How We Built The World’s Best Design Event

We’ve all been to those design events where the speakers hide behind their perfectly polished projects. You know, the ones where you’re treated to slick animations and get force fed jargon about how ground breaking the work is.

Let’s be honest, those kind of events are no good for anyone. They leave audiences clueless about how great work is made.

We believe design events should be better.

We launched Percolate DesignTalk last year to bring some blood, guts and banter back into design events. So far, we have been lucky to be joined by speakers including Squarespace, Etsy, Of a Kind, Ghostly International, Hyper Island, ustwo and Betaworks.

Now, through the medium of the listicle I’m going to share our learnings from building DesignTalk.

Here we go:

  1. Pick a theme that will provoke a reaction. Giving a group of speakers a theme to react to surfaces interesting perspectives, memories and opinions. Find a simple theme that allows your speakers to dig into their process, craft, collaborators and horror stories. So far we have asked speakers to share stories on their ‘Partners in Crime’, how they’ve been ‘Learning to Hurdle’ and our last event asked people to reveal their thoughts on ‘Spaces to Play’.
  2. There is nothing interesting about a line-up of designers. Design is for everyone and your event should reflect that. We’ve found that makers, entrepreneurs and educators can touch on the practice of design, and then go beyond that to deliver honest, actionable and insightful advice to audiences. Speakers from tech, fashion, music, architecture, advertising and film have proven to be a good mix. Also, remember to invite at least one weird speaker who will say something controversial, tension is memorable.
  3. The optimal presentation time is 6 minutes 40 seconds. You may recognize I’m talking about the PechaKucha 20x20 format, where each speaker is given 20 slides that automatically process after 20 seconds. The best thing about this format is if you have a speaker who drags they will be off stage quick. More seriously though, whatever format you go with make sure it’s high energy. Don’t let people speak for longer than 15 mins or you are asking for a snooze fest.
  4. Your venue is just as important as your speakers. It was John Maeda who wrote “Ambience is the proverbial secret sauce to any great meal or memorable interaction”, and we agree. For us, the character of DesignTalk is casual. An event best served in an informal setting, nothing too fancy. There should be room for about 200 people. It helps if the room is low lit and there is a bar, half decent AV equipment and a stage. The stage makes giving presentations fun for the speakers. Make sure there is a stage.
  5. Go easy on the intro and get out of way asap. The challenge with a casual venue is there is no easy way to get a room full of people to pay attention to you when you want to get started. We’ve found the most effective way is to stick a picture of Bill Murray with a fish in his mouth up on the projector and then blow into the microphone. People like that. Once you’ve got all those eyes on you keep it brief. A simple intro and try to land a couple of jokes, and then get the hell out of the way and let the speakers get started.
  6. Take a half-time break. Don’t try and push through. Instead, halfway through your schedule hit the pause button. It turns out people like getting fresh beers and using the restrooms.
  7. Make your recruitment pitch interesting. As the hosting company you are entitled to plug your team. First, be honest and tell people they are about to experience a short commercial break. Then find an interesting angle to share a story about your team and the work they have been doing. Then sign off with a 300pt CTA set in uppercase Futura Bold. That works nicely.
  8. Technical problems are gonna happen, embrace them. Things go wrong when there is half decent AV set-ups, computers and beer involved. It’s ok. Be prepared. When it happens to you be ready to talk about what you had for dinner last night. Well don’t do that, but make sure the AC is on and you have a couple of tricks up your sleeve.
  9. Sweat the most important details. When it comes to event invites and intro slides don’t sweat it, just find a system that works with your company ID and knock it out. Re-use this stuff for your next event too. All your energy needs to put on making sure the venue is best it can be and your speakers have everything they need.
  10. Use all of the tools to tell the world about your event. You don’t need to build an event website, there are so many good services out there with less overhead. We’ve been using Eventbrite for DesignTalk and so far, so good. It’s easy to manage mailing lists and RSVPs, and they have pretty decent mobile apps too. Once you’re up and running it goes without saying you need to plaster mentions of your event over every possible network you can think of. Also, have an event hashtag, it’s 2015 after all.
  11. Once you’re done, get out of there. Not straight away, but a change of scenery is a good thing after you’ve been cooped up in a room for a couple of hours hosting an event. Pick a bar close by and it include in your closing slides.
  12. Pizza. Don’t forget to order Pizza when you get to the next bar. Order 5 large pies, and remember the Vegetarians.
  13. Realize you’ve just started to build a community. That wasn’t just an event you put together, you’ve now got a group of people that in theory were fairly impressed with the experience you put together and will be willing to hear from you again. Make every interaction count. Your follow up is the speaker videos edited for their viewing. Avoid repeatedly changing the design of the video start and end cards or it will look like you have had hardly any views on Youtube.

That was our 13 lessons from building DesignTalk. I hope they are helpful when you start planning your event. Start today.

Next up, we’re hosting DesignTalk at the Bowery Electric in New York on Wednesday November 18th. Our theme is ‘Research or Bust’. We are being joined by speakers from the New York Times, VVVVVV, Breakfast, Drip, M ss ng P eces and Percolate. Join us.