ACS Discovery Ball

On the Ball: Designing a Gala that Continues to Shine

The American Cancer Society’s Discovery Ball gala is always a wildly successful fundraising affair. We look back over six years of design of the gala.

For the last six years, it’s been our pleasure to design the American Cancer Society’s prestigious Discovery Ball gala. This marvelous affair continues to rank among the top benefits in the nation, and has consecutively been ranked as the number one charity event in Chicago for the past four years.*

Rankings by Biz Bash, the nation’s leading event trade publication.

We caught up with our VP of Sales & Design, Rishi Patel, to learn more about how he works alongside the organization to keep the gala on top, and over the top.

Rishi Patel, Designer of ACS Discovery Ball, HMR Designs
Rishi Patel, photographed by Kent Drake Photography.

When it comes to wedding design, there’s almost always a vision: an inspirational thread that’s woven into every layer. It’s a guiding but flexible force, and a broad way for couples to speak their style through their chosen elements. But what about galas?

A room shot of the 2011 gala at the Civic Opera House.

When it comes to galas, event design and décor have an entirely different role to carry out: to successfully and compellingly portray an organization’s specific mission. Ultimately, there’s a lot less wiggle room: the theme must be clear and resounding. Especially when the cause is as important as that of the American Cancer Society.

Cloud-centric signage for the 2016 gala at Hilton Chicago. Photo by Cindy Fandl Photography
The 2016 gala at Radisson Blu bore a more sleek, modern look. Photo by Kent Drake Photography.


Each year, the event board fashions a theme, and this is where the gala truly begins. Next, it’s up to Rishi to interpret, enhance, and take it to the design level.

The 2015 theme “Accelerating the Cure” featured decor inspired by the speed of light. Photo by Kent Drake.



But the theme shouldn’t hit you over the head; it should envelope you. Thematic elements must be cohesive and comprehensive without sacrificing taste and elegance.

Custom tabletop decor and lighting for the 2015 gala. Photo by Kent Drake Photography.
Photo by Kent Drake Photography.
Illuminating the cause at the 2015 gala. Photo by Kent Drake Photography.
Creativity abounds at the 2015 gala at Radisson Blu. Photo by Kent Drake Photography.
The Radisson Blu, draped in sleek cobalt for the 2015 gala. Photo by Kent Drake Photography.


Luckily, Rishi is up to the task. In fact, what he likes most about gala design is the ability to step further outside the box.


“The potential for creativity feels limitless when you are able to consider unconventional materials, applications, and concepts that might be otherwise inappropriate for [more timeless] social events,” he says.

Travel-themed decor welcomed guests to the 2013 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Photo by Fandl Photography.
The 2013 gala at the Radisson Blu. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Photo by Fandl Photography.
A custom bar for the travel-themed 2013 gala at Radisson Blu. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Charming details at the 2013 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Bold orange florals at the 2013 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.
A custom stage and dramatic colors for the 2013 gala at Radisson Blu. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Photo by Fandl Photography.


So where does he begin? Initially, Rishi says to always let the space inspire you. “We also always look in an opposite direction of where the event has gone before,” he adds, “considering aesthetic elements that will help to sculpt the sentiment of this year.”

Various applications of clouds created a dreamlike atmosphere at the 2016 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Photo by Fandl Photography.
Cloud centerpieces draped in crystal for the 2016 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Custom chandeliers hang above the dancefloor at the 2016 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography
Photo by Fandl Photography.
Each year the Discovery Ball welcomes guests with a new theme. Cape Cod inspired the 2012 Gala.  Photo by Fandl Photography.
The 2012 Cape Cod theme featured blues, whites, and greenery galore. Photo by Fandl Photography.
The 2012 gala at the Radisson Blu. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Photo by Fandl Photography.
Details from the 2012 gala featured blue and white patterns. Photo by Fandl Photography.

So what makes the Discovery Ball such a wildly successful affair? For one, the ACS has an entire team dedicated to making the best possible big-picture decisions. “Their team directs every element of the event like a theatrical show,” notes Rishi. This focused decision making makes for an incredibly thoughtful process.

ACS Discvoery Ball 2014 KeithUrban Factio Magazine
The event board carefully and thoughtfully selects the entertainment. Keith Urban performed at the 2014 gala. Photo courtesy of Factio Magazine.
ACS Discovery Ball 2014 factio magazine
The 2014 gala treated guests to a summer dinner party. Image courtesy of Factio Magazine.
The 2014 ACS Discovery Ball.
The 2014 gala. Image courtesy of Biz Bash
Fresh floral carts enticed guests at the 2014 gala. Photo courtesy of Biz Bash.

In addition, hundreds of volunteers and high-level corporate sponsors such as Coca Cola, United Airlines and Advocate Health Care all play their role in the fundraising and logistics.

Another distinctive aspect is the fully collaborative nature of the event: as the creative backbone, Rishi and HMR are involved not just in the décor, but also in the flow, timing, and overall feel of the gala.

Guests enjoyed a stunning view from their seat at the 2011 gala at the Civic Opera House, themed “Under the Tuscan Sun.”


Details from the 2011 gala.
The 2011 gala.
The Civic Opera House treats attendees to fabulous views for cocktails and dinner in 2011.
Dream-like details at every corner for the 2016 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Photo by Fandl Photography.
Photo by Fandl Photography.

“Creativity is applied to the message, the structure, the timeline–not just the décor,” says Rishi. Important components or areas of the evening are emphasized to make sure the fundraising efforts are successful. And they always are: the 2016 gala raised $2.4 million towards the fight against cancer.

Auction booths and cocktails at the 2016 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.
Focal pieces ensure guests can easily navigate the night’s festivities at the 2016 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.

Ultimately, this annual event shines because both the ACS and HMR take a huge amount of pride in the cause. And with that cause always in mind, anything but great success doesn’t seem an option.

So then, does Rishi have a favorite from years past, you ask? He simply cannot choose. “They are all vastly different,” he says. “But equally special.”

The 2016 gala. Photo by Fandl Photography.

We’d like to extend a special thanks to the amazing Discovery Ball Team:

Brittany Johnson
Lee Kite
Karen Kliebhan
Amy Theesfeld

And also many thanks to the Hilton, the Radisson, and Civic Opera House, Frost Lighting, Fandl Photography, Kent Drake Photography, and of course, to the American Cancer Society.

Finally, thanks to Rishi for his significant contributions to this post.