The following post first appeared on the fantastic design blog Graphicology on September 19th of last year. Superstar art director (and keeper of the Graphicology blog) Jason Smith was an integral part of the CreateAthon team last year, and his reflections on the event moved us to tears (quite literally). With his blessings—and in anticipation of CreateAthon '10 this Thursday/Friday, we are reposting it here, in its entirety.
Last Thursday at 8am began my first foray into CreateAthon. I had been threatening for years to be involved in some way, and I finally made good on that—learning quite a bit along the way.
First, you should know what CreateAthon is. CreateAthon is (from the site)"...a 24-hour, work-around the clock creative blitz during which local advertising agencies generate advertising services for local nonprofits that have little or no marketing budget. Since the program’s expansion from a single market to a national effort in 2002, 73 agencies have joined the CreateAthon network, holding CreateAthon events in their cities. This effort has benefited over 1,000 nonprofit organizations with 2,248 projects valued at more than $10 million."
So yeah, it's like anything that is followed by -athon. You do it, nonstop until the job is done only instead of money we're raising ideas that can live long past the event. You drop everything for 24 hours and focus on a problem or two that can be helped with a little design, writing, some creative thinking, strategy, multimedia or whatever you can give. Time being the key gift. And you give that gift to a select group of nonprofits. The nonprofits that we were assigned had to go through a thorough application process and be approved before the event.
CreateAthon was started 12 years ago by Riggs Partners, a much cooler than you can imagine group out of Columbia, SC. I've known Cathy Monetti, Teresa Coles and Kevin Smith for several years now and finally got down there to participate. I wasn't sure what to expect. I have turned around a project or two in less than a day during my career, but nothing like this. We were going to go from creative brief discussion at 8am to concept to execution to presentation to driving home without much sleep all in 24 hours. Yikes! But I couldn't resist being included and knew that because of the time limit on the process that much would be learned. And what thing learned isn't even more powerful when shared?
What I learned during CreateAthon '09.
1. The effect of ego. Immediately upon walking into Riggs early on Thursday morning, you knew there were no egos. Everyone was an equal part in the process and was equally respected. We were all coming together for a cause and that spirit was palpable. That had largely to do with the founders at Riggs, but let's just say everyone there were the nice people with which you would like to work. This was a good thing come 4am when you might otherwise freak out. This absence of ego was refreshing.
17 people. Zero Egos? Yep. (With me in the back as usual.)
2. What is your title / responsibility again? Every team had a strategic AE, an art director, a writer and one senior person person from Riggs to make sure everything was okay, but to be honest I could hardly tell who was resonsible for what. If you want a model of integration or collaboration or whatever fancy word is being thrown about these days, this was it. The AE took strategic thoughts form the art director. The art director took design input from the AE, the writer helped choose a strategic plan, the student on our team killed an idea (wisely) and was as free to speak his/her mind as one of the Riggs partners. This and the ego thing above went a long way to make this an enjoyable effort. I think replicating this spirit on a normal project, consistently over time, with regular employees would make the creative/strategic product better for sure. Not to mention the effect on morale.
3. Time constraints can be your friend. The impossible was done, going from brief to presentation in under a day, but there is a hidden lesson to be learned and that is the fact that a lack of time forces one to trust their creative instincts more. We had to think about it (concept), ask someone for his or her feedback, and then decide. (This was one of the taglines for the day, written down and everything.) There simply was no time for waffling or indecision. The clock was at once our friend and enemy. I could be wrong, but I believe Milton Glaser is quoted somewhere as saying that the more parameters he is given, the better his work becomes. I think Glaser would like CreateAthon.
I just need to: 1. think about it. 2. Talk about it. 3. Decide.
4. Insight versus problem reiteration. Raise your hand if you've ever been given a strategic brief that simply reiterated an obvious problem, and gave you nothing new with which to work. Ok, put it down. You would have loved the briefs we were given during CreateAthon. They were simple. Clear. Concise. And most importantly provided a strategic platform that helped focus the creative work. As a matter of fact, most of the briefs were every bit as creative as the final work. Working from these documents was a joy and saved a lot of that valuable factor we mentioned in lesson #3. I believe Katy, Kevin, and Teresa were responsible for all the briefs and they were great.
Katy presenting her brief and organizing our effort.
5. Sharing. This is slightly different than mere collaboration. Around midnight on Friday morning, we took some time (time that maybe—technically—could have been wrongly argued to be better spent actually working,) and got around a table to present our progress to all the teams. Seeing all the work from the other teams gave us a chance to applaud the good, nudge things that might need a little change, prepare for our final presentations a mere 8 hours later, but overall be encouraging to those laboring on other projects. It was inspiring to see what everyone else was creating and to show off what we were up to. This was as close to a creative community as I have witnessed. Sharing your work in process and being open and sensitive (the good sensitive, not the bad) to the reaction it garners is more than beneficial. It's also fun. Below, George, a photographer mind you, presents some of his copy and a design from Ryon - who by the way can really make typography sing like it's supposed to.
Our Third Quarter Progress Presentation.
6. Trust. Because there was no time we had to rely on each other. When someone gave you negative feedback on something, you really had no choice but to trust it. And by you - I mean me. There was a point on our project when I was very close to nailing a design but something wasn't quite right. What I was hearing was negative feedback, or at least constructive criticism, and they were right. Trusting people that I had not known very well (at least this intimately or creatively) in something as important as I consider design was not difficult in this environment. I took the feedback. Made a change. And the creative was better for it. You can try to be as collaborative as possible, but if you don't trust the people around you it's impossible.
7. How to use down time. Normally, if I am working on a project and get a little burnt or tired of working on it, I'd walk away from it. Go for a walk. Hit the gym. Grab a coffee or whatever. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But I also learned that maybe the best thing to do when stuck on something is to go help someone else. This was surprisingly an effective means of recharging my own efforts. I am not sure just how helpful I was to the other teams, but there were a couple of times I tried to give my two cents and help solve a problem that wasn't mine. When I came back to my own little hole, it was much easier to dig myself out of it. And I should have done this even more. Imagine if everyone at your agency or studio did this regularly.
Me trying to payback all the mojo by helping Lauren before her presentation.
8. Fun. This might seem like a little thing, but there is a difference that can be seen in the work when people that are having fun produce it. I believe the entire team had fun on every project and that's why you should get your agency and or studio to join next year. It's never too early. You'll have a blast, especially if you can replicate the environment and spirit present inside Riggs headquarters last Thursday/Friday.
Cathy being cheerful even at an ungodly hour.
Also, don't forget to bring a few toiletries as you do not want to look and smell like I did come 8 o'clock presentation time. (More proof that the Riggs folks are nice, they never mentioned it. Ha.) Try to work with people who are not as photogenic as our group, because you end up looking like the homeless person in the crowd. (I'm not offering photographic proof of this, just take my word for it.) And for goodness sakes get some sleep built up beforehand unlike me. You'll need it.
Thanks everyone for letting me play a part this year. I'll be back for sure.
The entire gang post -athon.