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Designers Love Conferences

Designers are conference fanatics. TypeCon, AIGA, HOW, IDCA, ACD, Fuze, Envision, Design Camp, Icograda, Spur, Y, and a thousand others…

I’ve attended a significant number of them, and have also organized a few of them. In fact, I’m currently working with the local AIGA to organize one in 2004. So that, plus Armin’s TypeCon review, prompted the following questions.

What draws you to a design conference? Of course the speaker lineup is important, but tell me specifically what you’d want in an ideal conference. Do you want to see more international designers? More unknown designers? More women designers? Or more non-designers like architects, writers, cultural anthropologists, movie stars, etc.?

What kind of issue(s) peaks your interest? Typography? Technology? Environmental? Social-political? Or do you detest conferences with themes at all?

Is the venue and the city important? How much cost would you tolerate? (And let’s please not turn this into another AIGA rant) Are you bothered by vendor booths and vulturing at conferences? Or do you horde as many free vendor tshirts and samples that you can carry onto the plane?

What’s the best conference you’ve ever attended and why? What’s the worst and why?

And lastly, are design conferences really necessary anymore? Do they serve a purpose — are they worth all of the expense and trouble?

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.29.2003 BY Tan
Darrel’s comment is:

What draws you to a design conference?

- Is it somewhere sunny?

- Is it on the company's dime?

- Are there freebies involved?

And lastly, are design conferences really necessary anymore?

Industry conferences certainly have purposes. Namly it's a break for the attendee (paid vacation), a great way for vendors to find customers, and networking. Sometimes you learn something from a conference, but typically, in terms of one I've been to (both in graphic design and outside of graphic design) it's really just eye/ear candy and a vacation. Which is good.

On Jul.29.2003 at 11:16 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Graphic design is a lonely profession. Designers feel misunderstood and marginalized (see many other threads on this site). They care deeply about a lot of things that most people don't care about (see many other threads on this site). And many of them work in solitude.

For that reason, it's tremendously exciting for us designers to be surrounded with people who we can understand, and who understand us. There was an Oliver Sacks piece in the New Yorker several years ago about people with Tourette's Syndrome, and he went to a Tourette's conference. He was struck by the sense of joy and relief among the attendees who, having spent their whole lives surpressing their tics around "normal" people, suddently have permission to bark, flail, twitch and yell "Fuck!" as loud and often as they want.

A design conference is like that, except with kerning.

Of course this is only part of the reason for a design conference, but I've been to a lot of them, and this is the factor that always strikes me first.

On Jul.29.2003 at 11:35 AM
Tan’s comment is:

> A design conference is like that, except with kerning.

...and alcohol. don't forget the alcohol.

But you've touched on a great point there, Michael. Conferences can be cathardic and a good place to commisserate with others who share similar maladies, joys, and miseries.

In fact, seeing friends and familiar people is the best part of conferences for me. I have classmates all over the country, as well as an extended AIGA family that seems to never change as the years go by. Speakers become a blur, with the exception of a few really memorable words from Glaser, or infamous bad moments like David Byrne. Kinda like watching TV -- you tend to remember the beautiful and the bizarre. I tend to remember the parties and the cities more than the conference lineup.

Like the New Orleans AIGA conf a few years back. No recollection whatsoever who spoke. But God do I have vivid stories about the fun debauchery that went on throughout that weekend.

But I guess what I'm getting at is the usual suspects of speakers that always tend to headline conferences. I love Matthew Carter, but I've heard or seen him at least half a dozen times now. Same for Paula Sher, Sagmeister, Sean Adams, Hinrichs, you too Michael. Why don't design conferences expand its reach more? I'd love to see or hear from Tim Burton, or Ridley Scott, or McCartney, or Starck, or IM Pei (is he still alive?), or Maya Angelou, or Vonnegut....the million other choices of people who affect the culture that we feed and feed off.

And the question of value. Sure I get inspired personally. Recharged, Etc. But does the profession actually gain anything tangible from design conferences? It seem like everything is forgotten immediately by everyone at the airport. Of course, until the next conference, when the same issues get dusted off and thrown out on stage again.

On Jul.29.2003 at 12:03 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

It seem like everything is forgotten immediately by everyone at the airport.

Either these ideas are really not strong enough to be put into practice - merely good as intellectual exercise - or they are very difficult to implement. I've only been to one conference and a HOW one at that, so I can't really share from much experience. But I imagine that upon returning to the office, most designers are quickly overwhelmed with the work they ignored for 3-4 days and don't have the time, energy, will power, etc. to try to put into practice what they picked up at the conference.

My real guess is that these ideas percolate beneath the surface in many designers' minds and might show themselves slowly over time as subconcious shifts in their work. I doubt many of us come back to the office on Monday and set forth a new agenda for working or relating to clients.

As for my recollections of conference attendance, I recall reviewing portfolios by local students, as well as a few pretty bad speakers. The best session was on the 10-12 mistakes that small design businesses make. I still have the handouts from that session and hope to not put them into practice! I definitely appreciate the eye candy give-aways and exhibits, though. I'm not sure they've ever come in handy though, except as a shirt I'll sleep in at night.

On Jul.29.2003 at 12:17 PM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

And lastly, are design conferences really necessary anymore? Do they serve a purpose -- are they worth all of the expense and trouble?

Last year Adobe and Macromedia didn't attend MacWorld NY. Due to the interenet, they claimed, they didn't need to be there. I've been to a few trade shows, non-design ones, but I've never itched to go to an AIGA or other design conference. Sure it's great to see people and drink and chill out, but like Tan said, But does the profession actually gain anything tangible from design conferences?

Personally, Speak Up is a perpetual design conference to me. Sure it's a continuation of designers already solo existence like you pointed out Michael, but here it's immediate. It's small or large. It's free (to a certain extent). Interviews, show and tell, this and that. Who knows what the future holds for online and smaller offline collaborations. I don't need more t-shirts.

On Jul.29.2003 at 01:44 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

>But I guess what I'm getting at is the usual suspects of speakers that always tend to headline conferences.

Tan, believe me, getting David Byrne to speak at the AIGA Las Vegas conference was a real coup, and everyone involved in the planning of it were completely psyched. He was exactly that sort of fascinating person that you hope to land to take you away from the "usual suspects." Then, of course, he turned out to be absolutely terrible. (I was backstage and I felt like I was watching the Hindenburg blow up in slow motion.)

So naturally, the usual suspects -- people who take the time to prepare, and can reliably connect with and inspire the audience -- start to look pretty good.

Not to say that the quest shouldn't go on. The AIGA Vancouver conference has a lot of unknown names for me. It will be interesting to see how they play out.

On Jul.29.2003 at 02:00 PM
Tan’s comment is:

I don't mean to harp on Byrne, Michael. I know how hard it is to predict how a speaker will do -- it's a roll of the dice.

Saw the lineup for Vancouver. Very interesting mix of speakers -- I haven't heard of many of them either. Can't wait.

And welcome to SU. I guess I'm going to have to check my little AIGA factoids more before I spew them out.

> Personally, Speak Up is a perpetual design conference to me.

It is nice to have our little community, but it will never replace eye-to-eye interaction. To me, it's like we're a bunch of bricklayers who gather at the corner bar everyday after work.

But no matter how good the conversations get, there will always be a feeling of artificial-ness and distance about SU.

I dunno. I guess there seems to be too many conferences these days. AIGA has four or five national a year; there are a dozen or more local AIGA conferences; vendors, trade mags, and software trade conferences. It all eventually becomes white noise.

When I was in school, there seemed to be only a few large conferences every year or two. So they were really big deals that you saved up to go to. They were pivotal milestones like the Olympics or something.

not sure there's a point here....just lamenting I guess.

On Jul.29.2003 at 03:07 PM
armin’s comment is:

--I guess I'm going to have to check my little AIGA factoids more before I spew them out.

And watch your fucking language. They are unto us Tan, they are unto us.

Damn this plantains are good.

Back with some smarter and more fulfilling commentary when I�m back in my dear computer.

On Jul.29.2003 at 03:13 PM
Tan’s comment is:

No, the fucking language stays...the slander just has to be a little more accurate, that's all I'm sayin.

On Jul.29.2003 at 03:22 PM
Sam’s comment is:

I seem to be the only person who loved David Byrne's presentation at AIGA Las Vegas. Those pictures of South African contraband radios made from/hidden in other household objects? Amazing. And his superbland photos of things like chairs in hotel rooms has since become ubiquitous among photographers, but at the time it was new to me. I had a decent experience as a student at that conference and got a ton of free stuff, but it definitely seemed more social than anything else. But I wouldn't expect a large biennial (inter)national conference to be any else, really, which is fine.

Non-designers presenting caused a bit of a stir at the Looking Closer design history conference here in NY a coupe years ago. Elvis Mitchell gave the opening address and during the q&a, someone said flat-out something to the effect of "I have no idea why you were asked to speak. As a designer I got nothing out of your presentation and I hope this conference gets a lot better, fast." It wasn't really rude so much as blunt, and it was kind of exciting. I didn't find Mitchell's effort to connect movies and design all that compelling either, but my point is just that it's hard to make a bridge across professions and there's a lot of designers who won't see the connections.

Oh, great piece on conventions here at This American Life. The John Perry Barlow piece is one of the best things ever to be on that show.

On Jul.29.2003 at 06:07 PM
Tan’s comment is:

true Sam. There'd have to be some sort of relevance to design otherwise, why should anyone care.

I guess my question about non-designers was one of balance and perspective. Design is just a component of so many other facets of culture and business. A conference speaker that can expand on that model, as well as focus on the pivotal role that design plays, would be ideal. The core of any design conference should be an introspective discourse of design. But like SU's discussions, it doesn't exclude a bunch of things related.

I love This American Life. Great piece.

On Jul.29.2003 at 06:42 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

My personal favorites from the AIGA conferences I've gone to:

1985, Boston

Bob Gill introduces a panel discussion on education with a wild, over-the-top, hand-waving rant about the inadequacies of how graphic design is currently taught, screaming, "We should be turning out ANIMALS!" The panel that follows, all academics, ignores the challenge like a steaming turd, and plod through canned presentations that prove Gill's point.

1989, San Antonio

The site of Tibor's lengendary "we're here to be bad" speech in which he starts goading Joe Duffy as he would all weekend, culminating in the now-legendary Tibor/Duffy debate in a hastily-arranged room on the last day of the conference.

1991, Chicago

Everyone talks about Rick Valicenti breaking into tears during his presentation, but I also remember Chip Kidd doing 30 briliant minutes of standup worthy of Letterman, and Ralph Kaplan doing an improvised summary of the entire event that was just amazing.

1993, Miami

No memorable speeches, just lots of rain and a hotel with really bad feng shui.

1995, Seattle

Dana Arnett debuts Ben Day. Not an official presentation but he steals the conference anyway.

1997, New Orleans

Osbert Parker, of whom I had never heard, gives a presentation on his animation work that blew everyone away. Nothing beats the element of surprise.

1999, Las Vegas

I know firsthand that Paula Scher really worried about this very personal presentation for months. One graphic designer talking very honestly about her work was exactly what was needed in this big impersonal place.

2002, Washington

AIGA audiences are really stingy about standing ovations, unlike TED audiences, who are all so eager to reassure themselves that they've just witnessed something extraordinary that they jump up clapping the first chance they get. Milton Glaser gets the only SO in DC and he earns it three times over.

The only one I missed was 1987 in SF. Any other memorable presentations?

On Jul.30.2003 at 06:52 PM
Tan’s comment is:


My first national AIGA -- went as a student. I was shocked by Valicenti and immediately became a fan to this day. Loved Kaplan. Don't remember much other than the three full bags of crap I took back onto the plane.


Skipped. Heard it sucked.


Blown away by Ben Day. Closing party sucked. All else was a blur -- because I had just moved to Seattle four days before the conference.

New Orleans.

I remember the beautiful auditorium, and walking 5 blocks there and back to the hotel four times a day, past the pawn shops, the electronic wholesalers, the hookers. It was also the first time Hockenberry moderated -- he was an extremely impressive moderator. I partied so hard, I got a bad case of brochitis that almost became pneumonia. It was a blast.


I loved Penn and Teller, especially the bit w/ the blindfolded, knife-throwing girl from the audience. The presentation I enjoyed was the architect that explained about the design of casinos, and the tricks that they employ to mask the enormous size of the hotels. Since then, I've looked at large buildings with a completely different perspective.


Glaser. Joe Garden. Luba Lucova (she was absolutely charming and adorable). And the woman speaker who talked about the graphic slaughter of cattle for meat, right before we all broke for lunch. Sagmeister was unusually humble and somber. In my eyes, DC redeemed Vegas. I thought it was close to a perfect conference.

In between all of the national conferences, I attended design camp in MN where we saw the aurora borialis one night. At a 92 IDCA in Aspen, I met Saul Bass, got to know David Carson, was inspired by an art director from Benetton, was introduced to a legendary Japanese designer (whom I've since forgotten the name of). Don't remember anything from a couple of HOW conferences, and nothing truly memorable from a bunch of other local conferences I've been to. I'm sure there are more that I'm forgetting. Oh well....

On Aug.04.2003 at 06:13 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Speaking of conference -- a hotel tip for anyone going to the AIGA Vancouver Conference in October.

If the conference hotel is too expensive, a great alternative is the Granville Island Hotel.

Beautiful little 3-star hotel downtown on a little marina island. It's a short cab ride (or longish walk) away from the conference, but there are many designers staying there -- so chances are good for carpooling. Yours truly included.

And you can't beat the rate -- $78 USD a night ($110 CN).

Call soon -- it's booking fast w/ designers.

On Aug.08.2003 at 08:35 AM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

Just got the conference catalog. Nicely done. I wish I could attend, looks like it will be a blast. Enjoy.

On Sep.05.2003 at 01:39 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>Just got the conference catalog. Nicely done.

Yes, the catalog is very nicely designed. The paper cup idea is pretty cool.

Although — c'mon, you didn't think I would let the AIGA go that easy, did you? — the conference logo is amateurishly executed, I kind of "get it" but... eh. This is one of the few ocassions where one is "designing for designers" and execution goes a long way, so all you VH1 logo supporters need to come with some stronger shit this time around to make a strong case against my opinion.

And don't get me started on the conference web site.

On Sep.05.2003 at 02:46 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Yes, the web site....how did someone put it..."sucks big donkey gonads". It tries to be Fuse cool, but doesn't quite make it.

The logo is forgettable. I'm not going to wear the tshirt, that's for sure.

The funniest part of the brochure is the credits for the cups in the last page. Clive Piercy did the poster and catalog (and he's married to Ann Field, the illustrator) -- so he listed about a dozen versions of his name and Ann's mixed in with Seymour Chwast, Sher, Pirtle, etc. Clever w/ a capital K.

On Sep.05.2003 at 02:53 PM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

And don't get me started on the conference web site.

Agreed. I would have expected more from Flat. And the collages? The logo description is hilarious.

On Sep.05.2003 at 03:07 PM
surts’s comment is:

Why don't design conferences expand its reach more?

There's conferences like TED that are a little different

On Sep.05.2003 at 03:15 PM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

What's with the bad (subjective) conference sites? I liked the Voice site.

On Sep.05.2003 at 03:20 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>The logo description is hilarious.

"the logo for the conference with its idiosyncratic capitalization, reflects this transformation. The lowercase 'd,' which symbolizes the artifacts that result from the design process, is elevated and empowered by Design—the superscript, capital 'D'—as a process of creating value. This symbol acknowledges the fact that designers are expanding their craft."

I think I believe nancy's VH1 explanation more.

On Sep.05.2003 at 03:36 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:


On Sep.05.2003 at 05:01 PM