Are Web Design Conferences Becoming Too Safe?


Paul Robert Lloyd

Thank-you all for your comments. Most of the debate that followed here, on Twitter, and offline has been fascinating – there certainly seems to be an appetite for more experimentation at web design conferences, as well as a desire to see more people in our community take to the speaking circuit.

Just to follow up on a few specific comments:

@Cennydd: Thank-you for putting the gist of my argument into far better words than I could!

@Sarah Paramenter: I didn’t mean to belittle the hard work you and other speakers put into your presentations. This effort often shows, and I certainly admire the bravery required to stand in front of so many people! As to counting you as a ‘same old face’, I realised soon after posting this entry, that it was more a familiarity with the lineup of speakers rather than the frequency of speaking I had difficulty accepting. That isn’t meant as an insult, it just reflects my view that it would nice to see more speakers at web conferences who reside outside our close-knit community – from other sectors of the design industry often referred to in presentations yet rarely involved to any greater degree. I think such speakers would have an interesting perspective on the daily challenges we face in our own profession.

@Gareth Rushgrove: Thanks for your detailed thoughts, and contribution to this debate. It would certainly be interesting to see what a conference for ‘old timers’ might look like!

@Robert Lee-Chan: Something that came up in the discussions I had is that quite often people don’t take the initiative or seek out opportunities to speak. As you suggest, BarCamps are a great testing ground for new speakers and the relaxed atmosphere perfect for honing presentation skills.

@Rich Clark: Thanks for providing background information about Speak the Web. I’m a real fan of the model you’ve created, and would love to see more events of this nature.

@JohnONolan: I disagree with your ‘snide comments’ remark. I personally found the discussions I had with Simon, Mark and others to be reasonable. Whilst they may have been immediately angered, the resulting debate was interesting and raised a number of good points.


I’m glad someone brought this up.

@Matt Hill: You wrote: So how do we encourage the other personality types to give it a go?

I don’t think that should be the question. I think the question is if they are actually willing to give chance to new speakers?

I think it’s also about “connections” that you get a chance to speak at these events. So it doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at what they do but they just know the right people.

Jon Moss

Some interesting points, and some articulate reasoning too.

However, I personally don’t see any reason for complaints, and certainly not snide remarks.

Running a conference takes months of hard work, risk and organisation. I can firmly say this, having run Hull Digital Live last year, and doing the same this year (4th November).

You try running a digital / tech / web conference in Hull! (People still think we don’t have electricity over here!).

I encountered a small degree of negativity, which while quite hurtful, was soon forgotten when the feedback was 99.9% positive. (There seems to be a strange attitude where success breeds jealousy and bad feeling from people who could have actually done something themselves, instead of whinge and talk).

With the #naconf, it represents amazing value, and in a different location (and hence makes it accessible to a new audience), with superb speakers - all to be commended.




Fascinating and relevant article and discussion, I’m really glad you’ve brought it up, despite inevitable snide comments on Twitter from those who it’s about.

@MattHill: Thanks for the link up on that old post!

Rich Clark

Coming from an organisers perspective (Speak the Web) we did try to get new speakers onto the circuit and this is part of what we’re trying to do. We attempted to structure it with one new speaker, one semi-regular speaker and one well known name. We knew we needed the well known names to get bums on seats but it was also important to make those well known accessible to different parts of the country as the conference ‘scene’ seemed to be very London centric. Our philiosiphy is that everyone has got something important to say so give them the chance to say it.

The exposure and experience that the new speakers got was invalulable to them while many people told us that they were the sessions they enjoyed most. Thats not to say they weren’t without fault or nerves but a relaxed environment certainly helped there.

We found a real mix with attendees, some were there to hear specific people, others specific talks and the rest well just there for beer.

It should be pointed out that all the speakers worked without a fee for all events and in most cases didn’t claim any expenses as we were running the events for charity.

Ultimately there’s a fine balance to be struck and each conference organisers motivations are different and as such their decisions are to be respected.

From an attendee perspective, I think Colly has done a great job of pulling this together and although I’ve been to a fair share of events I’ve not seen 1/2 the speakers talking at other events.

I also prefer the single track format unlike at other conferences when you’re forced to choose between two really good looking sessions.

The idea of a debate is also a good one (ala @media hot topics) but I’m still keen to find out the details of the individual talks.

In summary, count me in.


One of the big draws for conferences isn’t the names of the attendees, it’s the companies that they represent. There’s lots of minions at these organisations who aren’t working as evangelists, marketeers or similar roles, who have much more experience to draw on. It is often these types, that, although they don’t provide well presented talks, often shine thanks to the insight that they provide.

There’s also a rarely tapped pool of speakers, who aren’t linked directly to design or development, yet these would be wonderful as keynotes, or one of their co-workers from a regional office could step in and present the same talk more cheaply. These talks are more likely to be mind blowing and visionary.

Conferences should also provide a form on their websites to invite talks from unknowns. Let them propose talks, and add a few token slots for the best of these unknowns to the line-up. It seems like in order to be a speaker, you have to be interested in promoting yourself by developing a career as some sort of web expert, or, as mentioned above become an evangelist - this shouldn’t have to be the case.

Another thing. Developer conferences badly need to move on from topics like scaling. It’s an important topic, but it gets covered way too often. There’s so much more, even with mobile you can move away from the web and cover the multitude of platforms that can be supported natively. After all, web developer and designers are more often than not, now assumed responsible for the building of mobile phone apps in their agencies.

Laura Fisher

As a freelancer, conferences are a difficult choice for me. They cost a chunk of change to attend, but when I get to a good one, I come back both energized and enlightened, so I think the expense is worth it.

Knowing that I’m likely to only go to one conference per year, I choose very carefully. I look not just at speaker line-up, but at how the conference is organized - are there social events lined up? (meeting people in person is half the reason to go) Is it single track? Are there workshops? Is it in a cool (and/or convenient) city?

While I would certainly applaud a more varied list of speakers in all these sprouting-up conferences, I suspect that they will need to differentiate themselves on that other list of criteria: cost, location, amenities, etc. Maybe some conference will come up with a unique way for attendees to meet each other (most just throw us into a bar and hope for the best). That in particular would be a huge selling point for me.


This tired old face would point out r/e MultiPack “local Birmingham designers and developers speak alongside Bruce Lawson and Stuart Langridge” that both Stuart and I are local developers.

Stuart and I attempt to make regular donations to local busineses (specifically, The Wellington on Bennet’s Hill, only this week) and get local buses/ trains back home.


Would love to see a conference that reaches out to the international community. I’m sure the organizers can find quality speakers from countries other than the UK and US. And yes, financially we can afford such conferences too.

Matt Hill

I’ve been in web design/dev for 13 years, but do not attend conferences as a punter, and certainly not as a speaker. But I do keep track of what’s on, who speaks at each, and on what subjects, and it does seem that the “web celebrities” are continually the ones behind the microphone.

There’s a very obvious reason why we see the same names speaking over and over: personality type. I don’t do public speaking because it terrifies me. I’m not the kind of personality who revels in being the centre of attention for any length of time, it’s just not “me”.

Speakers at web conferences likely share the traits of confident self starters who know how to sell themselves. I don’t like the word “celebrity”, but you have to accept that you get “celebrities” in any industry: people with the personality for it who do the speaking because they enjoy it and are happy to put themselves up for it.

There are thousands of excellent other web professionals out there who could do just as good a job as the “celebs”, maybe even better, but they choose not to because it’s simply not their thing. There’s an interesting discussion about it on John O’Nolan’s site, The World’s Best Web Designers Are Unknown–the main takeaway from that discussion is that people become “celebrities” through a conscious marketing effort of self-promotion. Simple and obvious and a big part of the issue.

No industry can escape the issue of the same speakers turning up again and again. It’s just the nature of people: some shout loud and get noticed and some don’t. It’s not necessarily a bad thing if the same speakers continually turn up, as long as what they offer is new and worthwhile. But it would certainly be more interesting if others gave it a try.

So how do we encourage the other personality types to give it a go?

Robert Lee-Cann

I’d encourage anyone interested in speaking at a conference, to attend a few BarCamps. It’s a great way of doing getting used to talking in front of a crowd.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend some really great talks from the sort of people you never see at conferences. I’m not sure whether people assume there’s some sort of perceived Brighton clique that you have to be a member of to speak at conferences?

Matt Bee

Surely its the topics that should be the focus, not the ‘faces’. Hell I would love to speak but I am not good enough at any aspect of geek shit yet to do so. When I can speak I will, but until then, leave it the speakers that have the experience and will put bums on seats

And besides, the speakers and the topic can be identical all the time if the audience is different, and if you’ve seen a talk or a speaker before, then don’t go, and someone that hasn’t seen the speaker can learn something.

There is demand for good value conferences, so why not repeat the faces and topics for a new audience?

Gareth Rushgrove

So I used to go to lots of web conferences, but due to changing interests and roles over the last few years I’ve been going to less and less (this year that probably means 4). I also find it less interesting listening to the same people over again. This isn’t at all a criticism of those people though. It’s also not a criticism of the events.

Conferences need volume. They also need most talks to appeal to the majority of the attendees. By far and away the easiest way of doing that is aiming at a less experienced and more general audience. As a long time conference goer I’m just not as interested in the introductory material that absolutely suits that audience down to the ground. What I want is much more specialist, assumes much more of the listener and frankly probably interests less people. I used to be a good sample target audience for web conferences, I just don’t think I am any more if you want a large(ish) commercially successful event.

Another conference to add to your list which I think both points to the same issue and doesn’t was Design It Build It - (Disclaimer: I spoke at this, used to live in Newcastle, know the organisers and am friends with a large number of the speakers). This was a two track conference. The design track had a lot of the same people speaking as the conferences you mention. The developer track had half of the speakers speaking for the first time. Now the designer half of the conference was better attended. But I know a majority of the audience had not been to a conference before (or only been to one or two) and massively enjoyed themselves.

Another interesting observation (I don’t actually have any conclusions from this yet) is that increasingly it is independent or very small business workers that are speaking at events, in particular in the UK. A few years ago I think it was a little more balanced. I can really only think of Opera in the UK who are not a small organisation and who regularly have speakers at web related events. This makes sense as well. Given the economic climate larger companies without a vested interest are likely to be less likely to find time, and independent workers are going to be looking to be more aggressive when it comes to self promotion.

I could talk about this for ages, because I’ve seen it from so many angles. But I don’t genuinely see it as a problem. I see it as a symptom of @media (and other events) coming along 7 or 8 years ago at the very start of an industry/community in the UK - and the people who were at those events having changed, specialised and diversified within a growing industry. Leave these conferences mainly for those in their nascent years (and the occasional visit) - the question is what can us old timers create for ourselves?

Simon Young

One more comment from me - really in response to what Sarah pointed out. I chatted to a couple of the DIBI 2010 speakers at some length about what went in to a presentation, the amount of time it took and indeed the financial reward for it.

The bottom line is that for most, paying client work would be significantly better paid and far less stressful than talking to a room full of your peers - especially when you know a minority are dying for a chance to take you down.

Aaron Russell

I am one of who I’m sure will be many attendees of New Adventures who are attending a web conference for the first time (possibly the kind of people event organisers should be aiming for?)

I speak for myself, but whilst I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing each of the billed speakers, my decision to attend was based far more on the competitive price than the all-star lineup.

Guy Carberry

Some of the speakers might be familiar faces but at least they don’t trundle out the same talk from conference to conference. They don’t do death by Powerpoint and are lively, engaging and entertaining speakers. The time and effort they put into their presentations is awe-inspiring and motivating.

I have never seen Elliot, Jon, Tim or Greg talk before (nearly 50% of the speakers). Looking forward to absorbing their wisdom very much. I had never seen Brendan Dawes before FOWD and I am really looking forward to seeing what he pulls out of the hat this time.

The single-track, fast-paced nature of the conference is as much of the attraction as the celebrity of the speakers themselves. It’s not just the location that has changed:

It will be a fast-paced, punchy format: ten designers with 30 minutes each, plus two debates with five designers at a time, and plenty of audience input.

Credit to Colly and his ambitions. I wish him every success.

Paul May

I don’t think having the same faces is always a problem; we don’t stop having stuff to learn from good people - just because they are well known, or speak frequently. I do think that the same speakers, speaking on the same topic (or giving the exact same talk) is a real problem. This wouldn’t really happen in other industries; a scientific paper, given once, isn’t really road-showed around the place - the information is published, and made available for people to discuss and try to repeat, experiment with. The repetition is unnecessary - and each time a noted speaker gives the same talk, that’s a spot that somebody else could have taken.

You mention Build as a conference that is trying to break new ground, and Andy is to be applauded, but the contrast between the level of discussion/talk in Ireland and the quality of the product being produced by Irish web studios is massive. I’m sure this applies elsewhere.

Part of me just feels that we’re too young an industry to have old-hands, and that we’ve fallen too quickly into the trap of being an industry that talks a great game, but where standards are middling at best.

Anyway, great to have this discussion.


Interesting thoughts Paul.

This post has certainly stirred up some polarised opinion about the conference already. I guess the difficulty here is there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground because the “same faces” are bought in because they’re great at what they do and those conference vets out there may not find them as relevant as they were when they saw them at previous conferences.

Colly certainly looks to have put a shitload of effort into setting this up and getting some well respected names in is never going to hurt but I suppose some of the original feeling (can’t remember who made the first inflamatory tweet) was that the names are generally the same wherever you turn - conferences, judging panels, high traffic blogs etc.

Guess that’s just a result of people being at the top of their game though and a distincly British feeling that we should bash those who are successful!

It would be more interesting to discuss the lack of new faces and people willing / able to step up to conference talks.

Simon Young

I think there are some good points made in the original article but I’ve got a slightly different view on it.

Despite working ‘in the industry’ for more than a decade I’ve really only recently started attending conferences – DIBI in April and following this up with dConstruct, possibly Build, and then New Adventures in January.

When Colly announced New Adventures I picked up a ticket virtually straightaway for a few different reasons:

  1. The line up - sure you might view it as safe, but it’s an exceptional line up of speakers for such a low ticket price – even eclipsing already impressive line ups for DIBI and Clearleft. It’s on a par with, if not better, than the line ups at FOWD and the like.
  2. The ticket price - not because it’s good value (which it is) but because it will encourage freelancers and designers from small companies to attend – the kind of person I am and the kind of people I want to mix with.
  3. I’m pretty sure Colly can put on a good party and god knows we’ll need one in the middle of January.

To address the point of the ‘same old speakers’ argument, I think Cennydd makes a good point that the financial risk involved in putting on a brand new conference with a wide list of unknown speakers outside of London in the middle of the winter would probably be too great. The primary factor in making the event successful is getting a good turn out.

Of course if the speakers roll out the same conference talks they used in 2010 in January 2011 then the criticism may well be justified – but I’d bet that Colly has his eye on much more unique content: than that. The bottom line is that until the schedule is announced we can’t really make realistic judgements on how ‘safe’ the conference will be.

I see a rising element of dissatisfaction on channels like Twitter where it’s so easy to make throwaway remarks about the work and efforts of others so it’s good to see people take the effort to at flesh out these thoughts rather than throw them around as 140-character nail bombs.

Sarah Parmenter

Interesting post but I thought I should weigh in (at 6.30am from Florida!). I feel a bit miffed at being branded as a “same old face”. I started doing conferences last year and due to putting in lots of hard work and careful consideration about my talks, they were, thankfully, successful. I feel like you are belittling the fact that everyone who speaks regularly have all worked hard to do so. The message it’s sending to me is that someone shouldn’t work hard for a place doing something they love because they are going to get branded as a “same old face”.

How I’ve managed to become one in under a year, I have no idea, how “new” does “new blood” need to be? Under a year and then you are put on the conference shelf? It’s taken me a year to understand the whole thing fully to be honest.

Anyway, that’s just my two cents. I just think all the other guys doing it have honed their craft for many years, they are the best at what they do, so why not? It’s not to say there isn’t space for anyone else as up until last October, I was a newbie myself.

Mark Hurrell

I find web design conferences too generalist – for example; social networking sites have totally different business priorities and user behaviours to government information sites – yet also too specific. Why just web design? Surely a social app should have the same core interaction tone as it’s equivalent website?

Even the term “Web design conference” feels media-specific in a profession where the media is fast becoming just one option amongst many. Screen-based interaction designers need to be able to apply their skills to creating traditional websites, mobile sites, compact mobile apps, iPad apps and even ebooks, yet somehow tie all those disparate mediums together with familiar/shared interactions and emotional tone.

David Hughes

Up until recently I was a conference tourist, but now I must pick and choose the conferences I attend.

I’m attending New Adventures and I’m paying my own money to do so.

I would have been much less likely to have done so had I not heard of the speakers, and heard many of them speak before. This in my money and I want value from it.

I’m paying because I want to see Andy Clarke, Brendan Dawes, Dan Rubin and Mark Boulton speak again. Yes again.

Now despite having been to many, many web conferences I have not seen Veerle Pieters, Tim Van Damme, Jon Tan or Sarah Parmenter speak before. So I think New Adventures has a blend between those that speak often in the UK, and those that do not.

Yes they are all ‘names’ and yes I guess that makes them ‘safe’, but who these days can afford to take a punt on an unknown quantity? The conference is incredible value, but I’d be thinking twice if I didn’t know and want to see the speakers.

If you feel so strongly maybe you should run a conference of unknown speakers and see how it does? Just saying.

Carl Crawley

A very accurate and interesting post. Its good to see someone stand up and make this point – it’s left me with a feeling that I’m obviously not the only one who feels this way. I have had to re-evaluate the benefit of attending all these conferences when it’s the same people appearing, sometimes talking about the same thing (just slightly regurgitated in a different format).

This year, I’ve made the decision to not attend FOWA (Future of Web-Apps) since, I felt after 2 or 3 years of going regularly, it’s the same speakers, performing the same talks about the same subject – and this year is no different, exactly the same speakers talking about the same / similar subjects. It becomes very ‘fanboyish’ and just an exercise in mutual appreciation rather than anything constructive to the UK Design/Development industry.

I’m sure it’s not an intentional ‘safe’ attitude for the UK-Based conference market - maybe it’s a logistical / commercial issue? Can the UK not attract some of the new talent from across the pond? Do we not have enough new burgeoning talent in the UK to offer variety? Hell, I’d even do a talk on something if I even thought people would be interested!

Anyway, enough of my rambling.


Jack Franklin

The comment above pretty much says most of what I would say however I just wanted to add one point – I’m hoping to be able to go to NA Conf and for me I’ve never seen any of those people speak before (I know, I’ve been living in a hole, right?). If you attend conferences regularly, then yes I think you will find it a bit stale as you’ve said, but if like me you only get to go to the odd 1, maybe 2 a year if you’re lucky, it’s not such an issue.


Excellent and necessary post.

You’re right to note that we’re jaded. We ‘lefties attend a lot of these events as speakers, sponsors and attendees. We’re deeply (pitifully?) immersed in our industry, and it’s only natural that we find familiar names less appealing, great speakers and good friends though they may be.

But don’t underestimate the importance of location. I’m sure Colly put himself at substantial financial risk with New Adventures, just as we did with UX London. His response - and possibly the only sensible one from a business point of view - was to pack the conference with big names to maximise the financial return. If the conference is safe, it’s because it needed to be. And I’m sure it will go down fantastically with the Midlands community. I lived in Nottingham for 9 years, during which time I was barely able to discern any web community. I would have leapt for joy at the prospect of seeing great speakers in my hometown for under a ton, and I think Colly deserves praise for bringing an affordable conference to an under-served region.

What we’re seeing is also a simple supply and demand issue. Conference speakers are safe because safety is rewarded. As you know, the reaction to last year’s obscure dConstruct lineup was muted, if curious. We had to rely on the trust our audience has in dConstruct and Clearleft (or trust in the brands, if you will) to pull off a successful conference.

And the same speakers are only the same to the same audience. A conference tourist who goes to dConstruct, FOWA, Build, WD @media and New Adventures will clearly see diminishing returns. They’d be better off exploring the strange horizons beyond the web, or going deep on a specific topic like UX, JavaScript, or information design.

As the number of conferences seems to double every 18 months (Moore-Bowles law, anyone? C’mon, it’s early…), conservative lineups are almost enforced by the difficult of finding new, high-quality speakers. As you know, Clearleft are frequently asked why we don’t have more Brits at our conferences, particularly UX London. The answer is still the same, much to my sadness: there aren’t enough speakers in the wings who can offer the appropriate quality and reliability to a paying audience.

Herein lies an awkward Catch 22. This is an understandable way to reduce risk, but it exacerbates the problem. Organisers seem increasingly worried to take a chance on the specialists - the academics, the researchers, and so on. We’re now seeing ‘big name’ generalists being lauded as experts in highly specialised topics to which others have dedicated their entire lives. I worry that it’s a slippery slope toward dilettantism.

Yes, the scene has grown safe. Even stale. I applaud anyone who pauses to take a fresh look at how we can invigorate the UK community; hopefully Clearleft can be a part of that conversation. But while safety sells and financial risk remains high, that may end up being a quixotic endeavour.