Are Web Design Conferences Becoming Too Safe?

Earlier this week, Simon Collison revealed the first fruits of his newly established private entrepreneurship. ‘New Adventures In Web Design’ is an affordable one-day conference landing in Nottingham on 20th January 2011.

New Adventures follows a growing trend for affordable one-day conferences and workshops appearing outside London, in parts of the country that have been poorly served by such events until now. This is a really positive development, and one I gladly endorse – I’d much rather see people travel to local events like this than fly 5000 miles across the Atlantic to attend SXSW.

Simon has obviously put a lot of time and effort into organising this event too. The website is a work of art, and the conference will be held in an equally inspiring venue; clearly fit for the impressive lineup of ten talented and insightful industry experts that will be speaking.

Only the places change

Unfortunately my immediate reaction on seeing this lineup was one of disappointment. Not because these aren’t great speakers – far from it – but this was confirmation of a long held suspicion that it’s the same faces appearing in different places. Indeed, three of these speakers will be appearing at this year’s dConstruct too.

The reliance on the same set of 20 or so speakers is honestly starting to feel a little bit tired, dare I say ‘safe’. I believe there is a worthwhile discussion to be had on this subject, and as such this post shouldn’t be seen as criticism of the New Adventures conference alone.

Maybe such criticism is unfair. Writing from the perspective of someone who has worked in the industry for six years, I’ve already seen these speakers many times over. For those just starting out, or finally able to attend such conferences thanks to lower pricing and locations outside London, they’re an excellent opportunity to see these people speak, and hopefully chat with them over beers afterwards.

Yet I now find myself looking for more specialist content – Playful in September and possibly The Design of Understanding next January are sure to be highly thought provoking.

As the speakers at these two conferences, and my enduring experience of SXSW would suggest, I’m starting to believe it’s with people outside our community from which I can gain the most insight, and help me to see my work in different ways (Jane McGonigal’s 2008 keynote at SXSW stands out in this regard). Whilst I see many presentations refer to architecture, fine art, game and product design, I rarely see speakers from these specialisms talk at web design conferences. You could attend separate events, but it’s exciting to think what knowledge might be shared should different sectors of the design industry come together like this.

New blood

It would also be nice to see some fresh blood appear at these events too, although I imagine one reason we’re seeing the same people speak is because others in the community are reluctant to do so. Andy Budd’s offer of free training for budding conference speakers was notable for its lack of applicants.

There are a few conferences that do seem to be aiming for varied, more experiemental lineups though:

  • Build Conference: Last years speakers included Ryan Sims and Wilson Miner, whilst this year sees Belfast welcome Frank Chimero, Tim Brown and Keegan Jones; people I’ve not seen appear at other conferences. The creation of a conference ‘fringe’, with workshops, lectures and even a pub quiz planned to coincide with the main event is also an excellent means of getting the local web community involved too.

  • dConstruct: (Excusing the obvious bias) I’ve not seen David McCandless, Samantha Warren, James Bridle or Marty Neumeier speak at many other conferences, whilst I believe John Gruber and Merlin Mann will be speaking in the UK for the first time.

On a slightly smaller scale:

  • Speak the Web: A series of small, intimate, low cost events, these had the style of a gig and paired well known speakers with local developers who were either novices or who hadn’t spoken before.

  • Multipack Presents: Perhaps to a lesser extent than others mentioned, but this series of talks has often seen local Birmingham designers and developers speak alongside Bruce Lawson and Stuart Langridge.

New adventures in content

Of course, there is a balance to be found, as for a successful event you need respected names to attract attendees. Yet I believe that even within these constraints – and as a few other conferences are proving – there is scope for more experimentation, both in terms of speakers and the content presented.

Returning to New Adventures, where the schedule is still in progress, the site currently states:

We’re taking our time to carefully curate the event, working closely with the speakers to ensure we hit the right topics, and establish a strong narrative for the day

With the 5-star lineup, this careful curation could very well mean New Adventures In Web Design is the must see conference for 2011, and I’m intrigued to see what presentations will feature. However it will be these rather than the speakers, that will determine whether I purchase a ticket or not.

Update: Since this article was published, Simon has posted some background information about the New Adventures conference, and also discusses the motives surrounding its creation. Certainly worth reading in the context of this article.