Conference Presentations: That’s Not What the Description Said!

Mark Busse – 2 Comments


Steve did a good job summing up our experiences with his review of the 2008 HOW Design Conference, which I enjoyed, so I won’t double our efforts describing the event here. But as I hear myself responding to so many questions about how I liked the conference, I realize that I have something to say, so I thought I’d chime in with an open letter to organizers of designer conferences like HOW.

Dear Design Conference Organizers,

First of all, allow me to express my appreciation for pouring so much of your time and energy into producing world class design events for me to attend. I have been involved with organizing design-related events as a volunteer for years and I’m grateful for your service. But as someone with an informed opinion,  I also have a complaint—or more of an observation and suggestion.

Why do I so often find myself sitting in presentations that are so ill-suited to my mood or experience level or completely different than what I expected based on the pithy description you provided in your beautiful conference guide agenda? Granted, I’m an older, experienced designer, but I go to design conferences to expand my knowledge and skills just as much as the young design grad. Regardless of how many cool people I meet or how many free drinks you give me at the vendor-sponsored receptions, I’m here to learn too.

Does that mean I don’t want to sit back, put my hands behind my head and laugh instead of frantically scribble notes all the time? Of course not! But throw me a bone please, will you? Your descriptions about “so-and-so and his inspiring story will provide you with insights into design leadership and describe the lessons he learned leaving you with strategies you can apply in your practice” is really unfair when it turns out to be someone glumly flipping through slides of all their accomplishments or pretty slides from their portfolio with no take away. Can you please strive to communicate to me more clearly the kind and caliber of presentation and which audience it’s geared towards? If it’s for newbies, please just tell me straight up. If it’s a feel-good story, tell me that too as I may just be in the mood for that.

OK, enough ranting—er, observations—onto the suggestion part.

I suggest the creation of a simple scoring system based on two axis. One axis (numbers 1–5 from left to right perhaps) could be a scale from “practical” to “inspirational” so conference attendees can get a sense of the potential for practical learning and frantic note-taking versus the kind of talks where one kicks back and enjoying stories and a laugh. Both are equally as valid, but warn me please. I don’t think this is too much to ask.

The other axis in this system (letters A–E from bottom to top for instance) could simply be something like an experience continuum from “rookie” to “senior”—bearing in mind that some talks are well-suited for everyone, regardless of experience or age. This way if the conference guide informed us that a workshop was rated 1A we’d at least know it was geared specifically for junior designers and would likely be a valuable learning experience. But if a talk was rated on the other end of spectrum—let’s say a 5E—then you should expect it to be an inspirational experience without specific design relevance a high priority and directed to a more experienced audience

I think a system like this would be especially effective if conference speakers themselves were informed of ahead of time and required to rate their presentation, thus tailoring their materials to a particular audience—sort of like a design problem, don’t you think?

Generous Design Conference Organizers, even if my suggested system isn’t well considered, please consider adopting something like it so that you give us, your loyal attendees, some understanding of the kind and caliber of a presentation, drastically reducing incidents of someone being wooed by a well-written description only to find out later they missed something far more suitable in the room next door.

Gratefully yours,
Mark Busse – HOW Design Conference Alumnus, 2008