Weeknote 456

August 18th to 22nd

The Conference 2014 in Malmö
Here's a full album on flickr with some comments on the photos.

I'm just back from a week in Malmö, Sweden. I'm in the studio for a few hours today to join a workshop and to write some emails … and this weeknote! As Johannes announced, I will take over for the next three months. Wish me luck! Also, I'm sitting on Johannes' desk today – a whole new perspective.

This weeknote will be 99% about The Conference, "the word's most thought through conference" (how they call themselves and I tend to agree) and the main reason for my travel to Malmö. A friend just told me this morning while bringing our kids to school how it's been a long time (if ever) since my tweets have been so euphoric. You might have gotten a glimpse already if you follow our Twitter account.

There are several levels to this: first, I was in Sweden with my family and we spent the weekend before The Conference in lovely Malmö. It wasn't my first time in town, but the first time in summer and the first time with my family. We had a very nice apartment with super friendly and helpful hosts in a very calm, yet lively residential area close to the beach and several parks. Speaking of summer, we had a pretty bad timing because on Sunday, there was rain all day long, zero sun hours (according to weather data, backed by reality). And if you have a little of experience with spending time with two kids locked inside an apartment in a foreign city, you know how not fun this can get. But anyway, I was still very excited and we really enjoyed the city a lot (the weather got better with the new week, too)! If you're looking for a place to go with your kids soon, pick Malmö (and check the weather before you leave).

Another level is the fact that Matthias, who studied in Malmö for a while some years back, had told me how much he loved it there and how much he admires the work of Media Evolution, a local community that connects and drives digital business as well as running a co-working space called Media Evolution City and organizing The Conference. So expectations, but also excitement, were pretty high – and they were met. Have a look at this video, where Magnus Thure Nilsson, the CEO of Media Evolution, talks about their work with the local (digital) business community.

Watching it actually helped me understand better why I liked my Malmö experience so much. What he basically says is that all they do is the community, not them. So as a local business, all their initiatives are your initiatives. You own them as much as they do – they are just the ones that happen to organize them, and both sides depend on each nother. This is a spirit I personally have never felt as an entrepreneur in Hamburg, but this is a whole different story …

I originally heard from The Conference from Bertram, who told me some months back how he found it online and thought it sounded like just the right mix of topics and speakers (and also, we both liked the understatement, the focus on topics and not celebrity company or speaker names, although there still were lots of pretty prominent organizations present among speakers and attendees). And then seeing the website, which had a very friendly and well written tonality as well as a beautiful visual identity designed by Hvass&Hannibal from Copenhagen (plus several nice details, like the way speaker photos were presented or the "Convince Your Boss"-PDF), and I was immediately sold and booked the trip.

When I was at the event, I was thinking for a moment where I should put my impressions and all the fanboy-love. I knew I would write a weeknote, but I somehow wanted to have more immediacy and potential conversation around it. This is also because I exactly know the feeling of the team during the conference, who did months of very hard work, had a lot of pressure and struggles with things that don't work as expected, or change in the last minute or whatever. And then the event is happening, still everything is not as perfect as one conceived (good designers are always unsatisfied with their work). And people just enjoy the event! They tweet about the conference program, the speakers, about the conversations they have (or don't have), and probably also about how they feel in general. But almost nobody explicitely mentions their experience, the design and all the details that make the event special and pleasant. That's even a good thing! People aren't there for specific bits and pieces, they came to enjoy the overall experience. But in secret, we still hope somebody comments on some of the details of our work – and I'm not talking about expecting compliments, it can also be critical reflection (if it's at least somehow constructive, to not kill you in your tense, fragile, sleep deprived state). With a lot of empathy for this context, I decided to use our Twitter account to reflect on some of the details that rather surround the main topics of a conference, but that unconsciously make the difference and your attendance enjoyable. I hope I didn't annoy too man followers with this. I rather hope it inspires other designers to do the same: write down their conference experiences, so others can learn (and steal) from it.

So although I really liked the idea of being just a visitor, able to enjoy the event, listen to some interesting talks, meet friends and new people, I spent a lot of time looking at all the details, observing the event unfold and people behave in time and space. It's like as a young drummer back then when seeing my favorite bands play live, I had to learn to not just focus on the drums, but enjoy all the band and their music. I took a lot of "between the lines" pictures and put them up as an album on flickr, together with some comments.

At precious design studio, our overall thesis for conference design is the following: no matter how hard you try, you cannot fully control the design of such an event. You need to come up with design principles, a framework to facilitate improvisation. And you should think about design principles that scale and adapt: prepare a masterplan, an orchestration, but also be ready to do a lot of modifications once you're at the actual location, setting up all the stuff you designed and built. You might need to get rid of some of the great ideas you had beforehand, you probably even prototyped and tested. And you might recognize that you need something more or something different here and there, or you simply forgot about some detail or corner and now need some "paint" and the appropriate tools to come up with a nice spontaneous solution.

I felt a lot of this spirit at The Conference, which made me really happy! The visual identity consisted of simple, yet very distinctive elements such as dozens of laser cut blurs of color, illustrations of branches and surfaces filled with polka dots. And they were combined in very lively and flexible ways – be it furniture on the stages, frames or shelves leaning against walls, colored "cloud blurbs" hanging from the ceiling in different colors, hand painted dots on seating surfaces or the dress of the team members. And they had mobile black board signs in the shape of a color blurb, allowing the team to spontaneously and repeatedly change their content and their mode (leaning against walls to show the name of the session in the room, being held by the team to show directions for lunch or say a friendly farewell after the conference).

And there was something else I learned: as designers, we get really obsessed with details. Which is a good thing, because they make a big difference. But as everything, you can also overdo it. Let me give you an example: On day 1, people were channeled out of the session rooms, through the main lobby, out of the building, through a basement garage where lunch waited to be grabbed. Then people would use moving stairs (not 100% sure about this actually, but I like to remember it that way) to go back up to the lobby and there was a really cool live band playing right in the middle.

You can imagine how this was quite a stunning experience (but hey, it was also brave by the organizers, as much as I loved it people might have hated it because it was quite some route to walk or they wouldn't like the band or think they're too loud etc …). So my conference attendee persona was very excited, I thought the route through the basement garage was somehow adventuresome, the vegan/vegetarian food tasted really good and I liked the band and I am into loud music. My observing designer persona was fascinated by the orchestration and dynamics of so many people walking the same route at the same time, guided by the team holding "lunch" signs with arrows on them. And then at some point I saw some signs that were not part of the visual identity of The Conference (they displayed what we had for lunch). I thought they looked surprisingly ugly and, speaking as my obsessed designer persona, if I would have been in charge it would have given me a heart attack!

But here's my learning: my attendant persona didn't care – because the overall experience was so coherent and fascinating at that very moment. It shows how, when orchestrating and designing these things, we really need to spend some time trying to imagine the actual situation and experience, test it as good as possible, and then make some well ordered and prioritized decisions. That's really hard to do!

The Conference also showed me once again how important the right choice of a location is for an event like that. It took place at Slagthuset, a very nice former slaughterhouse just around the corner from the main station and very close to downtown. It was really easy to orient oneself, not so much guidance or signage needed to find specific rooms. There were basically four parts of the venue that played a major role: the lobby, the theater (the main stage for the keynotes), and two rooms for breakout sessions, "The Butchery" and "The Bar". The lobby was in the center of all, the space where all people gather before the conference starts, between sessions or when the program fades out in the evening. I think it had a very inviting and pleasant atmosphere to hang around and talk to people or just have a look around. A place where you like to stay, that gives you a sense of delight, just like a nice coffeeshop or public park.

Something I'd personally like to improve next year: meet more new people! On one hand, I wanted to see my family in the evenings and therefore didn't have much occasions. On the other hand, I can be a shy person, especially if there's no expectations on myself (totally different when you're on a conference as part of the team or as a speaker for example). I get immersed with the program and the atmosphere and there's not much energy left for conversations with new people, I rather focus on existing friends (also, as I wrote above, my designer persona was busy observing and taking photos).

Also, I'm bad at networking and "mingling". That's probably because I usually hate it. The notion of getting in touch just to get in touch, to talk to people who could probably be important to you, makes me shiver. I know this is a very onesided look at things, and it might be highly influenced by how I perceived business networking in Germany so far (gut feeling: it's different in Sweden). So I think what I need is the right environment and atmosphere, and something or somebody to hook me up (and this is not tables with slip covers, finger food, chilly furniture and loungy music).

I think it should be something that sounds thrilling, maybe challenging, probably even with the potential to move me out of my social comfort zone. It should fit to the overall culture of the event and speak the language of making friends, not business contacts. The Conference came up with three interesting formats here.

  1. They had tables with a certain topic written on some of the signs, asking people to go to the table and discuss the topic. I did not do this (and also, did not see too many people getting involved actually). I think what was lacking was some sort of more active facilitation. I'm not sure what this could be, but putting speakers at the tables wouldn't be the solution because then the attention would rather be on those, not so much on the topic.

  2. "Dine with new friends": the organizers had reserved tables at their favorite restaurants (this alone is not only a great way to recommend places, but in itself a pretty amicable gesture). Attendants were asked to register to "take the opportunity to meet with 9 people you don't know over a yummy dinner in Malmö". I didn't do it, but heard very good things from friends who joined and said it wasn't only yummy, but also a good mix of attendants and speakers. I'll make sure to join next year.

  3. Another thing they did was the party after conference day 1, which took place at Boulebar, a nice bar with two huge alleys to play Boules. Your conference name badge "converted into free drinks" as the moderator on the main stage announced it, and what you got was three vouchers for free drinks and the number of your team in the Boules tournament. There were several very friendly and experienced Boules instructors managing the tournament and explaining the rules or showing some tricks. So what hooked me up was playing Boules with nice and interesting people. It wasn't making new business contacts. Nevertheless, several speakers took part in the tournament and there was for sure some sort of introduction and mingling involved. But there was Boules, and there was a competition going on and you better take care of that, too! (my team actually won the tournament and we won a medal and a nice set of Boules balls, which ironically gave Bertram, my team member a pretty hard time at the airport since Boules balls are on the list of forbidden things to take on board. But he managed it).

Last but not least, here are two things I think could be improved by The Conference:

  1. Before the conference, you could not only register for the main conference on the website, but also for several side events such as the above mentioned dinner or workshops (some things for free, some things not). I found it a bit hard to get a clear picture what's going on, but mainly for what I actually registered. I think this is because the registration page and flow looked and sounded pretty much the same for every single registration and the only real feedback you got was emails (and you know, inboxes are messy). So no page showing you all your registrations and all relevant information.

    One interesting observation here: the conference registration process was very easy and lightweight. Again, just a short confirmation email. At that point I was a little irritated, because there was no ticket sent to me or anything. Later on it turned out that this was actually a good thing. Here's an excerpt from the "practicalities" email that was sent to attendees a few days before the event:

    "When you arrive to the venue on Tuesday morning the registration counter is just inside the entrance. No tickets involved, just say your name and you'll get your badge & program."

    How great is that? That's in my opinion actually the right way to do it – but the tricky part is that based on experiences with other conferences where the onboarding and ticketing can be quite complicated and bureaucratic things, I somehow thought there's something wrong with it during my initial registration. So telling me about this super lightweight registration process more clearly right from the beginning would have helped I guess.

  2. I searched the App Store for an official The Conference app, but couldn't find one (all I found was one of those crappy generic "whitelabel" event apps which was pretty disappointing). I recognized how this was somehow my expectation for an event like this. And it's a bit ironic, because usually I am pretty sceptical with the choice of Apps cluttering my smartphone home screens. But when I'm at a conference, where for the given time all my attention is there, I somehow feel this is the right place instead of a mobile website. As mentioned above, I somehow missed the place where I could see all my registrations, and maybe all my favorite sessions I'd like to go to.

This became loooong and a lot of pretty detailed musing on a very specific, yet very favorite topic of ours (having worked with the wonderful people of re:publica and NEXT Berlin before). Thanks for your attention if you made it thus far and I hope you can take away at least a little bit. And now, have a look at the official documentation, watch all recorded talks of The Conference 2014 and make sure to register for 2015. See you there!

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