How NOT to attend a design conference

Wall Paint

In the first week of May, I traveled to Barcelona with a mission, to try and steal some great ideas from the brightest minds in the business. What I got instead was 3 days of self-aggrandizing promotion. This artist’s weekend was clearly about ego and salesmanship, not about learning.

OFFF 2022 in Barcelona was a festival with all the trappings you’d expect from a three thousand plus attendee event. They had great DJs playing outside in the glittering Spanish sun. Interesting popup stalls for all your bites and liquid courage (mostly promoted by Mortiz the local Catalan Pils beer). Both on the inside and outside were live art exhibits unfolding before your eyes. Very cool artists indeed, there’s no denying that. My personal favorite was an entire food truck graffitied by the artist Timothy Goodman, he’s a pro.

Lots of pretty things to look at…

I made my way inside the big conference hall and found an array of swag booths and merch stalls; all offering some sort of unique and stylish poster, sweater, or (custom-made rug to show off your company logo). The massive stage inside sat an uncountable audience. A draw dropper for any speaker over that weekend. As some presenters even noted it was the first time they had seen so many people in one room since the pandemic. That was true for me also. It’s good to be back for these face-2-face events. It’s the people, the attendees that make these festivals what they are. Let us never forget.

Custom rugs? … ok, some of the vendors were pretty rad.

Unfortunately, this is where the positive vibes wear OFF. At OFFF festival weekend, the hype was real and the people taking the stage were soaking that up one big bite at a time. Up to this moment in my career, I had never seen so much ego thrown around a room. The majority of the talks given over the 3 days were either horrendous self-proclaiming showcases of agencies reels and portfolios or the latter — “Industry leaders” who talked about their journey to success. One speaker associated to IDEO could’ve had a good run but he overshadowed the whole talk with a story about his struggles, how much he traveled, and the cool people he worked with. Nothing about how his projects were crafted or the unique approach he took to ensure their success! That’s what we came here for dude… not to hear your uninteresting story about what it takes to not suck as a designer these days. There are plenty of Medium posts on that.

What I witnessed over the weekend in Barcelona was good humor and nice vibes, but nothing of substance from people taking the stage. Maybe my expectations were too high. As a product designer focused on UX, UI, and interaction design I thought the events would be filled with useful tips on how to better myself and my craft in design. These talks were not. OFFF apparently chose to give the direction to speakers that they should share more about why their team loves working in hip Amsterdam offices rather than secrets of the design industry which could only be heard at this here festival. Where were the tangible take-aways? We wanted something we could apply to our daily work. Those gold nuggets were unfortunately scattered and scarce throughout the 3 days at OFFF 2022. The ticket price was not justified for hearing people boast about themselves for 1-hour intervals. No if, ands, or buts.

Conference Hall — Main Stage

Downstairs on the lower level were separate conference rooms hosting in-person workshops. Led by different artists and design thinkers attendees could swing by these specialty sessions, but at a price. I’ve paid $300+ for my workshop ticket and that didn’t even include the price to the main event stages. On Saturday I dove into a 4-hour specialty workshop with David Carson, graphic design pioneer. We created, collages, that’s it… but at least this exercise was fun and engaging, unlike most of the bullsh*t thrown around on the bigger stages.

I call my masterpiece, “High-Wire-Work”. (Can you guess which one it is?)

To be clear, my whole business trip to Spain, flying from Berlin Germany, hotel accommodations and all, was paid for by my company (hopefully soon🤞). For this reason I wouldn’t necessarily tag myself as a soured attendee just because of the high prices.

My tip for anyone looking for a design conference to attend in the coming year, look elsewhere if you actually want to learn something that takes your work to the next level. OFFF is definitely not ON the point in 2022.

As artists and designers, we’re not that special, or unique. We have jobs to do, and sometimes we make something slightly interesting. Please don’t get on stage and brag about that, or write about it in the free “diary of random designers” booklet you handed out to attendees. I know I have a huge ego and I’m dealing with it the best I can, but I’m not so sure about the rest of the speakers and contributors to this event.

Page from a book
A page out of the gifted book to conference attendees… Who is this aimed at?

Why do we travel for work? When should you travel for work? These more fundamental questions I debated during my weekend in Barcelona. There are many reasons why a designer might want to attend a conference and being clear about your intentions and expectations can lead to getting more out of any experience. To be fair it can also lead to blandness and a boring uneventful time (over-preparedness leads to less excitement, two sides of the same coin). With these remarks clearly stated we can begin to answer some of our queries.

For Attendees:

  • Know what you want and how you want to ingest it. ( this is regarding to the material presented at the conference, and how it is surfaced to you: reading material, videos, talks, workshops, … take your pick)
  • Try to meet as many people as you can after arriving. The connections you make here are sometimes more important than the talks given or the workshops attended.

For Organizers:

  • Make example decks and share Quality Rubrics that the presenters can reference when building their decks or crafting their performances.
  • Be cut-throat about who you let present and represent your conference or festival. Weed out those who are only there to promote and “sell” themselves or their brand.

For Performers & Contributors:

  • If you have options and aren’t cornered, be careful about which conferences you choose to represent. Whether it’s for a company or your personal brand, attendees will make judgments on you and your content based on the type of conference that’s held. The quality of the conference will embellish or stain anything you carry into it. Be aware.

We need to protect the design community and the festivals surrounding it. These places need to retain and attract people who want to share knowledge and LEARN from others. Let us not be witness to a world where design conferences become a place to display one’s wealth (where only the biggest can present), or a stage to project irrelevant topics points with no weight or intellect supporting.

Together we can propel the next generation of Thinkers and Doers!

Categorized as UX

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