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Web Design Conferences Are Booming: But What’s Next?

Every year there are around 100 web conferences in the UK, and there are new ones emerging all the time. With a conference catering for every design and development niche, you’re rarely more than an hour away from your nearest event. If you’re interested in JavaScript, then Full Frontal1 is a must. If you like to geek out on typography, then you should hit up Ampersand2. If you’re bored of the traditional format, then why not go camping in Wales3 or hack from a boat on the Thames4?

The picture across the rest of Europe looks just as abundant, with at least half a dozen conferences in every major city from Berlin to Barcelona. At the same time, smaller towns like Malmö, Faenza and Freiburg have become surprise hubs, hosting events like The Conference235, Kerning6, and SmashingConf427.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Today’s conferences have moved away from the simple dissemination of information to become experiences in their own right. Often the people and location have become more important than the talks themselves. As such, the choices seem endless and picking the right conference can be a challenge — but it hasn’t always been that way.

How The UK Conference Scene Started Link

Way back in 2005, I returned from the US having had a career-defining experience. I had traveled to Austin, Texas with a group of British designers for (what was then) a little known event called SXSW Interactive12, where we met our design heroes, shared our stories on stage to a room full of peers, and forged relationships that have lasted until today.

The conference scene in the UK started in 2005 and 200613

The conference scene in the UK started in 2005 and 2006.

When we returned home we looked for similar events in the UK — somewhere for the digital community to gather, share stories and push the field of web design forward — and found none. So in the do-it-yourself spirit of the web, we organised our own. First came @media and Clearleft’s own dConstruct conference14, followed in 2006 by The Future of Web Design and Flash on the Beach15.

The UK Web Conference Industry Begins To Grow Link

Over time, other great conferences started to appear, like Build1916 in 2009 and New Adventures2017 in 2011. By the end of 2012 it felt like we’d hit peak conference, but the number of events kept growing. It soon became clear that conferences weren’t a route to fame and fortune — with many events struggling to sell tickets due to increased competition. New events would pop up for a year or two, then disappear just as quickly.

Over time, other great conferences started to appear, like Build in 2009 and New Adventures in 201118

Over time, other great conferences started to appear, like Build1916 in 2009 and New Adventures2017 in 2011.

As a result, ticket prices started to creep up. While most of the early conferences cost under £100, it became increasingly common to see one-day events priced between £400 and £600. With rates like this you might imagine speakers were being well looked after, but conferences often paid everybody except their speakers, on the assumption that it would be a honor to speak at their event. This resulted in a lot of presentations becoming hastily knocked together product pitches, and the quality began to suffer.

The Challenges Conferences Face Link

Around 2012 homogeneity started to become a problem for conference organizers. To sell tickets, they felt the need to bring in big-name speakers. However, with only a few dozen well-known people on the circuit, conferences started to look like copies of each other: “If you don’t want to travel to [major city] to see [well-known blogger], don’t worry — they’ll be coming to a town near you next week.”

Over the years, we’ve tried to keep our own line-ups fairly eclectic, with an ever-changing mix of interesting people. Along with a handful of celebrity designers we’ve had digital artists, musicians, hardware hackers, comedians, science fiction authors and people from a range of other disciplines. This is probably a reflection of our own personal interests, as we look for inspiration outside our immediate circles.

Of course, we’re not alone — many wonderful conferences like Lift21, Thinking Digital22 and The Conference235 have taken this approach. It can be a big risk when conference attendance is still driven by market forces and name recognition. Several conferences started to push back by focusing on the experience rather than the line-up and refusing to announce speakers in advance. Conferences like Brooklyn Beta2724 and XOXO2825 were a great example of this, where the people and location were just as important as the content itself. You never really knew what you were going to get — you just knew it would be good.

Conferences like Brooklyn Beta and XOXO show that people and location can be just as important as the content itself26

Conferences like Brooklyn Beta2724 and XOXO2825 show that people and location can be just as important as the content itself.

We’ve also committed to paying our speakers, and encouraging others to do the same. We believe this is the best way to maintain quality and attract new talent to the stage — making it easy for them to justify the time and effort that goes into crafting a great talk. It’s now more common for conferences to pay their speakers, but there are still a few notable exceptions. So if you are invited to speak, make sure to ask for an honorarium — or at least ensure that all your accommodation and travelling costs are covered. However, it’s not just down to speakers, so attendees may also want to ask conferences what their policy of paying speakers is.

It’s also worth considering where the conference stands on the topic of diversity. Do they have an all male line-up, or have they worked hard to select a diverse range of voices? Does the event feel too much like a clique, or is everybody made to feel welcome? If issues do arise, how are they dealt with? Thankfully, it feels like the industry is moving away from the worst excesses of brogrammer culture29, but you only have to peruse Twitter to see that there’s still much more work to be done.

Where Are Conferences Going Next? Link

I think conferences will get both bigger and smaller at the same time. Events like SXSW30 will continue to grow, despite nobody wanting to admit to going anymore; while the Web Summit31 in Dublin and Collision32 in New Orleans are expanding at a phenomenal pace. Even our own Brighton Digital Festival33 has swelled to 47,000 visitors.

As well as tackling diversity issues and fostering new talent, the conference industry is slowly becoming more professional. Simply booking a venue and inviting interesting speakers is no longer enough. Instead, we’re seeing increasingly sophisticated marketing campaigns, slick branding, video idents, light shows and special guest appearances — all to make events stand out from the crowd. While it’s great to see conferences up their game, some events have become more style than substance; local conferences like Webstock34 and Beyond Tellerand35 feel like they have more heart than the big international brands.

Smaller and more personal events are emerging36

Conferences will get both bigger and smaller at the same time. Smaller and more personal events like Alptitude3937 are emerging.

As a result, smaller and more personal events are emerging. A good example of this is The Do Lectures38. I attended this year and saw around 80 attendees and 30 speakers descend on a field in Wales for a weekend of talks, camping and chats around the fire. In fact, these events may start to feel large when compared with things like Alptitude3937 or Planned Outage40 which take groups of a dozen people away to walk in the Alps or canoe in the Swedish Lakes, in the hope that they’ll forge deep-founded relationships for life. Appreciating that people learn in different ways, these events try to get people away from their screens and break down the barriers between speaker and attendee. Instead of being fed knowledge, these experiential weekends focus on informal knowledge sharing and learning by doing.

As for the mid-sized gatherings, I suspect that well-known events like Future Insights, An Event Apart41 and SmashingConf427 will continue to attract solid crowds, thanks to the brand recognition they have and the quality they deliver. Sadly, a lot of the smaller, more localized events will struggle in the face of increased competition and may not survive.

Conferences Need To Reinvent Themselves Link

To last longer than a few years, conferences need to constantly reinvent themselves to remain relevant. Both Flash on the Beach43 and Flash In The Can44 did this by distancing themselves from the Flash community to become Reasons to be Creative45 and FITC46 (Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity). Of course it doesn’t always need to be this radical.

When UX London47 started feeling a little predictable, we shook things up by moving venues, changing the format and refreshing the brand. To keep Ampersand48 fresh we moved it to New York one year, and had the next year off. As for dConstruct49, once this year’s 10th anniversary celebrations50 are over, we’ve decided to have a bit of a rest, take stock and consider what the next 10 years will look like.

Conferences help cultivate wisdom by creating new connections – between individuals and concepts

Conferences help cultivate wisdom by creating new connections – between individuals and concepts. Image credit: Marc Thiele.

In the meantime, the list of events I want to attend continues to swell, from old classics like Web Visions51, PopTech52 and GEL53, through to newer events like GIANT conference54 and The Future of Storytelling55. Despite claims to the contrary, I believe industry conferences are becoming increasingly interesting, varied and (yes) valuable. Maybe not by learning specific skills or techniques, as conferences have never really been about acquiring knowledge. Instead, conferences help cultivate wisdom by creating new connections – between individuals, of course, but also between concepts. Whether I come away from a conference with a potential business opportunity, a new collaborator, or a better way of framing a problem, there is always some value to be had.

I urge you to explore beyond your existing comfort zone, discover new communities, forge new connections and help push the field of digital design forward.

(vf, ml, og)

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Andy attends, speaks at and organises over a dozen conferences a year. He loves meeting interesting people so if you see him at your next event, pop over to say hi, buy him a beer and tell him about all the wonderful stuff you’ve been working on.

  1. 1

    As long as prices prices remain that high, I will sadly remain an online attendee on youtube….

  2. 2

    Thanks for the great article and the list of important conferences. I have been looking for something like this for a while. It’s good to know which are the most important Euro web/design/tech conferences right now. I feel like they’re only going to grow and there is going to be a movement toward working from home/remotely because of the design community. Thanks again I’ll share this on my twitter! @andaleem

  3. 3

    Andy thanks for the kind mention of Thinking Digital. We’re putting on our first Thinking Digital Manchester in November which we’re excited about. Allow me to second your recommendation of Poptech. I’ve been 3x and always enjoy it. John Maeda is currently at the helm and doing a great job.

  4. 4


    August 16, 2015 6:24 am

    I’m from Iran .
    This web site is really one of the best and about Conferences in Iran we don’t have such things but now we may have Thanks for the post .

  5. 5

    Great article! You didn’t mention us, UX STRAT, but we are experiencing the specialization of UX conferences you mention. Our audience at UX STRAT Europe and UX STRAT USA tends to be more senior and focused on vision and strategy rather than general UX topics. I think specialization is important as the field of UX grows and multiplies. We simply don’t all do the same thing any more. I am much more involved with research and strategy, and do fewer and fewer screen designs. But I still consider myself a UX professional, as do our attendees.

  6. 6

    Web designing in USA is going to boom above the expectations, Moreover, now a days bulk of industries are providing highly professional web designing and development services in USA that the internet marketing competition is arising. Without experience it is difficult to judge which one is best. I got excellent experience from one of web marketing companies named as WEBii.

  7. 7

    Michael Gunner

    August 17, 2015 3:25 pm

    I ran my first ever web meet up in June – I called it 418conf and it ran in East Surrey in the UK.

    I was lucky enough to have Laura Kalbag as my first speaker alongside Paul Mist – both were superb.

    I ran the event as a free event, but this was really difficult as I struggled to cover costs. Worse, I couldn’t secure decent sponsorship. I was lucky in being able to use a space at work to hold the meet up, and a good number (25) of people turned up. I’ll now be running a second in September.

    It’s been incredibly difficult but I’m keen to go in the direction of giving my attendees the best value for money. I’d rather scale back on all the fancy fluff (lanyards, printed materials, big projectors, fancy venues) and keep the ticket price as low as possible.

    Partly because, other conferences and events are painfully expensive to the point they exclude everyone but those either lucky enough to work for a company that can pay them to go, or at a point in their career where they just can’t justify the expense.

    I feel there needs to be equally valuable alternatives and that’s what I’m hoping to achieve – a really awesome, grass roots event that doesn’t turn into a behemoth that only the elite can attend.

  8. 8

    The biggest problem at any conference is that you never get to connect with people whom you really should connect with. There is no application or mobile app that allows you to really find the proper people who you want to connect with.
    For example , as an agency I would like to connect with other agency folks or prospects looking to engage a agency. But a conference with over 4000 ( imagine in LV) how do you connect with those particular groups? I am amazed that no one has figured this out.

    • 9

      the avangelist

      August 21, 2015 2:33 pm

      But why do you need an app to talk to the person sat right next to you?

      Regardless, Lanyrd does exactly that and has been around for ages, but that doesn’t solve one of your issues – meeting potential clients, I’m still not totally convinced they exist at these events, well, some of them perhaps but possibly not the ones you’re going to.

      Do you want to be sold at when you go to something to learn? If you’ve ever been to a marketing conference many are just dirty platforms for people to sell their wares and are incredibly gauche.

      These events should be places to learn great things and be inspired to do more yourself, let’s not sully them with networking to make money opportunities?

  9. 10

    Paweł Kopyść

    August 19, 2015 9:01 am

    I have the same observation in Poland. Big conferences still grow and professionalize (UX Poland, Product Camp, Websummit, Bitspiration etc.) however there are more and more smaller and local events.

    Oh, and please remember that Europe doesn’t end on Berlin, but I invite you to visit events also in Central Europe, for example: Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan, Krakow or Rzeszow.

  10. 11

    Steffen W. Schilke

    August 24, 2015 4:19 pm

    Hallo, we run a BarCamp in Frankfurt am Main, Germany in November with the explicit focus on mobile User eXperience, hence the name mUXCamp – you can not call it a Conference but it is a BarCamp with the free exchange of ideas over two days with an expected attendance of 180 people. You might want to consider such formats (but also we are needing the support of sponsors to keep our event free (last year we even had free beer)).

  11. 12

    James Wilkinson

    August 24, 2015 5:55 pm

    At Full Stack Toronto it was always our initiative to focus on bringing great content to our developers, and we did. Now we’re doing it again this year, no fancy gimmicks just great content, this content focuses on all layers of web development, not just one niche market or framework. Our selection process involves balancing diversity from beginner to advanced, native to framework and amateur to pro speakers.

    I find this mass expansion of the conference scene and destination/experience driving events stemming from the massive imbalance in work/life culture in many tech organizations recently talked about with the Times article on Amazon life. Conferences have become more of an escape from work over an intensive learning experience.

    It will be interesting to see how we balance both learning and escapes in the future. In the meantime our conference stays on a weekend, focuses on those focused on learning, and provides them with ample opportunities to learn not just from the speakers but also their fellow attendees. Check us out if you will or see us in the Conference round up article here!


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