March 11, 2020

By Mary Melissa Taddeo, AIA

Since Nashville Design Week (NDW) launched in 2018, Gresham Smith has been actively involved in promoting and organizing the annual event. Over the past two years, I’ve held various volunteer roles, starting in 2018 as a Program Coordinator, then transitioning into Program Logistics Manager in 2019, where I oversaw the logistics and execution of more than 30 events over a five-day period. It has been amazing to watch this event grow. If you’re not familiar with NDW, or you simply want to learn more about how we put it together, here’s an inside look at last year’s event.

It all started with a simple idea: Let’s stop only talking to ourselves. Simply put, NDW aims to get design-minded people out from behind their desks, into the community, and engaged in conversations. It brings the design industry and the public together for a weeklong, citywide festival, celebrating Nashville’s robust design scene.

In 2019, we sold over 7,300 tickets to 1,750 unique attendees, raising nearly $80,000. Over time, that money will go toward furthering the mission by supporting scholarships for students interested in design, larger-scale interactive exhibits and installations, and the creation of NDW’s 501(c)(3). A wide range of design professionals from across Nashville were in attendance, along with creatives who had traveled from as far away as Seattle and New York, reinforcing that Nashville is truly raising its game in the design world.

In evaluating the numbers from our inaugural year, the overall total number of attendees remained the same. We intentionally reduced the number of events to one-third of what we held the previous year. Our stats show that even though there were fewer events, the average number of events each person attended doubled. We consolidated our schedule this year by finding opportunities for collaboration, as well as standardizing our schedule with six daily events. The quote from famous German designer Dieter Rams “Less but better” became our mantra!

(Caption: Attendees at the “Design Thinking & Branding in Public Transportation” event. Credit: Daniel Meigs)

Using Design to Build Community

I’m most proud that the 2019 calendar looked a lot like Nashville. The event proposals captured an eagerness to find community, share innovations and seek out meaningful discussion. The first event to sell out only hours after the calendar launch also carried the largest waitlist throughout the week—nearly 200-people deep! The title alone, “Room at our Table: A Breakfast with Leading Women in Design,” is telling, as it shows that Nashville is searching for diversity and equality among its leaders. We brought back and scaled up “Design for Equity Dinner and Discussion,” and it was also really well attended. Nashville is clearly craving deep discussions around design equity and leadership.

The “Behind the Curtain” event held at 4Wall Entertainment was a true highlight and the perfect end to the week. Seven stage and set designers gave a behind-the-scenes look into the creative process involved in designing tour lighting for the who’s who in the music industry. 4 Wall’s River North warehouse was transformed into a playground of interactive lighting exhibits, showcasing the talents of the panelists, and displayed tangible examples of the creative process discussed during the panel.

The best part? None of these designers knew each other prior to the event! Michael Brown, a native Nashvillian and lighting designer, sparked the idea of putting together a roundtable and the event grew from there. For me, this captures the essence of what NDW is all about—we aim to be the umbrella organization that fosters connections among designers.

(Caption: NDW’s Programming Committee is made up of Mary Melissa Taddeo, Architect, Gresham Smith (right); Maria Meyer, Interior Designer, EOA; and Fuller Hanan, Architect, Pfeffer Torode. Credit: Daniel Meigs)

A Look Behind the Scenes

Feedback from the first annual NDW proved to be incredibly important. Data from surveys indicated that despite the sheer volume of events available, attendees found it difficult to navigate overlapping time frames. They also found it geographically challenging to get from event to event across town. Even with a packed 2018 calendar of 94 events—the majority of which were sellout crowds—an average of just 1.4 events were attended throughout the week, indicating total ticket sales belied the true attendance numbers.

So, what to do? In May 2019, we put out a Call for Events, which resulted in over 150 event applications—a third more than we received in 2018. Our team of Content Curators blind-scored the submissions, evaluating them against a scoring matrix developed by our Programming Committee, and added written feedback, which became key. What one event was lacking, we saw in another proposal, providing the opportunity for collaboration among event hosts. My favorite part of this process was seeing themes and trends emerge among applications and realizing: “It’s working! People across town are talking about the same things!

Seeing all of this behind the scenes, and creating links between people who had never met but were passionate about similar ideas, ultimately translated into richer, more meaningful events being added to the calendar.

(Caption: Cubes commissioned by sponsors, including Gresham Smith. Credit: Daniel Meigs)

How Will You Get Involved?

So, what’s next for 2020? For starters, I’m excited to transition to a Co-Director role, overseeing a new Programming Committee. This will allow me to play an integral role in the evolution of NDW. We’ve just completed our 2020 Visioning Session, where the Directors spent a Sunday afternoon analyzing data and survey feedback to target our next steps and goals for this fall.

Will we create a central thesis or theme for the week? How will Nashville Design Week look in an election year? We’re back at it, so if you’re interested in learning more, or if you would like to get involved, please reach out to me at

And save the date: NDW 2020 is October 26-30!