What the Heck Happened to Evenings at the Loft? The rise and future of LA’s Design Salon

Hello friends and designers!

In late 2014 Kluge Interactive, a digital design studio, creates Evenings at the Loft, a monthly design salon series that features philosophical themes, lightning talks, specialty cocktails and carefully crafted food. After a lot of success and constantly packing the Kluge loft, it suddenly went into hibernation without warning. This is its story. Summary: we are back!

Evenings at the Loft got started out of a desire to be more than just a meetup for designers. How many events have you gone to that lead to awkward conversation, in between bites of cold pizza and warm beer? Come on, we are designers. Shouldn’t we design our event experiences? And why is everyone so quiet? There is plenty to talk about!

Personally, I have a business and music background. I ran a music festival that mixed music and philosophy back in the day, and covered many music/art events when I had a music magazine. My business partner, Cameron, whose wife is in the entertainment business, has been a regular at every major entertainment party known to Hollywood. We both thought, wow, we have to do something about these design events.

Our first crack at it was when our friend and long-standing collaborator, Australian artist Jon Tarry was back in town. We had just moved our offices to the loft and he was showing us a new performance he was doing in bringing weird sounds out of bones, giant pencils and other such things. He had linked them to a sub woofer and was creating sounds out of painting and drawing with unusual instruments.

In just a week’s time we rented giant speakers, invited our friends, and put together this odd event featuring music experimentation, group drawing, and great drinks.

That’s the kind of event we want to put out we thought. Experimental, artsy and different. But how is it relevant to our industry?

A few months later we geared up for Balanced Team San Francisco, an international group of Lean UXers from major companies and progressive agencies who gathered around for honest discussions about how to create true collaboration between designers, developers, sales teams, and other team players that make up a digital production. The honesty and vibe of the Balanced Team felt right. Plus they had this thing called lightning talks which enabled you to pack a lot of substance into just ten minutes. Who needs long talks right?

And only a few months later we brought a version of Balanced Team to our office in Los Angeles. In an effort to bring in the Kluge spice, we teamed up with our friend Heidi Snoe who brought in some specialty bourbons and paired them with great chocolates. The event featured lightning talks, an interactive panel by the name of a fish bowl, many stickies thrown around, and our bourbon tasting.

We were onto something.

Evenings at the Loft as a name came up one day during a casual team meeting. And the first event got created when our friend and collaborator Bart Van De Kooj came all the way from Holland to give us a team workshop. He was the perfect first speaker.

So there it was, we set up three lightning talks, our Creative Director’s wife cooked up some Venezuelan arepas, and we got some Venezuelan rum. The speakers organically rallied around the idea of Design Process and the theme of the night became a mix of Venezuela and Process. Then we set up some stickies for people to give up future themes and that was the start! That was officially session 1.

From there on out we got very intentional about what we were doing. We envisioned building an event that inspired community, that brought the design intelligentsia of LA and that always exceeded expectations, from the quality of our food to our specialty drinks, to the interactions happening behind it. We even had personal conversations with every speaker to make sure they were in sync and in tune with the theme. Every talk was customized for the occasion.

Since then we have had nine major Evenings at the Loft themes, covering topics such as ethics, aesthetics, wearables, drones, immersive design, making mistakes, lean design, and more. Every event has been packed.

We also did a special 8-hour design-a-thon at Silicon Beach Fest in 2015. We have brought in speakers from Pivotal Labs, Huge, Google, Facebook, Belkin and the Noun Project among many others.

Then all of the sudden, and without notice, we stopped. We were fatigued and questioning the amount of resources it took to run these events. What happened?

Kluge is a team of nine today. We are very hands-on with our work just as we are with the event. In 2015 we actually had a full-time person just for Evenings at the Loft, but that isn’t sustainable. The event costed a lot of money to produce when you count in liquor, food and a full-time resource to producing it. In session 1 we got a direct client from the event but we didn’t create clear business goals around it. Its beauty was its purity. But that came at a cost. So we decided to go into hibernation, mull things over, and think of ways to move forward.

In the meantime, some wonderful things have happened. I have always told my friends that I’m a frustrated philosopher. In fact, I was trained by a Philosophy couple for seven years in a row.

Evenings at the Loft allowed me to create content that took a step back from the tactics of the day to day, and was able to give a high level overview on topics such as ethics and aesthetics. Even when dealing with something like wearables, we were looking to shape our talks in a way that reflected the big picture behind them— what are wearables and where is this going? Don’t just tell us what you are doing. Give us context. Help us understand the big picture.

And as this unfolded, I realized that the core talk that was always underneath every theme was Philosophical in nature. In February 2016, after 5 months of no Evenings at the Loft, we came back with a different format. This time no fancy food or drinks. Just a 45 minute Philosophy visual talk that walked through the history of Western Philosophy and linked it to Design Thinking history. This is now the foundation behind the Evenings at the Loft series.

In parallel, we got more intentional about what Kluge meant by Strategic Design. In partnership with AIGA, we created a series called Business Matters that interviews designers on the subject of business strategy and design thinking. Like Evenings at the Loft, the goal is to step back from the daily tactics and talk about the big picture — the meaty depth that is more often unsaid, and more often relies on intuition than process.

In the next two months we have more events than ever scheduled on the calendar. And while Evenings at the Loft still doesn’t yet have a return to a steady schedule, our plan is to bring it back to a quarterly basis, with Business Matters running once every two months, and us having the freedom to do more impromptu events in the spirit of Evenings at the Loft whenever the inspiration strikes, or we find the right chemistry.

Our goal is to bring meaningful discussion to the design and creative community. Basically, if you can Google the answer, it shouldn’t be a talk at our event. We want to step back, bring depth, and look at the big picture of things. We want to encourage community and discussion. We want to be comfortable in the nuances and the unknown. We want experience to be a big part of what we bring to the table.

The next Evenings at the Loft, officially Session 10, is finally happening on Friday, June 24, almost 10 months after Session 9. It will be our biggest event yet. We are experimenting with a new venue, the Herman Miller Showroom, and we have partnered with AIGA, the professional design association, and brought on Onward Search, a fantastic talent agency that gets what we are doing, as our official sponsor.

All of our new partners are bringing new ideas to the table. We have a great sense of what we are doing and a great level of intention. The chemistry feels great and we are excited. At the same time a change of venue and vibe is a big risk and we know it will be different.

We hope that our expansion still manages to bring the cozy feeling behind our loft, and that the audience continues to push the limits of what it means to have deep conversations in a casual setting. And that, above all, we manage to bring in a community as open, warm and friendly as we are well known for. Beyond the speakers, Evenings is about community, it’s about you.

So dear reader, if you have never attended an Evenings at the Loft, I hope you will come by and tell us what you think. And if you have, please continue to give us feedback and push us forward. We are a small team with big plans and big ambitions. We promise to continue to experiment and push the idea of design experience forward. In fact, many experiments are coming.

See you at the next Evenings at the Loft!

Founder, Kluge Interactive & Evenings at the Loft