I was glad I took the Amtrak train to the Visual Media 012conference, because a full-day pass made for an exhilarating if exhausting day.
Just like last year, the best feature of this conference is its intimate scale. Not only is there time and space for real conversations with exhibitors (as opposed to shouting matches at the huge conferences), you can ask plenty of questions of each presenter – and get to know your seatmates.
Visual Media Alliance (formerly Printing Industries of Northern California) took full advantage of this intimacy. Even the box-lunch hour was not wasted, with a seminar expert presiding over each table. You would have to be a VIP to have this kind of access at the large shows.
Although I was tempted to switch, with so many great topics to choose from, I stuck with the seminars I registered for, and they did not disappoint. The first, “Taking Photoshop to the Next Level,” by photographer Mark Lindsay, gave us one beefy tip after another, along with a peek at Photoshop 6, which Mark called a “strong upgrade.” Mark’s focus was productivity, so his first recommendations were to make more use of existing and custom keyboard shortcuts, and of actions, which he demonstrated. He also explained the mysteries of blending modes – Normal, Dissolve, Darken, Multiply, etc. – and showed easy ways to use the most powerful ones. I was so impressed I sat at his table during the Roundtable lunch, where I learned even more productivity tips about Photoshop.
At the next session, cleverly titled “Decline of Creative Civilization as We Know It,” creative director Paul Bradshaw explained how we independent graphic designers can counter the trend toward “crowdsourcing” – that phenomenon where design buyers post a project proposal, and designers around the world submit their designs for consideration. The problem: only the “winning” designer gets paid – and not much – and everyone else has basically worked for free. Bradshaw’s response is to “do great work” – and to get your clients to do the selling for you through old-fashioned word of mouth. The room was small enough that Bradshaw had us introduce ourselves, and the very young guy sitting next to me worked at Apple in HR. He took notes on his iPad using a tablet pen, and told me later that the app he liked was Paper by Studio 53. It has a beautiful interface and lets you paint and draw too. Another bonus.
The after-lunch keynote speaker, venture capitalist/angel investor Gil Penchina, provided an interesting glimpse into his world, where for every Instagram – which Facebook just bought for $1 billion – there are hundreds if not thousands of startups scraping by even after a round or two of very modest funding. Still, he encouraged us to “start something” and contact him with ideas.
Gil was introduced by new-gen magicians Leeman Parker and David Blatter, whose expert patter and amazing sleight of hand were reminiscent of Penn and Teller. Keep an eye on these two; their next big show is at the Hollywood Fringe Fest in June.
My afternoon session, “Social Signals in Search,” with online marketer John Thyfault, was a thorough walk-through of the ways search engines are using social media activity in its ranking algorithms. As good as it was, for this writer, it was also a little depressing to learn how much content you have to give away for free to build a following – and how much social media has become a popularity contest.
I was late to the small but packed room for Steve Decker’s entertaining “Marketing Case Study,” where he described how his Zooka Creative recruited 2,000 “mommy bloggers” to try out and talk about a new Purex fabric softener – just one innovative piece of a print-multimedia-social media product launch Zooka created and produced. It was so wildly successful and well done that it won an Effie Award this year, alongside giant ad agencies (find out more and download the case study). Steve gave us a big bonus by explaining Facebook’s new EdgeRank algorithm (do a Google search to find out more), which determines which friends and page posts show up in users’ news feeds – and why some never show up at all.
I was late to Steve’s session because I made a quick round of the Expo’s exhibitors’ tables. Adobe wasn’t there at all this year – in fact, a number of last year’s exhibitors weren’t at this year’s event – but I visited each booth with a new purpose, as a soon-to-be designer and print buyer myself. Each of these exhibitors are potential vendors, so it was helpful to learn their specialties.
The beautifully designed and produced Sappi Standard books and marketing booklets went fast, but I got a full collection to show my classmates next week. At one of the morning sessions, Sappi executive Daniel Dejan explained how the incredible Standard #5 was produced. I couldn’t attend, but I can find out more on Sappi’s website, where you can also download most issues of the Standard.
I also ran into a colleague from my freelance days, Rita Amladi, now with Rods and Cones, a color management and digital-asset specialist for large companies. Rita was the awesome Photoshop Product Specialist for Photoshop 3 at Adobe when I revised and copyedited Adobe Press Production Essentials. I could always count on her deep knowledge and articulate responsiveness whenever I had questions.
What impressed me most – besides the amazing paper samples and Sappi booklet designs – was the quality of the latest digital printing technologies. I picked up some samples that are every bit as detailed as offset prints. As with the business cards that TC Printing made for me, only a very experienced eye could tell the difference.
What also impressed me Visual Media Alliance itself, and how robust its network is, how current it is, how reasonable the $75 annual dues are, and how many resources it offers its members – which soon will include me. Then I’ll get a print copy of its Resource Guide, access to group health insurance, discounts on webinars and online classes, and news that will connect me with other members, even here in Sacramento. I hope more designers learn about VMA and its annual conference so it can thrive once again.