Subject to Change*

Designing TEDxSoMa 2017

More than ever, we are subject to change. Society is evolving at a record pace. As individuals we’re trying to keep up, and our greatest fear is losing influence over the forces that govern our lives. We want to know what we can do to nudge the trajectory of change, even just a little bit, toward the world we want to see (

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join the talented TEDxSoMa organizing team. This year’s event took place at SFMOMA, and the theme was “Subject to Change.”

The lineup included speakers who had overcome, embraced or adapted to some force that has shaped their lives. Their talks ranged from hilarious to poetic, and touched on subjects from body positivity to deafness, and photographing furry conventions to being black in America.

Lose Hate, not Weight” — Virgie Tovar

Aside from the theme, what united these talks was the factor that unites most TED talks — no matter how obscure the subject matter, the talks are relatable. This is what makes TED such a powerful platform for spreading new ideas and perspectives; The stories are rooted in human experience, and thus can reach and inspire a greater number of people.

I’m a longtime listener (and was even recently inspired by one TED talk to start a personal project of my own), so becoming involved in the production process and getting to know the speakers and fellow organizers was a really enriching experience.

Building the brand

As Design Lead, my main focus was building a brand that would:

  • Capture the theme, “Subject to Change,” in a visual way
  • Translate well across various media (slideshows, programs, website, giftbags, etc)
  • Harmonize with the standard TEDx brand elements

Here was my approach:

1. Listen & Learn


I wanted to know how the rest of the team was envisioning the event. To get the conversation started, I asked everyone to come up with five words they associated with the theme.

As we sat around the table sharing our ideas, common themes started to emerge:

  • Vulnerability — How do we cope with the inability to control many of the forces that shape our lives?
  • Identity — What makes us us when these forces are constantly changing and more volatile than ever?
  • Empathy — How can we encourage people to appreciate each others’ differences and bond over their similarities?

2. Ideate

I took these concepts, and began to brainstorm ways we could symbolize them visually.

TEDx is all about words, so I started by exploring concepts related to storytelling. I thought about how writers use style and structure to emphasize (or de-emphasize) thoughts. I thought about change as it relates to storytelling — the feeling of getting back a rough draft covered in red ink. I thought about amendment and evolution — footnotes and annotations — ways to revisit and revise, or to add depth. I thought about exceptions and I thought about the “fine-print” that so often surprises and complicates.

I really liked that last one.

Everybody has “fine-print” — information that may not be readily apparent or easily discovered, but that defines who they are. Fine print could include where we’re from, who we’ve met, or what we like and dislike, and so on.

And how would we symbolize this idea? The infamous asterisk (*), of course.

The asterisk evokes so much of what we had talked about at our meeting: evolution, identity, accepting new information... It seemed like more than anything, the event could be a celebration of the asterix — personal challenges that shape who we are and make us unique. This was an opportunity to reclaim the nasty little asterisk and turn it into something positive.

3. Design

To align with the TEDx brand elements, I wanted our designs to be geometric and iconic, and the visuals recognizable as part of a cohesive brand without our needing to plaster the logo on everything.

Horizontal print ad featured in the San Francisco Business Times

I stuck with the TEDx color palette and fonts, and used an enlarged asterisk symbol throughout the branding. Asterisks are usually tiny and often overlooked. I wanted to give ours a chance to stand out.

In addition to the speakers, we also wanted to get the audience members talking about their own “asterisks.” I designed the name tags with the words “ask me about,” followed by three lines for guests to fill in with any topic of their choosing.

Participant badges were prefilled with information from their application forms

The interstitial slides projected in the auditorium echoed the theme. I designed crisp monochromatic icons to explicate the audience rules. In contrast, I used ghostly overlapping letters to introduce the speakers in both the introduction slides and in the program. These were meant to evoke the non-obvious, “below-the-surface” nature of their subjects. The audience rules were clear-cut. Personal identity isn’t.

Interstitial slides showed the name of the upcoming speaker (L) and the event guidelines (R)

Due to short timelines and changing needs, I didn’t have as much time to hone the website designs as I would’ve liked. That said, in the screenshots below, you can see that it is simple, on-theme and functional.

Partly due to time constraints and partly because I’ve actually been finding it easier lately, I quickly moved out of Sketch and began iterating within Webflow, which I was using to build the site.

Website home page (L) and team page (R)

The Event

The event was an unbridled success, earning a (very high) Net Promoter Score of seventy-seven from anonysmously surveyed audience members. The speakers outperformed even our already high expectations, bringing levels of emotion and polish that we hadn’t seen even in rehearsals. The event came off as professionally-run and much better organized than we actually felt behind the scenes. A few quotes from the audience survey:

“Wonderful speakers. Great facilitation and venue. Professional, inspiring, and intimate!”
“Powerful speakers on a topic — change — that pertains to us all. These talks are such a good source of lighting a fire within.”
“This was an incredible first experience of TEDx. A very wonderful and personally relatable topic. A great organization that is truly changing the world — thank you.”
“I was completely captivated the whole time. Every speaker has an important message and the delivery of their speeches was excellent! Great host, yummy snacks, and cool activities during intermission. I had a lot of fun and left feeling inspired!”
“It was excellent, thought provoking and inspiring. I’m excited to apply this to my life.”
Wrapping up: happy and exhausted speakers & organizers

Can’t wait for next year!

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