mean the fairytale romance kind of love. I mean the love that comes from genuinely caring about someone other than yourself. The kind of love that allows you to see the world from a different perspective.

Whether you’re a designer, content creator or business owner, falling in love with your audience can help reignite the passion for your work and allow you to do work that can actually make a difference in someone’s life.

1. Be Interested

Note that this does not say be interesting. Remember that this is about them, not you. Resist the urge to rattle off qualifications or experience and instead just listen. Treat every interaction with your audience—whether face-to-face or virtual—like a first date by giving them the gift of your full, undivided attention.

Ask them about their day, their likes, their dislikes, their hopes, their dreams. The more you’re able to see your audience as a complex, beautiful person and not just a customer or a patient, the more motivated you are to provide useful solutions to their problems.

2. Be Observant

If you’re meeting someone in-person, take notice of their surroundings. If you’re meeting in their home or office, pay attention to how they’ve created their environment. What people choose to surround themselves with can say a lot about them.

If you’re meeting someone outside of their environment, you can still pay attention to their mannerisms—the way they speak and carry themselves. Pick up on the little quirks and mannerisms that make each person unique. Hold onto these little gems and pull them out whenever you feel yourself getting frustrated and losing sight of who you’re working for.

4. Be Empathetic

As the creator of your message or service, you have the benefit of much more context than your audience. This divide is particularly striking when handling criticism or complaints. If someone comes to you with a problem, you likely already know that problem exists and have an excuse at the ready.

But rather than begin on the defensive, try to see it from their perspective. Reframe the problem and try to solve it in a way that most benefits them and not just in the way that is easiest for you. This will not only give you more compassion for your audience, but also provide you with greater insight into how to make your product or service better.

4. Fake It

Of course, there are many times when you don’t have direct access to your audience or it’s simply too vast to get to know them on a personal level. If that’s the case, you may just have to fake it.

Glean whatever information you can from customer surveys, user comments or social media followers and craft personas of who your audience might be. Think about what their lives might be like and consider how that will affect how they interact with your content or service. Find stock photos and stick them somewhere you can see them so you can put a face to your audience. The decisions based on these personas may not be authentic, but they will at least be sincere.

Remember that love is a choice. And when we choose to love the people we serve, it changes all of our lives for the better.

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Designing the Future of Downtown Sioux Falls

When you grow up in a place like South Dakota, you grow up with a pervasive belief that if you really want to do “something” with your life, you had better go do it somewhere else.

But what if instead of focusing on all of the things we can’t do in Sioux Falls, we were to focus on all of the things we can do?

Clock in Downtown Sioux Falls

I have lived in Sioux Falls my entire life and I’ve spent most of that life desperately wanting to be anywhere else. But recently—in one of the most difficult and most exhilarating decisions of my life—I’ve made the choice to stay.

One of the most exciting things about living in a small city is that there’s still so much room to grow. Sioux Falls has yet to really figure out who it wants to be in the world. While bemoaning the lack of opportunities in the region, many miss out on the biggest opportunity of all: to shape the future of a city.

Man taking a photo of the Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls has already grown tremendously over the past few decades. I’ve watched with pride as it has developed into a more inclusive and diverse city. Nowhere has this been more apparent than downtown. What used to be one of the more run-down parts of the city has become a vibrant hub for local culture and businesses.

I’ve lived and worked in various parts of the city at various times, but with MJM’s relocation downtown Sioux Falls and my own personal relocation a block away, I’ve had the opportunity to really immerse myself in the ideas that are brewing there and what they might mean for the future of the city.

One of the ideas that energizes me most is walkability. If you have talked to me at all in the last few months, you have probably heard how much I love being able to walk to work. ARUP recently published a pretty thorough report about the domino benefits of designing walkable cities and it’s a great read for those interested in the topic, but my benefit is a simple one: happiness.

“As a fish needs to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk, not in order to survive, but to be happy.”—Enrique Peñalosa

Even in the bleak South Dakota midwinter, I’m still more excited for a 10-minute walk than a 20-minute drive. We’ve written on the blog before about how instances of human interaction are dwindling and I think the biggest benefit of walking is that it has made me feel more connected to the community and the people in it.

While sitting in your metal box on the highway, it’s easy to forget about all of the other people sitting in their own metal boxes. But it’s a lot harder to ignore someone when they’re walking by you on a sidewalk.

A piece from the Statue Walk in Downtown Sioux Falls

Unfortunately, downtown is one of the few places in Sioux Falls that is pedestrian-friendly. But, there’s still time and space to change that. Will it happen? I don’t know. But I’m excited to find out.

And even if it doesn’t, I’m will continue working toward building a life and a future to be proud of. And I wouldn’t choose to do that anywhere else.

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White Space

I recently read an article from Anne Lamott that’s been rattling around in my head for the last couple of weeks. It left me feeling understood but utterly exposed in the way Lamott’s writing usually does. In it, she asks this question of her writing students and of all of us:

[W]hat manic or compulsive hours will they give up in trade for the equivalent time to write, or meander? Time is not free—that’s why it’s so precious and worth fighting for.

I always have this glorious but misguided dream that there will eventually be a triumphant end to my to-do list and a vast expanse of empty time will roll out before me and I can finally let my creativity roam free.

But this time is never just presented to us. The to-do list never ends and the need for more time only grows.

A need for space

Enough words have already been spilled about the “cult of busyness” we currently find ourselves in. Suffice it to say that the curse of our age seems to be that most of our days are consumed with constant reminders of all the other things we should be doing.

Life has become so filled, so scheduled that there is a longing for an absence; a white space in which we can simply be.

In design, white space is purposeful emptiness. It is defined by its very lack of content. But by allowing that content adequate space to breathe, white space allows us to focus on what’s really important.

In design, white space is purposeful emptiness.

Unfortunately, white space is often one of the first things to get sacrificed in favor of more: more words, more images and more information. But there’s a cost to this trade-off. The more room we fill up, the less time and space we have to appreciate what’s actually there.

Reclaiming time

Which brings me back to Lamott’s question: “What are you willing to give up?” Rather than sacrificing this time and this space, what to-do list item can wait or be eliminated altogether?

Last weekend, I asked myself the seemingly trivial but critical question, “What would happen if I didn’t do the laundry?” And the answer I came up with was: nothing. The world wouldn’t end if I decided to let the laundry go for a few more days.

So, rather than spend my Sunday afternoon folding and sorting clothes simply because that’s what I always do, I began working on a personal design project that I’d been thinking about for months and just never found the right time to get started on.

“What are you willing to give up?”

Of course, I’ll have to do the laundry eventually. This is a not a call to shirk the responsibilities of being a functional and decent human. The to-do list will always be there, beckoning us back into comfortable busyness. But by deliberately carving out this space – whether for a passion project, a walk outside or just time to let our thoughts wander – we make the space where we do everything else better.

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Fresh Starts

January is all about fresh starts. There’s a white blanket of new snow on the ground. The air is crisp and clear. It’s the perfect time to re-center and re-focus. One of my January rituals is to go through every item I own and get rid of anything that no longer seems useful or relevant. It’s a process that always leaves me with a sense of lightness and clarity. By getting rid of things I no longer need, I can see how much I’ve grown and changed over the last year.

But as much as I appreciate this process once it’s over, the toughest part is always letting go of the things that I had high hopes for. The dress that should have made me look like a million bucks but never fit quite right. The book I thought would be excellent conversation fodder but  never actually read. When it comes to items like these, giving them away feels more like giving up.

I often struggle with the same problem when designing. When I’ve invested so much time and thought on an idea, it can be hard let it go even when I recognize it’s not working. It’s so tempting to double down, to invest even more time to try and make my vision a reality. But I usually only succeed in digging a deeper hole for myself to climb out of.

So recently, I’ve been trying a new tactic: being grateful.

Just because you’ve spent time on an idea that didn’t pan out doesn’t mean that it was time wasted. Just like a dress that doesn’t fit, an unrealized idea doesn’t have to be a failure or a mistake. It can serve a purpose — if only to teach you what not to do.

So rather than clinging on for dear life, acknowledge when something isn’t working, be grateful for the lesson you learned, and let it go.

With a new year comes endless new possibilities and it’s inevitable that some of those possibilities won’t work out. So embrace the uncertainty and appreciate everything you learn along the way.