I’ve organised design events. You’ve organised design events. We’ve all made mistakes. Here’s some thoughts on how to make them better.
I have organised some design events, spoken at a handful, and attended many around the world. Over the years, these events have seen me professionally challenged, creatively uplifted, exquisitely bored, and inappropriately groped. These days, I consider spending big bucks on a conference ticket a gamble.
Design conferences can excel or suck for a bunch of reasons, and its cultural success isn’t necessarily reflected in how much money it can make or whether it can sustain itself. But there are always things that can be done better — especially when there is the opportunity to better represent, respect and support the design community, and contribute something meaningful to the design industry.
This year, I’ve seen all-male panels. There have been conference themes like Design for the Future that will cost the elite few a couple of thousand dollars to attend, or conferences promoting Design for Change that give you plastic tote bags and pull out the same names that have already done the circuit scores of times. A designer’s exposure to the professional greatness of our industry is being filtered and diluted by the shortcomings of those who organise these events.
Here are some ways I have seen or learned about avoiding going super-boring-or-unsafe-wrong.
1. Don’t recruit in a bubble.
Who do I know? Who have I heard of before? Who do other designers like? What did that person I admire say about that person they admire? If you are asking yourself this question when pulling together speakers for your event, you’ve already recruited inside your own shortsightedness. Everyone lives in a bubble and shares it with those who align on values—it’s comfortable and it’s pretty natural. You might throw great parties with these people but using it to recruit for a public event is not a wise idea — that’s how nepotism and cronyism work. Aubrey Blanche (Atlassian) describes such recruiting as an “intractable morass of unconscious bias”. Look beyond your immediate surroundings and allow your potential speakers to challenge you.
2. Pay everyone before you pay yourself.
If you are not a not-for-profit, pay your speakers. Pay them well. Writing and presenting a good talk takes a shit-load of time, and paid speakers will work harder and appreciate the experience.
Yes, you will still find speakers who will do it for free. This may be because they have talks they have delivered before (see above: boring), have a book or similar coming out (self-advertorial talks are also boring), or are genuinely excited for the opportunity to be asked and to talk in front of their peers. This appears to be common (and hey, I’ve done it) and it is exploitation. Not paying your speakers means you are not supporting designers and their work. And eventually it gets out and everyone agrees that it’s douchey.
3. When you set your ticket price, you choose your audience.
Don’t limit your audience because you splurged to get the flashiest venue in the city. You exclude engaged audience members when you set the price so high that only those who have corporate jobs can attend.
If the high costs are just too real, consider the model of charging different ticket levels. Lower prices for students and grads is great, of course, but doesn’t fully address the issue of designers stuck in low-or-zero-paying jobs, have stingy bosses who won’t pay, or for those who have to pay more to travel to be there. Some conferences offer the option for ticket holders or sponsors to pay extra $ that is put towards sponsored tickets, that might go towards getting a group of people to the event (for example XOXO or Pycon). Others have awesome volunteering opportunities that allow their volunteers to benefit (more exposure, less grunt work).
Be honest — it is going to look much better that your event has every seat full. So have the options to access available to people who might really want to come.
4. Think about attendee needs (and I don’t mean beer and afterparties)
Yay for conferences with child care. Yay for conferences who broadcast talks into seperate rooms, so these attendees don’t wither with shame when their baby screeches. Yay for conferences who ensure women have emergency sanitary supplies, because sometimes those large venues are a mile or two away from a pharmacy. Yay for conferences who think about public transport and bike parking and dietary restrictions and that have a team that realise that people are so different, someone will ultimately need something you don’t have, so a bit of imagination and a lot of good humour will go a long way.
It can make an incredible difference to someone to actually think about the physical accessibility and human traffic around the event — can a wheelchair move around? How many miles are you expecting your attendees to walk around the venue? Can you make it easier?
And then there’s afterparties. These can become the things of conference legend. For others, its just another place to bat away unwanted advances or unwelcome comments from inebriated peers while trying to network or make friends. These people are not as excited about your event’s afterparty as you are. As a professional event, we can do better or offer alternatives. Think about offering other places to have meaningful conversations — some conferences host breakfasts, some offer small masterclasses, some have inventive ways bring attendees together.
And a note on beer
There are other alternatives to beer than water.
5. Exciting pegs don’t want traditional round holes.
Over the past couple of years, there has been more pressure on event organisers to give a damn about swapping out the usual men for a woman or two (or 50%), to look beyond binary gender balance entirely, to look beyond age, to think about POCs and under represented groups, or those living with disabilities or disorders. Considering people like this means exposing yourself to the confronting, exciting, challenging, future-changing work they are doing.
You see the same people doing the same talks at the same events because they are supported by wealth, education, confidence and exposure, feeding a cycle of more wealth, education, confidence and exposure. You don’t have to continue this cycle. Offering different perspectives is a normal way to curate offering content and opinion.
But this doesn’t just mean throwing them an invitation. This may mean reconsidering the entire structure of your event. Because typically, the structure of the status quo is exclusionary to underrepresented groups, hence their underrepresentation in the first place. Statistically, they are less likely to be VCs and CEOs tooting their own horns — so you might have to go looking for them. They might be going incredible work with teams in a completely unglamorous job, so you might have to challenge notions of “the lone design genius” or recruiting those who have sexy portfolios and seductive client lists to flash around. It might mean that some speakers don’t do talks at all — perhaps they will use performance or installation or collaborative activity to pass on their thoughts and knowledge (Úll did this particularly well, but I can’t find any info about it currently online). If you empower them and work with them, pulling apart the traditional structure of the conference could have beautiful results.
A note on being knocked back by diverse speakers
“But we contacted a bunch of women/POCs/LGBTQIA+/minority representatives, and they said no” is so eye-roll inducing it hurts. The assumption that it is their loss is arrogant — the problem might actually be you. Is it because the speaker support you offer is lacking? A lack of childcare facilities, or because you have no defined purpose or conduct within which someone might feel safe? Does your conference collateral look like a frat party? And more seriously: do you perhaps have a reputation to contend with?
P.S. If they knock you back, don’t ask them to articulate or fix the problem, that’s not their job. Ada Rose Cannon wrote a great article going into far more detail.
6. Enabling diversity and inclusion also means promising (and enforcing) a safe environment.
A code of conduct enables you to reasonably expel wayward speakers or attendees, and states your purposeful promise of a safe environment for everyone (Úll’s code, with the authoritative “We prioritize marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort” is awesome).This is incredibly important to understand— many people who may be unlike you are vulnerable to public retaliation or humiliation and it can prevent them from doing the things you regard as normal. For example, a bad joke to one person can completely marginalise another. Just look at Stefan Sagmeister’s performance at WebStock last year (and WebStock’s thoughtful response). WebStock made the design community better through this experience.
DjangoCon, for example, don’t just have a great code of conduct, they also publish a Code of Conduct Transparency Report after their events, detailing any violations and steps that were taken to rectify them. It is comforting reading for future attendees who may feel vulnerable, and it contributes to the event’s reputation. What better way to say to your attendees that you are serious about their safety than actually taking it seriously?
Your event might already be good. Your profits might even be healthy! But do you have an opportunity here to make something great? Organising an event for industry professionals is a privilege that very few have access to. Want to make something meaningful, that people remember? Want to promote that Design of the Future? You are in the position to directly shape the industry, culture and future in a way that other designers might want to be part of too.
P.S. Don’t serve food and drink in single-use plastic at your event, especially if it has a theme regarding sustainability. Simple!