A clown walks into a conference...

When prepping for my presentation at the 2009 HOW Design Conference in Austin, Texas, I had no intention of incorporating my recent clown school, and clowning around, experience as the Amtrak Cascades Character Clown Corps member Toots Caboose. I did feel that the evolution of Toots might make a good future presentation in regards to establishing an identity or persona, creating a brand around such a entity, and the marketing and promoting of that character. However, my HOW Conference presentation - Why Pay For It When You Can Get It For Free - was about social networking as a marketing and promotion tool and I felt it needed to be focused much more on the serious business of design.

Photo by Karen Larson

I was just getting out of my taxi after arriving at the Austin Hilton when a young woman walked by and, with disappointment in her voice, said, "Oh, you're not wearing your clown costume." The comment caught me off guard.

After checking into my room and freshening up a bit, I headed to the registration desk in the Austin Convention Center. In the lobby of the hotel I ran into Stefan Mumaw, one of the authors of Caffeine for the Creative Mind and Caffeine for the Creative Team. The first thing he said to me was, "I've got to tell you, I love the clown thing. I really want to talk to you more about being a clown."

Later, I ran into Justin Ahrens of the firm Rule29 and he told me that my clowning experience was helping him overcome his fear of clowns. He relayed a story of his wife Sarah coming into a room while he was on his computer. When asked what he was doing, he explained the he was "looking at photos of his friend Jeff - the clown."

The topic of my clowning was brought up again when I saw my editor Amy Schell, of HOW Design Books. She asked if Toots was going to be making an appearance in Austin.

OK, this was all getting to be a little strange. I had intended to keep my clowning and conference speaker duties separate - at least for the HOW Conference. Everyone seemed to know about Toots Caboose and my clowning was all they wanted to discuss.

The TOO early in the morning Design Economic Summit panel - Steve Gordon, Daniel Schutzsmith, Andy Epstein, myself, Megan Slabinski of The Creative Group and moderator Jeni Herberger. Photo by Karen Larson

Later that evening it hit me. All the comments about my clowning and Toots were a result of my promoting my clowning experience by way of social networking. I'd written about the experience on bLog-oMotives. I had posted updates about Toots on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and elsewhere. Photo galleries of the Portland Rose Festival/Amtrak Cascades Character Clown Corps had been established on both Flickr and Facebook. Following the Rose Festival events, several clowns - including Toots Caboose - continued on as members of the Stumptown Clowns. Again, I used all the same social networking tools to promote the activities of the troupe. Flickr and Facebook galleries were also used to archive photo images.

I realized that Toots needed to make a HOW Conference appearance in some form. I sent an email to my parter Ed, back in Portland, stating that I thought I was going to be necessary to have him overnight my official Toots Caboose nose to Austin. Of course, introducing Toots to the conference audience was going to require totally restructuring my presentation.

Ed called me and asked if I really wanted to spend $40-50 to ship my nose to Texas? I told him that I needed to do so and it would be more than worth it in the end.

At 3:30 AM I completed redoing my presentation for later that same day. With just a few hours sleep, I was at the convention center at 8:00 AM for the Design Economic Summit for which I was a panel member with Steve "RDQLUS" Gordon, Daniel Schutzsmith, Andy Epstein, Megan Slabinski and Jeni Herberger (above). Following the panel I ran back to my hotel room to go over my presentation a couple more times. At 10:30 AM the package with my clown nose arrived at the hotel. My lunch-hour was spent at the great in-house designer luncheon, organized by conference attendee Brad Dressler, at the Rio Grande restaurant. I showed up at 2:00 PM for my HOW Conference Bookstore signing to the realization that they still had me scheduled at the old time of 3:15 PM, with a session that was starting at 3:45. With the book signing rescheduled for 5:00 PM, it was back to my hotel for a quick shower and change of attire.

My session was very well attended - with some people having to sit on the floor. HOW Conference pal Karen Larson came into the room with a "big gulp" gin and tonic for me and it was time for the event to begin.

The initial portion of my presentation remained much the same as I had originally planned - and then I showed a slide with my mother's advice of "Don't be a clown." (above). With that image, my clown nose was put into position and I went through the process of how social networking had been used to promote the activities of Toots Caboose and his fellow clowns. I explained that the same tactics may be used to market an independent designer or a design firm.

With clown nose in place, I conducted a question and answer session, followed by the signing of books, the taking of some photos and introductions by several of my session attendees.

One of the people introducing themselves was Emily Gordon, the editor of Print. We had a great conversation - all the while there was a clown nose on my face. She later posted on her Facebook page that my session was "one of the high points of the conference!"

Already late to my book signing, I headed out into the convention center hallway to HOW Magazine editor Bryn Mooth, Steve Gordon and Justin Ahrens laughing and shaking their heads at my big red nose. Donovan Beery, of 36point, grabbed me and Toots made a quick cameo on the Reflex Blue Show, which was broadcasting live from the HOW Conference. All I had time for was a quick "hi" to the listening audience.

Toots and his friend Debbie Millman

Throughout my book signing, for Identity Crisis!: 50 redesigns that transformed stale identities into successful brands and the PDF on CD version of The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success, the nose remained in place. It was fun having conversations with students, design peers and those interested in future speaking engagements while all acted if a clown nose was not unusual. Jeni Herberger showed up to take me away to the next obligation - the annual conference Portfolio Review sponsored by The Creative Group. Along the way we ran into Toots' friend Debbie Millman and the meeting presented a lovely photo opportunity (above). Wearing my Toots Caboose nose, I offered constructive criticism to those who presented portfolios for review by design "experts." Again, I got a bit of the head-shaking and a smirk from my friend Julie Sims as she coordinated the reviewers. A friend reminded one participant that he was taking critical career advice "from a clown."

It was then time for dinner. Neil Tortorella, Steve Gordon, Karen Larson, Jeni Herberger and Toots went out into the 107 degree heat for a several block walk to the incredible Iron Works BBQ. The nose remained in place until we were seated. I then felt as if I was melting and removed the Toots proboscis.

Although I had not been in full Toots Caboose attire, the essence of Toots was present at the HOW Design Conference in Austin. It had been a great opportunity to show how social networking can be used as a marketing tool - and that clowning and design are serious business.

Note: A great little bonus of my clowning around at the HOW Conference was an attendee introducing herself as Austin hometown clown Lovey Dovey!

© 2009 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

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