01.23.19

Backstage Pass: Jess Wen on her role as Chief Design Officer at TEDxSanFrancisco

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What if a top business strategist could also inject a deep design perspective? Or if a visionary designer could toggle between creative out-of-the box thinking and the boardroom?

West Design Strategist Jess Wen believes that the combination can make the world a better place. From leading the design of TEDxSanFrancisco to revolutionizing the way emerging startups show up in the world, Jess Wen brings a deep design foundation and a strong business acumen to her work.

We caught up with Jess to take a look behind the curtain at her work as Chief Design Officer at  TEDxSF.

Jess Wen and Henry Becker share their process for planning and executing TEDxSF 2018.

Tell me something that most people don’t know about you.

JW: Growing up I lived in four countries. I belong to this group often called the third culture kids. It basically means I am not my passport culture or my current geography culture. I don’t identify fully with being Taiwanese even though I was born there, nor the United States, despite the fact that I’ve lived in the US for more than a decade. For me it’s comfortable to be an outsider in an unknown community. I’ve learned to navigate and adapt to new surroundings.  The downside is that I’m always going through an identity crisis. But that’s a separate discussion.

I think because of that I’ve always been fascinated with language and how to be an effective communicator. I’ve always viewed myself as a translator. In work and in life I’m frequently toggling between my business side and design side and trying to strike a balance between the two.

Why work on TEDxSF?

JW:  I have a graphic design background and a business degree but have migrated to a design strategist role at West. Much of my day-to-day work focuses on solving business problems, but I’m constantly working to keep my design and production chops fresh. TEDx gives me a reputable stage and room to play on the creative side.

TEDx has always been at the forefront of pushing boundaries and therefore attracting audiences who are the early adopters of ideas. Because of the audience and because of what the organization stands for, we could take more creative risks. I’m able to bring that perspective back to my daily interactions with startup founders as I work to balance business needs and creative needs.

Tell me more about this year’s TEDxSF theme, ‘Dare to Know.’

JW: In 2018 there’s no lack of new knowledge. However, knowledge is encoded and encrypted and hidden. ‘Dare to Know’ is not only about the willingness to learn but also about having access to that information.

We use the stage and our online and offline channels to really remind us that information and knowledge are out there, they’re everywhere, they’re almost too much. And for us, it’s about decoding that information one question, information session or conversation at a time.

Dare to Know’ has actually been the theme for the past three years, but every year we interpret it slightly differently. And of course the different speakers bring a different take. This year there was a focus on AI, design ethics and human interaction with day-to-day information.

As Chief Design Officer, you managed every aspect of the design of the event, from brand identity, web presence and marketing collateral to social media collateral, physical print collateral and all event touchpoints, including everything on screen. How did you make the choices you made?

JW: We started working in April for the October event. Our core team focused on defining how to interpret the theme. Then we had 16 designers spread across four states who we pulled in at different times throughout the process.

We thought through the context, audience and how we would show up in the world. We’re always looking for ways to stretch the theme, just like any branding project we do with any company. So we chose one or two conceptual territories and explored them completely.
This year, we had a whole army of designers who created different symbols for each speaker.

A sample of the more than 200 unique symbols created by designers to represent the themes addressed by each speaker.

Digital collateral created by Jess and her team of over 85 volunteers.

Live stage production at this year’s TEDxSF. The event’s 20 speakers attracted over 1000 attendees, selling out for the third year in a row.

What challenges did you face as you and your team worked on the design?

JW:  Design exists to help deliver information. And there is always an audience, a “who” to deliver to. If we push too far out in conceptual territory, it becomes too much art, and the design becomes inaccessible. There’s a balance of conceptual art versus actually doing the job which is to communicate. And communication ties deeply into business.

At the end of the day we’re responsible for selling out. We need to sustain the event. That’s the business need. We can push for design conceptual territory, but it’s all about delivering on our business objective and there are certain principles that we must hit. It’s a push and pull of where to find that balance between creative integrity and business objectives.

And shoutout to my 2018 TEDxSF design team for all the magic and hard work— Henry Becker, Doug Thomas, Bill Chien, Chelsea Lin, Triet Dang, Jacqueline Lau, Mckay Mattingly, Kevin Tomas and Hannah Leishman.

How does your work at TEDx translate to work as a Design Strategist at West?

JW: Everyone at West has a hybrid background. We each have our own core strength plus something else. If at TEDx I do more design as concept art and design as visual storytelling, day to day at West I do more business strategy, but I still view challenges through my design lens.

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Jess Wen is a design strategist at West where she spends every day drawing rectangles, circles and arrows to visually translate ideas. She has an MBA in Design Strategy from California College of Arts and a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art.

Jess is committed to using her strategic design power to impact those that need it most. Beyond the startups that she engages with at West, her portfolio covers local and international clientele including UNICEF, FWD.us, National Wildlife Federation, The Climate Registry and Overseas Press Club of America.

Watch Jess’ explanation of her design on the TEDx stage here. Get in touch at jess@west.ventures