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« SXSW Interactive 2009 Sketchnotes | Main | Tasty Taco Dip Recipe »

SXSW Interactive '09 Tote Bag Design

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.

Color Concepts

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.

Thank You

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!

Reader Comments (36)

Great job Mike. You've got to be good to be lucky, and you were both when you formed the state of Texas from the tag cloud. Perfect.
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJAbbott
Mike, if I were going to SXSW I would bring a Sharpie & ask you to autograph mine! Great work and congrats!!!
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Luxemburg
Awesome =) I am glad you can finally share this, and how you came to the final design of the bag, to everyone else. I'm looking forward to seeing the bags being toted around Austin, cant wait!
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Artka
Jeremy, I have to again admit that Texas tag cloud was complete coincidence, but I'll take luck! Glad it worked out and that you like the design.
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
@Rachel, thanks! If I can snarf a spare for you I'll sign one and mail it out. :-)

@Brian, this was a tough secret to keep! I really wanted to post about it earlier, but I think the timing is about right, a little less than 2 weeks before SXSW Interactive 2009.
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Wow. What a fantastic job. I usually consider myself too "manly" to use a tote bag but I would totally and shamelessly rock that.
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Rhone
@Patrick this is most definitely a manly tote bag. :-)
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Mike -

As always - amazing!Can't wait to get mine :)

March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Nelson
Man, I am so getting me one... will you be there? I would LOVE to meet ya!
March 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDanh
@Marcus @Danh Thanks guys! I'm excited to get my bag as well. Should be a sight to see thousands of bags piled up at the registration area. :-)

Danh, I will be there Friday the 13th through Wednesday the 18th so we should definitely have a coffee! Email me your contact info.
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Best SxSW tote yet!
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAarron
Mike - the bag looks fantastic man! I am looking forward to meeting up with you during SXSW!Best -NakiaNakia & His Southern Cousins
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNakia
What a surprise. Awesome design, Mike. I look to picking mine up in a couple weeks! Seeya in Austin!
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJason Beaird
Mike, your designs always amaze me, and this is definitely a winner. Appreciate the look into your process too.
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWorkingWriter
Nice work Mike!
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndy
Awesome, man. Look forward to catching up in Texas.
Can't wait to get my mitts on one of these beauties. Way to capture the spirit of the event & community, Mike!
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGwen Bell
i hope i can order this since that i am at asia pacific :D
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBuzzlair Voufincci
Fabulous! I thoroughly enjoyed walking thru the process with you! Great work! Thanks for sharing...
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJen Grant
Thanks for sharing your iterative design process - v cool, Mike! Anyway you will be making laptop skins as well? I'd love to sport the SXSW Texas-shaped cloud around on my laptop.
March 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterZena Weist

I'm really impressed of the whole design process and what you've taken into account while creating this tote.

It's a pity I can't attend this years SXSW and grab one...
March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterArtis Cordobo
Explanations like this are super helpful to me.I probably would have been content with the first color mockup -- and never gotten to what turned out to be a far nicer design.
March 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
Mike - the tote bags are fantastic! Kudos on being selected to do the design and even bigger Kudos on a really cool concept and final product. Can't wait to get mine :) Hope to see you there!
March 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLisa
@Aarron -- Great to hear!

@Nakia -- Happy to surprise you pleasantly! Looking forward to meeting you in Austin as well. It'll be a blast!

BTW, if you like Joe Cocker style soul music, do check out Nakia's site. He's got his new album up for free download until SXSW starts (I think)

@Jason -- All I can say is GO TEAM LEBOWSKI at Avalonstar's Bowling Extravaganza on Sunday!

@WorkingWriter -- Thanks Mike! I'm very happy you enjoyed a glimpse into the process.

@Andy -- Thanks!

@Alex -- Thanks for the kind words and I'm looking forward to re-connecting in Austin! Can you bring me some good Cuban coffee? :-)

@Gwen -- I'm so happy you're excited about the bag design! Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment.

@Buzzlair -- Thanks! I'm going to talk with the SXSW guys about doing a t-shirt with this design. No guarantees, but if they do one I'll post about it here on the blog.

@Jen -- Always happy to share my process. I think it's important to demystify it for others who may not know or have been though a design process before.

@Zena -- I'd be interested in creating laptop skin... do you have a recommendation on who I should contact about producing that?

@Artis -- Glad you liked reading the process. I know you are a designer as well, so I suspect it was interesting from that perspective to see how I approached the challenge. Hopefully we can get a t-shirt done that you can buy. We'll see what I can do. :-)

@Paul -- Great to hear you enjoyed seeing the process! You can check in my design, logo and icon archives here and see more if you like.

@Lisa -- Thanks so much for the encouragement! If you see me at SXSWi come and say hello! :-)
March 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Looks good, but I myself didn't see Texas in the word-cloud until I read about it in the post. I would've pushed it a little further, i.e. shaped the word-cloud to look a little more like Texas. As it is, it looks VAGUELY like Texas, IF someone points it out to you.

And why is "SXSW" being pooped out into Mexico?
March 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterelkmaster
@elkmaster Thanks for the comments. The Texas word cloud was intended to be subtle.

The left arrow relates to the downward-left arrow icon that SXSW uses pretty regularly in their branding, for instance the favicon.

As for the SXSW location, I suppose it is technically somewhere in Mexico if you were going to place the cloud on a real map -- though you've already said the cloud shape isn't Texas-shaped enough to be Texas. :-)
March 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
wayyyyyyyyyyyyyy 2 safe , dated and expected.oh well.
March 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdavid carson
Thanks for the comments David. Sorry to hear you felt the design was too safe/dated/expected. I've learned long ago I just can't please everyone.
March 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
Mike, this is fantastic! I'm always fascinated by other designers process, thanks for sharing!
March 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreg
Thanks Greg, I'm glad to share my process for just that reason.
March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
i've been saying for months that i wanted to take wordles from web projects and make t-shirts out of them, but i never really gave any thought to positioning the cloud into a shape... happy accident!
March 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermichelle moore
How creative! I love the design. :)
March 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaynah
Mike -

Why can't you learn from David Carson, ("one of the top 50 creative minds in the world...") You'll need at least a hundred pictures of yourself on this blog, dude. wow - oh, and you must take up a bitchin' hobby like surfin'. Word.

Seriously, though. I would have been happy to get the sweeeet bag, let alone be in Austin for SXSW...
April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Compeau
Love the step by step recap. Great schtuff!
June 6, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjonny goldstein
Woah!! Awesome tote bag!!!!!Sooooooooo wanna grab one of those!! Have anu left? ;)gr8t job!
October 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGracy
Thanks! For extra bags you'd need to contact the SXSW folks about that. :-)
October 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde
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