Detail of photo for ArtCenter's 2017 TEDxACCD event Beauty of the Fall.

feature / students / event
October 09, 2017
Writer: Solvej Schou
Images: Courtesy of TEDxACCD


We don't know everything.
We aren't perfect.
We make mistakes,
But we embrace them
And make it work.
We are a metamorphosis of X.
X = the unknown.

In other words, we all fail, and then try again.

For the ArtCenter students organizing the College’s November 4, 2017 TEDxACCD event Beauty of the Fall, featuring speakers that will delve into the powerful theme of failure, the above mantra has become a driving force, says Product Design student Vincent Zhang.

Led by Zhang and Illustration student and Student Government President Michelle Kim, with Graphic Design instructor Gerardo Herrera (BFA 91 Graphic Design) and Humanities and Sciences instructor Sherry Hoffman as faculty advisers, the TEDxACCD team came up with the theme on the very first day of their Spring 2017 Guided Study course. (Guided Study courses, with just several students, focus on one topic of study).

“This came from a place of passion and universal experience,” says Zhang. “We put big ideas on a whiteboard. Words like empowerment, diversity and empathy. [Entertainment Design student] Ben Ko saw the word process, and said, ‘What about Journey of Failure and Beauty of the Fall?’ Gerardo's eyes lit up, and we were all like, ‘Oh my God, failure is so relevant.’ For me it's important to ask why I didn't do so well in something and get to the core of how I can learn from it.”

With TEDx, we try to provide that safe space for people and let them know that if they fail, there's 20+ others who have your back.

Vincent Zhang

Since then, through a Summer 2017 Transdisciplinary Studio course with 21 students of all majors, based on disciplinary-crossing collaboration, and a smaller second Guided Study course this Fall term, the TEDxACCD group has tackled graphic identity, spatial design, public relations and sponsorship outreach. They’ve nailed down 12 speakers of assorted backgrounds, from Product Design student and former Broadway dancer Charlie Hodges to comedian, actor, writer and self-identified “genderless Jedi” AB Cassidy and author, speaker, single mom and former professional soccer player Jasmine Henderson.

“We really wanted the group of speakers to be diverse, with different age ranges, ethnicities, experiences, industries and topics, and also have perspective on failure, the process of failing and the response to it,” says Kim, talking excitedly during a recent evening TEDxACCD class with Herrera, Hoffman, Zhang and other students packed around a table laughing, brainstorming and chomping on food.

Beauty of the Fall is ArtCenter’s third independently organized TED event. TED—which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design—is a nonprofit and global community devoted to spreading ideas through its popular series of TED Talks. Independently run and hosted local TEDx events operate under a free license granted by TED. In 2015, the TEDxACCD event Systems by Design—which Herrera and Hoffman also advised—explored the unseen connections between people, places and ideas. In 2012, the theme Design a _______ for Social Impact was a call to action aimed to inspire innovative thinkers and communicators of tomorrow.

The 2017 TEDxACCD Beauty of the Fall team.

Zhang, after being on the Systems by Design TEDxACCD team, went to the 2016 TEDSummit in Banff, Canada, and came back both inspired and with permission from the TED organization to host a 100+ audience TEDx event at ArtCenter. Kim came on-board as co-leader, with Herrera and Hoffman again as advisers.

One of the big differences between this TEDx and those years prior? Both the students and their advisors have been empowered to be more open about their own journeys of failure, success and everything in-between, and through the three terms of planning Beauty of the Fall.

“As an instructor you really think, ‘I've got to get in there. I've got to make sure they don't fail,’” says Herrera, turning to look at Hoffman. “And this time, I said, ‘You know what? I'm gonna just let it flow.’ I've pulled back, and really just tried to enjoy the experience.”

Hoffman, pausing, turns philosophical. On the whiteboard behind her, Kim has written out a long list of agenda items, and ideas for questions—such as “What would you do if you couldn’t fail?”—to ask students ahead of the event.

Detail of photo during class for 2017 TEDxACCD event Beauty of the Fall.

You can be confident and still be open about your mistakes or flaws.

Michelle Kim

“This has brought out our humanness,” says Hoffman. “During an early discussion, we talked about our team goals and individual goals, and then our ‘I'm almost afraid to tell you’ or out-of-my-comfort-zone goals, and those get a little scarier. I said I want to lean in more. The time is so short, and you gotta dive in and get to know these students. That means being human and showing who I am too.”

Kim jumps in, adding, “That's what vulnerability is. It’s going below the surface.”

For the energetic busy student, TEDxACCD has taught Kim that being a leader means being self-assured, but also messing up, moving forward and knowing when and when not to guide others. Several of her classmates, she says, shared that they grew up in families and cultures that don’t consider failure an option.

“This experience has transformed the way I thought about my own decision-making skills. You constantly reflect and think, ‘Is this right?,’ and if it's not you vocalize it and try to find the next step,” says Kim, noting the challenge of setting agendas, handling communications with messaging app Slack and encouraging her teammates.

“TEDx has been one of the biggest projects I've done, and because of that it gives me the courage to try other things that are even bigger and more high risk,” she says. “You can be confident and still be open about your mistakes or flaws, and that's what I hope to carry on in my future dreams, passions and job prospects. Sharing mistakes makes you understand the other person, and be empathetic.”

Detail of photo during class for 2017 TEDxACCD event Beauty of the Fall.

Zhang mentions a question a friend asked him that made him ponder both failure, and balancing being a student at ArtCenter. “Wow, you do a lot of stuff. How do you have time for it?’” the friend asked.

For Zhang, who has a type of dermatitis triggered by unhealthy food and stress (a la pulling all-nighters), not taking care of his body for a long time felt like a failure, and so he made subtle changes every day. That, in a certain way, is similar to design, he says, which includes being innovative, asking why? over and over, and experimenting, failing and getting timely feedback through class critiques.

“To my friend, I said, ‘When you have fractures in your bones, you heal by growing tougher bones.’ For me each term at ArtCenter is like fracturing a little bit and coming back stronger,” says Zhang. “Just constantly messing up and taking on things that interest me gives me the pressure to perform and do well. With TEDx, we try our best to provide that safe space for people and let them know that if they fail, there's 20+ others who will be there and have your back.”

The TEDxACCD Beauty of the Fall event—open to the public—takes place Saturday, November 4, 2017 at the Hillside Campus. Tickets on sale at