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TED’s new video series explores genius design we take for granted in daily life

TED / Robert Leslie
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Over the weekend, Hawaii’s harrowing false emergency alert gave the world a painful demonstration about how much design is hardwired in everyday systems. From drop-down menus, to forms, to buildings, nearly everything we interact with was shaped by a design decision—beyond its colors and surface styling.

A new TED video series on design could not have come at a better moment. Launching on Facebook Watch today (Jan. 16), Small Thing Big Idea is a weekly video series that highlights everyday design objects we take for granted. From buttons, subway maps to staircases, the three- to four- minute vignettes feature the backstory of humble masterpieces narrated by experts. “The idea was to step back and look at a category of design that is the most ubiquitous but overlooked,” explains TED design curator Chee Pearlman.

The series’ inaugural roster of “speakers” features well-known design idols and savants:

Jan 16: Michael Bierut: The Genius of the London Tube Map
Jan 23: Isaac Mizrahi: How the Button Changed Fashion
Jan 30: Kyra Gaunt: How the Jump Rope Got Its Rhythm
Feb 6: Daniel Engber: How the Progress Bar Keeps You Sane
Feb 13: Caroline Weaver: Why the Pencil is Perfect
Feb 20: Paola Antonelli: The 3,000-Year History of the Hoodie
Feb 27: David Rockwell: The Hidden Ways Stairs Shape Your Life
Mar 6: Margaret Stewart: How the Hyperlink Changed Everything

Pearlman says she envisions that Small Thing Big Idea will also be a platform for lesser known design enthusiasts to speak eloquently about design in their surroundings. “It’s just not a celebrity or a PhD who can respond to this treatise on how to look at design.” she explains, noting the desire to tap suggestions from TED’s global audience. “My dream is that people watch this series and think about the objects around them in new ways.”

The new video series also signals TED’s experimentation with new formats outside the increasingly unsurprising 18-minute-or-less talks at its elite annual ideas conference. (With over 93,000 TED and TEDx talks online, it can get pretty formulaic.) Colin Helms, TED’s head of media, confirms that they’re exploring “new audio and video programs designed to serve TED’s mission of ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’.”

And in many ways, the series is a revival of TED’s original premise. In 1984, architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman invented a conference format that rejected many rules of big professional gatherings: no panels, no verbose introductions and certainly no long, meandering speeches. Wurman and co-founder Harry Marks centered the conversation around what they thought were the three most consequential forces of their time: technology, entertainment and design, or TED. Since selling TED to former tech journalist Chris Anderson in 2001, the D in TED has arguably fallen by the wayside—overshadowed by everything from science to business to global issues, as TED expanded its social mission. Small Thing Big Idea, Pearlman explains, is an attempt to re-focus the conversation about the invisible forces that shape our daily lives.

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