TED Talks Every Design Student Must Watch – Rory Sutherland’s “Sweat the Small Stuff”

There’s a world of inspiration out there for Graphic Design and Digital Media Students, but sometimes it’s hard to know where to look, and hard to narrow down what you find. By the time you’ve filtered through twenty or more videos, books, and blog posts, you don’t want to read or watch any of them. That’s where I come in. As a Graphic Design Student, I am constantly on the lookout for great resources to supplement my education at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. I love weeding through the mass amount of information available to find the best inspiration for students. This post, the first in a 5 part TED Talks series that will be published here every Wednesday for the next five weeks, features a brief and highly inspirational talk by Rory Sutherland on the importance of small details in design.

Ted Talks LogoFor those that don’t know, TED is a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It was conceived in 1984 as a conference devoted to bringing people together from the three worlds of Technology, Entertainment and Design. It has evolved into two annual conferences, the TEDConference on the West Coast each Spring and the TEDGlobal conference in Edingburgh each summer. There is also the award-winning TED Talks video website, the Open Translation Project, TED Conversations, TED Fellows, TEDx, and the annual TED Prize. The mission of TED is simply to spread ideas. The founders, participants and viewers “believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives, and ultimately, the world.” To that end, their website stands as a sort of “clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.” It’s a website that is certainly easy to get lost in for hours on end, but unlike cat videos on YouTube, every TED video will teach you something, whether it be about the forefront of technological innovation, the power of music on the brain, new discoveries in principles of education, or, most relevant to FIDM Graphic Design and Digital Media students, the importance of good design.

Rory Sutherland’s “Sweat the Small Stuff”

One excellent video on design is the talk by Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group and a cutting-edge interactive campaign designer at the forefront of an advertising revolution in brand identities. The talk, titled “Sweat the Small Stuff,” delves into the importance of small details in solving big problems. In his talk, Sutherland discusses how large organizations have become completely disconnected with what matters to people. As an example of this, he cites a merger that had just occurred at the time (2010) between AOL and Time Warner. An enormously expensive merger profiled in many magazines and newspapers and heralded as extremely important, Sutherland points out that no customer of either corporation noticed any difference in their provided services, and thus, the merger didn’t really affect any one other than those working in the companies.

Virgin Atlantic Airways Upper Class Salt & Pepper Shakers

Virgin Atlantic Airways Upper Class Salt & Pepper Shakers

The most potent things, Sutherland claims, are really small. As a designer, you want people to remember you and the things you do. He gives two excellent examples of small, seemingly trivial design details, but ones that make a large impact on the customer and lead to being remembered. One is a set of small salt and pepper shakers shaped like propellers by Virgin Atlantic Airways Upper Class. The compulsion of customers to think “I could take this and no one would notice,” was a compulsion the designers of these salt and pepper shakers managed to foresee. On the underside of the shakers is the engraved statement “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic Airways Upper Class.”

The small details and wit in design are principles taught by FIDM instructor Doug Haverty in the Design II class at FIDM. These small details lead to a connection between the audience and the designer, one that is hopefully sustained in the audience’s mind. This connection is ultimately what all designers hope to make—a lasting impression on an audience because of a design detail. One that will ultimately lead to customer loyalty and a good reputation.

Rory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland

These small details, so important to connecting a designer with an audience, are ones that are overlooked in most businesses. Sutherland states that a sense of self-aggrandizement in business owners says that big problems need to have big, and often expensive, solutions. However, he notes that behavioral economics tells us that what changes our behavior and attitudes towards things is not proportional to the degree of expense entailed or the amount of force applied. The person with the power to solve problems in most businesses and governments, Sutherland states, is usually the person with the biggest budget. As a result, a lot of money often gets thrown at problems, because it’s the inclination of a person with a large budget to use it. Sutherland does note, however, that the big stuff is done “spectacularly well” in the world. It is the little things. The “user interface” stuff that is done “spectacularly badly.”

The importance of usability and the user interface is highlighted well by the instructor of Website Design I, Joe Bautista. Bautista always finds the problems in students’ website designs, and they are often ones that arise because of the lack of consideration of usability. Once they are pointed out however, it is easy to see that usability is one of the most important aspects to consider in design. The user’s experience will either be wonderful, or terrible, depending on how well the designer has executed the project.

Overall, Sutherland’s talk “Sweat the Small Stuff” highlights the importance of always considering the audience when designing. It points out that good design does not necessarily come from a lot of money, and that designers can actually make huge impacts with very small details. As Graphic Design and Digital Media majors, we understand the importance of small details abstractly, but sometimes have trouble including such details in our own design work. Listening to Rory Sutherland speak has inspired me to consider the audience of my designs a little more closely, and to always consider the small solutions, because even if at first they seem too small to make a difference, it’s those details that ultimately set good design apart.

Check Out Other Ted Talks From This Series

Part 1: Rory Sutherland’s “Sweat the Small Stuff”


Part 2: Milton Glaser’s “Using Design to Make Ideas New”


Part 3: Stefan Sagmeister’s “Happiness by Design”


Part 4: John Maeda’s “How Art, Technology and Design Inform Creative Leaders”  


Part 5: TBD


Thank you to Sara Berkes for this wonderful article.

FIDMDigitalArts contributor, Sara BerkesSara Berkes is currently a Graphic Design/Branding major in the Professional Designation Program at FIDM. She has a B.A. Honors in English and Creative Writing from the University of King’s College and enjoys any opportunity to combine her interests in writing and design. She loves design that uses lots of white space, hand lettering, geometric shapes and excellent kerning, though not necessarily all at once. When not designing or writing, Sara enjoys knitting, sewing and reading lots of books.

Be sure to check out her website by clicking here.


Questions/comments? Email the editor, Mani O’Brien at mobrien@fidm.edu

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Author: Sara Berkes

Sara Berkes is a graphic designer, writer and maker based in Ottawa, ON, Canada. She has a combined BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of King's College and an AA in Graphic Design, which she earned from FIDM in December 2013 along with the 2013 / 2014 Graphic Design Award. When not designing or blogging at Sara Berkes Creative or writing for the FIDM Digital Arts Blog, Sara can probably be found sewing, knitting, or hiding from Winter. You can find out more about her and her work at www.saraberkescreative.com

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