I’m often asked, “What is it like to work with TED?” This is a question that I love to answer, because not only is TED a wildly successful media phenomenon, it’s also one of those rare organizations that truly has a culture of creativity. Everyone at the organization has an enthusiasm for design, from the staff to the management to the curator himself, Chris Anderson. This makes working with them an incredible privilege—and at the same time, an incredible design challenge. Everything we present is carefully scrutinized, dissected, and debated with a studied articulation. We are always asked for the story behind our ideas, and we’re pushed to do better than our best work. And, with that effort, we learn and grow.

Here are a few of our biggest takeaways from this year’s design process:


Avoid “The Big Reveal”

One of our greatest lessons from this year’s event came early in the process when our concepts were forming. I sat down with Chris Anderson, Mike Femia, Emily McManus, and others in New York to broadly discuss the design direction for the conference. Rather than set the room up for a big reveal of our proposed concepts, I decided to take our deck and spread it out across the table, showing everything at once.

We’ve learned that the big reveal can get derailed quickly—and sometimes catastrophically. Instead, sharing a lot of work and inspiration all at once allows the reviewer to take it all in and quickly note what they find exciting. This buffet-style approach is especially helpful in broad design discussions, like the one we had with TED, as it turns the presentation into a conversation. We’ve used this approach with other clients since, and have found it especially helpful when meeting with busy leadership, who don’t have a lot of time (or necessarily patience) to listen to designers slowly proceed down a linear path to the final concept.

When I arrived for this meeting, I wasn’t sure what Chris and the TED team expected—I had brought everything from logos, color palettes, and environmental graphics, to a humorous TED Museum gallery. And although it was a little touch-and-go, I left the meeting with a clear design directive. That directive drove the development of TED2014’s 30th Anniversary logo. We covered the walls our studio with logo design concepts and inspiration, eventually landing on the op-art-inspired numerals that evolved into the final mark.

It was a iterative and arduous process, but such perseverance and perfectionism paid off. The mark became an emblem of commemoration used by TED partners and staff throughout the conference.

Listen to Good Ideas

Working with TED is a true collaboration. Many of its employees come from design, photography or editorial backgrounds, making them an integral part of the dialogue of creative development.

For example, with TED.com Editor Emily McManus we developed a content component for the program guide. Called Action/Reaction, this element was designed to engage the TED community. It simultaneously piqued the reader’s interest and provoked him or her to think more deeply about each TED speaker.

Weekly chats with Mike Femia, TED’s director of design services, were especially fruitful—and a perfect example of the importance of respecting context. Mike noted the amount of pattern inside the Vancouver Convention Center (where TED2014 was held) and inspired us to make use of sweeping swaths of color on environmental graphics and exhibits. His insight into visual compatibility also helped us tailor the color palette to the space. Together we selected a quintet of colors that complemented the honeys and browns of the wood inside the convention center.

Mike’s love of typography led to some inspired discussions around the type choice for the event and program guide, Neue Haas Grotesk. Neue Haas Grotesk is a lovely restoration of TED’s iconic logo typeface, Helvetica. Helvetica was released in 1957 by the Haas typefoundry, and it immediately became one of the most popular typefaces of the postwar era. Because of its popularity, it was one of the first to be digitized for desktop computers in the 1980s, but suffered many compromises in the translation.

Neue Haas Grotesk is the result of a painstaking restoration of the original design. It gave TED2014 a distinct look and feel while also paying homage to TED’s 30-year history.


Find Great Vendors and Trust Them

When working on an event on the scale of the 2014 TED conference, there is nothing more important than working with good vendors. We had to rely on the expertise and savvy of the production team, and trust that they would be able to implement and realize our designs.

This was especially true for the large, interactive exhibits at the event, specifically the 30th Anniversary Questions. This exhibit was made up of six rectangular columns, with each panel 2.5 feet wide and 8 feet tall. A question was printed and a tablet was mounted on each panel, allowing users to participate in a conference-wide discussion. We asked questions about materials and provided guidance for placement, but ultimately trusted the production team’s experience to bring the exhibit to life.

Printing our program guide was handled locally in Vancouver by Metropolitan Printers, and they did a beautiful job under an intense time crunch to get all our collateral in the hands of TED attendees. A huge thanks to Scott Gray, whose knowledge we’ve depended on to get the quality we expect.