What do we want from design conferences?

Star speakers, networking and bad coffee – is this all we want from a design conference? Or, asks Hannah Ellis, could smaller events such as Copenhagen’s POST point the way toward a more enriching, two-way model?

Kødbyen, Copenhagen’s former meatpacking district, has exactly the kind of utilitarian austerity that you would expect from an area with such a brutal, semi-‘wet’-industry past and, since the industry became more compact or moved out of the centre, the area has undergone the same kind of gentrification as, say, Hackney Wick. Former slaughterhouses have become art studios, cattle market halls have become event spaces and various butchery units, with their floor-to-ceiling windows and wipeable tiled walls have become bars and restaurants. It’s cool – effortlessly so in the kind of way that comes so naturally to Scandinavians – and is exactly the sort of place you would expect to find a design conference, particularly if that conference were to focus on effortlessly cool, if hard to pin down, Scandinavian graphic design.

Photo: Philip Kennedy

POST Festival ran from the 17th–20th of August and, billed as ‘one of Denmark and the Nordic region’s only festivals focussed on graphic design, digital design and illustration’, offered workshops and talks at SPACE10, an IKEA-funded design-lab and co-working space right in the heart of Kødbyen’s more modern ‘white area’. Now in its second year, the festival was deliberately kept small, with about 100 practitioners, students and recent graduates from around the region (plus a couple of interlopers like myself) coming together to discuss the region’s present, yet often overlooked, visual communication industry. The first two days, dominated by workshops, were ticketed separately for those who could attend weekday events, and the Saturday and Sunday had one stage, fourteen speakers of various levels of international fame from Scandinavia and beyond, as well as one panel discussion and two separate parties.

Exploring ‘the working life of the visual communicator, the politics of image making and the ethics of design’, many of the speakers started to broach some really interesting topics which could have spawned conferences in their own right. For example: the general public’s level of metaphysical understanding and inability to distinguish real-life objects from increasingly sophisticated 3D renderings; technology’s impact on studio culture and the potential to authentically be both multi-locational and multi-cultural; the ethical considerations that come with publicly funded work and how bureaucracy shapes aesthetics; distribution channels, their stranglehold on publishing, and how that shapes aesthetics… In an off-hand comment, Wrong Studio’s Andreas Peitersen even casually remarked that ‘form follows the economy’, four words that could have opened up hours of debate in their own right.

Wrong Studio speaking at POST. Philip Kennedy

Even with just 14 speakers, though, the breadth of different topics and usual time constraints made it difficult to drill down into each idea which seemed like a shame but, since POST is one of the first platforms for design-based discussion in the region, the very fact that such concepts came up in the first place shows real promise as it continues.

Previously called the ‘the conscious antidote to commercial design events’, a ticket for the weekend talks cost only 500DKK, which is about £62. The ticket prices have been kept low on purpose to avoid anyone being excluded financially and is something made possible with funding from the Danish Arts Foundation. To put that into context with other conferences this year, a ticket to D&AD’s three-day festival cost £222; Offset Dublin, also three days, was €250 (£227); South Africa’s Design Indaba came in at R7,900 (£450); four-day entry to ATypI, Montreal, cost $610 (£470); ABZ, Toronto – again, four days – was $675 (£581); and, finally, TYPO Berlin’s three-day event was €649 (approx. £590). AIGA’s Eye on Design exists in a league entirely of its own at $1,450 (£1,120) for four days of talks.

All this is to say that, in POST, a long weekend away plus tickets to a design conference is perfectly possible for less than the entry price to some of the bigger festivals. As more than one attendee said ‘for that price, you might as well’, a shrug of a phrase that says so much about the tendency for conferences to come with a risk/cost trade off.

Portfolio clickthroughs become inevitable, pockets of focussed discussion become notable by their rarity.

For the most part, it seems that conferences have been victims of their own success. ‘Sharing ideas’ and ‘inspiring’ have become big business activities. The largest ones hit visitor numbers in the thousands (both Offset and D&AD top out at 2,500 and each year promise to be ‘bigger and better’ than the last) and cram in hundreds of speakers on main and adjacent stages so that it’s physically impossible to see everything and the audience has to plan out a military-precision schedule for dashing between rooms. Any attempt to tie the event together under a theme, then, has to be vague and broadly appeal to 2,500 individual interests. AIGA this year is going with ‘connect’ whilst TYPO Berlin went for ‘wanderlust’. Both ideas are so intangible that, although they accommodate practices across the entire breadth of the industry, speakers can often get away with only the very loosest of connections to the theme. Portfolio clickthroughs become inevitable, pockets of focussed discussion become notable by their rarity. Attached to the universal appeal that such a vague thread offers is the difficulty of doing anything more ‘inspirational’ than lightly prodding the edges of the industry and surface-level conversations that struggle to gain any real weight.

A theme, of course, is only a theme as long as everyone sticks to it and there are usually designers (invariably the ‘superstar’ names that pull in visitors in the first place) that ignore any kind of curatorial intention altogether. As Rick Poynor, who has discussed this topic at length, says: “too many ‘major’ conferences do nothing more ambitious than offer a line-up of star speakers who are simply expected to say whatever they like about their own work.” That includes parroting. I’ve accidentally seen Erik Kessels do essentially the same talk three times, twice at ‘themed’ conferences and once at a university, which felt especially problematic. He isn’t alone and there are others who recite the same speech, tell the same jokes like a comedian on their DVD tour, or who crack out the on-stage beer at exactly the same moment.

I’ve accidentally seen Erik Kessels do essentially the same talk three times

Regardless, these big name wages have to be paid for somehow, and the venue hire and pre-event advertising wont pay for itself, nor will the universally bad coffee. Most conferences don’t benefit from the luxury of arts funding as POST does and so a combination of sponsorship (the omnipresent Adobe for one) and ticket sales bring in the revenue that allows everything to happen. A question frequently put to AIGA concerns ticket prices, to which they say that “typically the per person cost of putting on the conference is about three times the registration fee” and that prices “are set to make the experience both memorable and affordable”.

Let’s pause here to consider some statistics. Offset recently published on their website that 45% of their attendees are between 25 and 35 which, on appearances at least, seems relatively consistent across the board. It can probably be assumed, too, that most of these conferees are edging their way into mid-level or senior roles, not quite at the lowest end of the salary scale but not yet reaching Creative Director territory either. By GraphicDesign&’s reckoning, in Britain, 54% of designers earn £30,000 or less. The number of freelancers, the most precarious members of our industry, is growing within this bracket, too.

Also worth considering is that, across the globe, this very age group is also the bracket hit hardest by things like stagnating wages and unregulated rental markets, and whose financial stability is almost entirely dependant on the earnings, savings and generosity of their parents. What ‘affordable’ is in the wider sense is a very different question to what ‘affordable’ is to your core audience. It’s not that I think anyone makes significant profits from ticket prices, it’s just that demographic shifts in the industry combined with the wider economy mean that almost half of attendees are subject to other financial pressures that make even tickets around the £250 mark difficult to justify as an expense. It takes quite a lot of mental gymnastics to frame it as an ‘investment’ especially when, as mentioned earlier, massive audiences usually encourage lowest common denominator content. Even when talks are recorded and eventually published online, they’re often only accessible to fee-paying members. If, as so many conferences claim, the whole point lies in sharing ideas, siloing content away behind a paywall seems exclusive and antithetical.

To go back to AIGA’s point though, what a ‘memorable experience’ exactly is undoubtedly varies from one person to another but, from the six or seven multi-day conferences I’ve cadged my way into, I would genuinely struggle to name more than a handful of the speakers. I could probably tell you more about the branding or how the lights on the second stage dipped and changed colour from a tangerine to sort of a cobalt-y blue when each presentation started. Or how I once watched a room swarm with designers who, sort of ironically since the day was about activism and empathy, elbowed their way around and blocked the view of those behind them in their desperation to hear the gospel according to Google’s Patrick Collister.

Corinne Gisel speaking at POST. Philip Kennedy

Spending half a week listening to designers talk about design to other designers might be enough to convince you that an already inward-facing industry is gazing deeper and deeper into its own navel. It depends, I suppose, on where your interests lie but the most notable speakers, in my opinion, have been the ones who use the platform not to discuss their own work in isolation, but to critically reflect on their practice in relation to the wider world. As we all know, design doesn’t exist within a vacuum. Swiss designer, writer and researcher Corinne Gisel was excellent at POST discussing this exact point as well as how elitism in design means that the industry runs the risk of isolating itself completely. It’s a level of reflection more generally associated with academia and more common in niche one-off lectures or panel discussions that feature designers alongside other professionals. The best I think I’ve seen was held a couple of years ago at the RCA, where architect Godofredo Pereira, designer Tobias Revell, curator Michaela Crimmin and writer Anna Minton discussed geopolitics and the violence of urbanisation.

The gulf between ivory tower intellectualism and criticality free ‘festivals’ is reflective of a greater divide in the industry as a whole

It isn’t for everyone. I’m not trying to suggest that deeply academic lectures, focussed into a lance-like point and often totally inaccessible to the majority, are in some way ‘better’ than commercially-driven conferences. What I’m trying to get at is that the gulf between these events, between ivory tower intellectualism and criticality free ‘festivals’ is reflective of a greater divide in the industry as a whole. It’s becoming increasingly insufficient to use the same term – conference – to describe both. And, likewise, if you compare the critically reflective, academic practice of a studio like Experimental Jetset or Metahaven to someone much more commercial like Pearlfisher (an arbitrary comparison), both use the mechanics of graphic design but their practices are so radically far apart that it’s difficult to label both under the same name.

It comes down, I think, to philosophy, the intentions that underpin why the conference exists in the first place. Networking, socialising, and even just a round up of new work aren’t inherently bad ideas. But the internet makes everyone’s online portfolio accessible almost instantly. Blogs do a great job of reviewing projects and interviewing the designers involved. Creative Mornings, if you’re lucky enough to have one in your city and can get up that early, make networking events free. Glug – for a small price – does a similar thing around beer. There are so many alternatives out there. What ‘conferences’ currently offer in exchange for hundreds of pounds no longer seems enough.

Edging further into this middle-ground, the space in between commercial and academic, feels like a good place to start. At a very base level there seems to be some general intent to educate and to share ideas, even in the most informal sense. Maybe speakers need a tighter brief, reined in to a more precise topic and their presentations approved beforehand, just like they would be at an academic conference. Maybe a stripping back of the padding is needed: fewer speakers, less extravagant venues and ephemera, lose the smoke and mirrors set-design… The focus put on the quality of the content instead of the fullness of the schedule or the slickness of the appearance. Maybe the best way to think about conferences isn’t even as conferences at all, but as an ongoing conversation-based workshop where speakers are invited to initiate discussion, supplying provocations for an audience who are equally involved in generating new thinking on a topic, instead of ‘empty vessels’ sat waiting to have their heads filled.

But that is, of course, something of a utopian vision. If the only ambition for mainstream conferences lies in festivities, networking and – really, if we’re honest – entertainment, then what we have does a pretty good job and the fact that each year tickets sell out is enough evidence to show that it’s self-sustaining enough for now.

Hannah Ellis is a designer and lecturer. She Tweets @hnnhlls

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