In October 2008, I was honored when Shawn O'Keefe and the SXSW team asked me to design the 2009 SXSW Interactive canvas tote bag.
I know from my last year at SXSW Interactive that 8,000+ tote bags are given out to SXSW Interactive registrants — so I was driven to come up with an unique design.
In this post I'll explain the tote bag design process, including some of the challenges we faced through that process and how we came up with a winning solution.
Initial Specs and Feedback
In the initial briefing for the tote bag design project, Shawn had a few specs for the bag and a sense of the general direction the team at SXSW wanted to go in for the design. For specs, I had a 10" x 10" space and up to 7 colors to work with.
The SXSW team also mentioned that the past two bag designs had been hand-drawn in a cartoon style, with mostly darker colors. For the 2009 design they wanted something brighter and less cartoon oriented.
For creative direction, the SXSW team wanted to represent the most common tags generated by the Interactive Panel Picker in a creative way. Shawn shared a Wordle word cloud type treatment as a reference, using some of the tags they were seeing:
I wanted to explore some alternate ideas for Shawn to see, so I began by sketching pencil concepts in my trusty Miquelrius gridded sketchbook. I find this is a critical step to working out ideas. It's clear enough that clients can see direction, but open enough that there is still room for adjustment and iteration.
Concept Sketch v1
In the first round, I created a network tree, with SXSW 09 text at the center of the tree with panel picker tags branching out from the center to fill the space:
The SXSW team felt the very structured network idea was a bit too rigid. They wanted the design to have a more random, organic feel than a network structure could offer.
Concept Sketch v2
In my second sketch, you'll see I've returned to the general idea of a tag cloud, but making better use of the square shape I had to work with.
The upper sketch uses actual tags to form an arrow pointing to the SXSW tag in the lower right corner. The lower sketch features four arrows created with tags, point to the 4 corners that spell out S X S W:
We liked the second round of sketches, especially the idea with the single arrow pointing to SXSW in the lower right-hand corner of the design.
Black & White Concepts
At this point I moved to Adobe Illustrator on the Mac to build the tag cloud in black & white with real fonts, to see how actual tags would look in place:
This direction was good — the sizing of the letters, positioning and overall shape felt right. In fact, when I showed this to my friend Brian Artka, it reminded him of the state of Texas. I hadn't intended this, but I really liked the serendipity of it.
Shawn and the SXSW team wanted to see the arrow tags and SXSW pointing to the lower left, so I created a second version, emphasizing the Texas shape a bit more:
Notice the circle-star and AUSTIN text in the middle of the type treatment? I added it once the shape was tweaked to look more like Texas.
With the structure worked out in black & white, it was time to explore color. I started adding colors to the tags, balancing their placement across the cloud. Then mocked up the color concept on a blank canvas tote bag photo for review:
The brightness of the design was great, but it needed something to separate the tag cloud from the canvas color. I used the type to create a halftone-edged shape in Photoshop, which formed the white shape under the typography in v2:
Facing & Solving Challenges
This design was shaping up! The tag cloud was working well, color was bright and cheerful and the overall feel was mostly positive. But there was a problem — the design was a bit too crisp and mechanical.
The SXSW team wanted a design that was more organic, and even though initially they didn't want another hand-drawn bag design, we started talking about using the Sketchnote style they really loved, mixed in with regular typography.
I replaced some of the tags in the cloud with hand-drawn sketchnote lettering:
It still wasn't noticeable enough, since the crisp typography dominated the design. The hand-drawn words were getting lost in the mix, and looked more like bad reproduction than intentionally hand-drawn typography.
Next I traced the bottom half of the tags in a sketchnote style, scanned and auto-traced the letters using Vector Magic (a wonderful service BTW).
I wanted show a transformation from sketchnote letters to real type — but it still felt wrong. It was too loose for actual type and too mechanical for hand-drawn type:
I was stumped, trying too hard to sneak organic hand-drawn letters into the type.
The Solution: Raw Sketchnote Typography
After a good discussion with Shawn about direction, we decided to shift radically and completely to a sketchnote style for the tag cloud typography. I changed my production method, using actual scans of the sketchnote type, rather than tracing the scans into vectors. The raw scans were much more human and organic:
Yes! This was what we were aiming for! Shawn and the SXSW team liked the new sketchnote direction and I did as well. I had my personality baked in and felt unified and organic — something we didn't feel with the clean typographic approach.
With the design approved, I finalized my Photoshop artwork for printing, and sent it to the SXSW team for production. That was November 17th, because printing 8,000+ canvas tote bags with 7 colors needed lots of lead time. :-)
Final Tote Bags
It was mid-February when Shawn sent word that the bags were back from production. He grabbed a camera and took a few shots of the bag design, so I could see how they turned out and for this blog post:
After having a few months away from the design, the human touch in the sketchnote lettering really feels right for this bag design. I'm very happy with how it's turned out.
I'm hoping attendees to SXSW Interactive for 2009 will enjoy the bags and the design. I'm honored knowing that these bags will be used for years to come, reminding SXSW attendees of their great experience in Austin.
Thanks go to Shawn O'Keefe, Hugh Forrest and the entire SXSW team for choosing me to design the tote bag for 2009. Thanks for staying with me through the tough times in the process as we met the challenge together. It's been great fun.
I'm excited to see thousands of tote bags I've designed wandering around Austin!