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Page1of 1 Not Another Design Conference!
by Alissa Walker

By the time you read this, I’ll already be gone. Look for me in Minneapolis, in New York City, in San Francisco. In Austin, Boston, London, Portland—whatever city has the most acronyms attached to it that weekend: AIGA/TED/SXSW/HOW/XOXO. I’ll be the one with the heavy canvas tote bag on my shoulders and a plastic name badge around my neck, sentenced to spend a weekend trudging the beige halls and questionable carpets of a convention center. I’ll be at a design conference, and I’ll probably be wondering why I came.

We know meeting our professional heroes and collaborators in real life is important. Yet for the most part, the conference offerings out there have become expensive, inaccessible and repetitive—they’ve become work. The typical format hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years: a blend of “keynote speakers” and “panel discussions,” sometimes with “breakout sessions” sprinkled in for variety. But the real problem is that the same speakers appear at every conference, often giving the exact same talks from city to city, even though these talks have already been uploaded to the Internet and viewed tens of thousands of times. You could sit at home and curate your own personal conference on YouTube, saving thousands on registration fees, which have entered the realm of the ridiculous: TED 2014 will set you back $7,500 (don’t worry, it’s already sold out).

That’s just one way that today’s technology accomplishes what a conference originally set out to do. Social media allows us to connect with other designers in ways that weren’t possible a decade ago, having conversations via comments on blogs or Facebook pages. If we can have a lively exchange with our heroes over Twitter, how can we justify flying 1,000 miles and shelling out $1,000 for a hotel room to meet them in person? Fortunately, a growing number of upstarts are rescuing what we love about design conferences and ditching what we don’t.

CreativeMornings, a breakfast lecture series that began in 2008 in New York, was born from designer and entrepreneur Tina Roth Eisenberg’s own conference fatigue: the flights, the hotels, the time away from work and family. “I was dreaming of an event that was more lightweight and accessible,” she says. “Something that was more open and didn’t involve giving up your entire day and, most of all, that wouldn’t cost a lot of money.”

She created a micro-conference—a single speaker, one Friday a month—and franchised the idea. Over 50 cities now host their own CreativeMornings events, allowing designers to gather for one talk, mingle over coffee and still head off to work by 10:00 a.m.

When designers are asked to travel, they’ll be more likely to do so if the content is hyper-relevant to them. In 2010 Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio launched the Brand New conference, themed around their blog’s particular focus on brand identities. “Because our conference is so specific—logos, identity and branding—our speakers have to craft original presentations that would be too nerdy or specific for other conferences,” says Vit.

This year’s Brand New conference attracted 450 designers, a number Vit and Gomez-Palacio hope to double next year. “I think conferences create magical moments of people with very similar interests coming together to celebrate what we do,” says Vit, “and be pushed to do things better.”

Building a conference around those magical moments is the idea behind the annual DesignInquiry gathering. Founders Melle Hammer, Margo Halverson and Peter Hall noticed that the most inspiring conversations and interactions at creative gatherings happened during the moments that weren’t formally planned—especially during meal preparation and eating—so they began hosting an intensive multidisciplinary retreat for designers and educators to develop experimental work.

This summer, the program’s tenth year, brought two dozen designers to a farmhouse on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine. “I’ve found that relocating a group of smart people to an island without Internet or cell service is a great way to develop ideas, collaborations, fantastic meals and friendships, which in turn stimulates great discourse,” says Hall. The communal living also creates a more productive experience. “The work doesn’t stop when the cooking begins,” says Halverson.

Design Family Reunion, organized by Matthew Porter, Terry Marks and Cathy Pavi, takes the same intimate, speaker-free approach, and invites partners, spouses and family members to come along to make it more like a vacation. “The event is geared toward reconnecting with old friends and generating professional opportunities and new ideas through long conversations over dinners, outings and workshops,” says Porter. He hopes the focus on socializing can replace an element he’s seen lost at larger conferences. “I would see people and wave and say ‘Hello, let’s grab a coffee or lunch,’ yet there was never time to do so,” he says.

The last reunion gathered 60 people in Monterey, California, and the organizers are planning for double that amount in Santa Fe, New Mexico, next year. “Design Family Reunion is about the people who attend, not the theme or the schedule of the gathering,” says Porter. The motto enforces this: “It’s You We Came to See.”

That motto was on my mind this summer when I attended CAMP, a new creative business conference held at a YMCA summer camp in Big Bear, California. About 120 attendees stayed in same-sex cabins and signed up for workshops ranging from social media marketing to foraging and wildcrafting. There was even a camp dance. By the last night, I had learned new skills like indigo dyeing and professional product photography, but it all happened in a setting that was inspiring and invigorating—it made me feel as though I hadn’t sacrificed my work or life to be there. The best part of all: there was not a plastic name badge in sight. ca Walker
Alissa Walker ( writes about design, architecture, cities, transportation and walking for many publications, including Los Angeles Magazine, Dwell, Fast Company, and GOOD. In 2010 she was named a USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow for her writing on design and urbanism, and in 2011 she was awarded an ArtPlace grant for the initiative GOOD Ideas for Cities, in which creatives propose solutions to urban problems identified by city leaders. Alissa lives in a Dodger-blue house in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she throws ice cream socials, tends to a drought-tolerant garden and relishes life without a car.