weapons of mass creation fest inspires designers to collaborate, work hard and have fun

We've all had that moment when killer design makes us stop and say, "Sweet!" Perhaps it was a poster for an upcoming show or that glowing neon sign at your favorite pub. Maybe it was the logo emblazoned on your morning cup o' joe or the old-school lettering on a friend's snarky T-shirt.

These experiences come courtesy of the creative types who work in design. Some of the best and brightest in the field will be headed to Cleveland's Gordon Square for the second annual Weapons of Mass Creation Fest.

Equal parts conference, art exhibit and music festival, Weapons of Mass Creation is the brainchild of Jeff Finley, a partner in the Cleveland-based agency Go Media. He launched the gathering last year as a way of uniting the local creative community.

"We want people to come to Weapons of Mass Creation to share their ideas," Finley explains. "Most are designers or work in the industry in some way."

This year's Fest features a line-up of 20 speakers, 20 designers and 20 bands, who will fill the two days and nights with compelling thoughts, images and sounds. Talks will be held at Gordon Square's Reinberger Auditorium, exhibits at Wall Eye Gallery, and bands at Happy Dog.

Finley says the talks will be wide-ranging and, at a cost of just $10 per day, a bargain compared to most design conferences.

Fresh Water caught up with some of the scheduled speakers for a little taste of what's to come.

Do what you love and the work will follow

"The main point I have is this idea of "Will work for work,'" says Mikey Burton, an award-winning designer and Canton native who now lives in Philadelphia. "Self-initiated projects can generate client work, so just doing things because you're passionate about them can lead to work."

As a student at Kent State, Burton helped launch Little Jacket, a Cleveland-based company that got its start making hand letter-pressed gig posters.

"It kind of blossomed over time into a design boutique and we were doing it full time," he explains. "But it started with us making the goofiest things we could think of in our basement."

Chicago-based designer Mig Reyes also plans to encourage attendees to do what they love.

"A lot of what I talk about is being your own permission giver," Reyes says. "I'm going to show why passion projects and following what you'd rather be doing makes sense and why it works and is really beneficial."

It's certainly worked for Reyes, who holds a plumb creative post with popular T-shirt company Threadless.

"I got hired at Threadless for one specific project that my boss saw in my portfolio -- and that was a side project that no one asked me to do. I just kind of did it."

Los Angeles-based designer Janée Meadows has a similar story.

"If I wanted to do artwork for a band, I would just come up with a design for the band and I would show it to them and say 'Hey, I'm a fan and here's what I did.' And sometimes they would take me on," says Meadows, whose work for bands like Paloalto, Golden State, and the Donnas will be on display in the gallery.

Learn from the journey

Design conferences are a great opportunity to see inspiring work from the folks you admire. Better yet, they offer valuable insight into just how those designers got to where they are today.

"The end result is just one small piece of the puzzle," explains Cleveland-based illustrator Aaron Sechrist (aka OK Pants). "Who's not fascinated by listening to other people talk about how they got where they are?"

Sechrist will speak on a panel with Go Media designer Oliver Barrett. The duo will discuss their careers over the past decade or so.

"We're at a point where we can talk to younger people about our experiences and where we've made mistakes and succeeded, but how at the same time, we're still very far from where we'd like to be," explains Sechrist, whose clients have included Tower City Amphitheater and House of Blues.

Todd Saperstein, chair of the graphic design department at Virginia Marti College of Art and Design, says this is precisely what his students are hoping to hear.

"It's people just like them… someone who didn't follow all the rules and regulations that the world has told us we need to follow and yet they've made it," Saperstein enthuses.

Saperstein's talk is titled: "The Journey: Map or Compass."

"What we mean by that is that in order to succeed we need to accept the journey, and to realize that if you want the map, forget it, because the journey is not about knowing everything ahead of time."

Hard work really does pay off

Aaron Draplin is one the most important graphic designers of our day. As founder of the Portland-based Draplin Design Co., he has done work for Coal Headwear, Burton Snowboards, and even the Obama Administration.

What got him here? Hard work, of course.

"I come from humble beginnings in Northern Michigan, and the route I've taken is a little dirtier maybe than the rest," explains Draplin. "I did go to art school, but for years and years and years it was just me, just kind of going for it."

Draplin says that young designers need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and work.

"I've built my portfolio on working hard. And a lot of what has gotten me jobs wasn't necessarily the big-name client. It was a good solution or that I gave my all," he adds.

And, he says, don't snub that "little" gig. "It's being open to saying, 'You have a little budget, let's go,'" he says. "Be open to that because those little things sometimes have brought me really big jobs."

Embrace the roadblock

The pursuit of any career, no matter the field, inevitably means dealing with frustration.

But, says Joseph Hughes, art director at Cleveland's Melamed Riley, "You need to take every opportunity to learn from those situations -- not just the successes, but also when you are getting your butt kicked out there."

Hughes will focus his WMC Fest talk on precisely these types of challenges -- and how he's triumphed over them.

"Not having a degree in design was holding me back, and at the time, I didn't have the time or money to go back and get an MFA," Hughes explains. "So I decided I was going to work harder and I was going to turn what I did go to school for -- writing -- into a strength by bringing that to the table."

"The takeaway is that when our clients ask us to make the most out of the resources at our disposal, well you have to make the most of the resources at your personal disposal."

Do good, be good

For speaker Stephanie Rexroth, principal of Pittsburgh-based On the Vine Creative, using the resources at her disposal has meant focusing on projects that inspire change and empower people.

"People are starting to embrace this idea of design for good," explains Rexroth. "Especially in a city like Cleveland, and some of the other Rust Belt areas, there is so much opportunity to see change happen. You don't need to wait years and years."

Rexroth will discuss her work with Pittsburgh's ecoDesigners Guild, whose Green and Screen project is helping beautify Penn Avenue, a struggling thoroughfare in that city.

"We identify spots on the avenue that are in disrepair or unsafe or in need of beautification."

Collaborate with peers

For many designers, working with others is a core part of the creative process. And so it is with Quite Strong, a Chicago-based collaborative of five female creatives.

"It's sort of odd to form a collaborative," admits Katherine Walker, a designer at the Chicago agency VSA Partners. "So that's one thing we hope to explore in our talk."

Quite Strong, which maintains space in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, grew organically says freelance designer Elaine Chernov. "First, the plan was just for us to have a space. Then it was to be involved in the community more and sort of to do the 'feminist' thing. Now we do pro bono work as a collaborative and we also get freelance projects."

"Collaboratives are becoming more common," notes Victoria Pater, also a freelance designer. "People are seeing the value in shared space and that's a gateway drug to forming a collaborative. And it's always nice to have a couple of people around to look at what you're working on."

Visit the Weapons of Mass Creation website for a complete line-up of speakers, schedule of events, and to buy tickets.

Photos Bob Perkoski *except where noted
- Photos 1-3: Go Media
- Photo 4:Todd Saperstein, Department Chair at Virginia Marti College of Art and Design
- Photos 5 - 7: Weapons of Mass Creation 2010 *courtesy of Go Media
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