TEDMED gets colorful, via Alexander Isley

[Tom Biederbeck] If fresh air had color, it would look like Alexander Isley Inc.’s program guide for the recently concluded 2012 TEDMED conference. Featuring witty illustrations by Israeli mixed media artist Hanoch Piven, this “chunky monkey” — the designer’s phrase — livened up the proceedings with blasts of color and a sense of fun. I asked Isley how it came about.

First of all, what is this?
It’s a guide for attendees at TEDMED, which is about medical innovation. Each speaker — there were 70 in this case — has a spread.

Typically, each year they get a different illustrator or artist to interpret the speakers, often in a representational way. This year we wanted to try something unusual. I met Hanoch Piven 20 years ago but never worked with him. His work appears in a lot of publications — usually he does portraits of celebrities. It’s easier to do a portrait of Barbra Streisand or Bill Gates, because people already know what they look like. I wondered, since the people speaking at TEDMED aren’t quite so well known, how would his technique work?

What was the process like?
The sheer volume of doing 70 portraits over the course of just a few weeks is daunting. But Hanoch had developed an iPod app that he suggested for this — it’s a lot faster. He was able to take the same approach he uses in his more detailed collages, which are put together by hand and photographed.

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How did you make sure the illustrations reflected the personalities of the speakers?
We put a packet together for Hanoch on each speaker that included a photo portrait the speaker submitted. You can imagine the photos were of every type and quality. We had asked each speaker a series of questions, one of which was “If you could name five objects that characterize you, what would those be?”

In Billie Jean King’s case, the tennis balls are obvious. But she also told us that one of the things that are important to her are hands, so there are photos of hands incorporated into her image.

There’s a level of subtlety in the portraits that you can explore. They give life to the whole project. To the uninitiated, TEDMED might seem a little scientific and dry. These portraits might be seen as “popular” or “cartoony.” But if you’ve experienced the conference, you know they’re right in line: It’s about humanity and surprise and delight … the polar opposite of what an outsider might expect for a medical conference.

How does the design of the rest of the book carry that theme forward?
There’s a basic TED format we didn’t want to vary much from: the red and black, Helvetica predominantly … a straightforward approach with a lot of equity. We created a secondary palette of a dozen or so colors that were used in the illustrations. The colors went into various communication pieces — signs, screens, videos. They constituted a visual theme that carried through all the venues and experiences.

Because there were large areas of flat color, we printed on Mohawk Via, 70# smooth cool white 100% PC for the text. Tabs are 100# Mohawk Via 100% PC cool white cover. Color fidelity was also really important — the areas of flat color that had to be bright. The books were printed at GHP here in Connecticut. They really came through.

When I sit back and look at it now, the book strikes the right note. It’s completely unexpected, and it’s impressive how Hanoch was able to capture the personalities of the speakers. We’d like work on this project again next year — I’m not sure how we’re going to top it!

See the complete gallery of TEDMED 2012 portraits by Hanoch Piven here.

Alexander Isley heads a firm providing identity and communication design for ”education, entertainment and enterprise.” He serves on the advisory board of AIGA Connecticut and is past president of AIGA New York. He has been a critic and lecturer at the Yale School of Art since 1996 and is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art. Take a tour of the studio with Alexander Isley here. Read Sean Adams’ three questions (plus one) for Alexander Isley here.

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Comments (2)

  1. Posted by kim on 04.20.12 at 10:36 am

    Love these illustrations…has me curious about each of the speakers. I’d love to see the book when I come visit your studio, Alex.

  2. Posted by Lee Moody on 04.20.12 at 2:10 pm

    Love the illustrations and the book ~ really nice technique ( I want my own illustration of me ) hah ! Lovely work from Alex ~ of course !

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