2018 is a big year for the TEDxPortsmouth organizers and community. We’ve got a new name, a new venue, and nearly three times more tickets available to our audience. Our event theme “That Was Then” offers almost limitless possibilities for interpretation.

Designer Deb McNeilly wrestled with how to visualize the theme. What does it mean when a person ponders “That was Then?” What is “then?” And won’t each participant see their own personal “that?” The theme is difficult to summarize in a single sentence, and the design challenge it posed did not offer an immediate, perfect image. The final design is evocative: a swirling mixture of color and depth, layers and lines, words and image. But the smooth, meditative pattern is the result of weeks of creative work, revision, and collaboration.

Deb McNeilly is a Portsmouth based designer with deep roots in the education and non-profit worlds. She was tasked, as a part of the TEDxPortsmouth design team (which also includes Brian Murphy, Catherine Stewart, CJ Lewis, and Johnny Peiffer), with bringing this year’s theme to visual life. Her first creative hurdle was the “Then” in the theme. Her concept of “then” was her immediate past. She imagined the 1980’s or 90’s. But in a team meeting, Catherine Stewart suggested that any concept based in a particular “then” might not resonate with a larger, diverse crowd. What if your “then” was the 1960’s or 50’s or maybe your “then” was more recent—2015, perhaps. This small shift in thinking was a turning point for the design. An inclusive design would represent more than a single past or history or place or experience.

For McNeilly, this design was dependent upon collaboration. She says the finished product would not have come together without the collective and imaginative input of the whole design team. Early on in the process, the group gathered together and brainstormed words that might help focus their effort.

As the words began to pile up, a series of new conceptual possibilities unfolded within McNeilly’s creative space. She found a new sense of playfulness and curiosity in her drafts, a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar palettes, textures, and shapes. But there was still the challenge of how one might take all of this creative energy and input, all of those words clouded together, and return with an image reflecting a “that” and “then” for everyone.

The final product, McNeilly says, was the “weirdest” of her designs and was only one of many images she created. She was leery about its inclusion to the TEDxPortsmouth team, because it felt so unexpected, a design reliant upon the curious nature of the process. For all of it’s rippling, layered intensity, the design was almost a “no-go.”

But then at the presentation meeting, no one could stop talking about it. Somehow, it seemed to contain…everything. McNeilly unveiled what she thought to be the craziest of her images, and no one could look away. The colors are vivid, everywhere and nowhere at once. The mass itself might seem at one moment a face, a flower, a cloud, a continent, or if one is prone to abstract thinking: time, the cosmos, or experiential, layered history itself. The typography, which came from an earlier design, a form of creative self-collaboration, sits at once above and intermingled with the image so that one might not know precisely where things begin or where they end. The image becomes a vortex, a radiant cluster through which a viewer might conjure unique ideas of what used to be and what might become.

Perhaps, ultimately, it is this concrete-yet-ethereal quality that links the design most definitively to this year’s theme. Deb McNeilly’s design suggests that we are inexorably connected by our shared global identities and histories. And we must examine them both with new eyes before embracing our unwritten, shared futures.