Graphic Design, Hockey, and Not Being a Dick - Inside the Mind of Dave Mason

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

In this edition of our Storyteller Profile series, we sat down with designer, app developer, sports aficionado, conference creator, and author Dave Mason.

Who is Dave Mason?

Dave Mason – Designer, App Developer, Conference Creator, and Author

Dave Mason is a man of very many hats (helmets might also be appropriate, depending on what he’s working on at the moment). He is the founding partner and Principal at Multiple Inc., a Chicago-based strategic design firm that harnesses the power of visual storytelling to help its client drive change by designing and advancing brands, services, and products. He is also an avid sports lover – a former high school football and youth hockey coach and current hockey dad who took his passion for the game and transformed it into PowerPlayer, a feedback platform he created to help athletes progress by making their holistic stories accessible. And, last but not least, he is a newly minted author who used his “free time” to pen a novel.

A natural creator, Dave is relentless in his pursuit of transforming his passions into projects and his ideas into tangible realities. And in doing so, he helps craft stories that have an impact – for his clients, the athletes who use his platform, or the people who read his book.

Check out our conversation with Dave below:

TMC: We’ve got Dave Mason here. I would like to summarize what he does, but he does so many things that it might be better left for him to do. So, Dave, I feel like it wouldn’t be much of an overstatement to say that you do literally a little bit of everything. You founded and currently run a very successful graphic design business in Chicago, you’ve been involved in apps and tech, including your newest venture, PowerPlayer, and as if that wasn’t enough, you recently wrote a book. If you had to title yourself, what would that be?

DM: Ask me the tough question right off the bat! I’m a designer. That’s how I describe myself. I started out in business as a graphic designer but, quickly, you realize that the words you choose are a design process as well. The way you present anything - or yourself – is part of a design process. So, I don’t have an all-encompassing word to describe myself. I just tell people I’m a designer by training and by experience, but it has led to other things.

That’s a good creative and all-encompassing term. And, so, how did you get into design? How did you know it was a passion for you? What pushed you to pursue in the capacity that you did?

Well, my father was an aeronautical engineer. So, I was around a guy who – I knew he could draw – but he did technical drawings, and I was always kind of intrigued by that as a kid. And I always tried to figure out what the hell he did for a living and, I don’t know if he told me this or I made it up, but I seem to remember that he told me one day, “Well, I just sort of draw things on paper, and then other people build them.” And so, in my mind, I was like, “Huh… so, you can do that and get other people to do the hard part? That sounds like a way to make a living!” So, I was around design, in a sense, for my whole life, growing up.

And, one thing that I point to, was having an older brother who was a music nut. And, we would sit on the floor of our shared bedroom, and we had our little record player, and he would play the latest Jethro Tull or whatever we were into, and he was grooving on the music, and I was grooving on the album covers. I liked the music too, don’t get me wrong, but I was just fascinated by the design of the covers. So, when I think back, he ended up having a career in music, and I had a career in graphic design, and it all sort of started from our bedroom floor.

*Author’s note – for another great read, check out Dave’s article on how this fascination with album covers led to his career in design: It’s Only Graphic Design (But I Like It).

When it comes to album covers, as well, it’s almost complimenting the music in the sense that the music is the audio storytelling, and the covers are the visual storytelling to accompany it. Is it safe to say that what you do with design, in all the ways that you do it, has a thread of storytelling woven into it?

Absolutely. There’s no reason to provide graphic design unless there’s a story behind it. So, all of our clients, all of the work that we do, is driven by the communication challenge that is put in front of us. And therefore, when we look at that communication challenge, we say, “OK, so, what story are we trying to tell and to whom?” So, the words matter, obviously, but then what we call the “visual voice” matters – the actual visual expression of something is very important as well. The storytelling aspect is woven into everything.

So, your team, as designers, what’s your process? Are you the guiding director in as far as what that voice becomes? Or do you get it from your client? Is it collaborative? How does that work?

Yeah. The answer is “yes.” It all depends on the client, what their resources are, what their internal skillsets are, if they have outsides resources. Sometimes we team up with outside resources, such as yourself – sometimes they have writers. A lot of the time they look to us to write the top-level stuff that drives the whole messaging platform. These days, I still use the term designer, but I spend a lot of my time writing for our clients now and so, the writing really is the driving force behind the design. Sometimes it can happen the other way around, but not normally. That’s not the way my brain thinks. I think in words first, and images later.

That’s interesting to hear you say. I wrote an article the other day and it included an analogy illustrating the synchronicity between design and writing by positioning your brand as your sales pitch and understanding that you can dress a salesperson up in the nicest clothes possible but if they fumble their way through their pitch, they’ll never close the sale.

Absolutely – and the inverse is also true. You can have the best words possible but if you forget to put pants on for the meeting, they’re not going to hear you. They’re just going to see that you don’t have pants on. So, maybe that’s OK depending on the meeting you’re in, but…

Absolutely. I found it so interesting in bringing to life the way one relies on the other.

There’s an old saying – and I didn’t say this – but it’s brilliant. And it’s basically that you cannot not communicate. So, no matter what you put out in the world, it speaks about you. So, if you can control what’s being said, you should. You should never leave it to chance. That comes down to the words you use, your tone of voice, the way you look and feel out in the world. If you can control it, you should.

I think that’s a great way to show why clients and brands should take ownership of their own story because, ultimately, [as my PR brain says] if you’re not telling your story, somebody else might be and you might not like what they have to say.

Well, ultimately, you want other people to tell your story. But you want them to tell a story that’s favorable to you. So, first of all, don’t be a dick. That’s number one. You know? Be good. Be nice. Be positive. Be effective. Whatever the thing is that those people look to you to be, be that thing. Because if you’re not, it doesn’t matter what you tell them. But, ultimately, branding is – you know, you can plant the seeds of branding, but it’s your behavior that determines what people are going to say about you when you’re not in the room. And that is branding. It’s what other people say about you. And if there are a million people who think you’re a dick, guess what? You’re a dick. And you can fight that as much as you want with advertising and social media or anything else, but you cannot overcome that.

That’s a great point. Rule number one: don’t be a dick.

Yeah. Unless you absolutely have to be. Then, be the best dick you can be.

There’s a good mantra to live by. And, shifting gears here a little bit and moving away from design, PowerPlayer is a recent – or, a couple year old – endeavor now. So, what exactly is it?

PowerPlayer is a feedback platform for youth sports. And what I mean by that is, if you put your kid in kindergarten, and they graduated from grade 12, and in all of that time, you had never seen a report card or a test score or a quiz result or a homework grade, and you’d only had two parent-teacher conferences because your kid was disruptive in class or whatever, you’d never stand for that as a parent. But that is youth sports. You put your kids in youth hockey or youth soccer in the care of adults who’s supposed to be teaching them something, and you get to watch them do the thing that is being taught to them so you think you know how they’re doing, but you have no idea.

And, you know, I was a youth athlete myself, I coached high school football for a few years, I’ve coached hockey as an assistant coach – but it’s really the experience of being a sports parent that triggered this and getting almost zero feedback from my kids’ coaches. And, you know, I’ve been married for a few years now, and I make it a point to communicate with my spouse, because not communicating with somebody is a really bad idea if you want them to trust you and believe in you and put their faith in you. So, when you get zero communication from your kids’ youth coaches, that is a recipe for all the contentious issues that tend to pop up. Nature hates a vacuum, right? So do sports parents. If there’s a vacuum and they don’t know what’s going on, they will create the thing to fill that vacuum. They will assume that the reason little Billy isn’t playing on the powerplay is because the coach doesn’t like him, or that the coach is favoring his own son or whatever.

So, our platform is designed to allow the coaches to provide feedback to the child digitally. And it’s meaningful feedback. It collects both metrics, which are measurables, such as how fast a kid can skate from Point A to Point B, but also opinion data, such as coaches’ opinions on the athlete’s work ethic or compete levels in practice and games. So, it combines all of that data into what we call a PowerPlayer score so that a young athlete can see how they relate compared to an anonymous peer group. And of course the parents can see it too. And it allows the coach to provide what we call prescriptive feedback.

… My best coach when I was a quarterback, he said to me once, “I’m not going to coach the obvious. I’m not going to tell you that you need to run faster, or that you need to complete that pass. You already know that. I’m going to teach you how to do those things.” That’s prescriptive feedback.

And, so, that has applications when the athlete moves up towards the major leagues as well, right? It gives the coaches and the scouts that visibility into their career as well.

It does, but that’s not the primary reason we did it. That’s a byproduct. Imagine you put your daughter in youth hockey when she’s seven, and she’s good, and she likes the sport, and she wants to play college hockey. She’s going to graduate at 18 and she’s got 11 years of PowerPlayer data that shows how she progressed as a player, how she progressed as a skater, as a puck handler, you’ve got the opinions of maybe 30 or 40 coaches who don’t know each other who say this kid’s a hard worker, a good kid. The truth is in that data. It holds a story for them. It holds the power of an accumulated story over time.

The real reason for PowerPlayer is to help the kids. To help them understand how they can get better. What’s the definition of a good game? All the coaches and advisors we’ve talked to from youth level all the way up to NHL level have said that you can tell a player they had a good game. They did 22 things right and should be recognized for that, but maybe they did three things wrong. Overall, they had a good game, but they can still look at the three things and try to work on those.

So, you’re effectively helping players get better and helping coaches work better with players by making that whole story visible, all in one place, when maybe it wouldn’t have been otherwise.

Exactly. And what we’ve heard from many coaches is that it forces them to look at each child as an individual … So it’s primarily about random reinforcement of positive behavior, and periodic instruction or possibly correction. Any coach will tell you: if you reinforce the positive constantly, and just remind here and there about the negative, that is the way to coach …

There have been studies done on rugby players about receiving positive feedback. It increases your testosterone level and it decreases your cortisol levels – which is your fight-or-flight. In a competitive athlete, you want testosterone to be higher and cortisol to be lower. So, if you provide negative feedback to those athletes, you’re doing the exact opposite of what you want.

It goes to show you the power of what you say to people.

Exactly. The way that you communicate with someone – what you tell them and the way you tell it to them absolutely matters. You’ve having an effect on someone.

And so, as if owning a business and developing an app weren’t enough, you took on writing a book. How did you come to write a book? What was the inspiration for this? How did you decide that you were going to find the time in an already busy day to write a book and tell that story?

Good question. I live outside of Chicago in the burbs, so I ride the train downtown everyday – anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and five minutes. So, I’m on the train every day, and I’m on my phone, and I’m reading Twitter. And, of course, by the time I get to the office, I’m pissed off, right? Because there’s a lot of political stuff on there. So, by the time I get to the office, I’m fuming. So, I go to work all day and I do my thing and I get back on the train again and I do the same thing. And then I get home and I’m pissed off! So, I’m like, alright, this is a pattern, I’ve got to do something about this.

Cusp Conference 2018

We, for 11 years, ran a conference here in Chicago called CUSP – we called it a conference about the design of everything. And one of our speakers recently was a woman who … basically said you should write something every day. Even if you’re never going to show it to anybody. Because, it’s coming from you. And, my take on it was that, at that point, you’re not inputting – you’re outputting. So, this was fresh in my mind and I realized I was getting pissed off on the train and I decided one day that I was going to open my laptop on the train, and not be online. And I just started writing. I didn’t know what I was going to start writing. I was just going to do something, you know? And I wrote a novel. I wrote, like, a 60,000-word novel on the train. And it just sort of happened.

So, that was sort of where the impetus to write the thing came from. And, you know, I read every day. Part of my job with CUSP was to curate the conference. I would find the speakers. So, that’s why I spend a lot of time looking at social media and news articles. I’d gathered together a bunch of news articles that I thought were weirdly interesting and then I sort of had an idea for a plotline for a novel, and then I put that all together, and that’s where the book came from.

*Author’s note – for some really amazing insights into pretty much anything you can think of, check out some of the videos from Dave’s CUSP Conference. Disclaimer: set aside some time. You’re going to find yourself down a fascinating rabbit hole.

That’s unbelievable. And, just another funny thing that you mentioned earlier, was that you hadn’t even told your wife that were writing it until it was finished. So, it was very much a passion project for you, right?

I did it sort of for therapy, just to do it. And it’s a weird thing to put yourself out there. It’s one thing to write corporate copy, it’s a whole other thing to write a story and then have someone read it. You think, you know, “Do I suck at this, or what?” You don’t know. So, I figured the best person to show it to would be my beautiful and brilliant wife of all these many years, and she gave me the thumbs up. So, at least someone liked it! And that’s a start.

I was wanting to ask you about that, how it feels to put yourself out there in that form, and to publish a book and put it out and let people take it how they will, and wonder if people will love it or won’t love it…

It is a little weird. But, you know, as a graphic designer for many years, you’re always putting a little bit of yourself into your work … if you’re not putting a little bit of yourself into your work…

You know, I got some great advice many years ago when I was a young designer – and I’ll use that phrase loosely because I’m not sure I was ‘a designer’ at that point – but I had met a guy who was a little bit older than me and a very accomplished guy. And he asked if he could see some of my work and I was like, “Oh, yeah, well … OK…” He looked at the work that I’d done for a few clients and he said, “Yeah! It’s good solid stuff. But can I give you just one thought on it? So, I said, “Yeah, please!” But in my head, I was like, “Oh, God, really? It’s coming…”

And he said, “It looks like you’re giving your clients what you think they want, not what you think they need.”

And I was like, “Nailed it. Nailed it!”

And from that point on I decided that I would try to give my clients what I really believed they needed. And that really kicked off my biggest success as a graphic designer. That was it. That’s how I built my business and my reputation and attracted the kind of work we ended up doing, with the clients we ended up working with.

So, to relate back to writing a novel – it’s like, why do you write something like that? When I’m writing it, I’m thinking, “Huh… so, if Taylor reads this, what’s he going to think? If someone I don’t know reads this, what are they going to think?” You know? You’re writing it to be read. Hopefully. And at the same time, you’ve got to write it for yourself. You’ve got to write it because you would want to read it. And you have to have enough courage to think, “If I write something that I’m going to like, then hopefully, ten, fifteen, twenty other people like it.” And you go from there. I’m not a fiction writer for my day job, so we’ll just see where it goes from here.

And I think that’s an interesting thing that I’ve heard from a few of the storytellers that I’ve spoken to in this capacity, is that everybody has a story somewhere in them, but it takes that courage to actually share it with people. And I’ve also heard that once you put your story out there, somebody is going to resonate with it, which is why some people get kind of hooked on telling a story in whatever capacity they’re telling it in.

Yeah, and it’s difficult for some people to be storytellers. It’s not easy. It doesn’t come naturally to some people. It’s a unique kind of thing. You know, we’ve all met the kind of people we could sit and talk to for hours. And so, it comes naturally to some people and not to other people.

But everyone’s got something in there. And it’s like what we said with the design conference: everyone’s a designer, they just don’t think of it that way. They don’t think that that’s what they’re doing. But if you look at things through the lens of design or through the lens of storytelling, you can see that every person has some aspect of that within them. Storytelling is what’s allowed us, as a species, to actually progress. Because storytelling is how we originally passed down knowledge, right? Verbal storytelling was how history got passed down, until some graphic designer invented the alphabet. Once the alphabet was invented – a way to codify human speech, to record human speech – we tried it with hieroglyphics, with cave drawings… they’re stories, right? Once it was codified and put into an alphabet form – the Greek alphabet, the Roman alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet – now we can record these stories. And once the printing press was invented, we could distribute information. And now, you bring that up to today, and we’ve got the internet, which is a massive distribution mechanism. So, storytelling is the essence of human evolution. It’s the only way we’ve been able to survive and get to the point where you’re in Toronto and I’m in Chicago, and we’re talking face to face. That’s how we got here.

My last question here that I like to wrap this up with is, what advice would you give to somebody who feels passionate about a story that they have to tell, or might not be ready or courageous enough to tell it yet?

Well, if you’ve got a story to tell, either tell it – or find somebody to tell it for you. Because stories are what make the world go around. That’s what makes life interesting and engaging. It’s how we progress. You’re probably more interesting than you think you are. Most people underplay their life story, but people are interesting! I’m fascinated by people. Having a conversation with someone you never met, you discover stuff that you never would’ve imagined, and you apply it to your own life. And then ten stories do this [interlink] and combine to make one new story, and away we go. So, find a way to get it out there.

To learn more about Dave and what he does, check out Multiple Inc., PowerPlayer, CUSP Conference, or find him on LinkedIn. If you want a copy of the book, well… you might have to bug him for that one personally.

And if you'd like to explore opportunities to tell your own story, get in touch and let's talk. Because every story has to start somewhere.


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