Funny by design
Aided by drinks and drag, the Show 'n Tell Show reveals graphic designers' darkest secrets.
About a year ago, squashed by a standing-room-only crowd at the Whistler in Logan Square, we watched a graphic designer give a slide presentation about an ad he’d created for a mundane appliance. Though the assignment should have been simple, his client forced him to make dozens of versions of the print ad, varying fonts, photo placement and other visual elements until it looked little different from his original proposal, just uglier. By the time the designer reached the 37th iteration of his opus, the audience was in stitches. The Show ’n Tell Show—Zach Dodson and Mike Renaud’s liquored-up answer to the typical design conference—was a hit.
On Sunday 28, Dodson, 30, and Renaud, 31, bring the seventh episode of the Show ’n Tell Show to Lincoln Hall in Lincoln Park. In the months following its premiere in December 2008, the show outgrew the Whistler, then Schubas. Over coffee, Dodson and Renaud tell us they started the free event to have a “place where designers could meet each other and talk about design.” Aside from costly conferences that turn into anxious networking-fests, “we identified this black hole of stuff for designers to do” in Chicago, Dodson adds. Mingling is also an important part of the Show ’n Tell Show, but the show’s founders have a relaxed attitude toward it: “We stay and get rip-roaring drunk afterward,” Dodson says.
The two friends, both freelance graphic designers and Logan Square residents, “knew a lot of [designers’] best stuff gets left on the cutting-room floor,” Renaud explains. Many of their guests share such lost work. Others offer behind-the-scenes dirt on projects that went public. The cohosts have added public service announcements about design faux pas as well as videos in which random passersby critique design. On Sunday, the Curious Cardigans (a.k.a. Sonnenzimmer’s Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi) will screen their interview with designer Diana Sudyka; Gus Gavino filmed the chat at the Field Museum, where Sudyka taxidermies birds.
The popular Show ’n Tell Show’s guests have included local celebs like artist-novelist Audrey Niffenegger, poster designer Jay Ryan and comics artist Ivan Brunetti. But the growing number of nondesigners in the audience seem just as psyched about speakers who are obscure outside their profession—to the cohosts’ surprise. “I always scratched my head about it,” Dodson admits, “until someone came up to me and said, ‘I never knew that’s how something like this came together, and it was fascinating.’”
Dodson and Renaud attribute the Show ’n Tell Show’s accessibility to SpokesMom. Played by Dodson’s brother Seth—a star of the Annoyance Theatre’s drag-queen sitcom Glitter in the Gutter—the motherly character spouts “clueless commentary and encouragement” throughout the show, according to Dodson, calling people out when they fall into jargon-laden “design-speak.” While reaching a general audience used to be a secondary concern, Dodson and Renaud came to believe it’s crucial for their industry. To school those who think a “designer” is anyone who owns Adobe software, they commissioned logos for the Show ’n Tell Show from 50dollarlogo.com, one of many companies promising design services on the cheap. Renaud hopes the “terrible” results prove “a lot of hard work and creativity” goes into design, deadpanning, “There was a great one that was a giant Champagne bottle surrounded by arty people on surfboards.”
Sunday’s lineup includes illustrators Anders Nilsen and Chad Kouri, Shawnimals toy designer Shawn Smith, and performers Susie Kirkwood and Jill Summers. What the shows have in common, Dodson says, is that they’re “about process.” “In almost every job, there’s ‘try, try again,’ and that’s the whole job of a graphic designer,” he says. “‘Process’ means a series of mistakes and obstacles that maybe were overcome but maybe not. That makes for a good story because mistakes are always funny.”
The Show ’n Tell Show moves to Lincoln Hall Sunday 28 at 8pm.