Better Conference Design

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Photo of the author by Annika Schulz

Just as there is no clear idea of the number of annual conferences in the world, there is no clear pattern to conference design. As a speaker at over 250 conferences, I have identified some crucial design points that can enhance the human, conference experience.

A large part of my life over the past decade or so has been spent giving keynotes about design and urbanism at conferences and events all over the world. I’ve been on numerous panels, moderated many and I’ve hosted some conferences. With so many event notches on my belt — it’s got to be over 250 — I can’t help but to have recorded patterns in conference design and developed opinions about what I think works and doesn’t. Indeed, in retrospect, there are only a handful of conferences that I truly remember as a great, all round experience from start to finish. That strikes me as quite wild.

I’m not incredibly hard to impress if you throw free food and wine at me while letting me listen to interesting speakers. And yet, most conference design is simply not memorable. At the end of this article I’ll talk about a handful of conferences and what I think makes them great.

What is a conference, when you break it down? It’s a large gathering of humans who meet to receive information and experience from a curated, smaller group of humans. A gathering of humans who have individual behaviour and expectations but who are also easily influenced. In essence, a conference is just a small village. I don’t doubt that most conferences, whether arranged by an organisation or professional conference organisers, put some thought into their design, wayfinding and user experience. Nevertheless, how could they do it better?

The Space

It’s a primary focus to create a space that is functional, inspiring and welcoming for the participants, staff/volunteers and speakers alike. Sometimes there is no shortage of bling, with a huge chunk of the budget going to unnecessary design that is clearly attempting to wow us. Every Smart City conference I’ve spoken at? Guilty. It’s as though if you’re going to show off greenwashed cars and goofy micro-mobility vehicles, you need to be as kitsch and dorky as possible and do it in a sanitised conference centre. Luckily, Smart City conferences are not indicative of most other conferences I speak at.

At design, architecture and digital conferences, there is an increasing focus on “cool” and “edgy” spaces which these days, of course, means venues in former industrial buildings punctuated with lots of furniture made out of re-purposed or recycled wood. Oh, and food trucks outside, too. I’m not dissing this, it’s just the pattern at the moment.

At the end of the day, the space where speakers will do their thing on a stage just needs to function well. Comfortable chairs, a good temperature, excellent sound and lights. Which is how you design your living room. Simple, elegant design of the multimedia content in-between the speakers is all that’s needed. It’s about the content of the speakers much more than it’s about the peripheral look and feel. Put more of the budget into the sound, screen quality and lights than into fancy visuals. Let the speakers do their thing.

Refreshmental

When I was younger and starting out in the film industry, I made — and helped friends make — free films. You had to get people excited about your project so they’d donate their valuable time, which often involved long hours. Someone back then told me something I’ve never forgotten. “The key is keeping their stomachs happy” — meaning you’ll get people to work hard for free if you have a great catering sponsor. I never forgot that.

Whether your conference includes free breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, snacks — or all of the above — or you’ll just make food and drink available for purchase, I recommend putting more thought and effort into this than you might initially think. At an all-day conference I was at just last week in Riga, there were three food trucks parked outside — close and accessible to the entrance. They all had good food — vegan stuff, bao sandwiches and kebabs — but the nature of crowds gathering for whatever reason means that everyone had a clear opinion from the get go. I sourced experience like “the vegan place is good, but they’re slow”, the kebabs are okay, just don’t get the fries” and “the bao place never has a line because Latvians don’t know what bao is”. I went with the bao with pork. Hey, it was 7C outside and I forgot my jacket.

I’m not complaining about last week — the food was good and the selection more than adequate for the audience size. But if the selection isn’t good, or it’s too slow or too inaccessible, you’ll hear about it. A bad food experience in the middle of a long day could definitely mess with the scores of your evaluation sheets later on or your social media in the midst of things.

A good selection of options, close to the action and decent prices. Sounds like a no-brainer but so many conferences get it wrong. If we’re talking about the absolute essential — coffee — make sure it’s available with a minimum of waiting for the caffeine-deprived masses. Everyone loves a barista carefully crafting foam into floral patterns for ten minutes (okay… not everyone) but jeez — just kegs of good, strong coffee on every table, along with cold water, does the trick just fine.

Public Square

If a conference is just a village, then it needs a public square. As an urban designer, I see public space everywhere I go — or lack thereof. Some of the best design of extracurricular set-ups at conferences resemble public squares in a city. The food and drink options are located in an area with lots of seating — recycled shipping pallets or otherwise — which encourages people-watching and deepens the sense of community that every conference simply must aspire to.

It’s usually easy logistics. A food and drink area is often planned in the largest available space but I’ve still seen a lack of decent seating or just a forest of tall tables to stand at. These are conferences thinking more about space management than the anthropological needs of participant homo sapiens. Generally the space available at a conference makes this an easy thing to achieve. Just remember a space in the middle for people to pass through, as opposed to a cluster of tables in the middle and passageways on the sides.

While a conference puts great effort into finding good speakers to inform and entertain an audience, remember that participants also have the right to not take part. Creating a public square where they can hang out gives them a space to use and still be part of the big picture.

If you absolutely must have booths or desks populated by incredibly bored people selling products or services in a trade fair kind of setting, please think about where you place them. I’m not a math guy but I simply can’t see how the ROI or ROO on having a booth at a trade fair addendum to a conference can be profitable. Not my problem, since I don’t have to spend money on them, but the public square concept should dominate the design thinking and not the tables backdropped by cheesy roll-ups with dismal graphic design. Keep them close if you have to (business model) but don’t let them dominate.

Freebies

Ah, yes. That old conference classic — the swag bag. Cool, free stuff is a win for participants but they’ll complain amongst themselves if the free stuff isn’t cool. I know they do, because I’ve listened to it countless times. I attended several — generally well-organised — Velo-City Conferences over the years and it’s interesting to have heard the level of detail that consistently went into discussions about the free… backpack. The participants of this conference series often attend each year so the backpack became the primary focus of the free stuff conversation year after year. First-world conversations, I know, I know. But it is always amazing to hear how people at the beginning of a conference go into intricate detail about the free stuff at the first coffee break.

Personally, I’ve started saying no thanks to the swag bag. I haven’t seen very many that contain things I actually want. There’s the usual pile of paper with adverts for sponsors, maybe a little notebook (I have notebooks and a phone) and then the gimmicky stuff with the conference logo on it.

In twelve years of conference-going I have exactly one item that I kept and still use. A really cool rain jacket from a conference in Lleida, Catalonia. Oh, except for all the damn canvas bags. I have a massive pile. Too massive. Can we stop with the canvas bags, please? They’re basically t-shirts and we’re not really talking enough about the environmental impact of those, let alone canvas conference bags.

I’m certainly not advocating for plastic bags, but this article is certainly interesting. I’ve seen a couple of conferences dish out their necessary evils in a recycled paper bag and that just intuitively seems to make much more sense.

A recent conference I was at sent their “goodie bag” as an email. It offered discounts on cool sponsor stuff, restaurants, bars, services, etc. No manufactured material involved. I clicked on zero of the offers but I was glad I didn’t have to throw stuff into the hotel garbage while packing.

In short, if you’re gonna swag it, be extra creative. Think about the environmental impact and put your energy into one cool thing that people will talk about. And no… 8 Mb USB sticks shaped like koalas or bikes is not that one thing.

Where To Next?

The conferences I speak at feature audiences comprised of professional, modern, cool and independent humans. Which makes it all the more surprising how they end up slavishly following your conference schedule. Now, the saying about how a mob is as intelligent as it’s least intelligent member is not where I’m going here. Ish. I just find it so incredibly fascinating how for most participants, the schedule is carved in stone.

All of us who attend conferences know this on some level. We’re in a foreign city surrounded by some people we might know and lots of people we don’t know. It’s easier to go to the crappy post-conference events and bitch about them than making the call beforehand and finding better things to do. C’mon… you KNOW that cocktail thing is going to be as dull — if not duller — as every other one you’ve ever attended. And yet, you’re there at exactly seven o’clock because that’s what the schedule says.

You have no idea how hard it is for me to find independent schedule disruptors or fellow conference deviants to drink with.

It’s gonna be lame… let’s go find a bar. I know a place.

Yeah… but maybe I should make an appearance… it’s in the schedule…

Once in a while, you find your tribe. People who look at it pragmatically.

Let’s go drink free drinks and THEN go that bar you found on TripAdvisor…

Wait… don’t all of you go and do this from now on. Because I rather like being the cool outlier the next day who can say, “I skipped the cocktail party but found this cool speakeasy bar in a basement and danced until dawn…” Don’t cramp my style. Unless you’re fun to drink with. Then let’s go.

Create Memories

Okay, I’m digressing. It’s just important to know that people will follow whatever you plan. I, myself, have designed Master Classes — in effect, mini-conferences — when I was CEO at my former company. Employing all of my observations, as well as listening to peoples’ feedback about conferences. Trying to design it better in order to optimise the participant experience and to… create memories. Nothing less. Sure, that’s easier with 25 people than 500, but it should still be a goal.

I can thank one person in particular for this desire to create memories. Back when I rented out a room to Airbnb guests in my flat, I had a guest from Australia. She knew my work and that’s why she booked my room and she was in Copenhagen to attend a master class at another Danish urban planning company and was excited about both events. After her first day at the master class I asked her how it went. “Great food!”, was her first reaction — (remember to keep their stomachs happy) — which made me curious. She had flown from Australia, paid for an Airbnb room and dished out a significant amount for a two-day master class. Surely food couldn’t have been her primary takeaway. “Oh, it’s interesting, but we just sit there and listen to different people tell us about their public space projects.” I asked if there was an excursion like a walking or biking tour of the city but she shook her head. Any decent social event after Day 1? Nope.

At that point I had designed some travelling master classes in North America but I realised that Copenhagen was, in itself, a draw for people in urban planning, urban design and architecture. And they were willing to spend money to attend such a master class. So I organised a master class and it sold out. Great. But one of the reasons I’m a shitty businessman was that I wanted to give the participants an experience like no other. I was humbled they wanted to pay so much to attend — I needed, quite simply, to make sure it was worth it.

I designed it so that eight great meals were included over the three days of the master class. There were excursions relevant to the topic of urban planning. We swam in the harbour together. There were fun quizzes in the evening. There was… alcohol. The dinners in the evening led inevitably to more drinks. We were tired and hungover the next day but we had forged a bond that lasted for the rest of our time together. I wanted it to be an intimate experience that they would remember — along with all the stuff I wanted to teach them, which was the reason they came.

At the end of the third and last day of the first master class, the program ended at six in the evening. We were done. I was surprised that many of them lingered. Some had to shoot off to the airport — they came from all over the world — but for those who stuck around, there was no longer any program to refer to. The end. I had created such a great experience that it turned out to be an anti-climax. So… we went to a bar and continued. Over the next few years, I made sure that there was an addendum on the program to cover that last evening, usually just hanging out in a public space eating pizza and drinking beer as we “debriefed”. It was a hit.

So thanks to that other Danish urban planning company for being so dorky and academic and uncreative and enabling me to embrace the idea of a cool master class. Like I said, a tribe of 25 people is easier to work with than a huge audience but I hope there is some inspiration in there for the need to create memories.

Blame TED, but… thanks, TED

The TED Talk brand is well-established in North America and becoming more well-known in Europe — all while lumbering towards being overrated, but hey. It’s a clear inspiration for so many conferences who wish to emulate the tribal atmosphere and brand value. I’ve seen concerted efforts and funding put in to compete with TED and have even spoken at some, like this one — which never ended up going anywhere but not for lack of trying.

The main TED events are finely polished and executed to perfection, which they’d fucking better be with tickets costing thousands of dollars. I’ve done three TEDx talks in three cities and, as you might assume with almost 1000 TEDx events around the world, there is a broad spectrum of quality.

It’s easy to understand why TED is an inspiration. It’s a brand. It’s pretty uniform every time you see one online. They are the McDonald’s of conferences. More nutritious for your brain than McNuggets are for your body, but this brand uniformity is impressive. Smaller TEDx events are rigidly controlled from the Mothership and you have to graduate from your first small event to a larger event by proving your worthiness to the Brand.

When I fumbled with a line on stage at TED x Zurich, I came offstage and asked the organiser — begged and pleaded might be a better description — if they could edit it out. He said, “we edit all of them.” He explained that a large TEDx event films with four cameras and they send the footage, with the sound feed, to Big TED. If a talk is deemed worthy of coming on the Big TED site, the talk is completely cleaned up. Ever wonder why all those inspiring TED people are such brilliant, flawless public speakers? Editors. Removing all the ums and ahs and mess ups to make you look amazing.

The rise — and plateau — of the TED brand has absolutely influenced the conference experience around the world in a positive way. The general quality of conferences has improved and there is an increased focus on creating a spirit of togetherness among the participants. Slavishly trying to copy TED is never going to work out well. At the end of the day, what TED has done well is creating a village or a large town, even though it has ended up more like The Truman Show of late. There IS a certain cool vibe to sitting at a local TEDx event for an entire day with like-minded people, but other conferences can achieve the same vibe with good, people-centric considerations and design.

Hierarchy

As a speaker, I often need to prepare or relax before or after a talk. If I’ve flown far, I need a space in which to tackle jet lag. But being from horizontal, egalitarian and democratic Denmark, it is often odd to experience a hard line between the speakers and the audience in the form of… Speakers’ Lounges. In the conference village, a speakers’ lounge is the royal palace, surrounded by walls.

To be frank, free food and drink in a quiet space is pretty awesome, so I am so there, if a conference has provided such a space. But I don’t want to hang out there. I’m speaking at a conference. I have things I am passionate about communicating. I hope that an audience gets something out of it and can use my thoughts in some positive way. Not only do I want to interact with the audience after my keynote, I want to get a feel for them before. If there are other speakers that appeal to me, I want to sit in the audience and listen to them.

In certain countries where hierarchy is more prevalent in the culture than others, there is much more fancy focus on gated communities for speakers. As though it is expected that they provide one and that you spend most of your time in there. “Goodness me, you surely don’t want to have to stand in line with regular people for a chicken tikka wrap or a beer. Shock horror. Have a free glass of chablis instead…

I think conferences should nudge their speakers to break out of their bubble and participate as actively as possible in the conference experience. Having a Green Room in which to gear up and down after a keynote is great but drop the lounge. If you want to give them free food and drink, hand out coupons or have a different-coloured wristband. Make a Speakers’ Bar in the common area if you have to. Fine. But get the speakers out there. Just because I have been deemed interesting enough to speak and I charge a very high speaking fee doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a part of the bigger picture.

Digital Participation

At larger conferences I see a tendency to provide an app for the participants. I could wander into a whole article about crappy app design here but let me keep to the point. Apps are handy if the conference is large and if you actually have enough information to send out. Most of the time, it’s overkill and unnecessary bling.

With that said, I’ve seen some cool tech solutions of late that increase the audience participation, especially in that awkward human space known as… Q&A. People can send in a question during a talk and a moderator can choose the best or most relevant ones from their phone or a tablet. At a conference in Norway a few weeks ago, a platform called Mentimeter was used. Questions were posed and the audience could also vote good questions up the list. There are probably other products out there that do a similar thing. It was just cool to see it working.

Q&A is a weird thing and it’s strongly influenced by culture. In Eastern Europe, asking a question is akin to having a tooth pulled. In the Nordic countries, you risk revealing that the speaker knows more than you about a subject, something you are loath to admit. In Latin countries, a question rarely appears at the end of long, personal monologues.

Interactive questions eliminate all this, as well as giving shy people the chance to have their say. Don’t overkill your tech offerings. Just use them pragmatically.

Monster Conferences

Conferences come in all shapes and sizes, regardless of topic. Not surprisingly, the ones that I feel are most successful are of a manageable scale. I have seen a tendency of late to create conferences that desperately attempt to be bigger than ever. As though quantity is certain to draw people in more than quality. There is usually a business model at the forefront, which seems to overrule what was probably a passionate desire to communicate and disseminate ideas at some point.

In spring 2019, I received a last-minute invitation to speak at a conference in Berlin called Re:publica. While deciding whether or not to accept, a friend said that he had heard it was “cool”, so I said yes. Upon arrival, I was impressed by the interior design of the huge space in former rail buildings. Larger than life and well designed. Excellent understanding of a public square concept.

The curator, however, proudly declared that she had “a thousand speakers” at the conference. To her chagrin, this didn’t impress me. I found it odd that this was a unique selling point. Being an international speaker myself, I know that really excellent speakers are not easy to come by. I would have thought 100 speakers was a stretch — but one thousand?!

Enter: the monster conference, where less is lame and WalMart is the role model. In a way, the concept of scaling up is something we’re constantly faced with. “Nice idea for a product… but… how are you going to scale it up?” It’s a part of our culture, so in a way I get why people are obsessed with it. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

If you had a successful conference the past couple of years, stick with the format instead of becoming seduced to expand and enlarge. Such conferences seem to try and emulate a huge music festival, with several stages and numerous tracks. And while a well-designed music festival is like a large town, I believe a effective conference should be more intimate. I want to be able to share experiences with other participants. “Did you see that woman talk about public furniture design?” “Nope, I was in Track 14, listening to a masters student talk about digital security in Central Asia…

Creating memories is one thing. Creating shared memories is another. Both should be more important than creating hype and profit and big numbers.

Bookending the Community

I get it, in a way, this idea of having different tracks. You have an overall concept and you divide it up into different categories. My first reaction is: stick to one concept. Keep it simple. But if you have to divide up your content, remember to consider all the stuff I’ve been writing about community, public squares, creating shared memories, etc.

One flaw I’ve seen at even the best conferences is that people are sent off onto tracks from the beginning of the conference. There are no events that bind people together from the outset. When this happens, it’s basically just several different parallel conferences under one flag.

I suggest bookending the track-based conference with main keynotes. Having everybody meet in the morning for an amazing, inspirational keynote and then dispersing to zoom in on whatever track they find interesting. Starting the day with a shared experience to provide a bit of tribal glue. Then wrap up the whole conference with another great keynote to seal the community deal. It’s kind of like students meeting at homeroom in the morning. Same idea.

A conference brings people together. Design it so that they are together at least twice with the tribe at large. Then let them go off and do their knowledge hunting and gathering before returning to the communal firepit at the end of the day.

The List

I’ve had many amazing speaking experiences through the years, with countless brilliant audiences. Many memorable experiences have been a singular event with me speaking to an audience. I’m not using those events in the context of this article. It’s about organised conferences with multiple speakers and events.

After all these years, there are only a handful of conferences that I personally found truly amazing and inspiring. I’ve thought long and hard about why they stand out. To be clear, I’ve had amazing experiences at many conferences on all continents so if you don’t see your conference listed here, don’t think I didn’t enjoy it! The following selection just ticks all or many of the boxes for what I consider to be good conference design.

First of all, what does any speaker want the most? An enthusiastic audience, pumped with energy and happy to be there. What does any audience member want the most? Quality speakers with a unique and engaging vision (oh, and free alcohol). Who brings these groups together? The organiser(s).

The primary common denominator between the organisers of the following conferences is personal vision.

SEE Conference, Wiesbaden, Germany

The best example I have is the SEE Conference in Wiesbaden, Germany. The owner of a top marketing agency decided he wanted to arrange a conference in order to hear interesting people speak about their work. He curates speakers from articles he’s read or media he’s seen. His personal vision translates into a wonderful annual conference. There is an overall theme each year, but it’s interpreted generally enough to allow a broad spectrum of topics to be presented. This is what made it cool for me to be a part of. I saw keynotes by filmmakers, artists, tech people, you name it. Normally the conferences I speak at are within my professional silo, so hearing about other topics was refreshing.

The audience is young, but not exclusively — it’s a good age mix — and they are enthusiastic. Tickets are reasonably priced. It’s down to earth, a manageable size and it’s fun. All the boxes are ticked for good conference design. I can’t deny that I have toyed with the idea of organising a conference of my own and this one is my role model. It is such a cool event, man.

Another common denominator for my memorable conferences is the fact that they don’t take place in a big city. There is an inherent enthusiasm when a cool event comes to a smaller place and recurring events become a cultural staple much quicker than in a big, busy city with many things on offer.

Torinostratisferica, Turin, Italy

This is also the case with Torinostratisferica in, unsurprisingly, Turin, Italy. It’s a smaller city in the shadow of Milan and Rome and the confernce has a fascinating speaker selection based on a clear personal vision from the curators. A cool venue, a warm and welcoming atmosphere for speakers and guests alike. Casual and inspiring and with a good understanding of the participants’ anthropological public square needs. Cool name, too! You got Torino, you got stratosphere and tucked in the middle you have nostra — “our”.

Torinostratisferica also stands out for me for having the best communication design, with a clear visual identity and a solid approach to social media, without being in your face about it. This conference is in my professional ballpark — architecture, design, urbanism. Still, brilliant speakers kept me captivated and taught me new stuff. That’s a win. Great, enthusiastic audience as well.

Digital Freedom Festival, Riga, Latvia

I like the Digital Freedom Festival conference so much, I’ve been there twice. Again, we’re in a smaller city that gets excited about cool events and international speakers — especially when they show up in off season — in chilly November — so that generates a great vibe and an enthusiastic, young audience. Being a small city, the organisers seem to know everyone at the conference, which makes this the best conference village experience I’ve had.

I don’t know why they originally chose the name Digital Freedom Festival but while there is a certain tech/digital angle to many of the tracks and speakers, there are also many speakers within a broader spectrum. That only makes things more interesting for everyone.

There is a clear personal vision from the organisers present here, as well, when curating the speakers and the content. It’s a good size and there is always an amazing party at the end of it. Excellent communication, visual identity and a professional team making it all happen smoothly.

I love that on their website they announce that they have 50% female speakers. Any conference that works hard to have a good gender balance is pretty awesome. They tick most of the boxes in this article but could benefit from the idea of bookending the conference with keynotes that everyone participates in. Light up that conference firepit.

Urban Future Global Conference

At first glance at the Urban Future Global Conference website, you’re going to wonder why I’m choosing this one after going on at length about large conferences focusing on quantity over quality. It’s says 3000 attendees, 300 speakers, 85 sessions. Yeah, that might look out of scale. but believe me, it doesn’t feel like it. I’ve spoken here twice, as well. It’s cool.

The conference has its roots in a small city — Graz, Austria — in 2014 and 2016 before moving to Vienna in 2018. In 2019, it went to Oslo and in 2020, Lisbon will be the host city. The conference may be larger now, but it sticks to smaller cities. I don’t ever want to see this conference end up in London, Paris or New York.

What’s clear about Urban Future is that, once again, there is a personal vision. Add to that a clear sense of strong values, something that is rare. They address their participants as city changers — it’s used frequently in their social media. Where so many others have tried and failed, Urban Future seems to be succeeding in cementing a sense of community. This conference is well within my professional field but it also spreads out its content wide enough to be inclusive to many others.

It is extremely well-organised, with a clear visual identity, communication approach, a healthy mix of tech (app) and organic structure and — more than most other conferences — a sense of fun. You’re going to learn stuff but you’re going to have fun doing it. Their website and social media is professional and still exudes a lighthearted look and feel that draws you in. In my professional circle there is already buzz about next year in Lisbon. That says something. There aren’t many examples, in my experience, of jaded conference-going colleagues getting excited to return to an event.

Like Digital Freedom Festival, they really need to figure out that bookend concept of mine — giving everyone a shared memory from the beginning.

There you have it. Personal vision, manageable size, create a village, employ anthropology, create memories and… short lines for coffee. Boom.

Mikael Colville-Andersen

Written by

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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Mikael Colville-Andersen

Written by

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

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