Here’s How to Survive Command X, AIGA’s Live Design Competition

Unexpected tips from 4 former contestants

Next week, thousands of designers will convene in Minneapolis for AIGA’s annual design conference, a three-day affair packed with speakers, workshops, and roundtables (not to mention Eye On Design’s very own, very first one-day conference just before). Seven of the designers in attendance will look more uneasy than most: those will be the young contestants of Command X, the reality show-style, live design competition, and one of the highlights of the conference each year.

Over the course of the competition they’ll complete four briefs; present in front of three judges, three guest judges, and an audience full of designers—all on very little sleep. By closing day, one of them will walk away with a cash prize and massive respect.

Command X is on its ninth year, and if you’ve never witnessed it yourself, our coverage of year’s past will help set the scene. This year’s judges—Ashleigh Axios, Louise Fili, and Marian Bantjes—will offer commentary and critique of each designer’s presentation, which will have been conceived, designed, and put into a pitch deck in the 24 hours prior. Host Sean Adams will usher the proceedings along and check in on our tireless competitors, Tim Gunn-style. Each round will send two designers packing—back to the conference floor, and mercifully, the after-parties—until only one remains.

This year’s contestants have been announced and have already received their first prompt. To help them out—and prep any conference newcomers on what to expect—we asked four former contestants to share their highs and lows, advice, and forewarnings.

Andrés Garcia, designer at iPullRank

Tip: Don't like public speaking? Push through it.

It’s reasonable to think that designers who apply for Command X, knowing full well what it is, don’t mind being in the spotlight. Not so for Andrés Garcia, a graphic designer at digital marketing agency iPullRank (who also works alongside his fellow Command X contestant Adam Lehman—but more on that in a bit). Garcia applied knowing that it would be a good early career move, but isn’t much for speaking in front of an audience. “When I got the call I automatically felt like I wanted to back out,” he says. 

Instead, he waited for the initial prompt, which contestants are given a week before the conference starts. While that time could easily be spent solely researching and designing, contestants also have to get ready to present onstage. “I spent most of my time preparing the presentation,” says Garcia. “I had no public speaking experience, so about 60% of my process was mentally preparing myself to talk about what I did. It’s a lot different than sitting across a table with a client.”

Garcia also found that the feedback he received from judges was different than what he was used to. “You aren’t designing for a client, you’re designing for other designers,” he says. “They’re not just looking at the end result, they’re looking at the way that you’re processing the problem. You have to have a shift in mindset.”

Isabel Castillo Guijarro, designer at Refinery29

Tip: Eyes will be on you off-stage, too.

Thankfully, two of Isabel Castillo Guijarro’s colleagues had previously competed in Command X. She says the heads up she was most grateful for was being warned that for three days, everyone will know who you are. “That was pretty weird,” she says. “You’re walking around, and everyone is kind of looking at you.”

More than that, when contestants aren’t onstage, they’re given an area with a cluster of computers where they can do the design work. Technically, it’s closed off, but that doesn’t exactly shield them from other conference-goers. “People were stopping through all the time, to come and see what we were working on,” she says. “It was hard to concentrate, so most of the work I did was at night when everyone had left.”

Noise-canceling headphones are also must. Still, many designers end up using the public exposure to their advantage, testing their design ideas out on conference attendees. Think of it like a huge focus group, full of people who know their way around a design critique.

Ryan Fitzgibbon, founder of Hello Mr.

Tip: Prepare to be judged.

Ryan Fitzgibbon, formerly of IDEO and now the founder of the magazine Hello Mr., says he that he was ready to present in front of an audience—what he wasn’t  prepared for was receiving live criticism in front of them, too.

“It’s already intimidating to be in front of a thousand peers—and then to have Chip Kidd tear you apart. I wasn’t prepared for that,” he laughs. “But I stood my ground. There was a moment when his feedback for my design was something like, ‘Meh, it’s okay,’ and then he criticized my T-shirt because I looked sloppy. In my defense, I’d been up all night working. I grabbed the mic said ‘How about a little constructive criticism?’”

Fitzgibbon’s retort got him a lot of attention, an eventual off-stage apology from Kidd, and an impressed tweet from Debbie Millman. But if you do something attention-grabbing, be prepared to follow it up. “From then on I was the one who spoke out of turn,” says Fitzgibbon. “I brought the drama.”

Adam Lehman, designer at iPullRank

Tip: “Here to make friends.”

Like Garcia, Adam Lehman is also a designer at iPullRank—he recently brought Garcia on after convincing him to move to from Houston to New York to work with him. The two met at Command X, survived all four rounds together (Lehman ended up winning, Garcia was a runner-up) and kept in touch during the following year. When the agency gave Lehman the green light to hire someone, he already knew that he’d work well with Garcia. “You spend so much time with a group of people,” Lehman says, “and you’re all coming up with different solutions to the same problem, even though you have the same amount of time and the same resources. I admired Andrés’ design solutions throughout the entire process.”

For Lehman, one of the best by-products of all the intensity and stress of the three-day competition was getting to know a bunch of strangers very quickly, who are all sharing the same experience. “To the future Command X contestants: it’s a competition, you should be there to win,” he says. “But there is some time baked in to have fun with the other contestants. I highly suggest you do what we did and take shots of tequila together, and pat each other on the back. Get to know your competitors, because I probably learned more from them than from the conference as whole.”

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