Compared to other industry events, expectations are sky-high at design conferences. “Dentists, physicists, sociologists, taxidermists all meet to find out what’s new in their specialties. So do designers, but they are not happy about it,” Ralph Caplan former director of the Aspen International Design Conference once said to Eye Magazine, explaining the great challenge of creating extraordinary experiences with surprising and innovative details to satisfy design-savvy audiences.
The best conferences offer great value to multi-tasking designers. In a single event, one can find creative inspiration, learn about the latest gizmos, network with peers and vendors, broker new partnerships (or jobs), meet design luminaries, and experience the local hospitality of the host city along the way.
Since the first dedicated design conference in 1949, a growing number of professional conferences around the world compete for audiences and choosing the right one is tricky. The decision is critical as attending any number of these mini creative retreats can run up to thousands of dollars after registration fees, travel expenses and the cost of time away from doing client work.
How to decide? Consider the speakers, the location, the event’s track record, and don’t forget the attendee list—after all, many of these annual meetings have become ersatz tribal gatherings for design professionals interested in distinct specializations.
Listed in chronological order, here’s a list of the design conferences we’re looking forward to this year.
Though not strictly a design-only event, TED offers insight into the interdisciplinary forces that shape the designed world. (The D in TED stands for Design). If your budget can’t accommodate the hefty registration fees, you may still be able to see the live proceedings through a viewing party near you. Quartz will cover this year’s conference with a special focus on design and architecture.
Cape Town, South Africa
This lively, long-running design conference held annually in Cape Town, South Africa, draws an impressive international roster of speakers and attendees from around the world.
Bonus: Graphic design legend Michael Bierut serves as the conference’s emcee. A vibrant expo featuring African-made products and projects is on-site.
This four-day interaction design conference boasts a packed program with over 100 speakers representing organizations like the MIT Media Lab, BBC, frog Design, Huge, and Uber.
Bonus: The iconic Finlandia Hall, designed by legendary architect Aalvar Alto, will serve as the conference’s main venue.
This inclusive multidisciplinary design conference covering from graphic design, photography, animation, illustration, fashion, film, industrial design and art seeks to dismantle hierarchy in design circles.
Bonus: Registration fees are comparatively low ranging from €135 ($147) for students and €250 ($272) for working professionals.
New York City, US
Taking prolific inventor Thomas Edison as its poster child, 99U is a doer’s conference. Talks are peppered with insights and tips (some teetering on motivational speech) from successful designers and entrepreneurs; this conference organized by Adobe’s Behance, offers pragmatic tips for practitioners and a balm for burnt-out designers feelings stuck in their careers.
Bonus: Attendees can schedule time with career coaches on-site.
Now on its 20th year, TYPO Berlin is Europe’s biggest design event. Despite the name, the conference’s presentation extends beyond typography and covers a broader range of design topics from graphic design to advertising.
Seattle, Washington, US
Check out this conference if you’re curious about designed spaces—from the complex politics of creating signage for cities to how museums are using technology to create memorable experiences. Designers, fabricators, architects, exhibition designers, brand strategists, and wayfinding specialists convene in this annual gathering by the Society for Experiential Graphic Design.
New York City, US
Billeted as a “festival for people who use type,” this event convened by the legendary design and architecture school Cooper Union is for those deeply interested in the art and craft of typography and font-making.
Bonus: Walking tours and hands-on workshops contextualize type in real world scenarios.
What Design Can Do
June 30–July 1
An exciting conference spotlighting the efficacy of design solutions in addressing social matters. The conference was founded in 2011 with the “aim of separating what is valuable from what is worthless.”
Mayo Clinic Transform Conference
Rochester, Minnesota, US
Designers and doctors share the stage in this unique design conference focused on health innovations generated through human-centered design thinking.
Bonus: Tours of the world-famous Mayo Clinic provide a fascinating glimpse into the busy hospital infrastructure supported by a robust design department.
Brand New Conference
Nashville, Tennessee, US
If you love logos, this is your tribe. The expertly-run event from the founders of the popular design blog Brand New, spotlights established and emerging graphic designers, typographers, branding experts working in the field of corporate identity.
Highlight: Organizers Bryony Gomez-Palacio and Armin Vit lovingly hand-craft each name badge and bag for every attendee.
Seoul, South Korea
For a rush of design inspiration from today’s design luminaries, this all-star conference showcases the latest work from members of the exclusive, nomination-only club Alliance Graphique Internationale. With lower-than-average registration fees, expect to meet many design students in the crowd.
Camden, Maine, US
Oct, 2016 (exact dates TBA)
Held in picturesque Maine, the eclectic conference spearheaded by design guru John Maeda, gathers designers, scientists, artists, filmmakers, engineers, corporate and civic leaders, and policy-makers for a four-day creative immersion.
San Diego, California, US
Oct 31–Nov 4
If you’re keen on updating your technical skills, Adobe’s annual creativity conference is a good place to start. Be prepared for a huge crowd—about 7,000 attendees—for the four-day marathon of keynote stage presentations, tech labs, and events.
Extra: Surprise appearances by celebrities (like Nick Offerman last year) occasionally assist with demonstrations of the industry giant’s new products.
Titans of tech assemble at this highly anticipated annual conference featuring exciting start-ups as well as Fortune 500 companies like Google, IBM, Amazon, Twitter and Apple.
Bonus: The conference gave complimentary tickets to women working in the tech industry as part of a global initiative to even out the gender ratio in their events, and the tech industry.
No time, no money? No worries. Many events listed above offer a livestream or a video recording of their event (often for free). But for a fuller experience, detach from the computer screen and show up at any number of worthwhile local events in person.
Check the events calendar of local universities, art schools, cultural institutes, museums, embassies, libraries, book stores, retail stores (like the local Apple store), vendors, or professional clubs that convene talks, symposia and festivals often at little or no cost for creative inspiration year round.