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The Designers Guide through the Conference Galaxy


Menno Dekker discusses how to find the best conference depending on your needs

The Designers Guide through the Conference Galaxy
Gazing at the five-story high pakhuis De Zwijger, the flags of FITC 2019 invited everyone to enter. The program of FITC is set out clearly: 2 days, 45 speakers, four areas. A recipe for indulging oneself into the knowledge of others. The opening is done by the artist, speaker and self-proclaimed twat: Mr. Bingo. Fun! One big applause and everyone rushes to their first talk of the day. However, sometimes one can leave feeling like they have gone to all the wrong speakers and this where you might encounter the “design festival dilemma”. Which talks are actually worth your while and how do you spot those?

"Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories", is the advice. 
Where to go lies within the question of what you are searching for to prevent disappointment. Lots of visitors equal lots of niches thus most design festivals grow schizophrenic by nature when it comes choosing their target audience. The line-up can quickly become a cacophony of speakers boosting their own agenda. When the information supply is bigger than the demand, one’s UX brain turns on: it's time to filter this situation with a graph.
All talks lie somewhere on this graph. Think back to every conference you have ever attended and you’ll see that every talk belongs to one of these five categories:

- New technology talks
- Best practices/process talks
- Personal growth talks
- Agency/freelance promo talks
- Cultural talks

Plot them on the graph and you’ll end up with something like this.
All talks have a similar ring to them. Let’s see if this sound familiar to you:

New technology talks

The future is now! The cases are awesome and you get excited to design for these unknown territories. Philosophising the future or even better. Implementations you can propose to your clients straight away. Be aware! Hypes are common in this area. The “pioneer” presenting won’t likely be very critical towards their own creation. The last thing he needs is bad press. Look for credentials and cases. More often than not, the slides are prototypes or even worse, work made by someone else. Such talks are clearly an example of a solution looking for a problem. Google presents Augmented Reality for the fifth year in a row. Yes Google, we know. One day the world be like Ready Player One. Just give me a conversational user interface that can actually select and order my pizza and we’ll talk.

Best practices & process talks

Arguably the most valuable type of talk. Not merely self-promotion but a methodical approach to the questions you were asking yourself. Pay attention and gather insights that could have saved you hours if not weeks on the last project you worked on. Kaboom baby, you could have skipped a year of college with this newly found info. Please note that there is a downside as well. Pay attention to the discipline and entry level of the talk. Don’t be a UX-designer without development-skills attending a machine-learning tutorial based on assembly.

Personal growth

Everybody loves a good coming of age story. And the best stories are those who end up in tremendous success. Very exciting and inspiring for sure. But pay attention to survivorship bias. The logical thinking error of concentrating on only those who succeed. Those who did the same or better but didn’t get noticed are forever forgotten. So If you’re in a talk and hear the words 'how I became a great..' or 'how I quit my job and..' ask yourself: what are the parallels in our situations? Are they merely the same needs? Is it even possible to do learn anything from this advice? If so, cherish the talk. Those won’t come in abundance. 

Agency/self-promotion talks

Usually amazing cases, jaw-dropping presentations and the following line “Strategy, data and design combined in the most effective way”. You’ll be shown the one-liner briefing, 5 pictures of the process and then: the award-winning case movie. A big bow and an even bigger applause. Impressive but not very explanatory on the challenges you will encounter whilst working on a similar project. Don’t waste your time going to sales pitches. Hunt for the ones that go in-depth on exploration sessions or juicy stories how they’ve gotten their clients to agree on counterintuitive proposals.

Cultural talks

Disclaimer: one should encourage every designer to be an ethical one. Heck, here’s some great literature: Do good design. To think about how products affect users is why brand hire marketing agencies in the first place. But boy, when designers start preaching these topics something strange seems to happen. Suddenly they adopt pseudo-moralistic stances on large scale social issues to look good to their peers. Value all worries about inclusiveness and political issues. But please don’t visit talks where speakers cry wolf without the scientific proof or valid argumentation regarding these issues. Luckily when talks like these are good, they’re great. Anna Rosling Ronnlund (dept festival 2018) proved how it can be done. Just watch her TED talk to get the gist of it.  Designers ought to encourage open-mindedness on cultural issues just like they should encourage critical thinking when filling a brain with new opinions.

In summary

Prepare. Categorize and plan ahead. If you’re a designer and in need of inspiration for the coming year: Try staying on the right-upper side of the graph. As the other areas are mainly focussing on making their case as convincing and sell-able as possible. The conference is not just for you. It’s also for clients, investors, brand managers, marketing directors, artists, developers and many more. Organize your schedule and find out the how instead of the what. And maybe simply a good chat with the colleague that sat next to you can provide a new angle you never thought of.
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DEPT®, Mon, 18 Mar 2019 14:52:41 GMT