Reflections on TED2023: Possibility

17–21 April 2023 | Vancouver, Canada

Objectives of my TED 2023 trip

  • To gain a broad vision of the latest developments in technology, sustainability, the arts, creativity, design, societal issues, etc.
  • To learn how the renowned TED event is organised, curated and designed so as to develop an understanding of how we might organize a local TEDx event at HKDI
  • To be immersed in TED-style presentations to gain insights on storytelling and presentation skills
  • To network with international delegates from diverse backgrounds and exchange views and ideas


TED is a long-standing non-profit educational organisation with the mission to spread ideas, foster community and create impact. Established in 1984, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, but has since widened its scope and focusses on such educational endeavours as conferences, a media platform, project funding (such as the Audacity Project), podcast channel, etc. TED has become a globally known brand for engaging and impactful presentations that promote ‘ideas worth spreading’, and its presentation format became a standard around the world for powerful storytelling. The annual TED conference embraces the notion of multidisciplinarity in both its speaker line-up and delegate community. 

TED2023: Possibility

Held at the Vancouver Convention Centre, the theme of TED 2023 is ‘Possibility’, with a major focus on the possibility and impact of artificial intelligence technology, which was featured in many talks, exhibits and discussions. The five-day programme was packed with 12 two-hour talk sessions in the main theatre; workshop sessions; exhibits, demonstrations, food and beverage, and networking opportunities in The Loop around the theatre; themed lunch and dinner sessions; as well as networking dinners/parties. The five-day event was fully packed from the first session at 8:45am until beyond 9:00pm with the social/dinners.

The centrepiece: the talks

The talks were the centrepiece which TED is known for. The talks happened in a temporary, purpose-built wooden auditorium structure beautifully designed and furnished with comfortable and well-designed furniture. The talks were not driven by slides – slides were only used sparingly as visual aid where necessary – but were focussed on the well-rehearsed, well-researched and meticulously crafted stories delivered by exceptional charisma and oratory skills of the speakers. Some presentations were illustrated with real time demonstration that created a sense of awe (eg live deep fake face- and voice-swapping), or a curious and strangely beautiful artistic performance that created a sense of wonder (eg Studio Drift’s ‘concrete box’ that floated above the audience). At times, there were multimedia musical interludes (eg live singing performance with the accompaniment of an AI-enabled musical instrument). On two occasions, the audience even participated in singing performances! The design of the theatre experience represented the epidemy of intellect, impact, theatrical showmanship as well as production value.

The TED Theatre

The 12 two-hour talk sessions were dispersed over five days with breaks in between with other scheduled activities. This demonstrates good programme design, with only one track of talks so that the delegates can see all of the talks if desired, and allowing the audience to rest, network and reflect and participate in other types of activities. I attended all sessions, totalling around 79 talks, and made copious notes. The talks were grouped into sessions that were loosely themed, eg sustainability, artificial intelligence, imagination, new global realities, AI creativity, etc. The talks were mostly 18 minutes in length (give or take), but there were also some short talks given by delegates that were selected through submitting a video proposal before the conference. In session 12, there was a ‘town hall’ session where members of the audience were given an opportunity to go on stage to provide responses or rebuttals to the talks. The final speaker was a stand-up comedian who gave an entertaining yet informative round-up of most of the talks.

The general format of TED talks can be summarised as such:

  • Start with a story, the best ones would be from personal experience
  • Use statistics, facts or real-life situations to establish context
  • What has been done or what needs to be done, a call to action
  • One central takeaway that is very memorable

This format coincides with the three elements to persuasion in Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric: logos (logic and reasoning), pathos (emotional appeal) and ethos (character and credibility).

One interesting observation was that several speakers, due to tremendous stage fright, forgot what they had to say. Overcame with nerves, they paused mid-sentence on stage at a loss for words. The TED audience, being an extremely friendly and encouraging crowed, heart-warmingly cheered them on. They took deep breaths, revisited the script, had a drink of water, gathered themselves then picked up where they left off. I can only imagine how much stress that must have been. It was these moments that made the TED stage a human one.

Experiential artist Lonneke Gordijn creating a sense of wonder with a concrete box hovering over the audience
Unapologetic maximalist fashion designer Machine Dazzle talked about fear, identity and transformation through costumes

The Loop

In the area surrounding the TED Theatre, there were different themed areas including a book shop, an AI art installation, VR demonstration, EEG demonstration, an immersive gaming station, a vinyl record listening station, a ‘quiet room’ that shows an immersive video of a forest, as well as F&B and areas where delegates can comfortably sit and watch a livestream of the talks, network, or work quietly. Catering is provided buffet style, but there were also local food trucks that drove into the open area of the convention centre, creating a casual and street-like atmosphere.

Vinyl Lounge at The Loop
Networking / F&B area at The Loop
The Loop
An AI art generator by Alexander Reben. Speak your prompt into the microphone, and a description of the artwork will be generated, then four images will appear. Select the one you like, then a ticket is printed out with the description, the generated artwork and a QR code to download the image.
AI generated artwork that I created with the prompt: ‘A futuristic mismatch of Vancouver and Hong Kong’

Workshops and other sessions

Workshops were scheduled between the TED Theatre (talk) sessions. I participated in a workshop on natural dyes, a panel discussion on web3, a panel discussion on AI, an inspiring lunch session with conductor Benjamin Zander talking about the art of possibility, as well as a dinner session with the theme of leadership. 

Lunch with conductor Benjamin Zander, co-author of The Art of Possibility. ‘Downward spiral’ vs ‘radiance of possibility’. One of the most inspiring speakers.

Networking and social events

Unlike previous industry/academic conference that I had been to, TED attracts an extremely diverse audience, both in terms of industries and countries. The TED Connect app made it handy to connect both speakers and delegates, with a full directory of all attendees (around 1,800 in total), a detailed, personalised conference schedule, a location map (a tag is attached to the conference lanyard to track attendee’s location in the venue), as well as instant messaging with other delegates. Contact information can be exchanged by tapping the RFID-equipped name tag using the TED Connect app, making the exchange of business cards redundant. I made 42 direct connections and added them to my network. I met delegates from Canada, the US, Austria, India, South Sudan, the UK, and Australia, from such diverse industries as telecommunication, corporate training, product safety, healthcare, legal practice, journalism, vaccine development, etc. This diversity made for rich conversations on topics that are outside of my own discipline and culture, widening my perspectives. There were plenty of opportunities to network and socialise, in between sessions, at lunch/dinners and at parties. The TED crowd is extremely friendly and open to connections and conversations. The culture is liberal and open.


The TED conference has been a truly inspiring and eye-opening experience. The programme did not provide me with what we traditionally call hard skills and industrial knowledge, but more importantly widening my perspective and mindset to think more globally about our impact as designers and global citizens. The experience highlighted the importance for contemporary, future-oriented designers to develop a curiosity and willingness to develop their breadth of knowledge and interests and reach out to as many knowledge domains as possible, so that we can truly make a difference in the world as design practitioners. 

The TED experience also highlighted the importance of good storytelling for disseminating knowledge and ideas, and its role in advocacy on issues that are of global concern. 

One epiphany from the TED experience for me as a designer and academic leader is this: if we want to become a centre of excellence in design education, we must abandon the imaginary boundaries of the traditional ‘object-based’ disciplines of design to an integrated approach that is planet-centred, humanity-centred, and human-centred, and continue to work with other disciplines for the collective good. There are urgent issues in the world that need to be addressed. We should think beyond simply subscribing to a model that design feeds desires and serves commerce (the traditional ‘star designer’ model).

Official photo gallery

Follow-up actions

  • Apply for a license to run TEDx at HKDI (with an audience size of over 100 with webcast)
  • Set up a TEDxHKDI working group under DILWL’s LTDC
  • Plan and implement a series of TEDx ‘salon’ events that lead up to a full-scale TEDx. Tentative timeline: salons in September–November 2023, full TEDx in February 2024
  • Identify relevant potential topics/issues that are of global significance to focus on as projects at HKDI
  • Incorporate the idea of ‘widening perspectives’ and ‘kindling curiosity’ into learning and teaching activities, curriculum, and campus culture

Typography: between language, technology, aesthetics and culture (Radiodada)

Back in 2010, I was invited by fellow designer Paul Ng to appear as a guest on the internet radio station Radiodada in a show called Design In-house. We spent an hour and a half talking about typography. Radiodada was conceived and founded by Tommy Li, with a then-cutting edge website designed by Pill and Pillow. This show was aired on 7 April 2010, and we were doing it live (in Cantonese) at the basement of Langham Place in Mong Kok, in a ‘fish tank’ studio with shoppers passing by. My email to Paul in preparation of the show is published here.

From: Keith Tam
Date: 6 April 2010 10:47:19 AM GMT+08:00
To: Paul Ng
Subject: Re: Topics for Radiodada

Hi Paul

Thanks for the questions.

I really hope that this programme would be less of a complaint session – we both know too well what a sorry state typography Hong Kong is in. Instead, let’s offer a fresh perspective on what typography is and could be. In Hong Kong, typography is mistaken to be just ‘playing with letterforms’, or ‘something about fonts’. All designers say that typography is important, but what do they really mean? What is often overlooked is typography as information, or, typography that is meant to be read rather than just something to be looked at or to grab attention. I would really like to give a big picture of typography and contextualise it from different perspectives.

Typography is situated at the crossroads between language, technology, aesthetics and culture.

              |            |
              |  Culture   |
              |            |
|             |            |              | 
|  Language   | TYPOGRAPHY |  Technology  |
|             |            |              |
              |            |
              | Aesthetics |
              |            |

Now onto the questions:

1. Your background and experience related to typography

I’m thinking less of an interview but more of a talk show.

2. From the CVs that I’ve received all these years, I notice that the standard of typography is declining. What’s the cause of this phenomenon? What are your comments on this issue?

I’ve noticed this as well, but only in Hong Kong. In Canada/UK it doesn’t seem to be the case. I think it’s a misconception that the CV is not ‘design’ but merely a ‘document’, and documents should look a certain way, ie default settings in Word. I think the software (Word) should not be blamed. In fact pretty sophisticated documents could be produced in Word.

3. Do you think the standard of typography in Hong Kong is up to international standard?

This is a leading question ;-) and I don’t know if there’s an international standard really. Who do we go by for international standards? UK? Germany? Or the US? Or Japan? It’s difficult to define. But in terms of whether we’re taking it seriously in Hong Kong, no, we do not take it seriously, nor do we care. This is the saddest thing!

I think the standard of typography of a particular place (if there is one) has so much to do with its cultural atmosphere. At the most basic level, do people read here? Are they culturally aware? Pictures are much more valued over text in Hong Kong. It’s so widespread, it’s scary. People who read are in the minority. It seems like almost the entire Hong Kong culture is infested with this whole idea of infotainment or TVB-style consumption of popular culture. It’s all about instant gratification or the fear of boredom (whatever that means). Images are interesting; text is boring. This is the general sentiment. Text is labeled as too serious, and there is a huge segregation of people who are in the ‘cultural business’ and people who are part of the ‘mass consumers’. Knowledge is just not something that people respect or have an interest in generally.

(Of course, I’m generalizing and am hugely exaggerating in the last paragraph.)

4. As readers are getting used to web pages, are legibility and readability still important or it doesn’t matter anymore? 

I think they will be more important than ever before, because of the convergence of media and the ubiquity and explosion of information. Legibility and readability are the foundations of good typography, but to elaborate upon the traditional values of typography and to look into the future, typography and information design will have to merge and become something very sophisticated. For example, instead of merely making something easy to read, we will be thinking about how best to get ideas across for optimal clarity and understandability. To achieve this, we need to tap into content and editing in a huge way, and think about how best to organize and structure the textual information and to give it visual form (which is what typography is about).

Systems thinking will be a very important skill to have. To understand not only the textual meaning of the content but the semantic structure underneath it, and then designing information systems to support this, for example for an information-intensive, database-driven website with lots of dynamic information.

5. To what extent should we preserve the traditional typographic rules?

I’m not an advocate of rules, but I do believe that there are conventions. Unlike rules, which could seem inflexible at times, conventions continue to evolve. Communication is to ‘make common’. The designer must try to understand the codes that the user uses to communicate. Conventions are formed when there is mutual agreement between the originator, the mediator (which is the designer) and the receiver. Like the way languages evolve, so too would typographic conventions, which is a meta (visual) language imposed upon written language. 

6. Do you think design students and designers of Hong Kong get adequate training in typography?

No, not at all. It’s just an observation; if it’s adequate, then why is there bad typography everywhere? I try to do it my way and properly and uphold the values that I believe in. But, it’s not easy (see 2 and 3 above). Often teachers are not clear as to what typography is.

7. What is the essence of good typography?

This is a big question! Let’s discuss this in the show.

8. I’ve notice some common errors in the usage of punctuation marks in many designers’ work, such as using primes for quotation marks, hyphens to replace dashes, the overuse of colons. What are your comments on this phenomenon?

This is not only a typography problem, but language. One has to have an affinity to the language in order to do good typography. To what extent, I don’t know.

But, referring to the point I made earlier about the evolution of conventions (see 5 above), these conventions do change as well. As much as I dislike primes as quotation marks, hyphens as dashes, etc, this phenomenon does seem inevitable. Just like how we’re communicating here, via email. There’s no easy way to type curly apostrophes and proper dashes, and also depending on what software and hardware you use to view this message, some of these typographic niceties will get lost and become something else. Email is not a formal communication medium. Same for MSN messages, Facebook, SMS, or even blogs. The unrefined typography conveys the informality. And this proliferation of ‘informal media’, I think, is causing this phenomenon. People don’t have time to read anyway!

9. Do you consider the understanding of typographic tradition and history of typography critical for designers?

Yes, absolutely critical. Sadly not a lot of designers/students are interested, nor are they interested in reading in general. The evolution of typography, not just as pure aesthetic movements, but in relation to the technology, cultural, social and economic contexts, are really important. (I tend not to favour an art-historical approach in looking at typographic/design history.) How do we know where we stand if we don’t look back at where we came from?

10. Do you think design competitions which only honour expressive or experimental typography divert the essence of good typography?

Not necessarily. The expressive/emotive approach to typography is also very important, just that they communicate on a different level (viewed and read at the same time). No doubt it is an important part of our visual culture. It is still good to see designers pushing the boundaries of typography and to come up with new things.

11. Is post-modern typography just a revival of modern typography with digital manipulations?

Coming back to Hong Kong in mid-2006, I was surprised that ‘post-modern’ typography was (and is) still in vogue! As I student I was absolutely captivated by it, and although I’m on to something else now, I still admire what Weingart, Greimen, McCoy, Vanderlans, Carson, etc. did. It was absolutely necessary, and it provided alternative viewpoints of typography and raised many good questions. The worse thing is to see it merely as a style.

Whatever a designer produces (however small), ultimately reflects not his/her taste or aesthetic sense, but their believes and values as a designer. It’s easy to see when a piece of design only has seemingly beautiful form but not enough substance to substantiate it. Where does it come from? What is the intent? ‘Referenced’ designs are all too common in Hong Kong. There’s no honesty to the communication.

Is Hong Kong a ‘post-modern’ society? Hardly. We’re not living under a democracy, we’re not liberal, we’re not pluralistic . . . What does post-modern design stand for then in Hong Kong? Does it reflect who we are? 

12. There are many graphic designers but few typeface designers, and yet many designers are doing logotype design. I have seen many bad logotype designs in Hong Kong these days. As a typeface designer, what’s your opinion?

In terms of lettering and logotype design, ugly is the new beautiful at the moment! Especially for Chinese. All of a sudden, everyone wants custom type. And all of a sudden, everyone with Adobe Illustrator can do it! Typeface design is quite different from lettering. Typeface design requires a lot of patience and technical know-how, and the designer cannot control how the typeface will be used in an actual design piece. Lettering should form part of the foundational skills of a graphic designer really. It’s about balancing black and white, negative and positive. Shouldn’t every designer have this skill already?

* * *

I think there is more than enough ground to cover. There won’t be enough time to discuss all of these points in the programme anyway.

Let me know what you think, and where/when we should meet tomorrow.


Certificate in Advanced Typography:

12 hours 27 February; 6, 13, 20 March 2021 (Saturdays) Register

Reconciling the linguistic, anatomical and aesthetic differences between the Hanzi (Chinese) and Latin scripts to create optimal reading experiences for different genres of typographic communications.

This course concerns the typographic design of multilingual documents. Complex issues related to the navigation of information arise when two scripts that are linguistically and visually very different need to coexist in the same environment. It will look at the spatial patterns and graphical considerations when a logographic script (Hanzi) is combined with an alphabetic script (Latin). Print, screen and spatial application of multilingual typography will be considered. Principles of multilingual typography will be put into practice, combining aesthetic and digital craft skills using an industry-standard software.

Course content

  • Theory of Hanzi–Latin multilingual typography
  • Aesthetic and digital craft skills
  • Multilingual typographic design practice

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of the programme, learners will be able to

  • describe the issues and theories related to Hanzi–Latin typography
  • devise effective spatial organisation and graphic cueing systems for multilingual information
  • make appropriate typographic design decisions for multilingual information based on communication goals, users’ needs and other contextual requirements
  • apply aesthetic and digital craft skills related to multilingual typography for different applications using industry-standard software

QF level 4
QR registration no. 20/000475/L4
Validity period 15/07/2020 to 31/08/2021

Certificate in Advanced Typography:
Designing for Reading

12 hours 9, 16, 23, 30 January 2021 (Saturdays) Register

Typography is not just about the styling of text; it shapes how we read and engage with information. This course explores what makes typography work for reading and the advanced craft skills that enable that.

This course takes an in-depth look at the technics and thinking behind good typography that works. The focus is not type as a conceptual or expressive element, but a lucid vehicle for textual content to support different contexts and modes of reading. Digital craft knowledge will be complemented by theory of typography and document design. Suitable for practising communication designers who are interested in elevating their craft skills and typographic knowledge for creating usable and aesthetically sound documents.

Course content

  • Theory of typography and document design
  • Aesthetic and digital craft skills
  • Typographic design practice

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of the programme, learners will be able to

  • describe the typographic and document design theories that make typography work for supporting reading
  • apply aesthetic and digital craft skills on character, paragraph, list, table, object and page levels using industry-standard page layout software
  • make appropriate and informed orthographic and typographic decisions when designing with complex text matter to support different modes of reading

QF level 4
QR registration no. 20/000474/L4
Validity period 15/07/2020 to 31/08/2021

Lecture videos


Type anatomy explained through lead type (Univers Condensed 30pt): point, pica, em, en, leading (in Cantonese)
A demonstration of paragraph and character styles (including nested styles) in InDesign (in Cantonese)
On Chinese–English bilingual typography: historical origins, matching Chinese and Latin type, bilingual layout and information hierarchy, detail bilingual typography (in English and Cantonese)
A lecture on the legibility of Latin and Chinese type (in English and Cantonese)
A lecture on the small details that make typography read and look great: orthography, numerals, alignment, detailing, hyphenation & justification (in English and Cantonese)

Information design

An introduction to information visualisation, with classic/historical examples and some information design principles (in Cantonese)
A short introduction to the POEMS observational research framework (in Cantonese)
Wayfinding design principles (1) Cognitive maps (2) Kevin Lynch’s five key environmental components (3) Per Mollerup’s wayfinding strategies (in Cantonese)
A wayfinding system design case study: Jockey Club Innovation Tower (in Cantonese)

Reflecting on formal design education

What is the role and meaning of design education? As a field of study that is firmly rooted in practice, is the purpose of design education simply for skill training so that students can get a job upon graduation? I would think not — education has a greater role than that, especially in the 21st century where the constantly evolving economy and technological developments mean that skills — and indeed the profession and industry — transform at a rate unbeknownst to previous generations. Education needs to prepare graduates for resilience and unpredictability.

On the occasion of receiving a design education award back in 2016, the Hong Kong Designer’s Association asked me a couple of questions, and I reflected on the role and meaning of formal design education.

As aesthetic standards may be subjective and varies between people, what are the criteria you would take into consideration, while grading your students’ works other than functionality?

I do not believe that aesthetics can be considered separately from function. Good designers try to understand the context and users rather than focussing on his or her own taste or aesthetic preferences. Good design performs as intended, and that includes whether a piece of design can be understood or used, as well as whether it elicits the right emotional response. Grading, to me, is overrated. The most important thing is that students develop their ability to articulate whether something that they have done is effective for the intended situation. The ability to self-evaluate is more important in my opinion. As much as I do not believe in grading, it is a necessary evil in formal education. Drawing up a set of objective criteria for an assignment is important. The final outcome of a project needs to adequately answer to the requirements and the needs of the intended users as set out in the brief. The final outcome is only part of the picture. Research and concept development need to also be taken into consideration. Clarity in verbal and written communication is also important, because designers need to be able to eloquently explain their work.

There are many renowned self-taught designers who did not acquire their skills through standard education. To what extent do you agree that knowledge of design can be taught through a standard educational system?

Good designers tend to be life-long learners. A natural curiosity can motivate anyone in learning anything really. So design, for sure, can be learnt outside of formal education. The craft aspects of design can be imparted through apprenticeship in a design studio, but the apprenticeship mode of learning is also quite widely used in formal design education. But we mustn’t forget that formal education can be much more than simply a means for honing professional skills; more importantly it should be a place where an inquisitive, critical mind is nurtured. Asking critical and difficult questions, challenging the status quo, advancing knowledge in the profession – these are all very important within formal design education. So design education is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Along with the industry, educational institutions drive change in the design profession.

Image: A vision for the future of education in the year 2000 produced as a cigarette card in France, 1901 (from Wikimedia Commons)

Also published on LinkedIn and on Medium in (in)visible (de)signs

Baseline grid

Teaching notes on how to set up a baseline grid in InDesign. This document is a slightly revised and reformatted document previously available here.

Download in PDF format

A baseline grid is based on the leading of the continuous text (body text) of a publication. Leadings and paragraph spaces of all text in a complex publication would then be mathematically derived from this leading. A baseline grid ensures that the sizes and leadings all text in a complex publication are related to each other and are locked into place, so that they line up across columns as well as across pages. Baseline grids are almost always used in newspapers, and often in other complex publications such as magazines and textbooks.

Digital typography

‘In typography there is no technical step which is not at the same time an aesthetic decision’ — Emil Ruder

Some teaching notes on digital typography. This is a sightly revised version of the previous document that was available here for download.

Download in PDF format

Since the advent of printing with movable type, typography and technology have become inseparable. If we are to accept the definition of typography as the mechanical production of written language, then we must have an intimate understanding of our prevailing typesetting technology – the computer and its software and output devices – in order to become competent typographic designers. There is craftsmanship involved in digital typesetting; creativity is also built upon the foundation of understanding the technology.