Design Conferences during a pandemic. 2020 in review

For three years we are sending out a weekly newsletter about design conferences. Over the past year, the newsletter content shifted. From newsletters with long intros and a list of upcoming events. To a detailed daily overview of events worthwhile attending for home. As 2020 comes to a close, I took a moment to look back at these weekly newsletters and our Instagram account. Trying to find some design conference trends this year. Because due to the pandemic, everything in the conference space has changed. In this review, I share my findings.

Sunday night, December 20th, I sat down with a sheet of paper and something to write with and opened my Instagram account. Here I post every first day of the month a calendar with design events happening that month. I counted the number of conferences organized this year, searching if I could find some trends. Because due to the pandemic, everything in the conference space has changed.

Before we dive into the stats, I want to share that I only counted events with more than 4 speakers presenting! The calendars that I make for Instagram also show events with less than 4 speakers.

In 2020 there are 126 design-driven conferences organized. Nine of these are new. Some of those events are organized by seasoned organizers like Clearleft or The Conference. Both choose to produce their new conference under a different name. So they could be more flexible with production and their main event legacy.

On average, a conference was scattered over two days (41). The longest, with daily multiple events, took 87 days. This Virtual Design Festival, hosted by architecture and design magazine Dezeen, was developed as a replacement of events they would have hosted at fairs and festivals around the world. Early April, I talked with Othmar Handl, founder of Forward Festival, about why he teamed up with this new festival.

November 10th was the busiest conference day of 2020. With 7 events broadcasting at the same time. Only one of them was free to attend, which was a trend break. Between April and October, most events were free to attend. Slowly the ticket price went up again. Ticket prices are not as pricey as before the pandemic. I see a lot of experimentation with pricing. But free is not sustainable, even though production costs are lower and sponsorships are fading.

Design conference November 2020
Design Conferences and events in November 2020

Thursday and Friday are still the most popular days to organize conferences. But the for-profit organizers stick to Monday, Tuesday, maybe Wednesday.

Smashing Conference organized the most multiple-day online conferences and smaller events this year. In April I talked with Charis Rooda, who is part of the Smashing Conference team and organizes, about why postponing is better than canceling and how to pivot to online with your event.

Talking about pivoting IAM Weekend and UX Conference both pivoted from an in-person event to online is just 14 days. Both events were fully planned in the first week of the European lockdown and were able to bring their event online, by using the live-stream features from Vimeo, Mighty Networks, and Slack.

A new types of short events

From mid-March to the end of May, we saw a big increase in short (1 hour) events happening on Instagram Live. Channels like Life Talk From, Design Emergency, Folch Studio, and Home Cooking created new series of live talks to fight quarantine, boredom and instill hope. Currently only Design Emergency and Home Cooking are still going strong.

San Fransico-based Mule Design created the Quarantine Book Club in early March. Mike Monteiro and Erika Hall chat with authors about their book. Mostly books on design but during the 150+ conversations, a variety of topics have been covert. What I like about their setup is that the conversations are live, not recorded attending is $5 which is cheap for a meet and greet with your favorite author.

Other organizations that pivoted to interesting online events are Creative Mornings, beyond tellerrand, Playgrounds, and Motion Plus Design. The global Creative Mornings community organizes on almost a daily basis Field Trips, from yoga sessions to building your own Space mask. beyond tellerrand created Stay Curious, which is an alliteration of their main event, where two guests talk about one topic, in a friendly setting and are only broadcast live. Playgrounds Festival is one of the few organizations that choose to leverage Twitch as their main streaming platform, as most of their audience is already there, it makes total sense. Like Smashing Conference, Playgrounds brought all their festivals online and created a new event series Playground TV. Last week they launched their own On Demand platform as well. Motion Plus Design is one of the few organizations that managed to organize hybrid events in Paris, Taipei, and Tokyo during this pandemic. They are also the only ones, who translate all presentations into 6 languages. If you want to learn about motion design, title design, CG or VFX check out their website, it's an awesome and inspiring resource.

Opening titles for Playgrounds Festival, made by Amsterdam-based studio The Panics. Directed by Erwin van den IJssel and filmed during a lockdown.

Virtual Event Platforms

Due to the number of short events organized at the beginning of the pandemic, many developers saw an opportunity to create their own virtual event platform, and leverage services as Zoom. The most popular platform is Hopin (2019), which raised $125 million this November. Platforms like Vito, Tidze, Luma, and Eventloop among others were built and launched during this pandemic. Just like virtual spaces Mibo by Q42 and Journee by Waltz Binaire. Photo camera brands created software so you can use your DLSR as a webcam or your mobile phone as an extra webcam. As I learned this year audio quality is during an event, meeting, or recording the most important. Because when your sound quality is good it amplifies the message or story you want to share. Even more than amazing visuals.


Looking at 2021, currently there are 30 design conferences listed on our site. Some are postponed events, others are new. Most of them are online or in some sort of hybrid form. By hybrid I mean, the local community attends the in-person version of an event and the international audience will watch the stream. Both watch the same recorded or live talk!

I'm generally very curious to know how 2021 will turn out and if I can travel to an event again. I don't expect it to happen but who knows. What I do know is that virtual/online events are here to stay, just like recorded talks. And lastly, it makes me really happy to see and experience how flexible, creative, and adaptive we all are.

If you have enjoyed this article and/or my emails this past year, and want to support me I have set up a pay-what-you-want, annual payment on Gumroad, you help support the research and production of the newsletter.

Emoij used in header image is created by Joran Backx and Esther van Brakel for their 'Corona Emojis' project.

Design Conferences-2021 Q1
Design Conferences happening in January, February, March 2021
Design Conferences in April, May, June 2021
Design Conferences happening in April, May, June 2021
Design Conferences happening in July, August, September 2021
Design Conferences happening in July, August, September 2021
Design Conferences happening in October, November, December 2021
Design Conferences happening in October, November, December 2021

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