DEPICTIONIST

An exploration of personal and professional storytelling through narrative branding.

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…  

Team Samake

The following post is undeniably long. I don’t apologize because I think the message is worth the words. But, I do ask and thank you for your time to read it. 

1. IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT JOB (and who isn’t?)

Any perhaps slightly-more-than-casual reader of this blog may have figured out that I’ve been in a bit of a quest to figure out what direction I want my career to go. It’s an exciting time to be a designer and with so many opportunities it’s hard to know which path to go down. But, the thing that I kept coming back to was this: I wanted an opportunity to tell a story that could improve the quality of someone’s life. 

Now, while I kept what it meant to “improve life” somewhat vague in my mind, I knew that designing uninspired bottles of soap and lotion for the lowest common marketing denominator wasn’t cutting it anymore. So with that knowledge, I left my job to venture out on my own. 

My definition of working for myself is slightly more traditional and not quite as in-line with the entrepreneurial trend of the day. I believe in the power of stories, yes, but I also believe in the power of a good client. I was hoping to chase down both on my own. 

2. THE WEB OF CONNECTIONS

Recently, a couple buddies that I’ve worked with over the years started their own business making documentary-style videos, commercials, and promotional spots. They’ve been doing a lot of incredible work in the social sector, traveling around the world and telling really great stories came across a man named Yeah Samake who was running for President of Mali. They set up an introduction with me when everyone from their group and from his was here in the city. After meeting him, I knew this was the gig I was looking for. This was the story that could change lives. This was the story that could change the fate of a nation and perhaps even go as far as to set a new precedent of leadership in a struggling continent, ravaged with famine, warfare, disease, poverty, and starvation. 

“We are not poor in resources,” Yeah says, emphasizing that the starvation and poverty are not the fate of Africans due to the nature they live in, “we are poor in leadership.” He thinks he can change that. And, honestly, I do too. 

When I thought about telling a story that could improve lives, I never imagined it would be quite this literal and quite this direct. But as a designer—and as just an individual in our earthly family—I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity. 

 

3. YEAH’S STORY

To understand why I and an increasing number of others actually believe that this guy can change the fate of his country, you really do have to know him and know his story. It’s one filled with a sense of destiny…

Yeah was born poor like almost everyone else in his country of Mali. He was born into a large family (18 siblings!), which is also not altogether too uncommon. But what was different was his dad made a decision very early on that would have a huge lasting effect on his family: he decided that, come what may—be it hunger, poverty, and even the scorn of the village—he would send every one of his kids to school. Due to that sacrifice, they did go hungry, but every single one of them got their education. All of them graduated from college. And with that, the cycle of poverty was broken in his family. Opportunity lay ahead of them now, and education was the key to unlock that door. 

Yeah continued his education through a sponsorship to come to the US to get his Masters degree. He went to the same university I went to (BYU) and hence the beginning of the crossing of networks… After he graduated he started a non-profit organization that built schools back in Mali where he tried to give more children the gift of education that he received as a child. 

A couple years ago, the mayor seat opened up in his hometown. While he was living in relative comfort and ease in the states, he knew he needed to return home to serve his people. He packed up his new family, his wife and two kids, and moved back to Mali and ran for and won the office of mayor. In the two years since he has began to change the character of his hometown. And that character was founded in things that only seem like a pipe dream to our convoluted American political system… honesty, integrity, trust, transparency, punctuality, and a steady paycheck. And now he’s hoping to take that to the top.  

photo by Weston Colton

4. DOLLAR BY DOLLAR

Now, while he’s hugely popular in Mali and even a front-runner for the presidential seat this April, his path must pass through a difficult and unique financial hurdle. Most candidates get their funding through backdoor agreements and sponsorship and he won’t have anything to do with that. So, he’s got to raise every penny to fund his campaign on his own. Oh, and there’s that one big hitch that those who do support him in Mali—those whose hope and future lie in him—can’t afford to donate to his campaign because many can barely afford to eat. 

So he has to run his fundraising campaign on an international level and hope that people will stretch their hearts (and wallets) to contribute to a nation and people that they will most likely never see, meet, or gain anything personally from their contribution. And this is where I enter the story: to tell this story to help move those hearts to help open that wallet to help fund the campaign that can change a nation. 

I believe he can do it. And to help him do it, I quit my job. 

 

5. DUDE, I’M IN THIS NOW

That actually didn’t go over so well with the campaign. Grateful for the enthusiasm and willingness to help, of course. But it also read as a bit foolhardy and impetuous. The staff is small and volunteer-based and has definitely not asked anyone to step away from their main sources of income to help. The campaign manager even urged me to go and ask for my job back. 

Not exactly the welcome that I had imagined, but, at the same time, I understood where they were coming from. I assured them that I had other things in place to help cover bills and that I wanted to help. And if that brought compensation down the road, wonderful. But if not, that I still had personal investiture in this campaign… because I know his story and I know he can make a difference, and I know that I can help him make that difference. And knowing those things, I couldn’t just walk away.

This seems to happen to most people the get involved. Just tonight my friend was working on something that fell far outside the boundary that he agreed to come in under. I said I couldn’t accept that help, that it was too much, and that I felt too bad having him do that. And he said, more or less, the same things I said to the campaign: “Dude, I’m in this now. Don’t feel bad.” 

We get attached to the idea of hope—of real Hope (the kind that a lot of us had hoped for in 2008, remember?)—and even if it’s not necessarily ours to reap the benefit of, to be able to say that, to some small degree you helped change the destiny of a nation, if not a continent… that just doesn’t come around every day. 

 

 

6. GREEN MEANS GO-GO-GO-GO!

I did finally get the green light to work on the campaign at the beginning of last week. That was the good news. The not-so-good news: we had events lined up that whole week culminating in a large auditorium speaking gig one week from the time of the phone call. In that time we needed a brand, t-shirts, brochures, a website, and promotional materials to advertise the event. We needed a presence on facebook and twitter. We needed to kick off one of the most crucial weeks in the fundraising efforts with a bang and we had basically no time to do it.   

Since then I’ve slept very little, but we’ve started to produce some great things I believe. And the best thing about it is that people seem to be catching the excitement of what this election could mean. That buzz is slowly starting to spread. And people are starting to put their contributions behind it. More and more individuals are echoing this sentiment that Charles Adler from kickstarter once said, “I support what you’re doing, here’s my dollar.”

Still, dollar by dollar, we have a long ways to go. But one thing that is great about the internet is the inherent meritocracy that it provides—good ideas and good stories will rise to the top. This is a good story. And this is a good cause. And I’m tossing out my story about why and how #isupportyeah in hopes that it might make a few more people shout or tweet out, “#isupportyeah too.” And I’m hoping that with enough individuals raising their voice that it will be like all the Who’s trying to sing loud enough that that mean old kangaroo will hear them and let Horton just put the spec someplace safe! JoJo SING! And then the bubble breaks, and the message starts to find the right people—people who are in a position to give a dollar or five or ten or, man people, we’re talking about a presidential campaign here! $10,000 or more! These people exist. And because I’m not one of them just yet, I’m donating what I can: my talents and my voice to try and change the world. 

If you’ve made it this far in the post, I’m hoping that something may be resonating with you by now. So, think about coming and adding your name, voice, and body to Team Samake. I’ll be there. 

All the photos here were taken by Weston Colton and Jac Scott—two of the growing group of incredibly talented individuals who have been pitching in to help tell this story.