Vox Media’s expanded portfolio networks and enterprises were recently transformed into a colorful tapestry that celebrated curiosity for our fourth annual SXSW event, The Deep End. Historically, this event has showcased talent and coverage from Vox Media networks like Vox, Eater, and Polygon as well as celebrity guests, musicians, and public figures. This year, the brand design team worked with illustrator Jamie Cullen, The Participation Agency, and our internal experiential team to build a robust visual system that highlighted our voice by curating three days of live music, interviews, and programming.
Unfortunately, like many companies and artists preparing for the festival, we didn’t get to see our work come to life at SXSW. Our team was leaving DC from a company offsite (which turned out to be the last one we’d have for a while) when the City of Austin announced it would ban events of a certain size, leaving us feeling disappointment, confusion, and uncertainty about how to move forward. Nevertheless, we took the moment to lift each other up with positivity, acknowledge each other’s hard work, and bring levity to the difficult situation.
Regardless of the news at hand, we knew that our design solutions and months of preparation were successful because we took some risks along the way, and we had to find a way to showcase and celebrate the win. So now, rather than showcasing our merged company for the first time in Austin, the materials from the event will be displayed at our New York office for thousands of people to see and enjoy (once the quarantine is over, of course).
Early Design Process
In addition to a competitive analysis of other SXSW activations and festivals, we took a look at last year’s event at The Deep End to consider what made it successful. The design system was built to play on the visual pun of pool tiles, which was extended to on-site activations like the “pixelated” Polygon Arcade and Eater’s Greek menus.
Our goals and measures of success shifted this year. In March 2019, the major goal was to unite our networks while incorporating each of their visual brands. In late 2019, Vox Media merged with New York Media, and The Deep End 2020 was the first event that would celebrate this new chapter. The challenge was that this expanded portfolio of networks had never shown up together, and we had to figure out how to accomplish that in a way that respected each brand equally to our audiences. We also needed our visual system to support and highlight the specific network activations at the event. Bringing Vox Media’s wildly different bespoke brands together in a unified way would be crucial to the success of the design system.
Thematically we approached the design of The Deep End 2020 as an opportunity to reinforce the themes of discovery, curiosity, conversation, and obsession. We considered it as a moment to display the breadth and depth of our new company and its broad coverage of tech, sports, news, food, culture, and more. Using the naming mechanism of “The Deep End,” many of our ideas explored visual puns that played with depth in a fun and interactive way.
This was an interactive, three dimensional playground that exposed imagery, textures, information, etc. The geometric nature and neutral color palette of The Box created an infinite flexibility to represent The Deep End, Vox Media, specific networks, or audience obsessions.
The goal of this direction was to encourage The Deep End attendees to slow down and follow their curiosity. “The Maze” used a bold, graphic visual language to convey messaging and inspire discovery. Its black and white canvas allowed photography to drive the use of color.
At its core, The Deep End has always been about conversation. What better represents a conversation than a mouth? An open mouth can be loud, provocative, and speak to our hunger and obsessions. We executed our concept by curating James Joyce’s bold and curious open-mouth illustrations. His previous work has been commissioned by Apple, Nike, Jil Sander, The Guardian, and The New York Times.
Leaning into the idea of The Deep End as a visual pun, we created a direction as if we were throwing a fun-in-the-sun pool party at SXSW. This textural visual language made it a point to showcase the breadth of the new Vox Media—full of music, talent, food, and conversation.
Chosen Concept: Obsessive World
What if all of our networks and enterprises were represented as a series of symbols inside of an illustrative world? We were drawn to bold, colorful tableaus with densely layered shapes and hidden elements. This is precisely the type of work that British artist Jamie Cullen has created for clients like Absolut, Nike, Ray-Ban, Coca-Cola and more.
Jamie’s style became the answer to our goal of uniting all of our networks in a way that felt brand-agnostic without being watered down. His techniques of world-building and layering have a sort of “Where’s Waldo?” aspect that invites discovery. It aligned The Deep End with the fun, energetic experience of SXSW—a compelling case that received full buy-in from key leadership and project partners.
So why wouldn’t our in-house team simply use Jamie’s work as inspiration to create something new? Would hiring a freelance designer mean there’s nothing left for us to do? To put it simply, our team values working with external talent because it makes us stronger designers and creative directors. Hiring Jamie meant that we could lean into a different perspective on how to connect the design systems that Vox Media builds and maintains. The process was new to many of us and there were inherent risks, but we were well-armed with a strong concept that everyone understood and believed in.
Another key to our success was a comprehensive creative brief for Jamie to create an expansive, icon-laden illustration featuring a variety of topics that Vox Media and The Deep End intersect with. This collaboration resulted in artwork that could be mapped across activations throughout space, as well as a few Easter eggs nested into the imagery for our audience to connect with. The intricacy of the work invites exploration and discovery. The overwhelming nature screams “obsession.”
The brand design team built a system to incorporate and expand upon Jamie’s artwork, much of which had been included in the creative brief, which supported the programming and messaging throughout physical space and digital assets. For network and enterprise activations like the Polygon Arcade, the Vox Media Podcast Network and Vox Media Studios, we applied the illustrations, framing devices, color, and scale to create clear hierarchies, high-impact moments, and informational calls to action for our attendees.
Throughout the process of applying “Obsessive World” in the space, we collaborated closely with our production team, The Participation Agency. Their expertise on sustainable materials paired with a refined proficiency in experiential design ensured that our vision for the space would feel premium without going over budget. Additionally, the PA team worked side-by-side with our own experiential team to build activations for our sponsors.
In addition to designing for physical spaces, we developed several sets of digital ads, social assets, and on-site screens to inform our audience about programming and schedules. The language of “Obsessive World” lent itself to subtle, yet fun animations that sparked interest and elevated our content. Incorporating motion graphics into on-site screens can keep those moments between programming from feeling stagnant, encourage the audience to look a little closer at the detailed illustrations, and consider what they represent.
Many projects endure obstacles that can often be predicted and prepared for: budget cuts, an expedited timeline, and new and restructured teams. “The Deep End” faced all of these speed bumps with dedication and collaborative solutions, but there was one challenge that was new for all of us: Coronavirus.
Due to the fact that SXSW is a highly-attended festival with an audience and talent from around the world, our experiential team is prepared to work through weeks of fast-paced and ongoing programming changes. The design team is equipped to support those ebbs and flows as needed. However, we were faced with a new hurdle when folks began to avoid SXSW events due to health concerns. Working to improve attendance and locking in talent became a full team effort. For example, designing digital assets with a new content strategy became an unexpected focus, which challenged and eventually strengthened the consistency of our design system.
Of course, all of this came to a halt because of the pandemic, something we had anxiously anticipated for weeks. What was really impressive about this team was that even though we knew the project was at risk and panic around COVID-19 began to spread, everyone continued to work full steam ahead to support each other.
Team growth and a look ahead
Objectives fluctuate throughout any project, and The Deep End 2020 was no exception. We took a seemingly precarious idea of collaborating with external talent and creating a brand-agnostic system, expanded and shaped it into a strong concept, and won the support of company leadership and project partners. We grew our skillset by collaborating with a freelance artist and building a comprehensive system on the foundation of a rock-solid creative brief. Each of our fully remote teams changed and grew, as did the uncertainty around the event’s cancellation, but we remained dedicated and committed to each other’s work until the very end.
Production (The Participation Agency)