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Are Virtual Design Conferences Worth It?

With most of us in design and development jobs working from home, some of the creative energy from the office is missed. Inspiration can be harder to come by and share, so we have to find new ways to refresh and reset our state of mind. 

Before this year, I had only attended a few conferences. There were a few different limiting factors preventing me from attending diverse industry events: 

  1. Location – many of the major conferences attend to be outside the country and require international travel.
  2. Time and money – also related to the location, traveling for conferences takes time and money. Many companies have a budget set aside to attend conferences, but the high-cost can cut into the variety of events the whole team can attend. 
  3. Selection – there are a lot of conferences going on at any given time. It can be difficult to decide which ones to attend and gauge which events will be worth the resources.

In 2020, with most conferences making the leap to virtual platforms, design, leadership, and development conferences have become more accessible to a wider audience. The price to attend virtual conferences is significantly more affordable than in-person conferences. Some companies (like Adobe) have even taken advantage of this and used it as a marketing opportunity by providing access free of charge. 

Stemming from this medium shift, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few virtual conferences this year such as AdobeMax, Design Leadership Days (Bureau of Digital), RGD Design Thinkers 2020, and the Martech conference. Here are a few of the design conferences that I’ve attended since going remote and my thoughts on this new style of event.

AdobeMax Conference 2020

AdobeMAX was a fun one to attend as they had a wide variety of speakers and workshops ranging from entertainment industry icons like Taika Waititi, Ava Duvernay, and Tyler, the Creator. Creative heavyweights like logo designer extraordinaire Aaron Draplin and executives from companies like Airbnb made presentations as well.

Screenshot of Adobe Max Speakers page

Although there was a fair bit of product promotion interwoven with the talks and workshops, it was interesting to hear the speakers go through their processes in their work and how they use different programs to achieve their vision. One of my favorites from the whole conference was a short film made by illustrator, Oliver Jeffers where he goes through 15 pieces of advice for his younger self which were all very relatable (even if you no longer consider yourself ‘young’). 

Screenshot of Oliver Jeffers' session

Another one that I found particularly interesting was a talk by Adam Morgan, an executive creative director at Adobe about planning your creative career. He discussed his own growth and plotted the different career paths that other successful creatives have taken to get to their current positions. This talk emphasized for me that career paths aren’t always clear and linear. Sometimes you have to take weird little detours in order to gain experiences that will prepare you for the career that you want. Some of the more practical workshops I attended on AdobeMAX were demos for their program, AdobeXD, which is steadily gaining popularity among product and UX/UI designers. 

Design Leadership Days

I was fortunate enough to get last-minute admission to Design Leadership Days back in September. I tuned into open and honest conversations about the role that design plays in organizations/companies, how to deal with situations where design input is continually challenged and more general talks about leadership and trust within companies

One of the ideas that stood out to me was from a talk given by Arron Walter, the senior product & design lead at Resolve to Save Lives about rethinking the idea of an MVP (minimum viable product) when launching new products. Oftentimes, when we hear MVP, we assume the most important thing to strive for is basic functionality (pictured on the pyramid). But an MVP should resemble something more like the pyramid on the right, where we build in other basic requirements aside from functionality, such as reliability, usability and emotional design. These are important parts of a project that should be built in from the beginning. 

Pyramid diagram depicting Minimum Viable Product

RGD Design Thinkers 2020

RGD Design Thinkers 2020 is a Canadian design conference that attracts speakers and attendees from all over the world. A colleague and I had signed up for this before COVID-19 and were looking forward to attending the conference here in Vancouver. However, with everything going on, they too had to shift their conference to virtual.

There were lots of great sessions — some were funny like the talk by Freddie Öst, Creative Director and Founder of Snask about “How to Use Mistakes as Your Path to Success in the Creative Industry” and some gave a preview into their design thought process like Tina Smith, a Freelance Art Director and Designer who specializes in typography.

On the last day of the two-week conference, I had the chance to tune into a conversation with Forest Young (Chief Creative Officer, Wolff Olins) and Mooren Bofill (Partner & Creative Director at One Twenty Three West). It was a very nuanced conversation about diversity and representation in the design industry and how useful it is for young BIPOC looking to enter the field, to be able to see someone that resembles them inhabiting the spaces and working for companies that they would one day like to be a part of. 

Screenshot of session with Forest Young and Mooren Bofill

As they had concurrent sessions, I wasn’t able to  tune in to all the talks I was interested in but a benefit to this conference was that all the sessions are recorded and viewable for 3 months after the conference.

The verdict on virtual conferences

As a creative, it’s inevitable to sometimes find yourself in a rut, especially in times like these. 

What’s been great about attending conferences this year is that it has allowed me to reframe my thoughts & goals, reconsider the tools that I use every day (a switch to Adobe XD might be on the horizon), and refresh my design knowledge. The energy and passion with which some speakers present their ideas can be both contagious and inspiring. 

In my opinion, it’s even more worth it to attend virtual conferences if the team is working remotely as it provides the team something to bond over other than just the day-to-day work and promotes sharing of new ideas with each other.