Microsoft Inspire: Engaging conference attendees with real-time illustration

Drawing live illustrations of Satya Nadella’s keynote address at Microsoft Inspire 2017 is a pretty cool job. Even better is getting to design, illustrate, and animate a board game to communicate Inspire concepts to the audience in a quick, fun way.

The project started when Microsoft UK asked Yesler to engage partners at Inspire by riffing on the idea of a business board game. Our concept became the basis for between-speaker animations, and in just a few weeks our designer was ready for a day of live drawing. Microsoft UK and Inspire attendees were pleased with this memorable way of visually summarizing the presentations to help get everyone excited about new initiatives.


Microsoft Inspire is an annual gathering of the company’s worldwide partner ecosystem in Washington, DC, attended by thousands of partners and employees. The four-day conference focuses on educating partners and building enthusiasm about market opportunities and the Microsoft road map for the coming year. Inspire is a chance for everyone to hear keynotes by Microsoft executives like Satya Nadella, to network, and to attend business-track specific workshops. On the final day, partners divide up to attend region-specific presentations.

When one of our clients on the Microsoft UK team was challenged with engaging attendees at the 2017 conference in an innovative new way, she came to Yesler. She asked us to create visual assets to introduce and summarize concepts between keynotes and sessions, based on the concept of a business and marketing board game. She also wanted us to create live illustrations of the keynotes and the UK regional presentation, with all assets projected on video screens in the conference space and then available for download from the Inspire site afterward. These assets would use visual storytelling to capture the messaging and key themes outlined by the featured speakers and help guide partners through the presenters’ concepts.


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Yesler took the client’s design idea of a well-known board game and gave it a visual and conceptual makeover. As we dove into the concept, this Partner Growth Game evolved from a rectangular format with text-based tiles into a fully illustrated cloud-shaped board with dice, cards, and a counter to indicate progress through the three main concepts of market opportunities, partner investments, and Microsoft investments. For the live sketches of the keynotes and UK regional presentation, our designer had about a week to familiarize himself with the summit topics and create ideas for small illustrations that would progress along with the presenters’ narratives. We felt this approach would be more practical than trying to document an entire session in one large graphic.


The Yesler team created a hand-drawn illustration style for all the visuals. Code-named Rory, the style is designed to communicate authenticity, immediacy, and consistency. This iconographic style helps speed understanding for the audiences and allowed us to dial up or dial back the level of detail in the illustrations, to ensure consistency of vision across all the conference materials.

Adding to the challenge, there was no conference pass for the Yesler designer for the keynotes, so he would have to work from outside the conference using outlines provided by the client, while watching a live feed of the presentations, taking notes, and sketching “bite-sized” images on the fly. To complete the recap of the speech he would have to add color and hand-drawn text.

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For the keynote sessions delivered each morning of the conference, our graphic artist viewed a live video feed of the conference from a nearby hotel room to produce small images that progressed along with the narrative. These illustrations were distributed on social media during the event, and to partners after the event as a recap of the sessions and a memento of the conference.

On the final day of the conference, partners assembled according to their respective global regions for a two-hour, localized presentation. This time our designer worked in the conference room, sketching along with the presentation on a Microsoft Surface Studio. His sketches were projected onto the conference-room video screen, intercut with the speaker’s PowerPoint slides.

Despite our artist having little time to familiarize himself with the Surface Studio platform, his completed illustration was a success, impressing attendees. The client was quite pleased, and pronounced the work an extremely useful and engaging way to visually summarize the event.


Imaginative Designer


Hours of Live Ilustration


Engaged Attendees