Associate Director of Design, Chief Designer
3 Designers, 1 Developer
If 2023 has proven any technology is more than just a fad, it's probably Mixed Reality. With rapid investment from Meta, the upcoming launch of Apple's headset, and increasing actual application in the workplace, we and our corporate partners were eager to see what innovative young minds could do with the technology.
I was tasked with building the brand and digital experiences for ImmerseGT, a collaboration with GTXR and an ambitious plan for a massive XR hackathon hosted in Atlanta, GA. Interest rapidly outpaced our wildest dreams and ImmerseGT had to adapt to becoming a hybrid, and even global competition that would draw eyes from around the industry. To be a success, ImmerseGT needed a brand that would call homage to both our home in Georgia Tech and our increasing reach, and play a careful balancing act of looking at the future while maintaining a professional presence we could pitch to sponsors.
ImmerseGT surpassed our wildest expectations, becoming the world's largest XR hackathon. I developed a powerful brand identity that encapsulated the experience so well that even now, builders who see the shirt or stickers are taken back to a magical weekend of innovation. I also directed a team to help translate this visual identity into marketing assets, our website, and pitch decks for our sponsors, and managed sudden conflicts and budgetary constraints.
At Startup Exchange, we've maintained a constant habit of user research—keeping a pulse on the startup community is foundational to decision-making that keeps us relevant. Through observations, interviews, and feedback cycles, we had come to realize a couple key frustrations with students in the startup community.
- Student builder communities are fractured. Universities are one of the best places to meet your co-founders, but there's a lack of places to find those people.
- Entrepreneurial orgs are too small. Most schools lack sufficient builder culture to generate sustainable communities.
- Students have to go far and wide to meet builders, and this usually fails.
We'd been running some hackathons, local events, pitch competitions, and talks for some time, but we came to realize through these insights that we needed a space where builders:
Could work together — molding trust and community in a way awkwardly networking never can
Can be fully dedicated towards a goal — requiring a small time frame, because asking people to dedicate a weekend over a semester is much easier
Could be inspired by other groups — building in the open, and watching other people work towards their goals.
We designed ImmerseGT to be our most ambitious hackathon yet. From a design perspective, this meant a huge shift in mindset, and one that if successful, would lead to a new generation of events by Startup Exchange.
Our first principle: Major Events get their own brand. Previous events were usually under the SX brand, but we hypothesized that if we wanted to tie the weekend and community into one powerful moment in time, we needed to flood the venue and our digital channels in a singular, unique brand. People should remember participating in ImmerseGT, not "that XR hackathon last year".
Our second principle: Reflect the subject. We wanted people thinking about the topic from the moment they saw the announcement. With XR, this meant using pre-existing associations: space-y visuals, dark colors and gradients that imply large spaces, and our namesake: Immersion.
Our third principle: Be playful. As students, we have a unique opportunity to inject fun into what we build. We wanted our brand to have easter eggs, and to be flexible so that participants could make fun twists on it.
After our research stage, I got to work on the core brand.
I experimented a lot, but quickly settled on a logomark that would involve repeating circle patterns — it felt tonally playful but representative of the subject. Being immersed in a new reality involves your eyes being pulled in.
However, I found inspiration while studying on campus for a logomark that took all three of our principles at its core.
This is an old photo, but I took the shapes of the concentric circles surround our redesigned Kessler Campanile to form the core of the ImmerseGT brand:
I went through a lot of iteration, including lots of 3D experimentation next:
I returned to the evaluation stage and gathered feedback on some of these designs from across the organization. The final concept was a clear favorite, but there were a few issues:
It was too dark. We wanted Immerse to feel playful and bright as well as professional, but a heavily subdued gradient made it feel invisible.
The complex cut-in logo reduced the presence of the spiral, and the heavily varied weights in the design would make printing complicated.
I enhanced the gradient to add some color back, but kept it subdued so that logo felt like it was floating in space. I also added to the spacey feel through updated typography that mirrors the serious tone and wide spacing of actual space missions, and "immersed" the logomark into the text. We chose Satoshi for a powerful mix of both playful and serious vibes across our assets.
We found that not only the org, but our partners across Georgia Tech, Deloitte, and GTXR were immensely happy with this brand. However, we weren't quite done! Now it was time to produce the assets.
My main task in this phase was to delegate and guide the creation of our marketing materials, website, and physical goods like name tags and stickers.
I got the assignment of designing t-shirts we would print for participants to wear, to really tie it all together. This was a spot where we could really go all out with visuals. Startup Exchange has a famous history for t-shirts on campus, and we wanted something people would continue to wear.
While these were all popular, we faced a sudden issue as the event approached. ImmerseGT had succeeded beyond our craziest expectations, and our marketing had been wildly successful. Sponsors had their budgets lined up for the year. To handle the sheer number of applicants, our allocations had to shift, so we made the decision to shift to a single-color t-shirt. This is a challenge for a number of reasons, but our final design is arguably better than our initial concepts.
ImmerseGT was a wild success. I'm so proud of the work the whole team at Startup Exchange put in to make this event work. Our new branding strategy proved to be effective, as months later we still receive feedback on how tightly nit the community felt during those two days.
ImmerseGT was a hectic and exciting time, but it was also my first time leading a major brand initiative and running a design team. Here's a few things I learned:
Get started early. I waited too long for other teams to finalize details and get ready, when we had the information we needed to start ideating much earlier. Had we begun ahead of time, we may even have been able to budget multi-color shirts.
Delegate, delegate, delegate! I took on the bulk of the work early in the project when I had powerful and talented designers who were willing to help. As an uncertain leader, I felt uncomfortable telling people what to do, but we could have moved much faster as a team if I made sure to start delegating earlier. I eventually learned this as the event approached.
Be adaptable. ImmerseGT involved a huge number of partners, multiple organizations. and required a dynamic overhaul of Startup Exchange in order to pull off. I'm proud of Design as being one of the fastest moving teams, able to pull off incredible work in the face of short deadlines, but I think we could've been even better at finding solutions to the numerous setbacks we faced.