Last week I attended the 15th Information Architecture Summit in San Diego, California. Besides being held in what has quickly become one of my favorite spots in the country, the conference had an incredible line-up and more importantly, an incredible community of attendees.
As I sat through talks and joined in hallway conversations I noticed a familiar trend in what was being discussed. More than being about new techniques and tools, I felt as though I was hearing admissions and confessions from both speakers and attendees alike. For as much as any presenter seemed to talk about some new concept, there was a human story about the challenges they went through that helped them find it.
There were talks on imposter syndrome, management, team dynamics, collaboration, working with difficult people, and more. Even the talks that were more future-looking or that seemed more “design” or tech-focused felt somewhat confessional.
For some audience members the stories shared were intended to help them (hopefully) avoid the speaker’s experiences in their own endeavors. For others the intention was more to build understanding that they, the attendee, are not alone; that others have gone through what they have. That yes, this work and the work of any creative professional, is frustratingly hard at times, because we work with people, and people can be irrational, emotional, crazy-ass animals.
The conversations in the hall at the conference continued this same trend. And from there they moved into life outside work, so-called work/life balance.
The conference felt to as much a support group as it did a learning environment.
It’s something I’ve seen in many of the conferences I’ve attended but has always seemed strongest in those held by a community organization rather than a business. And for some reason, I felt it stronger this year than I have in the past (this was my 6th summit).
Many others have observed the same thing, and what I’ve written so far may seem obvious and inconsequential. But I’m writing this for a reason. Because the older I get the more I see this side of conferences as being the more important side, the more valuable side to an attendee. And that’s a challenge because the majority of where attendees registration fees are being paid from are organizations who don’t see or care about this aspect. Businesses and organizations send designers and creative talent for two main purposes: learn new skills and make new professional connections.
But the thing about working in any creative industry, about being a “creative” is that it IS NOT just what we do. It is who we are. It is a part of how we feel, think and perceive the world. It draws on impulse and emotion as much as it does intellect and skill. It is all together exhilarating and exhausting.
We need the support groups and confessionals that these conferences bring. This isn’t something that many employers understand or even want to. They want a return on their investment, and to them that comes from new skills, productivity or opportunities, not someone’s “creative soul” feeling healed.
So while employers may not see this, conference organizers should,and I know many that do. Think about your attendees and why they’re coming. Understand that attendees are in a position of needing to satisfy their employers goals but also have their own, more human needs(even though they may not realize it).
Design your conference to give people opportunities to genuinely connect. Alcohol and happy hours are great in moderation, but find other, more subdued ways based on community and communication as well. Choose experienced speakers who have a history of telling personal stories and making themselves available to attendees off of the stage. Choose new speakers who want to share their experiences, not for the spotlight, but because they want to find others who have had them too. And help your attendees sell your conference to their bosses so that they can attend. Guide them in crafting justifications, and find ways to continue to add value even after the event is over.
I know it seems like a lot, but I’m lucky enough to know some organizers who’ve done exactly these things, and I’m even luckier to have gotten to attend some of their events. It works. And it truly makes for a better industry, community and individuals.