DEPICTIONIST

An exploration of personal and professional storytelling through narrative branding.

Authentic.

The LeBron narrative changes today, there’s no question about it.

The haters, the doubters, the naysayers, and the hecklers lost their biggest ammo tonight when LeBron hoisted that illusive hardware.

You could feel the tide shifting over the past few weeks as LeBron has been absolutely brilliant on the court—focused, poised, determined, and otherworldly in his basketball dominance. And then there was the steady grace with which he played—never too high, never too low, in victory and in loss he stayed calm and confident (although not the entitled kind of cockiness we’ve Witnessed in years past). We saw glimpses of friendly and even encouraging interaction with opposing players rarely displayed during playoff games. And of course, always the gracious winner in his post-game condolences to those in the wake of his destruction (his embrace of KD tonight was particularly moving—props to KD on that one, too, really). Gone are the pompous displays of self-aggrandizing celebrations—even his trademark Chalk Toss™ has been replaced by solem pre-game meditation—and there seems to be little talk of the LBJ brand and enterprise anymore… what’s left is simply the most dominating player in the game today.

Hate on that and you come out looking bad… 

But you know what really washed away the red stain from that horrible summer a couple years ago for me? When LBJ was talking to Doris Burke and he said that this year he moved away from the hate that he uncharacteristically and even uncomfortably played with last year and focused on playing with Love and Joy, not feeling the pressure to prove anything to anyone else, but simply doing what he knows he can do to help those around him achieve their singular common goal. 

And that was 100% apparent on the court—that was no fluff post-game comment. That was real. That was—to use LBJ Enterprise’s favorite buzz word—“Authentic.”

As always, Sports, the beautiful metaphor for life, does not disappoint. In sports, as in life and business and branding and so on, I honestly believe the only way we achieve the kind of meaningful success that resonates so deeply not only with ourselves, but even with our most ardent detractors (as I think we’re in the process of witnessing right now with LeBron) is when we succeed in a way that is genuinely authentic to our core being. 

Gimmicks, acts, public displays for love, short-cuts, and tricks—even if successful—don’t win our hearts over. Had Miami and LeBron won last year, we wouldn’t be praising them. We’d be bitter and disappointed and jaded and hate the NBA and hate LeBron and hate the CBA loopholes and just hate, hate, hate, hate… And I guarantee you that it wouldn’t have meant as much as it did to LeBron as it did winning tonight, playing the way he played: with love, with joy, with grace, and with pure brutal animalistic and cerebral dominance of his hapless opponents. 

*  *  *

I should address here the irony of this post following my last one, Reality Wins. There I wordily expressed my affinity toward Kevin Durant and his “believable human narrative” over that of LeBron’s fabricated and plastic M.O.. The LBJ part mostly just took us up to the Decision, and set the table for America’s love affair with Kid Clutch—the whole point of the post. I could sense the tide was changing for LeBron—obviously, as a fan, hoping to be proven wrong—but I needed to get that out there before it was no longer relavant. i.e.: today. So, please forgive my blatant flip-flopping here. I said, in support of Durant, that “we want humans to win.” Well, tonight, a seemingly very good and definitely deserving human won. Congratulations are due. 

Reality Wins

Look, cards on the table: I’m not a huge LeBron fan. But this (I hope) is not a bash on LeBron article. In fact, during his dismantling of my team in this year’s playoffs, I found a revitalized respect for him as a player and as a human being. There’s absolutely no disputing his incredible talent and, like it or not, the dude seems to be a good guy. So why does everyone hate him? And why—as we’re getting one of the juiciest, narrative-laden Finals in some time—do we like LeBron’s antithesis in Kevin Durant so much? 

Would it come as a surprise to you (if you’re familiar with my other writing here) that I’m going to claim that it comes down to story? Let’s hope not. 

LeBron came into this league at the transition from our post-Jordan depression into the NBA that we enjoy today. An NBA that is lead by promising, well-spoken, smart, talented, freakishly athletic young men. And LeBron was in a sense the poster boy for this era. 

But LeBron had a different take on what he wanted to accomplish with his career. Taking the model of MJ’s success, and Jay-Z’s famous line—“I’m a business, man”—LeBron set off to become the world’s first billionaire athlete. He created and sold a product and every step of his career seemed to be tightly scripted to the narrative that we would expect from someone like LeBron. And at first we didn’t mind this. His stumbles and successes early on were endearing—it was part of the process.

But, he seemed to get stuck there. And worse, he didn’t seem to care with the same violent and tortured pain of someone like an MJ, a Kobe, and, yes, even a Kevin Durant. And that pain is what we want from our suffering and faling athletes. Instead, ’Bron continued to flash that million dollar smile, party with his entourage as he toured the country, market expensive shoes and apparel, and enjoy life like almost any other millionaire twenty-something. 

We started writing stories that he didn’t care enough. And our glimpses into his personal life through blogs, twitter and so on all confirmed this in our eyes. All that stuff up above—the business of LeBron—seemed more important to him than winning on the court. And then came The Decision… 

and the blogosphere crucified him. 

This is not how our athlete heros are supposed to act. This was not the storyline that Bird, Magic, and Jordan taught us to expect. But LeBron was a business, man, and the better, smarter, easier option was taking those incredible talents to South Beach to team up with a couple other charismatic stars. They held their championship parade before they played a game and that was that for most fans… They became the enemy, the villains, the most hated, scrutinized team in the NBA. It may not be fair, but to a large degree, this is where they remain today. 

*  *  *

And then, halfway across the country in a small market town, a young team is developing piece by piece through smart drafting, key bargain free-agent signings, and a commitment to a culture of winning (even before the winning began) and personal integrity.* 

This team also boasted another young star in Kevin Durant. He seemed humble and gracious. Stories surfaced of his interaction with his hometown—video game hangouts with the local kids at his Momma’s house after school. He had a good, but quiet, sense of humor. And, best of all, he was determined to win—even when he lost. There was never a moment where he seemed to check out of a game or seem less-than-fully-immersed. You could see this burn in his eyes. His go-to line about just trying to get better everyday wasn’t a farce. We know this because we saw him get better every day. And the leaps between years was even greater. This was a superstar in the making. This is our torchbearer as Kobe’s career winds down. This is the man to lead our NBA… 

In spite of the seemingly organic nature of his pathway to fame and success, there were also some calculated decisions in there by his largest sponsor in Nike, as well as some key moves that he made in regards to social media that helped him feel like the kid next door that we all want to see win. 

Whereas LeBron tried to present a entourage-backed conglomerate and the peaks into his personal life were accidental, unbecoming, and quickly covered up, Kevin Durant appears to be an open book. He tweets about farting during games, playing video games, making hip-hop home-movies with the iSight cam with his “Broingtons” (Harden, Green, and KD), going to the mall to hangout, and not having a girlfriend. We eat this up because it’s real. And “real” in this world where everybody seems to be calculating every “spontaneous” audience-facing moment is very refreshing. 

Nike caught onto this and ran a viral campaign on YouTube about a kid who lived next door to KD and would record him from his phone playing hoops in the front yard or leaving in his 10-passenger van (which is really what he drives). For a while everyone thought these were real. Everything was mundane and believable. Still, soon enough we caught on—it was Nike—but that only tarnished the campaign a little because we still believed in the reality of the moment. 

From there Nike brought along the van and took Kevin into backyard barbecues, nursing homes, churches, and blacktops around the country where he would play pickup with old and young, having fun and laughing, teaching people how to do his pre-free throw shimmy shake. Scripted and high budget now, but we still believed the story. #BasketballNeverStops. We believe this because the reality was that he played pick-up summer league games nearly every day during the NBA Lockout last summer… you couldn’t pry him away from the court. 

And as his successes on the court added up—Rookie of the Year, Scoring Champ, US Gold Medalist, All-Star MVP, and leading a team from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the Western Conference—we ate it up and applauded him. He and the city deserve this. They’ve worked so hard, committed to doing things the “right” way. And, most importantly, built from within—unlike their foes in tonight’s opening game of the Finals, the group from South Beach: LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh and the rest of the Heatles… 

*  *  *

Marketing in today’s culture involves a heavy and steady dose of real-time reality. Only that reality often feels insincere and crafted when it’s coming from the corporations at the top—we’re skeptical, wary, and slightly resentful even of the way it spams our FaceBook and Twitter feeds. We’re desperate for real reality. And Kevin Durant seems to give us that. 

And while he’s real and seemingly down-to-earth, while we believe the boyish charm as he embraces and kisses his Mom’s cheek after every game is not just for the lights and the cameras, Kevin Durant has also not failed to capture our imaginations with fantastic narrative. Every step of his career has incredible story lines. Real, human athlete story lines that we yarn into fables over the years as we did with Michael Jordan. 

This traditional embrace of narrative fused with today’s increasing need of public exposure and real-time communication—along with the stunning play on the court—is why Kevin Durant is our hero. It’s why he’s cast as Luke Skywalker to LeBron’s Darth Vader tonight. It’s why the world is on his side and cheering him on as he sets to take the court tonight in his first ever final’s appearance in just under three hours. 

LeBron, you’re an incredible basketball player—most likely the best—and you’re a decent human being beneath the LBJ corporation. There’s really no reason to hate on you, to criticize and second guess your every step. You don’t deserve that. But… this is America. And we want our Davids to beat out the Goliath’s. We want our Main Street to gain some traction on the corrupt Wall Street. We want our girls next door to be the face of beauty and feminism and not photoshopped super models in unsustainable bodies… We want humans to win. We want reality to win. And tonight, we want Kevin Durant to win.  

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* we won’t get into the integrity of the man who foots the bill for this great franchise… that, unfortunately, is a completely different story……………………… still bitter after all these years… 

The boys @theGoodLine do it again. This says what they’re all about and it says (and shows) it beautifully. 

Featured on Slate.com

Last Mali/Samake-focused post for the day… But I thought this was pretty cool: Slate.com featured an article on Yeah and used a bunch of the photos that I took while I was in Mali. This one above is one of my favorites because I believe it says so much about him.

Unlike some of the other politicians that we met while we were there, Yeah did not grow up in the privileged class, attending boarding schools in Paris during his formative years. He grew up poor and hungry in a small village and sacrificed a great deal to obtain his humble education. Because of this, Yeah intimately understands the reality of life for the huge majority of Malians that he’s hoping to represent as their president. And yet, while that is his upbringing, he’s grown to become a polished and dedicated leader, a charismatic orator, and a sincere public servant. I feel that a little bit of all that is captured in this photo. This is not Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in a button-up shirt tucked into jeans holding the token shovel of a service project photo-op. This is the reality of Yeah Samake. 

Check out this great quote from the Slate.com article

Yeah Samaké is not the average Malian. The great African-American scholar and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois would describe him as a member of the “talented tenth”: The one man out of 10 who, through pluck, education, and direct engagement in social change, can rise out of abject poverty and become an international leader of his race.

Some instagram photos from GoodLine from Mali. Bottom left photo—the one (really) white arm? that’s me… Thanks Trav. 

thegoodline:

We are on our way to the Ukraine, and leaving the warmer climate of Mali behind us. It was incredible time spent with Yeah Samake, meeting the people of Mali and spending time campaigning for Yeah in the Malian Presidential Election.  

This is a video that I worked on with GoodLine a couple weeks ago when we were in Mali together working on Yeah Samake’s presidential campaign. First time shooting video… a couple of my shots made the final cut, so I’m happy. I’m generally more involved with the brand story and advertising side of things, but it was fun to work on something as tangible as this. 

Music credits: Fafa—Reprise, by Vieux Farka Toure and Dafina, by Mamadou Diabate

If you read my last post, you know that client relationships have been on my mind a bunch over the past couple weeks. Here’s Michael Bierut at Creative Mornings talking about clients. Really a great talk… and excited to apply some of these things moving forward. 

Design + Relationships

I should have posted this on Valentines day—both because that’s the day this all kinda went down and because it would have been thematically fitting—but the subject is important enough that I’ll still post it a week later. 

Design is a business of relationships. Obviously there are the relationships between typography and imagery, positive and negative space, dominant and recessive, and on and on. But, I’m learning recently that even more important than the aesthetic relationships are the relationships you have with your clients. Respecting and nurturing these relationships is in many cases just as important—if not more so—than the pixels and points we produce for them. Let me explain. 

I had (yes, had—it’s not a happy ending love story) this client that I’ve worked for on and off for years. Whenever I describe this client to my co-workers and peers I describe him as the absolute dream client: completing trusting, willing to think big, truly an enabler of portfolio-quality work, pays on time—not even just “on time”, he pays immediately—understanding and patient with the inevitable hiccups, and on a whole completely pleasant to interact with. This is the client of every solo designer’s dreams. And I had him. And I let him go.

Why? The surface reason was that I overbooked myself and failed to deliver the work on time. But I think the real reason I lost this client boiled down to communication: he felt that I didn’t value and prioritize his work (even though the truth was completely the opposite) and when I was struggling to keep up with the work load I didn’t fill him in on the details. 

Maybe it’s the Valentine parfums in the air or maybe it’s just me coming to my senses, but these two things sound incredibly similar to the kind of communication breakdowns that cripple and even end personal and romantic relationships and marriages—not communicating how important that person is to you and not communicating the details of our daily struggles. It’s unfortunately easy to take those who are most important to us for granted. And at times, those that we see the most can feel the most estranged.

Clients, spouses, lovers, family, friends… we’re all people and we all want to know that we matter. And if a person feels like they matter to you—even at times regardless of how great or mediocre (and unfortunately even bad) the content of our offering is—they keep coming back. Because it’s personal. 

It’s all about relationships. 

Designing Your Design Career

Last year, a good friend of mine, Keenan Cummings, taught a class called Design Your Design Career through Skillshare. He, as had I, had found himself in a bit of a rut—even in the midst of seemingly great success on his part—and riding a career trajectory that he was uncomfortable with. He decided a change was in order and he put in the necessary work, did the necessary research, and took the necessary risks to get to where he is today: co-founder and Creative Director of Wander among many other exciting things. 

So he taught this class in the middle of his course change and spoke more from ideals and lessons learned from people he admired than from a life-log of personal experiences and challenged the class—as he was challenging himself—to put these ideas into action and come back to the next class having made significant steps to start changing. 

It definitely provided me with the spark I felt I needed to make the changes I wanted. It provided me with material to relate to and with ideas to try to implement. My career change did not happen in one or two weeks—and truthfully neither did his nor was that the expectation heading into the class—but I do feel that I’ve taken control of my career, that I’m steering it in the direction that I want to, and that I’m enjoying my work and my career so much more than I was six months to a year ago. And there’s definitely a tip-of-the-hat in Keenan’s direction for igniting a fire that I was having a hard time lighting on my own at the time. 

There are a bunch of exciting things going on on my end that I hope to take the time to detail a bit on here soon. But the main point of this post is to let people know that this class is being taught again, tonight and to recommend it to anyone sitting on the fence about it as highly as I could possibly recommend it. Please, if you’re feeling a little or a lot stagnant, check it out. I’m sure that the class is going to be even better this time around as he will have some great stories of his own to share. Head over to his blog to get more details or jump right to Skillshare to buy your tickets. Get going!

This is an illustration for a piece over on The Classical about long and involved history of doping and professional cycling sparked by the recent news of Lance Armstrong’s being acquitted of drug charges just days before Alberto Contador’s conviction and subsequent two year suspension from the sport for the same thing. Check it out. And thanks to Bethlehem Shoals and those at The Classical for reaching out again…  

This is an illustration for a piece over on The Classical about long and involved history of doping and professional cycling sparked by the recent news of Lance Armstrong’s being acquitted of drug charges just days before Alberto Contador’s conviction and subsequent two year suspension from the sport for the same thing. Check it out. And thanks to Bethlehem Shoals and those at The Classical for reaching out again…