Weapons of Mass Creation

My love letter to Weapons of Mass Creation

[Notes from the road: As I begin my journey back to Scranton – heading east on route 80 with a long road ahead – I have plenty of time to process all the amazing memories dancing around my brain from a very inspiring three-day weekend. And even though my head’s still spinning, I wanted to get down as many thoughts as possible while they were still fresh.]

The Quick Pitch

Not only am I beyond thrilled with my experience at Weapons of Mass Creation, I’m making it a personal goal to tell as many people as possible about this gem. Whether you’re just out of design school, working full-time but doing a side hustle, or a few years in to running your own shop, you need to attend this conference. A 3-day all access pass to the fest only costs 120 bucks (It’s a very budget-friendly conference) and on top of that, they’re always running deals (if you’re into that sort of thing). I got 50% off for being an Arsenal member! The workshops are extra but are also very affordable (ranging from $30-$60) and all talks are included in the price of admission. Bottom line, in a world full of email communications, Skype meetings and Slack hangouts, this is a chance to spend some quality time with a ton of amazing like-minded creatives.

My Personal Journey

This was my first trip out to Weapons of Mass Creation, and for those who don’t know, WMC is a Cleveland based 3-day conference that celebrates design, entrepreneurship, and creativity. The festival is presented by Go Media and is the result of a lot of blood, sweat and tears by an amazing group of folks including Heather Sakai (@sakaipower), Bryan Garvin (@bryangarvin) and countless other hard-working volunteers. For the past few years, I’ve heard wonderful things about WMC Fest, mostly through my dealings with Go Media and their design resource site Arsenal, but for one reason or another, I never made the trek out. This year was different.

Weapons of Mass Creation
The Ohio & State Theatre. Home to Weapons of Mass Creation 7.

When my family and I relocated to Scranton in 2015, I left a ton of great creative friends back in Philly, and while I’m still in the process of carving out a network in my new home, I knew that this was one thing WMC was known for. On top of that, after a topsy-turvy first year of running Variant, I was feeling over-worked, creatively exhausted and burnt out. So not only was I hoping to connect with members of the community, I was also jonesing for some inspiration, advice, and positive energy to recharge with. So after a nudge from my lovely wife, I decided this was the year to make it happen.

While I wasn’t able to go to attend every workshop and talk, I tried my damnedest to cover a ton of ground and what follows is a spin through my experience. Let’s dive in.

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A look inside the lobby of the spectacular Ohio theatre

Workshops

Between Friday and Saturday, the fest offered a diverse collection of workshops including – to name a few – Meetings with an Impact, Creating a Killer Portfolio, and Going Big with Lettering. (See the full list)

“DON’T FOLLOW YOUR PASSION,
FOLLOW YOUR EFFORT”

 – Mark Cuban

I decided to spend the bulk of my Friday attending the workshop “How to Start and Build a Profitable Design Business” run by Partner, and Chief Experience Officer of Nine Labs, Brad Weaver.

Brad is the man. Extremely passionate and knowledgable, he offers a direct and sometimes sobering playbook on what it takes to become a successful and sane creative owner. That sane part is crucial! He breaks it down into some key steps, and while he peppers in basics of getting up and running – like registering for a corporation, tax IDs, etc. – the real meat of his talk focuses on becoming profitable. This includes tips for building out your network, calculating shop costs, price bracketing, contracts, all things I found truly helpful. And while I walked out feeling encouraged that I’m doing a fair amount the right way, I did feel there are some things I could be doing to sharpen up my operations. My key takeaways were not only reassessing my value, but making sure I’m locked in on my shop costs, so I can work towards increasing profits. I got a ton out of this workshop and encourage anyone thinking of starting a creative shop to check it out. If you can’t get out to see one of his talks live, don’t worry, the dude wrote a book on it!

To learn more about Brad, you can check out ninelabs.com, follow him on Instragram (@bradweaver) or other social sites (@sbradweaver)

Weapons of Mass Creation
A few of my favorite speakers from this year’s Weapons of Mass Creation. (Left to Right) Jay Wallace, Isabel Urbina Peña, Stefan Sagmeister, Jillian Adel

Speakers

One thing that sets WMC apart from some of the bigger conferences is the speaker schedule. Instead of trying to jam as many talks as possible into the weekend they left a bit of breathing room, which meant I could pretty much see everything I wanted throughout Saturday and Sunday. Nice!

“SO MUCH OF THE CRAFT IS MUSCLE MEMORY”

– Sean Starr

Bright and early Saturday morning I decided to check out “Coffee With a Sign Painter,a Q&A with legendary sign painter Sean Starr (@starrstudiostx). I went honestly just because I was curious and turns out he’s not only crazy talented but a really awesome down-to-earth guy who’s been doing this forever. He’s a craftsman who’s spent years perfecting his trade, and takes it really seriously. I loved hearing his story, his process. It was just refreshing to hear a creative craftsman talk so passionately about his trade. Bonus: I added a new documentary to my queue, “Sign Painters: The Film” which Sean is a part of.

“LIFE IS GOOD, WORK IS HARD”

– Jillian Adel

Next up was art director and letterer, Jillian Adel (@jillianbadel). I’ve been a fan of Jillian’s work since we connected back in 2015, right around the time she relocated from NY to LA. Her story, entitled The Upside of Frustration, centered around getting sick and tired with her daily grind and “boys club” surroundings in New York and deciding to reboot, invest in herself, and move to California. It’s a very brave, very inspiring story. She talked a lot about getting started, putting a ton of energy into marketing herself, and figuring out who she was and what kind of creative work she wanted to do. Great talk! She’s awesome person and a wildly talented creative. You can find more about Jillian Adel over at her site.

“IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT,
WHEN ARE YOU GONNA HAVE TIME TO FIX IT?”

– Jeral Tidwell

Jeral Tidwell (@artboytidwell) was the next speaker of the day and is a well-known illustrator who gained a ton of notoriety in the 80s and 90s from his work in the skateboard scene (Or as he likes to say, making money drawing a skull, eating a skull, eating another skull). I walked in a few minutes late, but got the sense he was just going to wing it. The title of his talk was Copyright, Analog Art, and Thinking Like a Bad Ass but you could tell almost immediately he wasn’t going to stick to that. To hear him tell it, he decided to speak more candidly after walking around Ink Wars the night before, and hearing folks saying things like, “I would never be able to do that,” “I’m too scared,” and “Wow! They’re so talented, I can’t do that.” All those moments of insecurity bouncing around the crowd made him stop and think, so he decided to shift things a bit and use his platform to address it. He admits his “I’m too stupid to know any better” approach to work/life has done right by him, and spent the majority of his talk using that philosophy to encourage everyone to not let fear get in the way. “Stop saying can’t, forget about what everybody else thinks, and just go off and be a bad-ass!”

The back half of his talk focused on his current journey after another wild idea. After years of being a successful illustrator, he and his wife are now building a free art school in an under-served area in Louisville, KY. They sold their house, moved into this vacant 15,000 Sq. ft. warehouse, and are working their asses off to create this public space. Here’s a guy that just decided he wanted to do something good in the world and instead of overthinking it to death and talking himself out of it, he just said “Fuck it” and is now working to make it happen. How inspiring is that?!

Amazing talk. Raw and extremely empowering. Despite the fact that he was spinning through this stuff as it came to him – or at least that’s the way he framed it – it was really well put together.  You can follow Jeral on Instagram and check out his work site Humantree.com. Hopefully he’ll add some progress updates in the near future as the school project develops.

“FIND A PROFIT IN YOUR PASSION”

– Mark Brickey

Mark Brickey (@Markbrickey) hosts a podcast called Adventures in Design and his “Staying Free as a Freelancer” talk focused on finding a profit in your passion. After years of working as a successful freelancer, he took a step back and realized how frustrated and overworked he had become, basically feeling like he traded in one boss for twenty. So he set a new goal of becoming client-free and walked us through the three C’s that helped him – calculator, calendar and checklist. Now Mark makes a living hosting the AID podcast as he travels the world talking to successful independent creatives who have carved out their own paths.

“THE DAY I GOT FIRED,
I WAS ON MY WAY TO A JOB INTERVIEW”

– Jay Wallace

The Stake Is High” was my first talk of the day on Sunday and featured Jay Wallace (@JayGWallace), an Ohio-based designer, illustrator currently working for the MLS Soccer team, Columbus Crew SC. Jay shared his short, sweet, and sharp personal success story about transitioning from side work to doing what he loves full-time. What really resonated with me about Jay’s story was his mantra about never settling and staying hungry. Even if you’re at a job you like and have settled into, reminding yourself that “This is not my end-game, this is not the end of the line for me.” There is nothing wrong with constantly challenging yourself to do the next thing and Jay definitely walks that walk. Do yourself a favor and check out his work, I have a feeling he’s destined to do great things.

“LET’S BRING BEAUTY BACK”

– Stefan Sagmeister

I’m going to out myself and confess that up until this year I had no idea who Stefan Sagmeister (@stefansagmeister) was. Having a background in film, I sometimes find myself in a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to the design world. Turns out this guy is a design rock-star. He’s been doing it a really long time (including a long run in design for the music industry) and has become extremely influential. I first heard of Stefan and his firm Sagmeister & Walsh through his documentary “The Happy Film” which premiered at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. I loved the mission of the film and was very much hoping his talk would cover some similar ground. He did not disappoint, and was by far my favorite speaker of the conference. His talk was on Why Beauty Matters and focused on the importance of not only looking for beauty but how is makes us feel. Not just in terms of our quality of life (Eg. searching for things that are beautiful, finding meaning in beauty) but also in how we translate that into our own creative work. Honestly, there’s too much to try and cover here, so I’m planning on a separate post. He also has an ongoing photo series where he celebrates the beauty of album art and posts daily shots of four covers from his personal collection to his Instagram account. Definitely worth the follow.

“FOCUS ON BEING BETTER,
BIGGER WILL HAPPEN ON ITS OWN”

– LL Bean

Wilson Revehl’s (@wilsonrevehl) talk about Go Media’s Best/Worst Year used the story of Moby Dick to illustrate the trials and tribulations his design shop went through pursuing a high-profile international client. Stocked with both professional and personal life-lessons, Wilson did an excellent job despite the heavy subject matter. I’m sure all small business owners can relate to his story as we’ve all that “What if we land this huge client? moment. “Should we take it on? Can we quickly scale or should we stick with our slow and steady approach?” And while it was definitely sobering at times, he offered up some wonderful advice, shared some empowering moments and left me with a ton of great takeaways. You can find more out about Wilson and Go Media over at their site. 

“WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DECIDE TO IGNORE THE CONCEPT
OF WHAT SOMETHING “IS” OR “SHOULD BE”…

– Isabel Urbina Peña

Artist and type designer Isabel Urbina Peña (@Bellera) closed out WMC 7 with a beautiful talk entitled “Everyone Else was Already Taken,” which included highlights from her journey from Venezuela to New York, finding her design style and eventually discovering a unique way to present her work to the world. It was very refreshing to hear that while most of us spend our time creating for ourselves and clients, it’s almost as important to focus on presenting that work in a way that enhances the personality of the project. You can find out more about Isabel over at her beautiful site.

The Dropbox Vendor Village, located in the lobby of the State Theatre.
The Dropbox Vendor Village, located in the lobby of the State Theatre.

Vendor Village

The Dropbox Vendor Village was an overwhelming gathering of inspiring creatives, all of which were super cool. Great conversations with a ton of killer creative folks doing amazing work. Highlights for me included:

Snakes + Aceys –  On top of being awesome people, Hannah and Anthony of Snakes + Aceys also create incredible apparel and posters.  I grabbed their “Land of the Free” tee as well as their Weapon of Choice poster series created for WMC.

The National Poster Retrospecticus – Based out of Austin and featuring more than 400 hand-printed posters by over 125 of the most prominent poster designers in the USA, the NPR tour was alone worth the price of admission. Not to mention, JP and Andy are hilarious. I picked up two prints from Daniel Danger, a Primus 2015 tour poster and the Retrospecticus Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tour poster from 2014.

Charlie Wagers  – Another super talented artist who creates gig posters and enamel pins through his co-venture, Lost Lust Supply Co.  I picked up his gorgeous Ray Lamontagne tour poster, and a couple of his enamel pins.

Eleven by Seventeen – Keith is a poster designer who’s recently branched out into the world of alternate move posters, very much like myself. So obviously we became best friends. Super great guy.

Also this…

Letterpressing prints with Cranky PressmanTons of awesome swag from Jakprints including some delicious creative juice • Hands on screenprinting of a WMC shirt courtesy of Real Thread • Jeff Finley and his Starseed Supply Co. • Flying destroyer disk by OK Pants • The super ladies representing Cleveland’s economic development program.

When planning your trip to WMC 8, definitely be sure to bring a little extra spending money, because I guarantee you’re going to find something at the Vendor Village that’s a must have.

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Ink Wars 2016 Champ Katia Oloy (@ekoloy) in the midst of creating her masterpiece.

Parties, Podcasts and other highlights

  • Crashed the VIP party on Friday night in order to be a guest on Bryan’s live recording of We Are Weapons. Listen to it! 
  • Watched in awe as a group of talented illustrators competed in Ink Wars. The theme? A mashup between Superman and the awkward teenage years. In the end, Katia Oloy (@ekoloy) was awarded the prize belt.
  • Attended the live recording of Adventures in Design with Mark Brickey.  The evening’s guests were Jeral Tidwell, Jamal Collins, and the Fest’s Emcee Aaron, better know as Ok Pants. (Side note: Aaron did a terrific job. He’s a Cleveland-based designer and you can check out his stuff here.) The highlight of the night was learning about Jamal Collin’s work with the Boys and Girls club in Cleveland teaching them to things like Photoshop and exposing them to the possibilities of being creative professional. Amazing work. Follow @Jayworking if you want to keep up with the wonderful work Jay’s up to.
  • Teaming up with some other South Jersey natives to take on our dreaded foes up in North at the Jak Prints official after party.

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    Fourth St, Cleveland. Home to a ton of great restaurants including Mabel’s BBQ and Greenhouse Tavern.

    Cleveland Rocks!

    Cleveland is a great town and reminds me of Philly in a lot of ways. Great sports town, awesome food, cool people. Plus Cleveland’s riding high thanks to the Cav’s big win this year, and getting some national love courtesy of hosting the RNC. A few random tidbits:

    Eating a hotdog topped in Mac n Cheese, bacon and fruit loops thanks to Happy Dog • Catching an Indians game at Progressive Field (They played Wild Thing!!) • Walking around the spectacular venues at Playhouse Square • Heading over to 4th street and grabbing some wings @ Greenhouse Tavern (No, I didn’t try the pig’s head)

    Wrap it up Gary

    Bottom line, I would encourage anyone that’s a creative looking to learn, be inspired and hang out with tons of like-minded folks to check out Weapons of Mass Creation next year. Somehow – surprisingly –  they’re struggling a bit to stay alive and I think it’s because of their grassroots approach. They’ve done a great job of keeping the conference small and intimate without help from huge corporate sponsors, and while that makes the festival extremely special, it also puts some financial strain. So please do whatever you can to support them. It’s a very worthwhile design conference put on by an amazing group of people and I could not recommend it more.

    To learn more, donate, sign up for email updates or see if there’s a way to get involved, head over to wmcfest.com.

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Thanks to Gary from Variant for this incredible write-up! Please visit Gary over at his official site, or get social with him over at his Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. – the WMC Fest team

Weapons of Mass Creation Fest Podcast

Podcast: Why Brad Weaver is a Weapon of Mass Creation