If you’re a regular at the annual AIGA Design Conference, I’m going to assume that Command X is already a firm favorite, but for the uninitiated, allow me to offer a little background to what became, for me, one of the lasting highlights of this year’s Vegas event. The premise will be familiar: a team of skilled contestants pit their talents head to head while a panel of acerbic judges (Dana Arnett, Bonnie Siegler and Stanley Hainsworth) brutally critique them before an enraptured audience. But what separates Command X from the X Factors of the world is that its principle focus is, of course, design.

And unlike its poppy peer, the contestants at Command X are a gang of pixel pushers, fresh out of college (some not so fresh), eager to make a name for themselves in the world of design. Over three days they’re tasked with four 24-hour briefs, which they present every evening to an audience of thousands. The pitches are emotionally, not to mention aesthetically, charged—some of this year’s contestants drew on harrowing personal experiences, bringing tears to the eyes of everyone in the auditorium. Eventually one competitor emerges victorious, $1,000 richer, and with the total respect of the crowd. If that’s not enough, the whole thing is compered by Sean Adams, who manages the proceedings like Caesar Flickerer in The Hunger Games. Sounds exhausting right?

And it was, which left me concerned for the wellbeing of the contestants. So last week I checked in to see how they were holding up, and what were their highlights were from this gruelling experience.

How nervous were you before going on stage for the first time?
Isabel Castillo Guijarro: Extremely nervous. I wasn’t ready to speak in front of so many people. But I was definitely ready for the pressure and tight turnaround of each assignment.

Joanna Ngai: I was more excited than nervous! Having woken up so early in the morning to fly into the conference, my nervousness only kicked in afterwards when I realized I had just spoken in front of thousands of designers and had people coming up to talk to me. It was pretty surreal.

Katie Coughlan: All the anticipation leading up to that moment had me so nervous. Thankfully my fellow competitors and I had a tequila shot before going on stage the first time, and I think that helped take the edge off!

Had anything you’d done previously prepared you?
KC: I have avoided public speaking my entire life, even taking electives to substitute for Oral Communications class in high school. So no, not so much.

JN: Nothing in my past experience comes close to presenting designs in front of an audience of thousands.

Did you think you were a good designer before you started the competition?
Adam Lehman: I think all seven of us on that stage were great designers before we started.

What about after?
Daniela Valle: I learned that you can be “a good designer,” but in the end it’s not only being “good” that matters, because every single one of us was chosen for being outstanding. What really matters is being able to solve problems, to pull an all-nighter (and yet be impeccable), to communicate in front of the biggest crowd of your life, to know to respond to social media, and most importantly, to let the design talk for itself.

Best bit of criticism you received?
KC: I was really struggling with the final assignment and talked to some people about my idea. Someone told me (constructively) my tentative idea was too generic. He told me to put my own emotion into my solution, something I wasn’t considering at all up to that point. That pointed me towards a much more solidified direction.

AL: Probably from David Carson. I was playing around with my last slide for the last challenge and he came over while I was playing with a bit of a safe idea. He tapped me on the shoulder, we got chatting, and he told me to go for it. He said something along the lines of, “not everyone will always like what you do, so be controversial.”

Worst bit of criticism?
Kevin Yang: I think when Dana [Arnett] and Stanley [Hainsworth] told me my icons felt generic and cold. I think it’s something I struggle with a lot. Design is more than just execution—it’s about the emotions you’re trying to convey. Sometimes I forget about that, so I’m glad they brought it up.

KC: That my #whatsinyourbox hashtag is a subtle reference to porn; thanks Sean Adams!

What opportunities have you been offered since the competition?
ICG: I’m actually surprised at the amount of emails I’ve been getting: people I know that I haven’t heard from years, random fan mail, freelance, and possible design collaborations.

If you had to do it all over again, would you?
KC: Heck yeah!

What advice would you give to next year’s contestants?
Andres Garcia: Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Believe in what you’re doing and the reasons why you’re doing it.

AL: Fucking smile the whole time. You made it to the competition and that’s what matters. Be friends with your fellow contestants ASAP. They are so awesome and the only people who understand what you are going through. Do shots of tequila before going on stage, it helped us a lot. Don’t spend all your time designing, just most of it. Make sure you mingle, eat, and sleep.

KY: Bring a comfy hoodie. It gets cold sometimes.