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Designing “The Deep End”

The visual system behind a celebration of obsession and curiosity

Illustrations

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.

Design system for The Deep End 2019, showcasing a tile-based alphabet, tiled patterns and a treated image of Kara Swisher
The Deep End visual system, 2019
The Belmont facade with a sign that says “The Deep End” and a tiled structure that says “Jump In”
The Deep End at The Belmont, 2019

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.

Vox Media’s full logo array with all networks and lines of business
Vox Media logo array

Developing Concepts

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.

“The Box”

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.

Logo lockups for The Deep End
“The Box” - The Deep End lockup
Posters for “The Box” concept showcasing typographical treatments for talent and brands
“The Box” - Posters
The Belmont facade with The Deep End logo and gradients on the walls
“The Box” - cove outside of The Belmont

“The Maze”

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.

The Deep End logo, drawn as a maze
“The Maze” - The Deep End lockup
The Deep End posters with maze graphics and frames for photography
“The Maze” - posters
The Belmont facade with dimensional maze buildouts, forming The Deep End logo
“The Maze” - cove outside of The Belmont
The VIP room in The Belmont with maze graphics on the walls
“The Maze” - VIP room

“Big Mouth”

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.

Posters with series of mouths holding objects that represent the Vox Media networks
“Big Mouth” - posters
Posters of mouths holding objects, composed in different ways and interacting with typography
“Big Mouth” - posters
The main entrance on the inside of The Belmont with posters of the mouths holding objects and their respective network logos
“Big Mouth” - inside the entrance at The Belmont

“Pool Party”

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.

Posters in a magazine cut & paste style with images that are relevant to Vox Media networks
“Pool Party” - posters
The Belmont facade with an inflatable “The Deep End” logo
“Pool Party” - cove outside of The Belmont
The VIP room of The Belmont with inflatable logos and other inflatable pool floats
“Pool Party” - VIP room

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.

Full illustration tableau with Vox Media network logos surrounded by objects that would be associated with their journalism and products
“Obsessive World” - full illustration tableau

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.”

Illustrations of each network “poster” derived from the full tableau
“Obsessive World” - individual network compositions
The Belmont facade with “Obsessive World” branding, lights and mirrored fixtures, and a “The Deep End” logo
“Obsessive World” - The Belmont facade
The Belmont facade cove with illustrations and #TheDeepEnd hashtag
“Obsessive World” - cove outside of The Belmont
A closer look at the lights and mirrored surfaces with a curved entrance and an illustrated wall as the audience walks in
“Obsessive World” - entrance at The Belmont
The Belmont stage and a wall of illustrations
“Obsessive World” - The Belmont stage

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.

Social and house ad assets promoting talent, interviews, music performances and live podcasts
“Obsessive World” - digital asset system
Polygon Arcade Entrance
Polygon Arcade entrance
The Polygon Arcade interior with illustrations of gaming controllers, coins and the Polygon Arcade logo on the walls
Polygon Arcade interior
Podcast Studio entrance
Podcast Studio entrance
Podcast Studio wall featuring tiled podcast art from Vox Media shows
Podcast Studio wall
Podcast Studio stage with a step-and-repeat and a screen showcasing talent
Podcast Studio stage
Area at the top of the stairs showcasing TV series from Vox Media Studios
Vox Media Studios wall

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.

Motion Design

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.

GIF of “The Deep End” logo with illustration animation
“Obsessive World” animation

New Challenges

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.

Team shoutouts

Brand Design

Krystal Stevens

Georgia Cowley

Courtney Leonard

Victor Ware

Steven Vuong

Jodelle Reed

Alex Medina

Illustrations

Jamie Cullen

Experiential

Vanessa Fontanez

Tara Reilly

Courtney Given

Lauren Nemchik

Colbern Uhl

Elysa Briggs

Production (The Participation Agency)

Brooke Welsch

Josephine Cheng

Matthew Conley

The Belmont

Hamid Javadzadeh-Bijari

Sponsors

Aloft Hotels

Mailchimp

Doha Debates

Dashlane

Seedlip

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