An array of top speakers, a great venue, cheap tickets and proceeds going to a good cause – the Cheltenham Design Festival is a very welcome addition to the design conference scene
Last weekend I helped out at a new event – the Cheltenham Design Festival. Staged at the town’s Parabola Arts Centre, the Festival ran over three days, with most sessions a sell-out. Stefan Sagmeister did two sessions – a Q&A with me and a talk about his upcoming film on happiness. There was Paul Priestman, Marina Willer, Adrian Shaughnessy, Kenneth Grange, Nick Bell, Lucy Holmes, Sir John Hegarty (the festival’s president) and Simon Waterfall.
CR’s Patrick Burgoyne, left, on stage at the CDF with Stefan Sagmeister
We’ve written before about design conferences and the difficulties in staging them, particularly in the UK. Here’s what I think Cheltenham got right:
Stage a conference in a big city, especially London, and your event is in danger of getting lost among all the other competing attractions. Plus, your attendees and speakers, if they work in that city, are constantly being pulled back to the office. Stage your event at a smaller location and not only can you make more of a ‘noise’ but you can also create a much more convivial atmosphere for everyone involved. Cape Town is not exactly small, but one of the great things about the Design Indaba is that all the speakers travelling to attend it from around the world tend to stay for the whole week, meaning that they get to spend time with one another and the attendees.
Most design conferences suffer from a lack of editorial control or input. There may be a theme but most speakers will ignore it in favour of the usual show and tell. Panels are hastily assembled with little thought given to who is on them and why. The CDF programme stood out for me because of the imagination in its content. Sure there were some straightforward show and tells but there were also sessions on sustainability, on using social media and a series of specific case studies. I was asked to chair a panel discussing the use of subliminal cues in design which, although we were frustratingly short of discussion time, produced some really insightful presentations by panel members Nick Bell, Ptolemy Mann, Jenny Coe and Lucy Holmes. It all just felt a bit more ambitious than most conferences.
One of the teenagers from the Cheltenham Design Avademy, who also helped out at the Festival
The CDF was organised by local volunteers, all of them involved in the design industry in some way or another. Marksteen Adamson of ASHA is a former Interbrand creative director, Michele Beint is a landscape designer, John Brewer once ran a London design consultancy with Bartle Bogle Hegarty and now leads the graphic design course at the University of Gloucestershire and so on. As well as the festival, the group also run The Cheltenham Design Academy – free Saturday morning workshops for 14-16 year-olds in the local area, many of them from deprived backgrounds, aimed at introducing young people to art and design and hopefully inspiring them to study the subject further. Any money raised by the Festival will help run this activity in the future.
Being a volunteer-run organisation makes it, relatively, easier to attract sponsorship from local businesses (the founder of Super Dry, Julian Dunkerton personally contributed substantially to the CDF) and funding from the likes of the borough council. Which leads to the final point…
Most professional conferences, in any industry, cost between £500 and £1000 a day. Sessions at the CDF cost between £5 and £20. A day ticket cost £30 and just £10 for students (although, apparently, some people still moaned that this was too much). People travelled to the event from London, Birmingham and Wales because, at those prices, even with an overnight stay, it was still a bargain. But those prices are only possible because of the factors listed above – the location, model and sponsorship.
For all these reasons, the CDF is a very welcome addition to the design conference scene. Let’s hope it returns next year.
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