Pocket Watch Illustration Mad Hatter's Ball
In 2005, I had the good fortune to be asked to serve as volunteer creative director by a friend of mine, to help brand and produce a gala event and fundraiser for the Florida Blood Services Foundation that she had been charged with producing. I said yes, but I must admit that initially my commitment was driven more out of a desire to help her, than it was by a passion to support the foundation. Two years later I would find that the universe was knocking at my door because my best friend would need Florida Blood Services’ help with platelets while she battled Leukemia…but let me rewind back to before I knew about that…I was involved with several other charities as well as employed as a Creative Director for a training company full time and we were in our busiest time of year.
Flamingo Illustration from Mad Hatter's Ball- Florida Blood Services Foundation
Regardless of these other important factors going on in my life, when my friend approached me and because “NO” is not one of the most used words in my vocabulary, I blindly said, “Yes”.
Five years ago, I could not imagine the long-term benefits that embarking on this collaborative adventure with FBSF would have on my career. The networking opportunities alone, have been well worth my time, not to mention the new clients it generated for me. I was focused on following through on my commitment, doing a good job and helping make the event a success… as quickly and painlessly as possible. It turned out to be a larger time investment than I had bargained for and I felt overwhelmed juxtaposed to my other commitments and my full-time job, but what I hope to communicate is that the most valuable lesson I learned… is that paying it forward and giving your all will serve you well and reward you beyond your imagination. This is true no matter whether you are producing work for a paying client or a pro bono client, charity client. If you work from your heart and truly apply yourself and treat each job like it’s a million dollar account, you will reap endless rewards both tangible and intangible. Do not concern yourself with the benefits, focus on doing a good job and helping your clients find success.
So now…off my soap box and back to my story.
Photo of the Stage Setting incorporating Designs and Theme
Then there were meetings, phone calls and discussions galore. (Not to mention, fifty million emails to read.) I served as creative director, but also served on the planning committee, which consisted of various volunteers from different industries and two FBSF employees that included my friend. Few, if any, volunteers came from the creative world, but everyone enthusiastically wanted to contribute towards the idea pool and to be part of the decision making process. The first step was to choose a theme, which seemed easy. We quickly selected “Alice In Wonderland” and decided to call it “The Mad Hatter’s Ball- Gift of Life Gala”.
After we agreed upon a theme, the next step was to agree on a style. This proved to be a teeny bit more challenging. We spent weeks reviewing Alice in Wonderland books, other successful events around the US with a similar themes, other styles, photos and illustrations found on the Internet. What worked for them, what didn’t work and what could work better. This is where the committee seemed to be torn.
Program Cover for Mad Hatter's Ball designed by Michelle Walker Nault
They tossed ideas back and forth and the idea exchange took on a life all its own while my time investment grew. When you are in position like I was, you must be gentle and remember that most everyone was donating their time and while you think you know best, if you want to get swift decisions and not alienate anyone, you must invest more time on the front end planning process to help people understand and SEE your vision, while also feeling like they are a part of that process.
Just because I could visualize everything vividly and believed that my concept would work through all aspects of the event, I needed to also be able to clearly communicate this vision and help non-visual, non-marketing individuals understand and embrace this vision too. Plus, it was my job to keep an eye on the calendar and the reality of the event date juxtaposed to the reality of printing deadlines, promotional deadlines, press deadlines, etc. and I could hear the White Rabbit’s clock a tickin’ away. I needed to thoroughly create my vision, communicate my vision, be compelling, pitch it and sell it as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Invitation to Mad Hatter's Ball, Gift of Life Gala. Designed by Michelle Nault
Our ultimate mission for this event was to create a fun, upbeat and lively environment and buzz that would attract more affluent members of the community who would spend their dollars with us… and draw people to our event versus other events scheduled around the same date that were competing with us. Plus we needed to create a formula that we could apply moving forward each year. I knew my role was extremely important.
My personal design taste is usually bold, colorful and whimsical. But, while I believed that my taste seemed perfectly matched for this theme, I needed to help the committee members leaning towards a more nostalgic old black and white pen and ink sketch style come to the same conclusion. An even bigger motivator for me was that I was worried if they didn’t vote “yes”… I would be back at square one, staring down the rabbit hole at gazillions more hours of idea exchanges, mockups and design possibilities.
Offering up some thumbnails and pencil sketches was not going to do the trick. I had to dig deeper. I went ten steps further and created much more detailed full-color mockups and illustrations. (I was also crossing my fingers that I’d actually get to use at least some of the elements I created during this process.) I provided them with a sample layout of the event invitation and program as well as a table tent card and various other signage. I illustrated several character and design elements that could be scaled up for large format visuals to provide examples of how the style would be carried through from one thing to the next. I took extra care to make sure that anything I designed could be easily and inexpensively incorporated into stage and table decorations as well. While I was focused on branding that would help make the event a success, I was also forced to be sensitive to the fact that we were working on a shoe string budget and that this was a fund-raiser for a non-profit organization. My illustrations needed to drive the design because I did not have the luxury of proposing fancy die cuts, unusual shapes or sizes, expensive paper and elaborate displays. “Cheap and cheerful” was my budget.
In the end, all the pre-planning and detailed samples I presented paid off. By assessing my client correctly, in this case a volunteer committee with little branding experience, I actually cut my overall time investment down to a minimum and helped us meet all our deadlines. The committee loved my proposed ideas and voted in favor to move forward and gave me (almost) complete creative control. This project was one of many lessons I have learned over the years about how important it is to invest extra time being thorough, communicating effectively and planning properly in order to sell your idea or vision. This is particularly important if you whole-heartedly believe that your idea is in your client’s best interest and offers the greatest chance for success.
Hedge Hog Illustration for Mad Hatter's Ball, Gift of Life Gala. Designed by Michelle Walker Nault
The original plan for this annual gala was to create a new theme every year. But after the success of the first event, due to excellent planning, exciting design (if I do say so myself), the entertainment, the venue, the dedicated volunteers, the memorable activities, the happy guests and the funds raised for Florida Blood Services, they opted to keep the same theme for the next two years. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they changed the venue. Lucky for me, all I had to do moving forward each year was create a few new character illustrations, new signage and help them update the printed materials.
Today, I received a link to a recent Biz Bash Magazine publication. I was in awe when I noticed that 5 years later and 2 years after the last gala, Florida Blood Services is still being featured in articles about the top events in the Tampa Bay area. The Mad Hatter’s Ball, Gift of Life Gala still receives enough hits and generates enough interest that they rerun the story often. There, for everyone to see, are photos of the event, a very nice article and my name featured as the Creative Director with a link to my contact information. Not too shabby in terms of residual pay back. Something I never expected or imagined.
Give it your all, be thorough in your planning and preparation, understand your mission and your audience…and you and your clients will be rewarded tenfold!
For a link to the Biz Bash Article, visit: http://www.bizbash.com/orlando/content/editorial/7608_gift_of_life_gala_inspired_by_alice_in_wonderland.php
For a link to see more photos of the event, visit: http://www.fbsblood.org/html/foundation/events/gala/gala2008.aspx
Michelle Walker Nault