Tuesday, 26 December 2017


It's about 01:30 on [technically] the 26th of December - although as Laurie will testify I don't class the next day having started until sunrise - and I sit feeling reflective, wearing a wolf hat that makes me feel like a kid dressed to go on an adventure; Max from Where The Wild Things Are. As I sit at home after a low key Christmas day with my parents, long after they have gone to sleep, the awesomeness of this year is washing over me like a wave crashing, and I mean 'awesome' in the true definition - 'extremely amazing or daunting; inspiring awe'. In this moment I feel small, scared and a little empty, as I often do when my days aren't full and focused, but when I think of everything this year has brought I feel proud, loved and a little overwhelmed at the enormity of it.

For a while my mood was simply TEDxBrum. 'How are you?' kindly folk would ask. 'TEDxBrum' I would reply. For an event lasting just a single day, it was incredible how much this project entered my psyche. To describe it as just a project even sounds ludicrous. The lyrics of Emmy The Great describe it better: The world's made of numbers and I am a 3, and you are 908 and you're sitting on me. I am single cell matter, and you are the sea.

So, how did all this happen, and why was it such a big deal? It was my second year working on TEDxBrum, and building on my work creating illustrations of the speakers and performers in 2016 I was newly dubbed Brand Lead, two words which have never been in my title (for anything) before (ever). At the first tight team meeting of this cycle, I presented a wonky PowerPoint presentation from a sofa in the Impact Hub Birmingham coffee shop, fumbling together my two concepts for this year's theme: perspectives, one of which focused on (im)possibility.

To my relief the group responded really well to my offerings, particularly these hastily drawn impossible letterforms based on Jacques Le Bailly's Macula font inspired by M C Escher. You can read more about the thinking behind this concept on the TEDxBrum brand story blog that I wrote 1 month after we launched the finished brand.

Following this, I cleaned up the type (by drawing it on a larger scale and rendering the lines as a softer grey) and began the real work, applying this brand to a variety of contexts in new interesting ways for 4 months solid.

From a plethora of announcement graphics of key information (tickets, line-up, counting down the days) to a 24 page tabloid newspaper acting as our programme, what unfolded was a mammoth task for one person, a 9B pencil, and an outdated Adobe Creative Suite. All the while supported by my majestic co-designer Daniel - who truly brought the brand to life in motion on screen and more - as well as plenty of the team around to keep me sane and lolling, it felt interesting to be an illustrator who was designing, approaching the task at hand all the while like myself rather than doing what I thought I should probably be doing. For example, not vectorising the hand-drawn type made it difficult to share the load of the design work earlier, but as a process in itself it really made me think about how the efficiency of design work is only so crucial due to short time frames and largely digital outcomes. i.e. if the design is to end up on a screen or being reproduced digitally, why bring a pencil into the equation at all in the first place? The simple answer for me is that it's honest and I'll leave it at that for now, but to paint the picture this got really quite big, vast, and pushed me beyond what I thought I could do, challenging me about the very nature of my practice; what I consider non-negotiable, important and what is flexible.

Coming back to the idea of 'efficiency', I didn't choose the easiest route at any turn, but also not deliberately the most difficult one either. The complexity of these ideas, this theme and the scale TEDxBrum has reached over 5 iterations warranted complex outcomes, and what resulted was a gradient of 6 coloured t-shirt designs, 7 different lanyard cards, a megagraphic of the line-up which all slotted together and more articles which were like design projects within themselves. I was starting to think I was a glutton for punishment, but really I've learnt that I respect the concept so deeply that I will search every recess of my energy bank to fulfil and honour it duly.

The outcomes of this labour were felt on the day; my brand was worn on the backs of incredible volunteers, carried around on balloons and tote bags and surveyed on signage and screens all around Birmingham Hippodrome, including upon the magnificent TEDxBrum stage behind speakers and performers who made the city quake. It felt terrifying to see 1000s of my handrawn letterforms envelop the event, something that must be quite normal to those in agencies or working on big projects, but as a small-run publication type of person this was, well a lot.

As with the Stan's Cafe mural earlier in the year, I feel incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to shine, something that in both cases was arguably quite a gamble. In the same way as not having worked physically at the scale I did for the door mural, I hadn't carried a design treatment of this size on my shoulders before either. To be trusted to make something truly of my own design as part of this powerful platform has been the opportunity of a lifetime in many ways, but I'm also incredibly proud to have risen to it with everything I have, particularly when it got real. It made it difficult to talk about anything else for a while, and there were lots of nights I didn't go to bed, but my god, the feeling of being able to breathe as if in new skin having done this, I know, has changed me forever. It's taught me a lot about what it means to lead, what it means to convene a catalysed community and what can happen when you break out from what you thought you were capable.

Something about the first image in this post, a still from my TEDxBrum team gif, represents something of that; of smiling as your practice explodes around you; colourful, but a little jagged, and difficult to clean up.

Because, the truth is, you don't quite fit back into yourself again. You have metamorphosed. You are the sea.

A huge thank you to everyone who was out there riding the storm with me, to alt-j for making good 'working all night again' music, and to the background eraser tool for, you know, your dedicated service.

1 comment:

  1. So blessed to have worked alongside you on this Byng and love the way you've summed up the experience in a way that definitely resonates with me. The outcome was truly awesome but even more awesome is the way how these experiences have us evolving like pokemons. When when we get chucked in at the deep end, and take time like to this to reflect at the other end on what was really hard and what would maybe help us deal with it differently next time, we get that little glimpse of what we are really capable of in the future. I dunno about you but that's the bit that both scares the sh*t out of me and excites me to the core at the same time. Because it's that thing like you say, afterwards, 'you don't quite fit back into yourself again.'