Sunday, 4 March 2012

Visual note-taking at TED 2012

On the evening of Thursday the 23rd of February 2012, I received an email from Chris Anderson that led to one of the most incredible, inspiring and epic experiences of my life (oh, and decimated the week's work schedule).  It began:

"OK, crazy question. What are you doing next week? Would you have any interest in coming out to Long Beach and doing some live-drawing during TED2012?"

Less than two days later I was on a plane headed to California, my excitement so tangible I could have almost grabbed it and used it to beat snoring passengers with.

Ideas worth spreading:
// Jelly beans are conduits of creativity //
// Large type on badges is good //
// Superstring is yarn wearing a cape //

My first glimpse of TED is apt, it comes in the form of a giant red balloon bobbing in the sky over the Performing Arts Centre in Long Beach, the entrance is enclosed in white TED branded tarpaulin, presumably this is a tried and tested material to funnel scientists and CEOs in the right direction. There are stacks of jelly beans and other confectionary delights. Incidentally, 'creative juices' come from jelly beans. FYI.

I'm handed my oversized TED badge, which declares me a design-mind & techie and encourages people to talk to me about live-drawing, games and dinosaurs. These badges, although huge, turned out to be great for when you've met so many people their identities have become a soup in your mind.

I headed into the main building and downstairs to the Creativity Lab, easily spotting where I am to be stationed for the duration, next to one of the simulcast areas, and spend some time setting up the screens and my document sizes and layouts.

I read through the delightfully designed programme, learning about each speaker and imagining a piece of yarn wearing a cape because I don't know what 'superstring' is. Then I googled 'superstring' and knew even less.

Ideas worth spreading:
// Speed meetings; frantic but fun //
// Short talks can leave lasting impressions
// Peanut butter cups are confection-genius //

One of the most worthwhile things I managed to do at TED was the speed-meetings on Monday morning (it's what it sounds like but more frantic). So a neuroscientist, a designer and a rabbi walk into a hotel... It's not a joke these are the people I met.

Monday was the day I got to experience sitting as a member of the audience for the TED Fellows talks, four minute long little gems of stories and experiences. I milled about, taking in the social spaces, coffee bars and peanut butter cups.

Monday evening also saw the opening block party, with TED taking over several restaurants and entire streets. I should mention that I did not stop eating from day 1 of TED, it was impossible; everything provided was too delicious to pass on and rather frequent. Food, drinks, chocolate and conversation flowed easily and yet more remarkable people met.

Ideas worth spreading:
// Jet-lag is a terrible arse //
// Anxiety is a terrible arse //
// Anthropomorphically-personifying issues as a squatting octopus is fine //

I awoke at 4:30am, the wide-eyed, restless awakening of a person severely jet-lagged and anxious, and did the only sensible thing to do in that situation – ate cookies and played games. Eventually the sun got up too, and before long I was sat at my station in the Creativity Lab, watching the audience file in on the simulcast screens and staring at a daunting sight: my blank screens.

I'm all too familiar with my own anxiety, it's relentless but at least it's predictable. Waves of nervousness, self-doubt and fear take it in turns to assail my mind as I anxiously twiddle my stylus. What if I can't think of anything to draw? What if I don't understand what I'm seeing? What if I'm unable to convey what's in my mind? What if this canvas stays blank?

Anxieties that, I'm sure, are shared by most creatives but, amplified many times over when you have no preparation, nothing planned, when everything you do and don't do is projected for all to see. I don't know why I do these things quite frankly.

Chris appears on stage and begins to open the conference. And just as the panic-cycle in my mind has come back round to the 'what if I can't think of anything to draw' bit, he produces a prism, holds it to the light and casts a dramatic spectrum. My first line is the beam of light, and just like that the octopus-like creature that squats on my brain and taunts me is knocked off his perch and I remember why I do these things.

Ideas worth spreading:
// Knuckle-tendon insurance should probably be a thing //
Being on camera is terrifying but probably worth it //
// Baristas live in a fascinating world of coffee-geekery

The speakers were providing plenty of material and the piece was starting to sprawl, with four sessions, this was the most intense day of drawing and the day people started to really pick up on what I was doing and I had several bouts of knuckle-cramp.

One of the people who had asked what I was doing earlier on in the week was, in fact, heading up a team filming 'behind the scenes', including doing interviews. Just as I had started to relax, the octopus of anxiety schlucked back on to my head and started being unhelpful as I was asked if I could be interviewed about the live-drawing work. I was absolutely terrified. Did you know cameras have really bright lights on the front of them? I didn't. I blinked and smiled weirdly as I was instructed where and how to stand, the feather-duster sound pole (stop me If I'm getting too technical) hovering in my periphery. They were happy with the shots they got, their incredibly friendly professionalism staving off my nervousness so that my 10 minutes of shaking happened afterwards instead of during,

That evening I was fortunate enough to be welcomed into the world of the barista as I accidentally ended up hanging out with the Coffee Common folks instead of resting. Over pizza and my first ever ice-cream sandwich I shared in their enthusiasm for coffee and bolstered my own knowledge. Like any industry, coffee has a culture around it, and there's something down-to-earth yet rich about theirs.

Ideas worth spreading:
// Oxen have relaxed stage presence //
// Peanut butter cups are confection-genius //
// Aquariums are excellent party venues //

Interest and attention to the piece piqued on Thursday, I had a lot of visitors and even at the after-party I was approached to be informed that, in the nicest way possible, people had been watching me. I often find that people haven't seen live-drawing quite in this format and it sparks ideas for various applications in their own enterprises, others were keen to show me their own visual notes, some curious about what I use and how I came to live-drawing being a part of what I do. No matter what people were telling or asking me though, it was with a sincere kindness and curiosity that I absolutely thrived on during the course of the week.

Photo by Ryan Lash
I also discovered a beautiful result of befriending the baristas; when I looked like I needed a coffee one would mysteriously appear next to me.

Ideas worth spreading:
// People have an incredible capacity for generosity //
// Lettuces can and should be barbecued //
// People will be missed //

Extending the canvas for the last time and filling it with more of the wonderful insights of the speakers. About half way through the day I witnessed something utterly remarkable. The previous day lawyer Bryan Stevenson had spoken about his work fighting for legislation disallowing children to be tried as adults. His talk was powerful, resonating around the TED community, there started to be chatter on social networks about helping him fund his cause, for which he needs $1.5mil.

Chris stood on stage and asked if people wanted to help Bryan, when the reaction was positive, he asked everyone in the room, to raise their hands to pledge different amounts of money, there and then. I saw people give hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the end over a million, to a cause they had heard about the day before. I marvelled at their generosity, but I also felt something more profound, and I came to realise that  I'd just seen TED change the world, right in front of my eyes.

All too soon after that Chris drew TED2012 to a close, I actually drew TED2012 to a close and had my last delicious little frothy cappuccino.

In a nearby park TEDsters were sprawled lazily, enjoying the glorious food and sunshine, luckily I had time to say a few farewells and of course a few new hellos. I also discovered barbecued lettuce.

The last interaction I had was in the lobby of the hotel, where I met a TED Fellow. We were reflecting on the week when a small ladybird kept landing on him despite several shoo-ings. And so, for me, TED ended with my picking a ladybird off of the guy who's the head of search at Google.

UPDATE: The interview I did ended up as part of this 4 minute video; A Taste of TED2012. See 02:27 for my bit.