Like most gatherings over the past year-and-a-half, design conferences have been relegated to virtual space. But now that social circles can extend beyond our immediate bubbles, new questions are emerging, like: What will the design conference look like moving forward? Will organizations continue to go digital now that they have an online playbook? Or is the value of a conference defined by its in-person nuances?
Design conferences have always touted their ability to bring brilliant minds together. Wearing rose colored glasses, you could say that conferences exist for two primary reasons: to connect like-minded individuals and to bring communities together to question where the industry could do better and how it can move forward. Realistically, though, we know that design conferences, like so much else packaged for the conscious, knowledge-hungry consumer, are a revenue generating endeavor. Many conferences charge upwards of $2,000 per ticket, and, if successful, can be a huge money maker for their affiliated design organizations. That’s why we see events that range from TED’s endless list of conferences and Adobe’s 99U conference to Dezeen’s more niche, architecturally focused Dezeen Day.
In 2020, as traditional in-person events moved online, the strategies of what once worked no longer held true. Adobe Max, for example, explored an all-digital format for the first time ever, and made its event free. According to Adobe, the free event increased participation and expanded the reach to more than 200 countries and territories. The general consensus among conference planners is that an online-first event lowers the barrier to entry for designers who have been historically excluded from participation — be it because of physical location, price point. According to Eye on Design’s parent organization AIGA, online conferences often slash their fees by 50 or 60 percent of the in-person conference price, if they charge anything at all.
“We should focus on a future where anyone can come in, and where all are welcome.”
For Where Are the Black Designers (WATBD), the conference-meets-community that launched following the murder of George Floyd, these considerations were top of mind when moving into their second virtual conference this past June (its first conference in 2020 hosted 10,000 Zoom attendees). At the moment, WATBD’s blueprint for success exclusively exists in the virtual world, and they attribute a growing Slack community of 10,000 — 3,000 of whom they say are “active” participants — to a space defined by digital accountability. “We’re able to keep a pulse on the health of our community as it stays digital,” says co-founder Garrett Albury.
Whether it’s creating a job board in real time dedicated to Black designers, or forwarding messages to their greater team asking for help on a certain project, WATBD has flourished by remaining online. And while the conference did see attendance drop between 2020 and 2021 — the last conference had 3,700 attendees on day one compared to their original audience of 10,000— Albury attributes the slump to timing and Zoom fatigue.
For the events team behind AIGA’s conference (Eye on Design‘s publisher), starting today, going virtual both last year and this year was a big adjustment; particularly when compared to its in-person streak that dates back to 1985. “There’s a fear that with virtual conferences you’ll cannibalize your own audience,” says Kathleen Bundy, AIGA’s senior director of programs and events. “But the truth is, we really expanded, and were able to do things we had never done before.” For the first time, the team has ASL interpreters and captions for every session, and they can spread their content out over the course of more hours instead of having so many concurrent sessions. In this way, the team parallels the virtual conference to “a TV station you can turn on at any time.”
That always-on structure has its downsides. “Our best case scenario is we’re someone’s second screen,” says AIGIA’s events manager, Susan Augenbraun. Nearing the end of pandemic year two, people are feeling exhausted by their screen time — an issue many conference organizers are contending with. Adobe MAX’s director of event marketing, Brittany Mosquera, shares that “the two greatest challenges with virtual events is the limited time an attendee can dedicate to the content, and engaging attendees in networking and community building.” As a virtual conference, you’re fitting around the lives and commitments of your attendees, competing with whatever background noise arises.
“I think it’s difficult to really ‘hangout’ online.”
For these reasons and others, a virtual conference wasn’t in the cards for creative-camp-design conference Likeminds. The team didn’t want to add to the stacked Zoom schedules that were overwhelming many people in the design community thanks to more meetings and new online events. But more importantly, the core of their conference is giving people a break from their always-on digital lives. For cofounder Rachael Yaeger, the intrinsic benefit of the conference lies in its IRL charms: “It’s the haphazard unpredictable by osmosis energy exchanges where two or more people in the same proximity interact; it’s noticing something funny and sharing a laugh,” she says. “It’s one brave individual introducing themselves to another or a simple I see you standing there hello smile— these human gestures are going to happen in person, not necessarily on Zoom. TL;DR, I think it’s difficult to really ‘hangout’ online.”
So what exactly is in store for the future of the design conference? In an industry that has just started to examine itself when it comes to accessibility and inclusivity, establishing online events as a main form of networking and exchanging ideas is not only important, but necessary. And the environmental cost savings gained by forgoing travel can’t be ignored, either. The setbacks outlined by so many juxtaposed with a more accessible design world are the reason Adobe has always had a hybrid model— one that allows for in-person interaction and also offers livestreamed keynotes and breakout content for free to interested parties. “Pursuing the hybrid approach provides the best of both worlds” Mosquera shares, and AIGA’s team tends to agree. Augenbraun states that as the parameters that dictate our ability to gather change, so too will our models. Just like offices are determining their in-person-to-remote ratio, so too is the design industry. The real question that remains is, what sort of hybrid design conference are you?
The virtual space has long been a home for creatives in the field to showcase their portfolios and celebrate their wins. As Augenbraun points out, “designers are early adopters with more digital savvy than many other sectors.” The virtual direction both fits in appropriately with the nature of the industry and creates a new accessible avenue to diversify an industry. “The in-person business model is based around large design firms with huge budgets, and it only furthers this echo chamber of privileged designers,” WATBD’s Albury states. “We should focus on a future where anyone can come in, and where all are welcome.”