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Interview with NACONF founder Simon Collison, looking back on this year's inaugural conference

10/05/2011

Posted in: Heart Internet

Early this year we were one of the sponsors of a fantastic new web design conference, “New Adventures in web design”, which took place in Nottingham. We recently got in touch with the founder Simon Collison to take a look back at the event.

Do you feel you achieved all the goals you set yourself when you decided you were going to go ahead with your idea?

I think so. I’ve barely had any time to evaluate the event as I’ve been catching up with other projects ever since. It seemed like hundreds of people wrote positively about the event either on blogs or Twitter, and they all loved the special newspaper we printed. Above all, I actually think we made a difference, with the subject matter at the core being genuinely important and inspiring. I’ve noticed the themes cropping up in other events ever since, which says a lot about our reach. I love that so many have expanded upon these themes or sought to find solutions to the questions we posed. In some way I think we did something special, and that’s down to everyone who helped make the event possible.

Were there any moments of blind panic on the day or did it all go pretty smoothly?

The first glitch happened very early on. As registration began at 8am, we were surprised how relaxed and manageable it was. As it turned out, most attendees decided to turn up after 8.40am, and we suddenly had a queue around the block, requiring us to think fast and get creative to process people as quickly as possible. I ended up deciding to start the event half-an-hour late to ensure nobody missed a single thing. Next time, we’ll devise a way of registering attendees at the warm-up events.

Aside from that, everything went pretty smoothly. At one point between speakers we lost all power on the stage, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

Were there any highlights that stood out for you?

I was delighted by the talks, by the feedback, and by the positive vibe of the whole thing really. Above all, the whole process was bolstered by incredible generosity. Whether from sponsors such as Heart Internet, suppliers, the venue, volunteers, even attendees who hacked together tweet aggregators or launched sites about where to eat in the city, I couldn’t believe how people pulled together from the outset, dedicated to making this thing a success. Without that level of generosity, and the desire to make the event extra special, it wouldn’t have made such an impact, that’s for sure.

A lot of the attendees wrote very positive reviews on their blogs, this must be a great source of motivation to run it again in 2012?

Yes, the response was incredible. I was thrilled by the positive reviews and messages. It seems the event inspired a lot of people to think carefully and differently about their approaches to web design. Many were I think surprised at the high level of subject matter and assumed knowledge that created a sense that attendees were on a level with speakers, and that we are all exploring this stuff together. On the day we discussed web design without having a single line of code on the screen at any time, which is pretty special.

I’d love to run the event again every year. I already have speakers in mind for 2012 and ways of improving the event, but I haven’t decided for sure yet. The major obstacle is processing money for the tickets, and the problems PayPal create for me. It’s their policy to retain a major chunk of funds until after the event, and there’s no way around this, which causes serious cashflow issues for me. In order to pay the remaining significant overheads I had to borrow over £25,000 from an unnamed source, and I only received that remaining amount from PayPal in March. Myself and other organisers talk about this regularly, assessing alternatives and considering creating our own payment method, but for now PayPal has us all by the short and curlies.

If you do run it again in 2012, what lessons will you carry over from this year?

Aside from improving the registration process, and hopefully not suffering from the limitations of Paypal, I’d like to change a few things for the next event. I’ll probably charge a little more for the tickets, but not a huge increase. The budget was tight, despite us selling all the tickets three months early.

I’d like to provide some really exciting workshops. I’d like to add more related events for the conference week, and I’d like to make the whole experience even more magical for those who put their faith in New Adventures.

Also, in the first year of an event, there is a significant financial risk, so it’s vital to get some big name speakers. I had ten very well known male and female speakers, but now the first event is under my belt I’d like to take a few risks and invite lesser names to speak and share their ideas, giving new folks a chance to take the stage and inspire the attendees. I think it’s important to put together a more diverse set of speakers; not just in subject matter, but in terms of ethnic background and gender, or at least find a way of having established speakers mentor up and coming presenters of tomorrow. This is something regularly discussed in our industry, and an all-white, all-male list of speakers is not a true reflection of the people making waves in web design.

It was nice to see an event like this outside of London. What were the benefits of holding the conference in Nottingham?

The location is excellent, with Nottingham being pretty central, and surrounded by a number of key cities. Equally important is the transport network, with attendees easily getting here from London, or flying in to East Midlands Airport. I think it speaks volumes that people came from the US, Australia, all over Europe and even the Middle East. Nobody seemed to resent the location. In fact, I was delighted to hear so many say how much they loved Nottingham and would want to visit again. There’s always been a hive of creative activity in this city, and I hope this event helped draw some attention to that fact.

How important are conferences such as NACONF for the UK web design community?

I think the current conference model is vital. It has served the industry very well for many years. That said, I expect the model to change in line with what we need to discuss, how we learn, and how attendees expectations grow. Organisers have to think smartly.

I’ve always enjoyed the social angle of these events, and that’s where many of us find significant value. Hanging out with friends old and new, getting together in bars or at unusual fringe events to discuss what we do, how we do it, and look at possibilities for collaboration are essential. This is something SXSW in Texas does very well. This year I went there and didn’t go to a single session, instead spending my time with other web folks and partying. It’s hard to explain why that was valuable, but it was.

Ultimately, all these events have created an industry that doesn’t isolate people. It’s always been possible to meet your heroes, or find like-minded people and friendships that mean something. When web people get together regularly, they party hard, but importantly they discuss their craft, face up to problems, and look for outcomes. The value of what gets done in bars, bowling alleys, or in the foyer of a conference cannot be underestimated, and I’m delighted that New Adventures played a part in that.

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