My AIGA Command X experience.

August 1, 2016.

That is the date I received the text message from my old professor, Victor Davila at UCF, that the Command X submissions were coming to a close and I should be applying. That night, I poured my heart and brain into a five page InDesign document, explaining how Design has helped save my life, how I want to give back to Design, and why my anxiety and outlook make me a great candidate for Command X — followed by 4 pages of work to back it all up.

August 2, 2016.

That is the date I had my submission proof read by no less than 11 people of which I respect and somewhat intimidate me, starting my journey to increased vulnerability a bit early…

August 10, 2016.

That is the date on which Bonnie Siegler from eight and a half calls me to tell me I am one of seven Designers selected to compete in Command X at the AIGA National Conference in Las Vegas. But of course I missed her first call, listened to her voicemail, then, as fast as my fingers could move, I called her back to receive that news. I had just left a meeting at work, IBM Design, and immediately started telling everyone who helped proofread my submission.

October 10, 2016.

That is the date my first design challenge came in for Command X.

Maybe you are wondering what Command X is at this point in the story? Command X has been described as the “Hunger Games” of the Design world. Essentially, one week before day one of the conference seven designers out of college but under the age of 26 are given a design challenge and 6 days to submit a three page PDF of the first challenge. On day one of the conference, all seven Designers get on stage in front of 2000+ other Designers, plus a panel of judges, in this case it was Bonnie Siegler, Dana Arnette, Stanley Hainsworth, plus a guest judge each day, and a a host who was none other than Sean Adams. After the first round of presentations the audience votes, the two designers with the least amount of votes are eliminated, then the remaining five designers have 24 hours to complete a brand new challenge, present, two more are cut, then the last challenge, another 24 hours, then a winner is picked. Easy enough, right?

So the first challenge comes in and the prompt is to re-design the Gamblers Anonymous logo, a twelve step program dedicated to helping gambling addicts cope with the day to day temptations of gambling.

I receive the prompt in my email and immediately start secondary research. I read every word on their website twice, I look them up on Wikipedia, I watch gambling documentaries on YouTube, and I check to see if Austin, Texas has a local chapter. They do, and I attend a gamblers anonymous meeting the following day. I ask for their permission to sit in on the meeting and was welcomed warmly. I even participated in some readings. Over the course of the two and a half hours I got to listen and learn from addicts who have been attending meetings for 36 years, and addicts whom it was their first meeting.

During this process, I was able to recognize a certain pattern in gambling addiction recovery and a very serious yet inspirational narrative that each person seems to go through on their journey. This first hand insight directly informed my Design decisions — It informed me to use the shape of an upper-case “G” to tell a story arc. It informed me to cut out part of the process to protect the anonymous portion of the recovery process. Then it informed me to re-introduce the “G” where the curve extends into a proud, upward extension of “here I am, proud of my journey and ready to share my story.”

October 17, 2016.

This is the date I arrive at AIGA National Conference and Command X. I arrive back stage at noon as instructed and we go over presentation logistics for the next hour and half. This is when I meet the other contestants and we all start to become friends. We do a trial run on stage and the lights are brighter than I imagined. We leave rehearsal to go practice our presentations, which we only have 60 seconds to perform. I catch a quick nap and a shower to wake me up then meet the other contestants in the lobby of the Mirage for a shot of tequila before we go on stage.

The seven of us proceed to explain our designs and defend them best we can to 2000+ sets of eyes watching and judging us. As I approach the microphone, hands sweaty as ever, My first slide appears on the screen. However, this is not my first slide, my first slide is supposed to be a research slide, scribbled with notes to explain my thought process and why I made the decisions I did. Instead, there was a slide with a huge logo on it, my logo. In the four steps it took me to reach the microphone from my on stage seat I had re-worked my entire narrative around the slide that was now grimacing at the audience. I dove right in and started talking about my narrative arc, the reason I cut the “G” then had it re-appear, and throughout the process of reworking my story I went over my 60 seconds, and they played that Grammy music to let me know to wrap it the fuck up. The judges give their feedback, Sean Adams breaks the tension in the air with some well placed jokes which crack smiles around the room, and the announcement is made.

The infamous missing slide.

Two designers gone, just like that, but my head is still above water. Onto round 2.

Directly following the announcement of the two designers who were eliminated, the remaining five of us got our next challenge — re-design the Zappos box experience in the next 24 hours.

We exit the stage, ask our clarifying questions about the project back stage, then head to our public work area where we each have our own monitor and where everyone at the conference can come watch us work and extend their drunken opinions. I promptly put on noise cancelling headphones and start researching. I ended up waist deep in the Zappos blog where I uncovered some great quotes and insights about the type of person that Zappos looks to hire and how the customers have influenced the decisions of Zappos from day one.

I get 1, 2, 3, okay 7 bad ideas out of my head before I head up to my hotel room at 1am for some rest. As I laid in my bed my mind was racing with potential solutions for the mundane Zappos box I was tasked with fixing. My mind eventually runs its last leg, and I drift into sleep for about five hours.

October 18, 2016.

I wake up and peruse through my Flipboard app, as I do every morning. I put on a Toro Y Moi album and get in the shower, my mind is racing harder than ever at this point. I hurry out of the shower, throw on some clothes, grab my laptop and head downstairs to the work area. I stop for a green tea on my way in, I’m not one to drink coffee, then sit down at my desk. I opened my laptop, opened Photoshop, and let the idea flow out of my hands and onto the screen. The customer deserves a box as influential as their voice, and the Zappos employees deserve to pack a box a colorful and outgoing as they are. This prompted the colorful boxes, but I also wanted to inject the idea that the products are defined by the customers as well, which is why the shoe box embraces the components of a shoe, the clothes box is being zipped up, etc. The box itself represents the customer, the colors and accessory motifs represent the customer wearing and influencing the products themselves. It will have to do, we are approaching our deadline in just a few short hours.

The five of us do another shot of tequila and head on stage. All my slides are there this time and the practicing paid off, I slid through my narrative just how I practice and ended with time to spare, prompting Sean Adams to say “Now that was a good Don Draper.” and of course a smile fills my face.

The announcement is made, two more designers gone, I’m still in the running. No time to reflect though as our final challenge rolls in — Design a way to get 18–24 years olds to vote. 24 hours. Go.

Katie, Andres (the other two finalists) and I head to our stations, but we all look at each other in exhaustion. we each do what appears to be about 30 minutes of research, then we each start talking to folks passing by. Bonnie and Sean invited us all to a VIP Designer Party in a suite, so we all pack up and head to Katie’s room to do a shot before entering a party of design legends. We walk into the party with our fellow competitors, Kevin, Dani, and Isabel. I walk over to Bonnie and am greeted by a hug and then am introduced to Debbie Millman, someone I respect and have looked up to immensely. We get to talking and I ask her if she wants to do an interview for my magazine, All Things X, she agrees with a warm smile which makes me feel good. After that I run into Sean Adams, who at this point is really feeling himself and the wine in his hand, he always finds a way to make everyone smile and just laugh for a bit. He introduces me to Julie, Su, Michael, among others. The whole night we are all looking at each other in awe of where we are and who we are with. Katie, Andres, and I agree to leave at the same time to keep the competition fair, which we did, about 2 hours later..

I get back to my room around 11:45pm, open my laptop and start designing. I send out my initial test designs to friends who fall into the age range and fall asleep, waiting their feedback. Now, maybe it was the domain, or it was the whiskey, but my initial go at this concept started off a bit controversial. Even my mom and dad told me not to do it and that they couldn’t see why I was moving in the direction I was. So I refined it a bit here and there, took out a few words that maybe went a little bit too far, and stuck to my gut on my idea, even when I was getting some push back from people outside of the demographic I was aiming for.

October 19, 2016.

I woke up really early on this day to go down to the work station, tea in hand of course. I immediately put my headphones on and blast some disco music to wake me up. I refine my designs, adjust some text color, refine my language a bit more, and then I agree with my brain to stop designing and to start getting my campaign to work. by 10am I am leaving my work space and running to another hotel which I hear has a FedEx somewhere on one of the sub floors. After looking for an hour I finally find the FedEx in the basement area of the Venetian. I walk up to a self service printer, insert my flash drive and print about 10 of each of my designs. Turns out shitty laser jet prints on letter sized paper cost a fortune in Vegas… Goodbye $150.

I ran back to the conference just in time for one of the talks to end and the people to start filing out of the room. I handed out my designs and urged the viewers to post one or more of them with the hashtag #imavoter. I shared out my final designs, tagged and posted all I could then went up to my room for a 30 minute nap. I woke up, rolled over to check my phone, and saw that my campaign and hashtag was filling my news feed. People were posting, sharing, and even adding their two cents to the conversation. I took a quick shower, drank some more tea, then finalized my three page PDF to be used for my presentation, but before I was done with my final revisions, someone came up to the work area and tapped me on the shoulder. I took my headphones off, turned around, and David Carson was starring back at me. He congratulated me on getting this far and told me he had voted for me leading up to this point. He asked if I was open to some feedback, of course I agreed and he proceeded to encourage me to push my idea even further, that I was being controversial but I could be even more outgoing. We exchanged a few laughs, I gave him the print proof copy of the next issue of my magazine, then we parted ways and I sat down to redesign the final slide of my presentation. I had been taking a stance in my campaign, clearly, but I was yet to fully interject my opinion into the conversation. So what better moment to do it than it being the last slide the voters would see before voting for all three of us.

I was last to present, hands just as sweaty as day one, I got up the microphone, talked about my reasoning of being inclusive by asking questions in my campaign instead of telling people what to think, I explained why I used the language I did, and then my final slide appears. Will the audience laugh, boo, cheer, or be totally offended?

I iterated that I was proud to have a vote, that I was proud to have a voice, and that “no one grabs our pussies without our fucking permission.”

Our view while presenting, a sea of people.

The crowd received it well, I receive my feedback from the judges and sat back down. We leave the stage while the crowd votes, but backstage none of that seems to matter. Katie, Andres, and I all hug and start laughing with each other as usual. We had just been through the most stressful three days of our lives and it was finally over. We take more shots together, start talking about when we are gonna meet up again when we leave the conference, and we all breathe easier.

The other 6 competitors will always have my respect. Each of them put themselves out there, completely vulnerable to judgement, and we all laughed and smiled with each other every day. We were immediately connected and became friends because we all knew the exact emotions the others were feeling. We even still have a group chat where we all talk every day.

When we got back on stage and it was announced that I won Command X, I thought of nothing else to do but hug my competitors, then hug the judges and thank them for their support, then go find the other four contestants and hug them too.

I went out with my new friends that night. We ate chicken tenders and pizza and drank too much, but we were all free and happy and knew we had all just done something fucking crazy.

This is what exhaustion + beer looks like.

October 20, 2016.

This is the date I woke up as the winner of Command X 2016. This is the date I exhaled most deeply and smiled to myself proudly. This is also the date my mind was finally free to reflect on the process and appreciate all of the support I had around me: My mom, dad, and two sisters, Victor Davila, Seth Johnson, Greg Storey, Abdullah Shaikh, Nigel Prentice, Aj Joplin, Sarah B Nelson, Scott Strubberg, Tiffany Shine, Tibby Starks, Kat Millington, Hal Wuertz, Carly Stevens, Natalie Caudell, Patrick Lowden, Naveen Raja, Doug Powell, Amber Atkins, Cat Fincun, Anna McCormick, Joni Saylor, Adam Cutler, Randy Gregory II, Bill Grady, Ryan Caruthers, Collin Vaughn, Jamin Smith, Phil Gilbert, and the people who voted for me. I had the courage to get up there and do my thing because I am so supported each and every day by y’all and you give me the confidence to keep pushing past what people consider to be normal.

Nothing in this world is handed to you, you have to have the courage to put in more work than the next, learn from your failures, and have a drive that will outlast your existence in this world.

This is what I was taught growing up, this is why I surround myself with the best most talented people I know, this is why I always want to keep learning, and this is why the anxiety ridden boy from Detroit, Michigan who was terrified of letting go of his parents legs is now living and working in Austin, Texas, as the Culture and Brand Designer for IBM Studios, trying to make a difference in his life and in others through the one thing I love — Design.

Thank you AIGA and Bonnie Siegler for the opportunity, the experience, and the new friendships.