The weather might be cooling off, but with just about a week to go, our countdown for the 2015 AIGA Design Conference is heating up. ICYMI, the annual AIGA Design Conference is in New Orleans this year, bringing three days of design inspiration from the profession’s leading speakers, FOMO-inducing workshops and roundtables, and enough networking opportunities to last a lifetime (or at least until the next conference in 2016).

But the conference crowd favorite is undoubtedly Command X, a fast-paced live design competition featuring seven up-and-comers. This year’s impressive lineup includes Sarah Azpeitia, a UX designer at Refinery29; Clare Jensen, art director at 72andSunny; Jacob Parr, graphic designer at North Graphic Design; Nate Pyper, in-house designer at the Milwaukee Art Museum; Elliot Salazar, graphic designer and illustrator at Refinery29; Amy Nicole Schwartz, lead designer at Cards Against Humanity and a founder of Chicago’s Liminal Space; and  Russell Shaw, multidisciplinary designer and illustrator.

In the manner of audition reality shows, these seven designers will undergo a series of elimination rounds that culminate with a single winner who will take home a treasure chest of sweet prizes and $1,000 cash. Of course, it wouldn’t be a true competition without a star-studded panel of judges, and this year  Gail Anderson, Aaron Draplin, and Robynne Raye promise to put the contestants to the test. Plus, there’s a cast of leading creatives to help the contestants throughout the competition, with Maria Guidice and Bonnie Siegler as mentors, and Sean Adams as emcee and host.

The constants have already captured our hearts for braving stage fright and accepting the unthinkable challenge of designing in front of their peers, so we wanted to get to know them each a little better (how else will you know who to root for?) and get a quick glimpse into their background, aesthetic, and what we can expect to see from them onstage in NOLA.

Have you ever performed or designed on stage before?
Sarah Azpeitia: Performed? Yes. I was in a band in middle school, I’ve done musical theater, dance, and some scenes from plays, but I’ve never designed in front of a crowd.

Clare Jensen: Not often, but most recently when working as the art director at magazine, I emceed one of our events at a local music venue. I ended up washing down my stage fright with a few too many glasses of whiskey and making one too many pun-y dad jokes.

Jacob Parr: I performed in the Shutterstock-sponsored event, Pixels of Furywhich was part of AIGA Toledo’s Summer Show. My teammate and I took first place, receiving the Furious Pixel as our trophy.

Nate Pyper: I was a backup singer for Shania Twain at a stop on her “Come On Over Tour” in 1998. Does that count?

Elliot Salazar: No, nope, no, never. *starts to hyperventilate*

Amy Nicole Schwartz: I have no real talents, so no.

Russell Shaw: Not quite like this. I speak occasionally on brand design as a part of a bi-annual workshop for new businesses, and am going to be doing a little part-time teaching on visual design principles this fall, but I’ve never had to perform or explain my work to a large audience like this. I’m not nervous about public speaking, but I definitely am about showing my work live to a group with a lot more experience than me.

What’s your proudest piece of work?
Azpeitia: I worked on a paper installation near the end of school, and it took me roughly a week to set up thousands of paper strips on a wall. The work ended up being 20’ x 7’. It was a very colorful piece with yellow-blue gradation, and sometimes when people came in and out of the gallery, I’d catch a glimpse of their expression of happiness. To know that for one moment, I created a sense of wonder in someone else, and that it’s even something I’m capable of doing, is pretty amazing. I strive to incite emotion with anything I do.

Jensen: Hard to say. I think one that stands out is the canvas I created during 72U, which took two years of text messages between myself and an ex-boyfriend and displayed them on a 24-foot canvas. While it wasn’t client work, the piece was incredibly revealing and gave me the opportunity to connect with a lot of different people.


Parr: As of right now, without a doubt my proudest piece of work would be Master Thief. After a three-year-long process, my best friend and I have established a game design company called Sparr Games. Master Thief is our very first game. This project was not only designed visually, but mechanically as well. It required extensive collaboration and revisions over time, and we have finally finished and thoroughly play-tested it. It taught me how design can guide you through abstract game mechanics and incite specific responses from players. Neither myself or my friend have ever been typical “gamers,” so this was a major undertaking. We’re overjoyed to say that Master Thief has been fully funded on Kickstarter, and the campaign continues until October 19. Yes, we planned the Kickstarter launch to coincide with my attendance at the Design Conference. Sue us.

Pyper: We’re in the process of rolling out an internal rebrand at the Milwaukee Art Museum in anticipation of the permanent collection reopening this fall. Despite doubled workloads and museum politics, we’re genuinely proud of what we came up with. And we’ve managed to maintain a good spirits! Feels rare.

Salazar: Whyyyyy would you do this to me?!? This is probably the worst question you could have asked me because I am so indecisive…

Schwartz: I find it harmful to sit around being proud of something I’ve done. By the time it’s finished and out in the world, it is time to move on to the next thing. I like to reflect on the successful aspects of each project, whether that is in the process, project management, or design itself, and then identify the possibilities to make the next project even better.

Shaw: I joke that I start hating my work the second that it’s finished, and then it just depreciates over time. I don’t aim to be self-deprecating, but I do tend to be most proud of whatever it is that I’m working on in the moment. That said, if I had to pick a finished project in my portfolio, it’d be the Kid President’s Guide To Being Awesome book, which I designed, lettered, and illustrated (under the art direction of Kristi Montague and creative direction of SoulPancake). It was huge to see that become a New York Times bestseller, and I really believe in the book’s message of positivity. Being able to work on something where I resonated with the content so deeply was refreshing.


Which judge makes you the most nervous? Why?
Azpeitia: Ehm… probably Aaron, it must be the beard and the fact that I’ve never seen him in person.

Jensen: This question makes me nervous.

Parr: I would say that Aaron Draplin makes me the most nervous. Where the other judges may have some tricks up their sleeves, I am far more concerned with tricks Aaron has in his beard. A true wild card, that one. But perhaps we can relate to our mutual Midwestern upbringing.

Pyper: Probably Robynne Raye. She’s a legend, an original design punk. She’s known for pissing people off and sticking it to the man. She sued Disney for copyright infringement. If that’s not intimidating, I don’t know what is.

Salazar: Even though I’ve had Gail Anderson as an instructor at SVA and she’s a super nice person, she’s the judge that makes me the most nervous. Gail knows type and the one thing that I know is that the type in my designs better be hella on point.

Schwartz: None. They are all just normal people who are good at their jobs and seem pretty cool.

Shaw: I don’t know that any of them really make me “nervous,” per se. I suppose Aaron Draplin is one that I at least hope I don’t offend. I feel like he’s pretty good at knowing how to cut through crap, so I wouldn’t like the thought of him thinking my work is too trendy or full of itself or sophomorish.

What sets you apart from the competition?
Azpeitia: Well, my hair is purple. Ha! No, everyone seems super talented, smart, and fun and I’m just happy to be part of and in the presence of such good company.

Jensen: I have no idea. I don’t know them yet.

Parr: Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with the evil world of spec work online. I know this is frowned upon in our field, as it is essentially the prostitution of graphic design. But I was young, had just started college, and could use the extra gas money to get to class! I truly do believe that my time on crowdsourcing sites will not have been in vain, as I now have a unique ability to work extremely well under pressure and tight deadlines.

Pyper: My crippling stage fright.

Salazar: Unlike most designers/fashion people/all of New York City, I don’t like to wear a head-to-toe black outfit so don’t expect me to look like I’m also going to a funeral during the conference.

Schwartz: This is hard to answer. I think the breadth of learning experiences I have sets me apart. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn and work with some incredible designers over the past few years, including Elliott Earls, my classmates at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and the talented teams at gravitytank and Bright Bright Great. I owe my success to their mentorship, feedback, and support.

Shaw: I enjoy being a little competitive and being under stressful work constraints. It’s hard, but I like the energy that comes with the pressure. And as an independent contractor I have to defend and explain work to clients daily, so I feel like I have a lot of experience trying to reason with and convince people of the solutions that I have developed for them.

Name one design you wish you could claim as your own.
Azpeitia: The “Lotería” board game, or the facade of the Folies Bergère.

Jensen: I wish I could claim the design of the Eames airport chairs because I’m sure I would be a millionaire off the royalties.

Parr: Chip Kidd’s book cover design for Jurassic Park. Specifically the T-Rex skull that became synonymous with the book-turned-movie franchise. Jurassic Park was (and remains) my favorite movie. I realized in my 20’s that my love for it stemmed from its iconic logo, not just because it’s possibly the greatest movie to have ever been released. Before I was even literate, I was recreating this logo in crayon. I have no doubt it played a major role in my becoming a graphic designer. I wish I could claim it as my own, because I want to know how it feels to create something that can potentially alter a kid’s life for the better.

Pyper: Any of Wim Crouwel’s poster designs for the Stedelijk.

Salazar: Two words: Paul Rand. Everything Paul Rand designed was bold, playful, and something that just makes you smile.

Schwartz: The art direction and set design for It’s a Small World. The color harmony, lively patterns, and attention to detail make it a masterpiece. Every time I ride it, I actually weep at how perfect it is. Anyone who writes it off because they think the song is annoying is a fool.

Shaw: Sagmeister’s The Happy Show projects, Paula Scher’s work for Public Theater, Louise Fili’s packaging, basically any layout Herb Lubalin ever designed or any typography work that Saul Bass created. But I don’t know that I would say I wish I could claim them. I often wish I might have thought of something first; but even if I did think of it first, the credit goes to the ones that stayed up late and made it happen.

If you could ask any designer living or dead one question, who would you ask and what would you ask them?
Azpeitia: It would have to be Lance Wyman, and I’d ask him to have coffee with me.

Jensen: I would have loved to meet Hermann Zapf. He seems like he’d be a very chill dude.

Parr: I would actually like to ask all designers currently living on their pronunciation of “GIF.”

Pyper: In response to Paul Rand’s Yale resignation over Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, “WTF?”

Salazar: This might be cheating but I always like to ask any designer/creative person I meet what inspired them creatively when they were growing up, which can be anything from favorite TV shows, toys, or locations where they lived—so I would ask whomever this same question.

Schwartz: I would love to talk to Harriet Burns, one of the original Imagineers, about her experiences working on Disneyland’s classic attractions, like the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Haunted Mansion.

Shaw: I might ask Paul Rand, “With all due respect from a big fan of all of your life’s work, what was going on with that NeXT logo design?”

What typeface expresses your signature style?
Azpeitia: Not sure I have a signature style, but I use Futura for a lot of things and I feel like you can’t go wrong with Baskerville.

Jensen: Old Hamcherry Bold.

Parr: Kapra. Rounded edges, but big and tall. It also happens to the typeface used in Master Thief! What’s that? Stop shamelessly plugging the Kickstarter? Fine.

Pyper: On days I had time to take a shower, Helvetica. After an all-nighter, Hobo.

Salazar: I think Futura really expresses my signature style because it’s geometric, much like my work. True story: Futura is the reason why I became a designer. Long story short but in high school I specifically requested for Futura to be installed on my computer in yearbook class. #ThankYouPaulRenner

Schwartz: None.

Shaw: I’ve been so stuck on Brandon Grotesque for a while now. It’s just got so much character while maintaining a really clean look. I’m also really into Archer lately—kind of going through a slab-serif phase right now. I just realized that that might be the nerdiest thing I have ever said. But this is among fellow type geeks, right?

Watch the contestants compete at the 2015 AIGA Design Conference in Command X: New Orleans, sponsored by LG Electronics. If you can’t make it, stay tuned as we live-tweet the event at #AIGAdesign. Good luck everyone, and may the best design win.