Every now and then we need little reminders that we can do (and have done!) remarkable feats. Indulge me with a little throwback-flashback, won’t you? It’s a story from the not-too-distant past, when I literally worked myself sick and bounced back to claim creative glory.

It happened like this: in 2015, I was serving as President of the New Orleans chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design. A national organization of around 25,000 members, AIGA brings together graphic artists of all media and designers of all kinds of experiences, from typographers and illustrators to information architects and community organizers. In October of that year, over 2,500 such designers convened in New Orleans for the annual AIGA Design Conference.

Our humble chapter had the great honor and challenge of staging several concurrent design events during those few days. We produced studio tours, guest lectures, and our crown jewel: the Print History Walking Tour, developed by my esteemed colleagues Keir DuBois and Joseph Makkos, and still available as an interactive website for self-guided tours.

By the time the conference got rolling, I’d been putting myself through the wringer to manage all our chapter events and obligations. My immune system finally cried uncle, abandoning me to a merciless 24-hour flu, and I never set foot inside the ballroom. IT’S OK. REALLY. I WASN’T BOTHERED.

[Editor: We’ve since obtained contemporary footage, shown below, of Not Bothered Julia.]

I was determined to not miss the entire conference, however, so I shook off the flu and attended the closing party on Saturday night at Mardi Gras World. Luckily, my body got itself together, because I’d been invited by party sponsor Shutterstock to participate in the night’s featured entertainment: a “Pixels of Fury” live design battle.

Designers can’t resist a challenge. It’s why we’re always clamoring for constraints and prying for complaints. Plus, my favorite professional compliment I’ve received was specifically in regard to my speed:

Of course I said yes.

This wasn’t my first time competing against other designers and a running clock; earlier that year, I’d teamed up with illustrator Anna Wilkenfeld for the Adobe Creative Jam. In a room full of other glory-hungry designers, we got a theme and inked up a new graphic from scratch, ultimately taking home both the judges’ award and the people’s choice award.

Pixels of Fury would be different:

  • It was a playoff: four players entered the first, paired rounds, and only two emerged in the final round.
  • We could only use Shutterstock graphics.
  • We only got 20 minutes per round.
  • We competed while seated on a stage with our screens broadcast to the audience.

Round 1: The First Mardi Gras

For the first round, we received the assignment in advance to scheme out our concept, with a shopping list of hand-selected Shutterstock images to carry into battle. (The actual files had to be downloaded after the countdown started.)

That creative assignment? Create a poster advertising the first Mardi Gras, 1699.

Like my Byron composition for Adobe’s Creative Jam, I used nature and botanicals to load up on poetic significance. To me, the first Mardi Gras would be a peaceable revelry within la bayou sauvage. I planned an identity swap for our emblematic alligator and pelican, throwing iconic beads for a new tradition.

I specifically selected cowberries for the beads, because they’re native to Louisiana swamps and similar to our state flag’s image of blood drops fed by a mother pelican to her young.

Here’s what the crowd voted for:

It was thrilling to push my abilities and show off on stage, and that passion delivered when my entry won the first round. I advanced to…

Round 2: Mystery Subject

For round 2, a poster advertising the future Mardi Gras of 2115.

This time around, the process was completely different. We still had the same time frame, but the scope of work expanded dramatically: I had to cook up the concept, plan and source the elements, and execute the work in only twenty minutes. My own extremely dark sense of humor gave me a concept instantly: New Orleans, post sea-level-rise, as a destination for, ahem… aquatourism.

I tossed off some quick trash talk and then dove into Shutterstock for the images: a famous New Orleans landmark, some water elements, a pair of swimmers who looked like they overpaid for a hotel, and a couple Mardi Gras masks to cover their bubbling faces. Soon enough:

I was gratified to win over the audience. I was ecstatic to take home the “Furious Pixel” trophy. But beyond that, I was wildly delighted to deploy the gorgeous Revival font, developed specifically for the conference by designer Brandon Washington under the creative direction of Nessim Higson/IAAH. Revival is available for free commercial and personal use, downloadable in both modern and gothic versions at RevivalType.com.

Like all triumphs, this one wasn’t without cost. After the closing party I collapsed at home for about a week, knackered by the conference—but for the umpteenth time I’d re-learned what I’m capable of when the pressure’s on. My apologies to the submerged New Orleanians of 2115, but it was a much-needed confidence injection, and a lesson I’ve applied to formidable challenges ever since.