I recently wrapped up the largest project I’ve ever worked on, producing illustrations for the Comcast/Technically Media Tomorrow Tour.

The Tomorrow Tour was a six-city venture that brought together technology and entrepreneurship communities to discuss their roles in the future of their cities. Each city featured solo presentations, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, and part of my job was to draw all of it. The six stops on the tour were Philadelphia, Denver, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, and Atlanta.

In this post, I’ll talk about: 
• What I loved about contributing to the Tomorrow Tour
• The work I produced
• What I’d do differently if I could go back and do it all over again

What I loved about contributing to the Tomorrow Tour

  • It had never happened before — this was the first iteration of such a thing. It was an honor to be the illustrator of record for the first go. Mostly, though, I enjoyed the opportunity to define how illustration could or could not contribute to the conversation.
  • I got to learn how people from all over the county value their own work relative to their communities.
  • There was clearly an emphasis on diversity with both the speakers and the attendees. It was awesome to hear again and again from people with different racial, economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds from mine.
  • The entire team with whom I worked was open to suggestions, patient with my questions, and offered great feedback.
  • So much drawing. So much.

The work

Before I went anywhere, the first work I did was a collection of illustrations to accompany an infographic that would break down stats for each city on the tour.

The same illustrations were used for each city’s infographic, and I also did a feature piece for each stop. I referred to these as the summary pieces of each city. Here’s Philadelphia’s:

The summary pieces were our attempt to show the goings on of that day’s events. The reference for these drawings — except for Atlanta’s (you’ll see)— came directly from my sketchbook.

The fun of this project was in experimenting with what the illustrations could do. When I showed up at the Philadelphia event, my goal was to just capture as many likenesses as possible, like a courtroom artist. That’s how I approached the initial summary illustration too. Just show who was there. Here’s the original summary illustration for Philadelphia that didn’t get used.

We decided it didn’t lend itself much to a narrative, and after some back and forth, we arrived at the piece you saw a minute ago.

The most valuable thing I got out of Philadelphia was a sense of the pacing of the day. Drawing at the Philadelphia event was like feeling for something in the dark, but it set up the entire tour for me.

In Denver, I began writing standout quotes around each speaker.

Responding to the Philadelphia summary illustration, we decided to give a sense of place and show the setup of the room that day. So I drew the speakers along the stage.

In Miami, I got more comfortable walking around the room. And I started using pens. I love drawing with pens, but had been nervous about doing it on the clock. The Tomorrow Tour presented an environment where I felt like I could go for it.

I also used colored pencils for the first time on the tour.

The new approaches pushed me to try something new with the summary illustration, which lead me to rendering everyone with pencil.

In Chicago, I started paying more attention to my shorthand and noticed I was developing my own visual vocabulary. I saw that I was developing an actual process: look, look away, draw what I saw. Instead of going back and forth between the speaker and my sketchbook page, I’d describe to myself what I was seeing, then focus on doing the drawing, and only check back in to massage the marks I’d made on the page.

I think that helped me produce some of my favorite drawings of the tour, like this one…

…around which I based the summary illustration.

In Chicago, I started to think about my role as an illustrator at these events. There was a video team on the tour, and each stop also had a local photographer. The events were being well documented by these groups. What value could I add to their work for people who were following the Tomorrow Tour?

Most of the tour was spread out, with one stop a week, and sometimes weeks in between stops. But two days after Chicago, we were in Detroit. Detroit was my favorite stop by a country mile because they didn’t talk about the city as the location of their work — they talked about building a community of people solving problems of Detroit. More than anywhere, I felt like the people of Detroit knew each other, were interested in one another, and were there to learn from one another. The drawings I produced there were some of my loosest and most fun.

Before the events started in Detroit, I mentioned to Brian, a co-founder of Technically Media, that I felt I could be doing more with the illustrations. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was concerned I was missing an opportunity to provide something that the videographers and photographers could not. How could I show the bigger lesson of the day, instead of just the faces of the people in the room? It was just my luck that Ida Byrd-Hill attended the evening panel. She stole the show when she stood up from the audience to proclaim, “We are not rebuilding ourselves.”

She talked about how she’d been in Detroit — working, spending money, investing in her community — for the past 25 years. She was tired of the narrative that Detroit was wiped out and that people are trying to put the pieces back together. Detroit isn’t trying to start over, it never stopped.

It was a fantastic moment because it was unplanned, but completely in line with the conversations from earlier in the day. If the dialogue that day was a thousand strokes of Degas’ pastels rendering a dancer, Ida was one Al Hirschfeld line showing that same dancer. I knew I’d be building the Detroit summary illustration around her.

The last stop of the tour was Atlanta, where — even though I’m happy with the drawings — I think I was more focused on the conversations than my sketchbook. I was waiting for that hook, like Ida standing up in Detroit. With each stop on the tour, I was trying to figure out my role, and I felt like I had a direction now.

When discussing the summary illustration for Atlanta with Brian, he gave me the go to try something different. In the first five cities, we’d chosen an idea and I found different ways to show the attendees discussing that idea. For Atlanta, I would treat the theme of the day as an editorial assignment. In other words, I’d be drawing the concept, not the conference.

So I showed a mix of Atlanta’s culture and startup community joining and wrapping around a statue I walked past called Atlanta from the Ashes, which shows a woman lifting a phoenix into the air.

You can see things such as the MARTA, the Fox Theatre, and the Dab dance mixing with the logos for MailChimp, YikYak, and AirWatch as they reach the phoenix.

The concept for this illustration is one of my favorite things to have come out of working on the Tomorrow Tour, because it’s the product of experimenting in the other five cities with what illustration can add to these kinds of events.

What I’d do differently if I could go back and do it all over again

In addition to drawing the speakers, I’d treat the conversations as editorial assignments and focus on responding to them with drawings. I’d try to use illustration as a real-time interpretation of what was happening in front of me, and hopefully provide a gateway to even more dialogue.

One of the main goals of the Tomorrow Tour was to find out where and how communities align with one another. Being a part of the tour showed me that the people of each city have more in common than they might realize. Knowing that now, I’d be on the lookout for it and try to show that universality through illustration. •