DESIGNING A CONFERENCE
This was not actually my idea originally. A friend and former college, Wayne Hartman, had hosted an internal event around the Apple live stream videos from the annual WWDC conference for the past several years. After not getting a ticket to WWDC (Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference) he said, “That’s it, I’ll plan my own event”. And he did! Over the years I helped out hosting and preparing for the event but this year it was going to be a public event. Almost in the same breath he mentioned he was also leaving San Antonio and it would be a great opportunity for me. It certainly was. He booked the venue (The Geekdom Event Centre) and prepared a backend system for a conference app and supported the backend through the conference.
QUESTIONS - As a side note, I have spent the last 5 years as a product designer trapped in a research engineers body. I have constantly been creating pitch decks and prototypes of new products and business ideas to various executives in my day job. I love it. At my core I am a storyteller/designer/marketer. It’s how I think. When I get into ideation sessions my mind immediately start to look at ideas through the lens of brand/culture that drive the products/ideas. This was no exception. My initial thoughts/questions were,
“What kind of people do we want to attract?”,
“What do they value?”,
“What are our guiding principles?”
I started thinking about the fundamentals of why we were creating this and what outcomes we wanted. The big questions I had was, “What do we want them to feel?” (Both at the event and the days and months after). This is at the core of every product or project I am on. We as humans are inspired and affected by other humans, both positive and negative. I strive to have my work be part of bringing goodness into the world.
SHAPES - I have attended several conferences over the years and felt tech world is very polarizing. You are either a designer or developer but I have always played the liaison between the two worlds my entire career. It is a really under-appreciated role but vital in a great team dynamic. I have often found myself not accepted by either side. In short, I was my target. I wanted to create a space for other people like me. People who understand and appreciate great design but can code as well. I’m talking about people who live, breathe and see the world through design. Design is how my mind thinks. Developers and designers would be invited as well because we each play a role in the ‘Apple universe’ as I referred to it. But I was creating a conference for people like me. That was the inspiration for and meaning behind the 3 shapes that are used throughout the brand.
TAGLINE - Another grounding piece or base to the conference was around what became the tagline, “Learn, Make, Share”. This came in response to our thinking around, “how do we best set expectations for the conference?”. The main reason people are coming is to learn about Apple’s new API’s and watch sessions. We wanted them to walk away with a greater knowledge/understanding of the new API’s and capabilities. More than that we wanted them to feel a common excitement from being around others in the space and bring inspiration back into their work.
We had discussion around why we had attended other conferences and our experiences. We agreed that one of the main reasons was to meet people. Many opportunities come from conversations with someone at a conference. Being in a physical location with other people like yourself can be a really energizing and growing experience. But we also thought, “the best work we had been part of was in the magic of bringing designer and developers together, collaborating on ideas”. So the ‘Make’ is about making connections and making stuff together. That concept was very big when it came to designing the space as well as the schedule. More on this later. Share came very natural when we were thinking about wanting to have people make stuff together. It was our final pillar.
These shapes and tagline, along with the meanings behind them, were the foundation for the conference It also led each decision we made from there out. This is why it is so important to really focus on the guiding principles and core message/audience at the start. On every project I am on, I use them to challenge all assumption or ideas. It lays the groundwork for what is valued, how we will make decisions and what we will measure those decisions against moving forward.
TICKET BANNER - When planning on how we could get the word out, Wayne, Who was part of starting the iOS Meetup in San Antonio, was presenting to a group of student at UTSA. So The first goal was to get a banner image to use for setting up the eventbrite tickets. I began to draw. At the same time I was sketching ideas for the a logo and banner image, I started playing around with different ideas for a poster. This phase is all about letting ideas flow and not getting hung up on details. It’s about getting main concepts out. I love pencil for this reason. I don’t get hung up on tooling or refining.
I particularly liked the concept of the lower right corner (image shown below). I liked the subtle of having the different shapes (and the characters they represent; Dev, design, design/dev) grouped together, signifying the characters interacting and sharing. Normally I would share these drawing first with teammates, refine/rift a bit more then share with stakeholders. Take some time to get real feedback. With Wayne preparing to move and only having 6 weeks until the conference, we bypassed this step. I showed Wayne, we uploaded it and we were off to the races.
THE WEBPAGE - I design and built a quick webpage that could speak to what the conference is and set expectations. Later Jennifer, who was a MAJOR help, expanded it to add the agenda and speakers. She also did all the logistics behind getting shirts and setup and really was my go to person on this. I can’t say enough good about her.
THE LOGO - The original logo I did was very weak. I knew I didn’t like it but couldn’t quite articulate why or where to go with it. I collaborated with one of my close friends, Oscar. I have worked with him over the years. I always really loved his style and I knew he has great taste. Oscar began focusing on the ‘@‘ symbol. Then he made it kind of abstract, almost like a throwback to 8 bit graphics. I didn’t know where he was going but I love where it ended. I give him mad props for his work.
POSTER - After I got the tickets up and the copy, I started preparing a poster we could hang up in a few select locations. I was very excited about this. Those of you who know me know I have a love for creating physical products. I have spent a bulk of the last seven and a half years making/designing software. That is what drove me to create my magazine. Even before that, it’s what made me build my own letterpress and print a few designs which was a precursor to the magazine. I love to see things convert from digital into physical. There is a beauty to see and hold a something you designed, in your hands.
The prints turned out really nice but one regret was I didn’t take the time to do color correction. I set the color pallet in RGB and did not do any color correcting to convert it to CMYK. I sent it to print in RGB so the color is off. This was a missed opportunity for me to learn. I definitely took note moving forward. I am really proud of this one!
I knew from day one I wanted to design a shirt. That is one of the things I personally love about conferences I had attended. It had to be a design I would want wear. I didn’t want people to wear it just because it was free. If so they probably wouldn’t wear it. Again, this goes back to what I was explaining with the posters. It was a pretty great feeling to have people come up after the event and ask if they could still get a shirt and then to see people in elevators or restaurants wearing something you designed. We had to cut in other places to afford it. I decided, instead of providing lunch, we would get shirts. Geekdom actually help get lunch sponsored for us on one day, which was very nice. They also had coffee coffee provided by Rozella’s coffee. This allowed us room in the budget.
Afterwards I’ve had several designers reach out and ask if I had meant it to represent CMYK colors? I laugh and say no, That wasn’t my intention. I didn’t even notice it until I had the shirt in person. A few have asked if it was a playstation reference. It’s not :). The best thing about this design is it got people talking. This reenforced our tagline ’Make connections’. I love to see design infused into a product/culture. This reiterates the importance of building a strong, intentional foundation. Culture isn’t something you make. It’s a by product of what people do and say. Want to create a good culture? Don’t skip the foundation. That’s where the magic happens. When you set the narrative that will be inculcated into everything you do. Be intentional with what you want to bring into the world.
As I was designing the brand/marketing/posters/shirts, Wayne was building the backend for the app. The way we had worked the small events in the past was by wheeling a white board into the room, where we were watching WWDC videos, and ask people to shout out what they wanted to watch. Then we would write them all down. We would have everyone vote on which one to watch. I noticed the majority of people would not participate in the voting. In a public setting, even though it was a small group it was hard to get participation. We knew we could do better. The initial pass of the backend system gave us the core functionality we needed. Wayne built a quick prototype interface to demonstrate and validate the backend was working. Once he got that up and running he was pretty much hands off from there. I enlisted the help of Joe Quigley but within a week or two his other projects picked up quick and required his focus. This meant that after I design everything, I had to code a good majority of it as well. He was a big help fixing issues with intro and worked the main vote screen. Wayne ended up coming in near the end and fixing some crucial bugs and put in some solid hours getting the app ready for day one. I could not have done it without both of their help.
Drawing is a tool to help get our ideas out of our heads. It was a means of communicating. It was rough and ugly and far from precise, which is good. We didn’t let tools run the show.
I pulled together a group of fellow designers and we spent an hour or so with creative session to help hone the purpose and organization of the app. We were asking a lot of questions like, “Why do we need an app?”, “What is the app’s purpose?”, “Are people really going to use that feature?”. Through it we had several boards and we would talk, debate, draw, ask questions, draw some more; then we would begin again, talk, debate, and so on. I love meeting like this. Every person is on the same playing field. Drawing is a tool to help get our ideas out of our heads. It was a means of communicating. It was rough and ugly and far from precise, which is good. We didn’t let tools run the show. At this stage, it’s all about instant idea creation and destruction. It wasn’t a “brainstorm” or a meeting for “generating ideas”. This was a creative session for diverging and converging ideas, which ultimately I would take and use to do the refining/fine tuning.
Ultimately we realized that the focus of the app was to quickly vote and see what is next up. We put those front and center and then hide everything else in settings. We wanted to see who voted for which session and keep people exposed at the top level. This circles back to building connections and building on social interest. We figured it would be just as interesting to see who was voting for the top sessions as well showing their “personality”
Let me explain the idea behind “personality”. This goes back to the 3 shapes. During the on boarding flow, we have people self identify which personality they are. This was one of the most fascinating things I saw. People who I believed where very much a square (Developer) were identifying as a triangle (designer/dev). Like a lot! This cause 2 thoughts; first, it showed a lot of people at the conference appreciated design and at some level identified with doing both. Second, It made me want to change to Circle. As funny as that sounds,I realized I identify fully with the design side even though I can code and have a Tech background. It help build my confidence.It has just been a mental block I had. It was a fun experiment that I felt was a great surprise.
"Not having time" required features to be boiled down to the very essence or taken out all together if we felt it was not needed.
Back to the app. With Joe unable to dedicate much time to this, I started rebuilding every screen completely. We really didn’t have much time but passion can go a long ways and for this project it definitely did. With only a few weeks for the entire process it forced the design to be very simple (which was actually a benefit). "Not having time" required features to be boiled down to the very essence or taken out all together if we felt it was not needed. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
The best part of a conference is the opportunity to interact with other people. Again going back to our principles of wanting people to make connections, a lot of thought went into this. The majority of the day would be taken up by Apple videos but I wanted it to be more. I didn’t want people to say, “well I could just watch this from my desk”. So I asked my friend Collin, who runs his own iOS dev business here in San Antonio, if he would speak to the dev audience. I gave him full creative liberty to take it where he wanted (partly because I had so much else on my plate). He did a Stellar job. He really broke down how to build iOS apps full time on your own. Q&A showed he struck cord with a good portion of people out there. He was very frank and open about what it takes and things to consider.
I also asked my long time friend, and icon designer, Kyle to address the design side on the second day to break it up. Kyle talked about how to be a creative professional. He too had full freedom on where to take his talk and he nailed it. It was incredibly well received. It generated a ton of conversation in our conference slack group.
We also had time slots for people to share some of the code they had written or explain a prototype they built using the new API’s or design (for those who’s tool set is out side the codes). We had some people show of their experience with the augmented reality framework. Again Sharing was one of our guiding principles. Unlike any other conference I had been to, I wanted people to feel the stage was for them. A place where we would each alternate playing the role of student and teacher. We encouraged people to work on projects and if needed we had a separate room for collaborating and having conversation aside from watching the sessions.
The venue was downtown San Antonio, just a few blocks west of the famous Alamo. One of the things to mention was the construction that was literally right outside the doors of the main area. We did not anticipate this and yeah it sucked. No sugar coating this one, but we made it through. It was okay during the apple videos but it was a struggle when we had our live speakers. But even with that we had consistent turnout both days. So the people that came, wanted to be there and that matters.
If a person doesn’t have to make some level of financial investment, then there is no mental investment either.
LESSONS LEARNED - Prior to the event we had put out 90 max of 90 people with 83 registered to go and 40 people actually showing up the first day and 37 the second day. I believe making it free was a mistake. This was a missed opportunity. The price isn’t about money, it’a about value. It sends a signal on how much value you will get out. If a person doesn’t have to make some level of financial investment, then there is no mental investment either. I erroneously thought that “free” would “lower the bar of entry”. First off, it wasn’t free, not even close. More important, when you are starting something new, the majority of the time it’s a really bad idea to try and make it available to everyone. Price on value, not on what can appeal to more.
We also started with row after row of chairs. After the first day, the team mentioned, we needed to break it up. They said, the setting is not inviting/encouraging to engage with others. So we changed. Before the start of day two, we rolled out two rows of long tables in front mixed with spread out round tables in the back 1/2 which was well received. People responded with more conversation and it was much more inviting to walk into to as well. Slack was used throughout the conference as a means for channeling conversations and sharing links to repos/materials. It was also great for feedback like what’s the wifi password, turn up the volume or turn down/up the A/C. It worked out very well and helped give a place for people to share.
I wanted to make sure we left on a good collective note so I placed myself at the end to close up and try to send everyone off inspired to do more. I firmly believe we need more doers in the world. People are far more capable then we let ourselves believe. So that is where my mind stared. I filled everyone in on the details behind the conference and what the shapes represented. My main message was around two major points, “Our impact on people is greater than we will ever be able to sense in this life” and “When you feel inspired, you have to act”.
All in all, it was a remarkable experience. If you have any more questions or you are doing a conference and want guidance, or just to chat, please reach out. I would love to help any way I could. Here are the slides from my talk.