Safe Conferences Are Deliberately Designed

Creating safety is not the same as creating a feeling of safety.

TL;DR Summary

In writing this, I ended up with more than 6,000 words to express my thoughts. For those who want to get the essence without plowing through all that, here are the quick points:

  • Safety is the primary job of anyone who produces events.
  • Attendee harassment is a safety issue.
  • Bad behavior isn’t just the responsibility of an errant attendee. Event producers own some of it too.
  • Event producers make design choices that change attendee behaviors, either to be more professional or less professional.
  • While “Jerks will be jerks” and we can’t eliminate all instances of harassment, we can design our events to minimize them.
  • A strong Code of Conduct promises remedies that are likely to be costly and constraining to event producers.
  • Many Code of Conduct documents are weak in their remedies, to avoid delivering any actual promises, because it makes the events cheaper and easier to produce and removes risk and liability from the event producers.
  • A weak Code of Conduct is a placebo label saying a conference is safe, without actually ensuring it’s safe.
  • Absence of a Code of Conduct does not mean that the organizers will provide an unsafe conference.
  • Creating safety is not the same as creating a feeling of safety.
  • Things organizers can do to make events safer: Restructure parties to reduce unsafe intoxication-induced behavior; work with speakers in advance to minimize potentially offensive material; and provide very attentive, mindful customer service consistently through the attendee experience.
  • Creating a safe conference is more expensive than just publishing a Code of Conduct to the event, but has a better chance of making the event safe.
  • Safe conferences are the outcome of a deliberate design effort.

(I’m guessing many folks will have issues with what I’ve written here. That’s great and I look forward to engaging in a productive and constructive discussion. All I ask is you read the entire essay before telling me how wrong my point of view is.

Update: I’ve gotten a lot of great questions and thoughts on the Twitters. But the Twitters have proven to be a crappy place to discuss complex issues like these. After all, it took me more than 40,000 characters to get the basic ideas out. I’ll respond to comments in the article, but I’ll refrain from replying to anything on the Twitters.)

“We’ve had an incident”

“We’ve had an incident,” the voice on the phone said.

“Oh?” I inquired.

“Yes. [Name redacted] was just groped by someone.”

Calling me was not the first step in our anti-harassment procedure. Here’s what already happened before my call:

  • My conference manager called the hotel’s security.
  • They in turn recommended we call the police, which we did.
  • The police arrived and, with a bit of a fuss from the perpetrator (he was quite drunk, having left our conference early to start his own party), they removed him from the hotel.

It was my turn next:

  • I went to the scene and talked to the victim to ensure they were OK. (I wish there were a better word than ‘victim.’ To me, it implies weakness and this person was anything but weak.)
  • I sent an email to the CEO of the perpetrator’s company to share the details of the incident.
  • I received a phone call from the CEO within minutes of receiving my email, where I discussed the incident details.
  • I discussed with the victim to see if they wanted to press charges. (They didn’t, but had they, we would’ve provided support.)
  • The next day, I talked again with the CEO, the perpetrator’s manager, and the company’s HR department. We agreed that we would ban the individual from all of our future conferences. They also kept me in the loop on their internal disciplinary actions.

The procedure was standard and everyone knew exactly what to do.

Professional behavior

My company considers this procedure to be a professional response to unprofessional behavior. Fortunately, in more than 20 years of running events, I can count on a single hand the number of times where we’ve had to deal with unprofessional behavior. It’s very rare. We respond professionally because it’s the right thing to do.

We have plans. We have procedures. All of our staff is briefed on what to do. All of our staff is experienced enough to be trusted to do the right thing and they’ve never faltered on that.

It’s deliberate. It’s designed.


Safety at events

As a professional event organization, we believe safety is our first priority. This isn’t just a platitude. We really believe this and we act on it throughout the entire event planning process.

We take our attendees’ safety very seriously. Harassment puts an attendee in an unsafe situation. Safe attendees make happy customers. And happy customers come back and bring their colleagues. It’s good business.

As an event producer, we make thousands of decisions — deliberate decisions — that increase or reduce the safety of everyone involved: attendees, speakers, our staff, and the venue’s employees. For example, we design our conferences to handle anyone’s food allergies (some of which are life-threatening). Here’s our standard procedure:

  • We only choose caterers who can handle the wide diversity of dietary restrictions our attendees often have, including those which are life-threatening.
  • We design our registration system to collect the dietary restrictions up front.
  • We send frequent reminders to registered attendees to tell us their dietary needs and confirm what they’ve told us.
  • When we’re planning the menus, we start with the needs our attendees give us, to ensure we get offerings that will please everyone.
  • We design custom dietary needs tickets to be given to the hotel staff that identify the specific needs of that attendee.
  • We coordinate with a three-hour “pre-con,” a meeting where we go over every little detail of the event.
  • We review every allergy with the venue’s executive chef and banquet management (who in turn have their own procedures for briefing their teams).
  • We discuss contamination scenarios and the procedures for preventing them with the executive chef and banquet staff.
  • We ensure there are delicious menu options for every attendee, no matter what their needs are. (Because just being safe is not enough.)
  • If possible and practical, we’ll choose the safest menu options as the food we serve everyone, so nobody has to feel left out or different. (Because comfort and safety are not the same thing and we want our attendees to be both comfortable and safe.)
  • We mark all foods with signs calling out any potentially troublesome ingredients.
  • When they first arrive at the event, we talk with every individual who has indicated a dietary need to tell them how we’ll support them throughout the event and share the preparations we’ve made.
  • We check in with the individuals throughout the event to ensure they are cared for.
  • We monitor the meals and breaks to ensure everything is going as planned and we keep an eye out for someone showing symptoms of a sudden allergic reaction.
  • We have staff that are trained in first aid, in case something goes awry.
  • We have procedures for summoning medical help, when things have gone very badly. (Something, I’m proud to say, we’ve never needed to put into action.)
  • After the event, we hold a post-conference retrospective with the venue staff. We go over how all the preparations and serving went, looking for improvements to make in subsequent events.

I’m sure I’ve left something out, as I’m writing this from memory and haven’t consulted my very capable event staff. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever put this in a list. It feels long, but at the same time, I’m sure we do even more than I’ve said.

And this is only the steps to make sure the food is safe for everyone. We also worry about the safety of the venue, the speaker arrangements, the sponsor activities, any workshop exercises, transportation resources, and dozens of other conference details. We work closely with our venues and vendors, and in some cases, make preparations with local police and fire departments.

Providing safety is the job of an event producer. It’s deliberate. It’s designed.

Design is the rendering of intent. The event producer’s job is to design a safe event. They have the intention of providing safety at all points during the event. They use their event-producer skills to render that intention.

Safety is designed in. If an event has an incident where an attendee, speaker, staff member, or anyone else find themselves in harm’s way, it’s because a design decision wasn’t made properly. We can always make events safer by making better design decisions.


The Code of Conduct

In Tweaking the Moral UI, Christina Wodtke tells striking stories of instances of unsafe behavior — specifically harassment — that she’s witnessed at events she’s attended. The problem, she states, is that victims of harassment (not only women, by the way) won’t come forward because they don’t feel safe.

She proposes every event provide a Code of Conduct. This would be a document that serves as a “message — not a message that there is a problem, but a message that there is a solution. As much as a label on a button or a triangle with an exclamation point in it, a code of conduct tells you how a conference works.”

This is easy to implement. Many conferences have done so. The IxDA’s Interaction Conference, for example, has created one for its upcoming event.

Providing a Code of Conduct for an event doesn’t prevent the act from happening. It’s not designed to. Its intent, as explained by Erin Kissane (who helped create the SRCCON Code of Conduct), is “to formally state that your community — your event or organization or project — does not permit intimidation or harassment or any of the other terrible things that we can’t seem to prevent in the rest of the world.”

This feels like an honorable and noble goal. My organization has never had an explicit Code of Conduct at our events. To understand how a Code of Conduct would change what we do, I needed to first research what they are.

The four components of a Code of Conduct

I studied every example of a conference Code of Conduct I could find. Many (but not all) seemed to be derived from a single source, known as the Geek Feminism Wiki (a great resource with lots of important stuff for event producers).

Even though they seem to be derived from the same sources, the Code of Conduct documents I found had wide variation in their content, often tailored to their specific events. However, their form seems pretty standard. They typically have four components:

  1. Philosophy Statement: A statement of the organization’s commitment to making the environment safe for everyone.
  2. Definition of Behavior: This is typically a definition of what unsafe behavior is. For example, the SRCCON Code of Conduct states “Harassment includes, but is not limited to: deliberate intimidation; stalking; unwanted photography or recording; sustained or willful disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; use of sexual or discriminatory imagery, comments, or jokes; and unwelcome sexual attention.”
  3. How to Report an Incident: A list of steps that an event participant should take in the event of an incident occurring. Some Code of Conduct documents give names and phone numbers of who to contact. Others just say “contact the organizers” with no further details of who, what, or how. The New York Comic-Con Code of Conduct, which they post on huge signs throughout the venue, is probably the most detailed, with specific instructions on what to do and how to do it.
  4. What Remedies the Event Producers Will Provide: This is the promise that the organizers are making back to the attendees as to what action they will or won’t take. Some events, like the IA Summit, give a very specific list of remedies they would draw from: “Contacting venue security or local law enforcement; Providing escorts; Mediating conflicts relevant to the code of conduct; Ejecting people who violate the code of conduct from the event premise and otherwise assisting those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference.” Others, like the Smashable Conference, just state “we may take any action we deem appropriate, from warning the offender to immediately expelling the offender from SmashingConf with no refund.”

As I tried to understand what our Code of Conduct might contain, I was baffled by the wide variation in some of the critical sections. A Code of Conduct is a contract, after all.

Contracts also have four components: an offer, consideration, acceptance, and mutuality. But the Code of Conduct documents I found didn’t map nicely into these four components. They were muddled, and, too frequently, undefined, especially in the four components of what remedies the event producer will provide.

Clarity in remedies

The first three Code of Conduct components seemed easy to me. Stating a philisophy is not a problem. Establishing a clear definition of desired and undesired behavior would be straightforward. (Though I am saddened that we need to do this with grown-ups, especially professionals, but as has been pointed out to me frequently, “Jerks will be jerks.”) Even an explicit description of how to work with our event staff when an incident occurs is something well within our reach.

It is the remedies component that I struggle with. As an event producer, this is where my focus turns first. This is the promise to everyone to make good on our philosophy of providing the safest environment possible.

Just as implementing the seemingly simple notion of responding to a dietary restriction turns into a detailed set of procedures, I wanted to understand the procedural changes behind the remedies component. This would tell what we could promise to do in the case of a harassment incident.

Now, remember, we already have procedures for dealing with harassment in place. We have a no tolerance policy. We provide staff training on the topic. We’ve never explicitly said it anywhere, including publishing a Code of Conduct, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have policies and procedures. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we don’t care. We care a lot.

But publishing our procedures in a Code of Conduct has implications. It’s a promise about what we’ll do and subsequently what we will not do.

Let’s take apart a promise we could make, taken from the IA Summit’s Code of Conduct: “Provide escorts.” On the surface, this seems like a fabulous promise to help someone be safe. If they’ve been involved in an incident, let’s give them an escort to ensure they aren’t caught alone if the perpetrator were to act threatening again.

But what does this really mean?

  • Can anyone be an escort? Would it need to be an event staff member? Could a volunteer work? Another attendee? An individual hired specifically for this purpose?
  • Would we need to provide someone who has been professionally trained to deal with hostile encounters?
  • Would they need to be bonded (have insurance-backed certification that shows they’ve been properly trained)?
  • Do we have to have trained, bonded escorts available and waiting during the entire event, in case an incident occurs? (Is this like having an ambulance and trained medical technicians waiting at large sporting events, just in case?)
  • What are the time limits of the escorts? Is it door-to-door, from the moment the person-in-need leaves the privacy of their hotel room to when they return? Is it only during conference hours? Does it cover after-conference sponsor activities, like parties?
  • Where does the escort go? Do they accompany the person-in-need through their sessions? When folks go off premises for lunch, does the escort go then? If there’s a sponsor holding a party, is the escort required for that? Does the escort follow them into the bathroom? (I’m serious. When I did a short stint years ago as a consultant at a nuclear power plant, I had an armed escort who went into the bathroom whenever I did. And bathrooms are a potential high-risk environment for sexual attacks.)
  • What happens if there’s another incident, in spite of the presence of the escort? Does our procedure change? Are we liable for having been negligent in our providing sufficient protection?
  • What happens if the escort breaks protocol and harasses, against all the preparation and protections already established?

I’m sure there are more questions I haven’t even thought of. These are just the ones that jumped into my head immediately.

“Providing an escort” sounds simple, but can be difficult and costly for the event producer to ensure. We can generate an equally complex list of questions for every remedy proposed in Code of Conduct documents.

For example, many Code of Conduct documents list “expelling the offender without refund” as a remedy. Expelling is not always an option. Parties are often held at venues that are not completely closed to the public or other events. How do you ban a perpetrator who wasn’t attending your conference to begin with?

One Code of Conduct went as far as to state that people who tried to game the policy to get an innocent person ejected from the event would themselves be banned. How do we act as arbitrator in cases where the alleged perpetrator claims complete innocence and there are no witnesses? Do we need to hire professional investigators and certified arbitration specialists?

Some organizations take the easy way out. They use language like Smashable’s “we may take any action we deem appropriate to leave the door open and not make any real promises. In this case, the conference participant agreeing to the Code of Conduct is only required to believe that the organization has their best interests in mind. The organization staff will look at the situation and make the right decisions then and there.

How do we know they’ll make the correct decisions? Well, we don’t. We just have to trust them.

It’s about doing the right thing

In reality, this is what we’ve always done in our events. While we internally have a no tolerance policy, we follow one of our guiding principals of under promising and over delivering. We don’t make specific promises, but when an incident occurs, like the one I described at the start, we over deliver on providing safety.

But that’s hard to write in a Code of Conduct. We could do what Smashable does and trust that people trust us. And if that’s sufficient, I’m happy with that.

Christina Wodtke wrote “In order to feel safe enough to come forward, attendees and speakers need to know that the conference organizers are paying attention. We need a guarantee that they’ll listen, be discreet, and do something about it.” But the Smashable promise doesn’t say they’ll “do something about it.” It says they might. Does a weak promise of action mean the “conference organizers are paying attention?”

There’s a lot of “they might” language in these Code of Conduct documents.

  • From XOXO: “Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.” “Expected to comply” and “complying” are two different things.
  • From SRCCON: “the conference organizers may take any lawful action we deem appropriate […]”. It’s interesting to note that they qualify action with the word ‘lawful.’
  • Also from SRCCON: including but not limited to warning the offender or asking the offender to leave the conference.” ‘including but not limited to’ is one of those great lawyer terms which say we can do anything we want, including nothing.
  • From IxDA (who runs the Interactions conference): “Consequences can include removal from the forum and suspension of the member’s IxDA account […]” They use the simple word ‘can,’ which doesn’t promise anything. (Note the IxDA remedies don’t include expulsion from the physical event. I could not find an event-specific Code of Conduct for their event at all.)
  • From the IA Summit: “Conference staff will be happy to help participants by […]” This is quite troubling. I wonder what a plaintiff’s lawyer would do with “will be happy to help” if something went awry and the victim sued because they felt the IA Summit organizers (all volunteers!) did not do enough.

It’s important to note that a Code of Conduct does not have to be in place for an organization to act. Lawyer Ken White said at the FtBCon2 conference, “private individuals and private groups have a right to freedom of association, and that means that they’re going to make decision about who they want to associate with, based on their behavior. I don’t have to have a set of rules in writing that anyone can read to determine whether or not I’m going to think they’re a jerk, and I don’t want to associate with them. Nor does a convention have to have a set of rules that you could come down and have a hundred out of a hundred people agree that a particular incident falls under the rules or not.”

There’s a popular misconception that a Code of Conduct makes it easier to eject someone. (Including being stated in places that are trying to be authoritative like the Geek Feminism Wiki, saying “it is necessary (unfortunately).”) This is not true. It’s already damn easy to expel someone. You show them the door and you call the cops if they come back.

All this “they might” language hides that these Code of Conduct documents are not actually promising safety to their attendees. They are all run by good people with good intentions. I’m sure, like us, they’ll do right by their attendees. But intending to do right and promising specific remedies are very different.

So, I’ll say it here, since I’ve learned over the last week it is hard for people to hear: A Code of Conduct does not guarantee anyone’s safety or that, if an incident occurs, the organizers take any meaningful action.

There’s a corollary to this: Absence of a Code of Conduct does not mean the organizers will create an unsafe environment.


Creating safety or creating a feeling of safety

Ashe Dryden, on her very valuable Codes of Conduct 101 site says “A code of conduct helps by signaling that attendees should trust conference organizers, staff, and volunteers will respond appropriately should a report be made.” If it’s true that a Code of Conduct signals that, then we’ve done a huge disservice to the community.

If this signaling is happening, we’re creating a feeling of safety, where no actual guarantee of safety exists. This is everything we hate about the TSA. Flying isn’t safer, it just feels safer because we are catching the shampoo and water smugglers. It’s security theatre. And it’s unjust.

If the intention is to create a safe environment, a Code of Conduct doesn’t get us there. Just because an event organizer publishes a Code of Conduct, even if they they get all the attendees to agree to it as an oath of good behavior, it doesn’t mean people will behave properly. After all, “Jerks will be jerks.”

Christina Wodtke encourages her readers to pledge to “neither speak at nor attend conferences that do not have and enforce a code of conduct.” If this boycott works, conferences will post their Code of Conduct with the loosest language available, so they can claim they’ve complied with the request, without ever meeting the intention of providing safety. Not only do I believe this is the wrong solution, I believe it actually makes things worse.

Why not just try it and see?

When I started to ask questions of the community, the most common response I got was “What harm can they do?” It’s a good question.

Iteration is at the core of design processes. We take an idea and try something. We see where it works and we see where it doesn’t. Then we change it and try again.

That’s exactly how my organization designs our conferences. We have post-event retrospective meetings reviewing every facet of the event, looking for opportunities to improve. Our internal motto for our events is “we’re going to keep doing them until we get them perfect.” After 20 years and more than 150 events, we’re nowhere near getting them perfect, so we’ll keep doing them.

However…

We’re talking about people’s safety here. Iteration is tricky with safety issues.

You don’t build a bridge by building a first version, then send a car across it, only to watch it inevitably plunge into the depths below, then say “Ok! We’ve learned something. Let’s do another iteration.”

For safety issues, the first design has to be very sound and thoughtful. It has to be vetted. Risk has to be mitigated.

What harm can just publishing a Code of Conduct do? The harm they can do is simple: Someone can get hurt. We must be careful. Even if “jerks will be jerks.”

The Code of Conduct is intellectually dishonest. It says you automatically make a conference safer by adding a document to a web site. If it creates a feeling of safety, it does it by misleading the attendee.

We need to create safety, not only a feeling of safety. We need to be deliberate. We need to design.


Designing a safe conference

Like any large-scale design project, creating a successful conference involves thousands upon thousands of decisions. Every decision has multiple alternatives to choose from.

Conference organizers can make a choice that increases the chance of an incident occuring. A different choice would decrease the chances of an incident occuring. Making the right choice could eliminate many safety incidents, including harassment.

Can we eliminate all incidents forever? Probably not. But we can make smarter decisions. We can design safer conferences.

“Good judgement comes from experience.
And experience comes from bad judgements.”

We use post-event retrospective sessions to dive deep into our bad judgements. We ask what the sequence of events was that got us there. We ask how we could improve the outcome. We explore alternative approaches. Then, we design a safer conference.

Party culture and conference receptions

At many events, people come because of the parties. The marketing for the event emphasizes the parties, which happen every night and go way into the morning, often with sponsored open tabs and bottomless beer kegs. As the organizers introduce each day, they talk about how wonderful the party will be. Party goers are made into heroes for staying all night and getting sloshed. Early morning presentation slots are deemed the “hangover sessions” with substantially lower attendance expectations.

Many of the incidents we hear about happen at parties like this or after the party when very intoxicated people make not-so-smart decisions. (And we hear from people concerned about their safety that they refuse to attend these parties because of the increased rate of incidents that occur.)

Creating a party culture is a design decision of the organizers. Early on, we looked at the role of parties in our events. Because we had an overall goal of making our events the best professional educational events on the market, we made the conscious decision to have a different style of “party.”

We usually have two receptions: the first on the evening before the first day, as a welcome; the second on the next-to-last day, as a networking event. People often come and go from this first reception, as it’s purpose is to get them registered and greet them.

The second reception is scheduled right after the last session of our most popular day, often from 5:30–7:30pm. It’s only two hours long. There’s a lot of food served (and we’ve intentionally served a lot of food all day). We give each attendee two tickets for free drinks. (More are available, but our staff doles tickets out personally, after determining through a quick conversation if the attendee has had too much already.)

By providing plenty of food and limited free drink access, we cut down the drunken behavior. The bar shuts down promptly at 7:30 and some people move on to bar hop, but now they are in small groups and usually with people they know. And, because they are probably still of sound mind when they leave, they more likely to make smart decisions that will prevent an incident.

On other nights, we put together dinners for first time attendees and book small group reservations at local restaurants, giving attendees an option to experience the fine cuisine and explore the city. Again, we don’t emphasize the alcohol, but instead create a fun, localized experience. We’ve only heard great things about these social activities.

As a result, it’s rare for anyone to get drunk at our events. It’s happened maybe 2 or 3 times in the last 5 years. It’s possible some may decide not to come to our events because of this, but we haven’t found that to be true in our extensive customer research.

More importantly, it’s unlikely someone who is excessively intoxicated will behave better because they read the event’s Code of Conduct. Drunk people do stupid things because they are drunk. Being strict about a enforcing a Code of Conduct without dealing with the scenarios for excessive intoxication is, in my opinion, an act of pushing on a very loose string.

I believe that if event producers were to make design decisions that would reduce when and how people get intoxicated, they’d see a dramatic decrease in incidents and their event would be safer. Not just feel safer, but actually be a safer event.

Curating content for professionalism

Another problem that many Code of Conduct documents address is offensive content in the conference program. We hear audience members becoming upset about sexualized content and imagery, racial stereotypes, and offensive language.

When a speaker is on the stage, there is very little a conference organizer can do to prevent the next few words from coming out of their mouth. If they are going to say something stupid or offensive, well, that’s just going to happen. (Another manifestation of the “jerks will be jerks” philosophy.)

Again, the decisions we make when programming our events come into play here. At our own events, we rarely put someone on the stage that we haven’t seen or heard present before. There are many talented people in this industry I’d like to add to our shows, but because I haven’t had a chance to see what they do, I haven’t approached them yet. (But, rest assured, they are on my radar and I’ll be excited to see them do something awesome.)

When I’ve seen someone, I can see how they present. I can see the way they approach anecdotes and how they use humor. I can see how the choose examples and how they build their presentation’s story narratives.

Want to eliminate offensive material from the stage? Only invite people who have a proven track record of presenting material that doesn’t have anything offensive in it.

We go farther than that. We talk with every speaker before we put them on stage. In some cases, I offer an opportunity to show me their presentation and get a constructive criqitue. I love these sessions and I can pick out places where there might be an issue before they become an issue.

A few years back, I was working with a seasoned presenter who was running through his presentation to get my feedback. He’d presented dozens of times before, but because I offered the feedback session, he took me up on it.

In his presentation, he told a story at the expense of a religious group. It was a funny story and, frankly, this group gets lots of jokes made at their expense (often by their own members).

I explained to the presenter that the designers from the religious organization were clients of ours and likely to be at his presentation. I didn’t need to say anything else. He immediately found a different way to get his point across. Crisis averted.

In my experience, when offensive content finds its way into a presentation, it’s not because the presenter has the intention to offend. It’s because they don’t see it as offensive themselves. They think it’s normal material, or they’re hoping to get a laugh because they’re anxious about their presentation’s overall quality. A Code of Conduct wouldn’t help in this instance because the presenter doesn’t realize they’re doing anything wrong.

Our process — our deliberate, designed process — spends time with the presenters, giving them background on the audience and helping them with the formation of their thoughts. We are interested in creating the best experience and when you distract an audience by using offensive material, they don’t get a great experience. We only hire presenters who buy into that premise and we work with them to bring out their best.

I present at a lot of events where the event producers make no effort to find out what I’m going to say on their stage. Maybe they trust me inherently (possibly because they’ve seen me before). Yet, there are many events where I’ve been a 2nd hand or 3rd hand recommendation and the event production staff has no idea what I’ll do or say. That’s a decision they’ve made that could very possibly come back to bite them.

Designing a professional environment

An event like Comic-Con has to present a real challenge for the organizers. After all, many of the characters and stories that are at the center of the conference’s theme and programs are, by their nature, unprofessional. There are criminal characters, overly sexualized heroes and villains, and story elements that we’d never tolerate in mature society. All for fun, but how do you create an environment that is tolerant and respectful when the artifacts you’re celebrating are being revered for their intolerance and disrespect?

I’m thankful that most of our events are about teaching great design techniques. That seems so much easier to make work. I am in complete awe of the Comic-Con team and other event producers who make those events fun and enjoyable for everyone.

That said, it’s still a lot of work to design an environment that communicates respect and tolerance at all times, even when all you’re doing is teaching great design techniques. Again, we look closely at all the elements of our design, to ensure it’s creating the mood and projecting the type of experience people can expect.

Everything from typography to our email marketing, from the web site design to the music that’s played in between the sessions, is very deliberately chosen. If we want people to behave in a certain way, we make design decisions that make behaving that way easy to do.

We have a current struggle that we’re working through. We recently took over the Warm Gun conference. We loved the program and the partners, but the conference brand name has bothered us from the beginning, because of its violent connotations.

For our first year of producing this conference, we kept the name, only because everyone knew it by that name. However, our plan is to take away its violent meanings, to make it feel safe to everyone. It was already safe, but the name made it feel otherwise.

Changing a conference name is a big deal, mucking with the hard-earned reputation you’ve built up over many years of producing a great show. We feel strongly it doesn’t create the mood we want, so we’ll do the hard thing and make the change.

The mood gets set early on. In every communication we have with attendees, we emphasize the things that are most important. We get them excited about everything they’re going to learn, we introduce them to the topics and the speakers, and we make it clear that the fun will come from professional habits. We’re completely respectful of them and develop a relationship that makes it easy for them to talk to us.

When they show up, they know the event staff already because of all the communication (much of it personalized) that they’ve already had with our event. They know they can ask us any question and get a quick answer. We’ve already helped them navigate the local transportation options, resolved issues that might’ve happened with housing, and ensured they made the right workshop choices.

All through the event, our staff is trained to glance at people’s badges and address them by their first name. (We make the first names extra big, to make that easy.) We’re always stopping people to ask them how they’re enjoying the event. All of our staff, no matter what else is going on, takes a moment to talk to the attendees nearest them.

If anyone looks the least bit uncomfortable, troubled, or confused, we take a moment and ask how it’s going. We get involved with any question or problem, whether they’ve lost an important belonging or (as recently happened) need a quiet space because they’d just gotten news of a death of a close friend. We’ve made safe, private spaces for new mothers to produce breast milk and secured a refrigerator to store it. We spend the entire event showing how we’re personally interested in them and their experience.

At the event, telling our attendees they should come to us if there’s any problem or question is already built into our process. And something they’ve already been doing for a while. If we were to add a Code of Conduct that tells people to come to us when there’s a problem, it would be far from the first time they’d heard that from us. It’s a constant message in every interaction we have.

All this relationship building doesn’t come cheaply. We’ve got full time staff to answer attendee questions and help them. For some of our events, we’ve built in a concierge service to book flights and make restaurant reservations. We invest in attentive and mindful service.

It’s a deliberate choice we make. It’s part of our design.


Safety is baked in to the design of a great conference

It’s so tempting to paste the four-part Code of Conduct onto the web site and declare ourselves done. That would show the world that we recognize the importance of safety and have done the right things. Everybody would know we are only about tolerance and respect.

Yet, we feel that would be disrespectful to the people who matter most to us: those who will take part in the conference’s experience. For them, we need to do more. We can’t just tell them it’s a safe environment, we need to make it a safe environment.

We invest a lot in safety. It’s probably our highest cost item. It’s certainly the one we put the most care into. And it’s how we work.

Every conference is different. Every conference needs a different design. Each event production team will have to make different decisions. They’ll end up with different choices.

They need to understand that all of the choices they make affect how safe their event is. They should know what their options are and what works well. Most importantly, if they have the intention of delivering a safe event, they have to render it. They have to design it.

I’m thankful for this discussion about Code of Conduct documents. It’s helped me understand in much more detail exactly how we bake safety into the events we produce. While I think it’s unlikely we’ll end up with a Code of Conduct for our own programs, we’ll certainly make sure the four components are baked into our experience, so everyone knows what professional behavior is and how to deal with instances when someone isn’t behaving well.

A Code of Conduct is a label that states a conference believes they will provide a safe environment. By itself, it doesn’t make the conference safe.

If a conference doesn’t have safety baked in, then a Code of Conduct is not executable. It’s just a placebo. If a conference has safety built in, the a Code of Conduct isn’t necessary.

A Code of Conduct may be the right thing for some conferences. But we need to be careful before we suggest it’s the best way to acheive our objective of safety. It has all the risks of creating a false sense of security, much like what we get when we learn that 3.5 oz of toothpaste is an instrument of terrorists, but two 3.4 oz containers is perfectly safe for humanity.

We want people to be safe, not just feel safe. We bake safety into the event. We need to be deliberate. We must design safe events.

We have no excuse not to.


I owe a deep thanks to my reviewers for this article: Leslie Jensen-Inman, Dana Chisnell, Fred LeBlanc, Adam Churchill, Jessica Ivins, Mike Monteiro, Erin Kissane, Thomas Michaud, and Sean Quinn. You guys were awesome.