Chicago Ideas

How we built a flexible idea sharing and event management platform for Chicago Ideas.
Since 2013, Table XI has partnered closely with Chicago Ideas to develop and implement its digital strategy. We’re proud to support an organization committed to cultivating a community of curiosity, whose impact on Chicago and stature on the global stage continue to grow each year.

Developing a platform for engagement

As Chicago Ideas (CI) has grown, its mission has expanded. Our primary challenge this year was to help CI pivot its user experience to match this shift from a week-long ideas festival — with a site meant to showcase events and sell tickets — to an organization that finds and spreads the brightest ideas year-round via its content, videos and other programs.

The new site still lets users browse speakers and attend events. But thanks to our work together, now it also presents clear and concise information about CI’s initiatives and highlights its incredible library of videos from past events.


Table XI product designer, Zeke Binion, walks through a user flow in the Product Design Workshop with Chicago Ideas.

To find out what messaging and features would clarify CI’s purpose and spark user engagement, we started with a week-long Google design sprint to explore ways CI could stand out as a global platform for ideas. Over the five days, we prototyped solutions and validated them with the influential people CI hopes to reach. Together, we determined the three most pressing needs:

  • A total redesign of the site to clarify and highlight the expanded mission of CI
  • A responsive upgrade to improve the user experience on mobile devices
  • A custom content management system that would give CI the ability to spin up well-designed web pages for any content they may want to publish, without needing technical assistance

The new site allows CI to lead with events and ticket sales in the run-up to its festival, then switch to promoting its other initiatives during the rest of the year. And it works flawlessly on mobile, so anyone can access innovative ideas and events with a few taps on their phone.

Building a flexible CMS and scalable infrastructure

Great design needs great content, and to get it the CI team needed a content management system (CMS) that worked for them. When we came onto the project in May of 2013, there was no CMS at all. Every content and landing page was hardcoded by developers, so CI had to make a special request for every little change.

During our second engagement with them in 2014, we built a rudimentary CMS that hooked into the rest of their system. It allowed the team to update pages, but creating new ones was a hassle. In the two years since, CI has come to realize that a key asset of its organization is the accumulated library of influential thinking, and the management and promotion of said content has become key to its future success.

We wanted CI’s editorial team to have the flexibility to create content on demand. We started by developing a custom Ruby on Rails CMS that allows them to quickly construct pages out of reusable design elements, so they can create responsive content without having to rely on a designer to build each new page.


Some of the CMS blocks created can be seen in these the high-fidelity wireframes created for the Chicago Ideas project.

To make sure each page looks fresh and has all the function CI needs, we created 38 reusable pre-designed blocks. The blocks can contain videos, images and text, and can even pull data from other parts of the system (such as a list of events or speakers). When the content team needs to create a new landing page, for example, they can drag and drop a header block, newsletter signup block, text block and image block into the order they need them. The pieces are designed to work in any combination, so CI can build the functionality that works for them.

Once we made it easy to publish the content, we needed to make it easier for users to view all these rich videos, images and thoughts. We redid CI’s search functionality to display upcoming events first, then videos, content and past events, so users can always find the most relevant information. We also migrated CI to the Amazon Web Services cloud. AWS saves CI hosting costs and offers the scalability that will support their future growth.

Creating a solid foundation through three years of technology improvements

We were able to take CI as far as we did this year because we had already done the foundational work in previous engagements. In 2013, the first year of our engagement, we built a new online ticketing platform for CI that integrated with its website. The platform let attendees buy and redeem tickets from their phones, and helped festival staff by generating a real-time count of available seats when tickets were scanned at the door. We also built a mobile app so festival staff and volunteers could scan in attendees without needing any special hardware.


Our mobile ticketing solution allows volunteers to scan tickets at an event and have a real time count of how many tickets are available at the door for each event.

In 2014, our second engagement with CI, we built the original CMS and added new functionality to the event management platform. In 2015 we moved the event management software to a new administration platform that’s more reliable and allows us to diagnose potential problems faster. We also simplified the event creation process and started a redesign.

All that groundwork gave us the ability to do a total site overhaul this year, with a new CMS, new search, new infrastructure and a new responsive design. By looking holistically at CI’s business over the course of several years, we’ve been able to deliver technology and tools that help its team respond to demand and grow the business. We can’t wait to see what CI will do over the next four years of events.

Sona Jones@2x (1)

“Everybody at Table XI is super smart and one of the best in their roles. They really felt like partners in the project instead of just a company we hired.”

Sona Jones, Executive Director for Chicago Ideas

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