Building a Community

Alex Benson
Aug 25, 2015 · 7 min read

What Weapons of Mass Creation Fest means to me.

Defy the hand you’re dealt.

This was my first encounter with WMCFest. It was 2012, and I was in the coffee shop I used to design in all of the time. I found this graphic online and instantly fell in love with it.

It struck me particularly because of where I was at that point in my life. I had just left art school because of financial reasons and was working full time as a bartender. Just a year before I had finally figured out what I wanted to become, a graphic designer. I uprooted my life and moved back to my home state, Minnesota, to attend art school. I finally had pupose, a direction in life. Art school was so exciting and inspiring; I soaked up everything I could in that year, growing both as a designer and a young adult.

An example of that early work I did.

So when I had to drop out, it was like getting the rug pulled out from under me. All of a sudden I was back where I started: living in my mom’s basement, working a job I didn’t want to do for the rest of my life, everything else on hold. But one thing was different. I had tasted the life I wanted and was going to not let it go. So when I saw this design with the declaration, “Defy the hand you’re dealt”, it felt like a rallying call for me. I spent my nights working as a bartender late into the night, and woke up the next day and designed. I wasn’t doing anything profound, or even any client work. But I continued my education by myself. I would find something I liked online and try to recreate it, design things for friends, and personal projects. I learned more than I would ever learn in school during this time, through trial and error. It was, however, pretty lonely.

I didn’t realize up until that point that there was even a community like this out there for designers. I found a video online documenting the third year of Weapons of Mass Creation, and knew I wanted, needed to be a part of something like this.


WMC5

Fast forward to last year. I had spent the time up til now honing my design skills, going back to school, and working at several startups as a designer. I even was able to quit my job and do it full time. Even though I was going back to school, going part time meant I still wasn’t around designers a lot. And working around the polar opposites, developers, left me craving that community I remembered seeing from that video all those years ago.

I convinced some design friends from art school to purchase tickets, told my boss I’d be going, and we hit the road, driving through the night. 12 hours and 800 miles later, we arrived in Cleveland.

Some instagram shots from our trip last year

We spent the morning, on very little sleep, exploring the town we had heard so many not so good things about. This Mistake by the Lake was quite the opposite. We took in the sights, and I showed my friends their first Great Lake(I grew up in Minnesota and have spent a lot of time near Lake Superior). I remember us saying it felt strangely familiar, like an East Coast Kansas City.

We checked into our hostel, and were treated to another surprise. This hostel that we booked to save money, was actually one of the nicer places I’ve ever stayed in. I went in, having never been to a hostel, with this image of grungy Europeans sprawled out on beanbags and playing the bongo. What we got was a wonderful, quiet, clean experience. And some Europeans. We actually stayed in the same room as some Austrians and a Swede.

The conference started that evening, and we went, not knowing what to expect. That weekend marked a new chapter in my career. I met so many incredible people, heard from professionals, people I had seen online and respected. They talked about their struggles, their doubts about their abilities and careers, all things that I was struggling with at the time. Connecting with that group, and surrounding myself with people like me, re-energized and re-focused me.


WMC6

This year, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend again, and this time, my boss flew Blake and I out to the conference, which was a welcome relief after driving 12 hours the previous year. We got in after midnight the night before and checked back into that same hostel, this time with a private room.

We went in much more rested and ready to absorb all of the same great inspiration we had gotten last year.

InkWars

For those of you who’ve never attended one of these events, InkWars is a special treat. 8 artists get a large blank board, a pencil, some sharpies and an hour. At the beginning of the hour they are told the topic and have that hour to complete an illustration based off of it. This year was “Paranormal Activities”.

WMC6 Ink Wars

Watching these people create something literally from nothing, with no research or exploration done beforehand is so exciting to watch. People get really into it, cheering their favorite on, and critiquing the concepts to each other.

Vendor Village and Maker Space

This is one of my favorite parts of WMCFest. Vendors and sponsors set up shop over the weekend and invite attendees to view their products, give away free items, and even some diy spaces.

Real Thread giving away shirts the attendees can screen print themselves. Source: https://instagram.com/p/6LG11GPVt2/

Real Thread has a screen printing space set up for people to come in, pick a design, and actually make the shirt themselves. Jakprints always has a ton of free giveaways, including a sticker pack made by Cleveland’s very own OKPants. This year, there was also a popup tattoo shop, with people getting ink done all weekend. I’ll admit, I was tempted.

This space is a great place for people to interact with local designers and large companies alike, as well as learn about some new names you might not have known about.

Workshops

Blake and I opted to attend a workshop this year, and I have to admit it was well worth the extra cost. We attended “How to Create a Passive Income for Your Design Business” by Dustin Lee of Retro Supply Co. We learned how to best create and market digital goods as a way to bring in side income while building up your design business, a skill we definitely wanted to learn as we build up our freelance business.

Talks

Michael Beirut speaking about going from a suburb of Cleveland to New York in 50 years.

The talks this year were phenomenal. We heard from giants in the industry like Michael Beirut and Debbie Millman, smaller shops like Cotton Bureau and Cinder Design, and familiar names like Mike Jones of Creative South and Lenny Terenzi of Hey Monkey, both of whom are associated with Old South Supply Co.

The talks ranged from the technical, from a psychologist about the science of how designers brains work, to the inspirational, with designers sharing their stories of how they got to where they were and how designers coming together and building a community goes a long way to everybody’s success.

The Takeaway

Impromptu dance party after Mike Jones’ talk

Going from where I was to where I am today, I am grateful for the community Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, and other conferences, provides for people like me across the country. Whether you go to hear inspirational talks, be around other designers, or just to get away, going to conferences like this is a great way to grow as a designer. Theres a high you get, being around such talent. You come away feeling like anything is possible. And we each go back to our respective cities and towns, ready to take on the world.

Midwestern Originals

Musings on designing in the Midwest, and being proud of it.

Alex Benson

Written by

Prouct Designer at Facebook in Seattle. Originally from Minneapolis/Kansas City. dribbble.com/abenson • twitter.com/alexbensonux

Midwestern Originals

Musings on designing in the Midwest, and being proud of it.

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