Making Art Central to a Software Conference

A prototype of the Abstractions poster

This was a risk

It may seem like nothing from the outside, but it was a big risk to make art central to the Abstractions marketing plan.

As a first year conference, there are a lot of reasons to play it safe. First off, a good artist isn’t cheap. When you’re bootstrapping a conference with nothing in the coffers from the previous years, you really hesitate to put up that money. Art also hasn’t really been used to this extreme in any other software conferences. We wanted an original commission to be front and center. If we had years of reputation to rely on, I wouldn’t have to be so concerned about the risk of that first impression. Would the art distract a potential employer from taking the conference seriously when an employee requests to go to Abstractions?

Even with those reasons for caution, it was still so worth it. The website gets attention just for existing. The art lends itself to awesome merchandise opportunities. It creates a consistent marketing experience that lets someone know they’re in the right place. Most of all, we have a unique brand that is something which can’t be reproduced.

Choosing an artist

I’ve been working on Abstractions since about September of 2014, and one of the early steps I had taken was pretty simple — I followed a bunch of artists on Instagram. I quickly found that artists link to other artists all the time and my list of followed artists quickly grew amongst cliques of artists. One of the cliques I stumbled on was a group of artists associated with Mondo Gallery. The artists typically would create highly stylized pieces based on pop culture subjects.

A piece by artist James Flames featured at Mondo Gallery

This culminated in July 2015 with reaching out to artist James Flames about doing a poster for us. This was as simple as a cold call to his contact address listed on his website.

At first, it was an awkward relationship. James didn’t quite get what I wanted. He isn’t typically approached by software conferences and my idea of using his art as a poster/website/branding was weird. His work is highly illustrative and tells a story. He likes to focus on organic subjects and excels at drawing nature, not robots. “Does he have me confused with a graphic designer,” he was thinking.

No, James, I really did want that exact strange thing I was asking for. Sure… it made very little sense. I couldn’t put into words what I actually wanted. My dream of parallax scrolling through a layered scene was probably something I couldn’t even pull off. I’ve never let reality stop me though.

A project in earnest

I convinced him that I was serious and committed and we proceeded. We signed contracts, made deposits, and it started looking like any project I’ve been involved with as a software professional. As is the case with any good freelancer, however, I had to wait for work to wrap on some other clients — like Marvel — before work could begin. When it was our turn, work began in November 2015.

James’ work for a client that had dibs on him, Marvel.

My suggestion for a treatment was left by the wayside as I learned that, all along, I wanted to trust the artist to be an artist. We held a Google Hangout to talk about what Abstractions was about. I’ve included the notes from our meeting below. You can see the things that were important, like being sure we created artwork that was inclusive and technical aspects of how the poster will be used. Something that didn’t make the notes was James’ excellent elicitation of themes for our conference: gathering, discovery, and the arduous journey of self-betterment.

Subject matter: The story and characters will be in a technology setting that is related to computers, electronics, science, etc. The illustration will most likely involve circuitry.
Action item: Send James code snippets for the design. Perhaps send something for a hidden code joke.
Words: The word “Abstractions” will be at the top of the poster. The words for the date and venue will be separate. Sponsor logos will be on the bottom.
Technical aspects: The main size will be 18x24. James will create a few more sizes, which will probably be 11x14, 6x4, and 8.5x11.
Palette: The preferable color is the purple used the sponsorship document, but James is free to tweak the color and palette.
Audience: The conference will appeal to males and females of all ages. The poster design must be such that people of color will feel comfortable attending.
Things to avoid: Nothing that is over-sexualized, and no stereotypical geeks.

After about a week, James responded with three sketches for approval and a first go at lettering treatments for the logo.

Rough sketches

James met his original goal of giving us three designs that were really hard to choose between because we loved them so much. I took the designs back to the team and held a vote. We decided as a team that we liked the scene in the woods and gave feedback on what we liked in order to make sure those things made it in the transition from sketch to final product.

The pairing characters were the result of organizer feedback.

We liked the keyboard coming from the ground, we liked the circuits growing up the trees, we liked the person sitting in the tree, and we liked the chip (soon to be known internally as the delta chip) at the center of the drawing. We also said that none of the lettering hit us in the right way and that we wish the characters weren’t all isolated. Abstractions was going to be about joining together with peers, so we needed more interaction. In the final product, you’ll see this manifest as the two characters at the bottom pairing with each other on the log.

Final product

The final product of this all was the Abstractions poster that you’ve seen on all of our marketing to date. We were given a great piece of art the size of a billboard. I had to learn an entire new file format because the resulting file clocked in at 3GB — did you know that Photoshop has a “.psb” extension meant for large documents?

The final product

We’ve turned that into a wonderful website that we’re so proud of and have gotten great feedback on from many wonderful Twitterers. It’s turned into a great t-shirt. It’s made something that we’re excited to share with people.

The unique look is something that is a huge asset and I’m so happy that we took those risks in the beginning. We’ve already started the hunt for 2017 artists and thought about ways we can expand the theme of the poster into the event day decorations. I hope you’ll join us to see how everything turns out.