The MEMPHIS TALK

AIGA New York

Come for the animated intro, stay for the animated Monster.

In the United States, the AIGA National Conference is pretty much the biggest thing going for a graphic designer who speaks, short of making it to the main stage at TED. When I was asked to be one of the presenters for the 2009 conference in Memphis, entitled “Make/Think” I embarked on a three month journey of obsessive-compulsive preparation that my friend (and bossa:nova client) Jennifer Stone dubbed “The Total Memphis Project.”

Of course, I’d been giving talks about my work for 10 years at this point, and some of those audiences were pretty big. But this was National. Sagmeister was on the night before me. Chip Kidd was speaking. Jill Greenberg. Michael Beirut. My friend Doyald would be in the audience, as well as a few people I really don’t like. I needed this talk to be great! If at all possible, I wanted to blow the doors off the place.

I’d always started my talks with a little musical montage of my past work. It had been the fashion among designers for a few years. People would usually just set a slideshow to a mellow chill-out track or something mildly percussive. I’d always relied on a strange old Italo-Brazilian number called “Viva La Felicita,” which was the theme song of a cartoon I had grown up with—“Signor Rossi Is In Search Of Happiness.” Bruno Bozzetto. Look it up. It’s great!

But mellow wasn’t going to cut it in this case. I spent weeks just going through hundreds of songs, looking for something that was neither too long, nor too short; was dramatic, but not to the point of overpowering the visuals; and didn’t have distracting lyrics. In the end I found the perfect piece—I won’t tell you what it’s called, because I still live in fear of a cease and desist letter—and set to work.


the-memphis-talk-2.jpgAs a first step, I created a rough animation where each major beat was assigned a number. Based on that I wrote a script, so each beat would be matched by a word or syllable of the text. And then I just had fun. On the left you can see the big Type Tree that starts at 1:06, for example. I worked on that animation until a day or two before the conference. At that point I had to start drawing and animating the Monster that would banter with me later in the talk. (Sadly, the interplay got cut out of the video on the AIGA site. I made sure there was eye contact between me and the Monster.) All that took me right up to the morning of my flight. Presumably, there were people speaking the first day of the conference, but I was in my hotel room, preparing.

Another part of the Total Memphis Project was that I held my breath, pulled out my credit card, and invested in a beautiful three-piece suit that was way beyond my means, ad added a fancy new shirt and tie on top of it. I’ve always been a jeans and sweater presenter, because the last thing you want people to think is that you’re trying too hard. But I was then 35 years old—actually I had turned 36 the day before the talk—and at some point… dammit, you’ve got to dress like a grown man. I’m glad I did. It’s surprising how much of a difference it made.

I will tell you this, too: I knew the talk would be filmed, so I bought bronzing powder. (You heard me.) I didn’t want there to be sheen, and I didn’t want to look as pale as I am. Bright lights are not flattering to the mole people. I also went to the gym religiously, ate right, and practiced walking without hunching. This is why the TMP was the TMP. I wanted everything to be as perfect as I could possibly make it. (There was some sheen as you can see from the AIGA poster frame below. Sigh.)

And you know what? It all came together. The audience gave me a warm welcome just walking out on stage. They laughed at all the right places during the intro, they loved the Monster, and were with me all the way through the end. When I walked off the stage Michael Beirut patted me on the back, and later that night Stefan Sagmeister talked suits with me. I felt ten feet tall.

For those 28 minutes I was who I wish I could be all the time. And it only took three months of driving myself and my friends crazy. Let’s say that I worked on this 10 hours every day—which is about right. That means every minute on stage was backed by 1,929 minutes of preparation. Seems like a square deal for the best day of my life so far.

At this point you might think, “Well… OK. He’s clearly crazy.” That may be so, but you know what? That day changed my life. I met all kinds of amazing people because of this talk. Within a year, I had all new clients and some great new friends, too. Sometimes your life changes so gradually that you don’t notice it until later. In this case, I noticed it as it was happening. It took those 28 minutes, and I have it on film. Ha!

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