Teal outlines of acorns with serif text saying "AIGA" inside of them.

Tips for Your First Design Conference (or Why I Enjoyed AIGA THRIVE)

I have been looking forward to the next AIGA Raleigh THRIVE conference since I went to the previous THRIVE in 2019. Every year, this conference is held in Durham, North Carolina’s Durham Fruit Factory and it will be held again on February 29, 2020.

Before I go to this year’s THRIVE conference, I’d like to reflect on what I learned about design conferences and AIGA from AIGA THRIVE 2019.

Don’t wear a suit to a design conference

I wore a three-piece suit before walking into the conference because I read that it was a professional event. Right as I arrived, I left the jacket and tunic of the suit in the car because I immediately realized it was too formal.

Not even the presenters wore suits and many of the attendees wore hats, scarves, and jackets with buttons on them. If I had my button jacket with me at the moment, I’d wear that instead of a blazer next time, but my leather jacket will do.

Design conferences feel like crossover events

I only got to attend for half of the day because of my schoolwork, but I got a lot out of it and met as many people I already knew as I did people I never met before.

Here, I got to see friends who graduated from William Peace University the year before me (I was a senior there at the time), professors I knew there, the people that my friends knew, and designers I previously only saw on Instagram.

It reminded me of seeing old friends every year while volunteering at anime conventions, only this time these were people in the same field I’m in.

If you’re going to your first design conference soon, take the time to meet new people and check for any familiar faces. You might make new friends, you might not, but you’ll always learn something.

Moving to Asheville? An AIGA chapter started there in 2019 and it’s led by cool people

While waiting for Amy and Jen Hood to present, I started talking to another designer in a Yorkshire cap who was sitting next to me. He was John Hornsby, a founding member of AIGA Asheville.

Also known as they guy who made the most awesome illustration I have ever seen used on a business card (Illustration courtesy of Hornsby Creative).

Before the conference, Hornsby and his other members had worked diligently on sending in the paperwork to form the chapter and its debut was announced on stage after the Hood sisters were done.

As a native North Carolinian, I’m surprised Asheville only recently got its own AIGA chapter after CharlotteRaleigh, and the Triad region because of the city’s reputation for creativity.

Regardless, the first year of the new chapter seems to be going really well for them. If you’re going to that city, check them out!

Check how well your camera or your phone’s camera does with dark lighting before taking photos

I can’t speak for all conferences, but the main room where conference panels are held at AIGA THRIVE was relatively dark.

This photo was taken with the iPhone SE that I used to have.

Since not all cameras do well with dark lighting, you might be better off taking pictures in the main area of the Fruit Factory where the vendors are if your photos look fuzzy in low-light settings and you are at AIGA THRIVE.

If you are at another conference, this depends on how bright the rooms you want to take pictures in are.

Many of the panelists also have their panels available online

My favorite panel was Aaron Draplin’s “Things That Don’t Have a Thing to Do with Graphic Design” speech. He is an absolutely hilarious, heartfelt presenter who is one of the most important people in graphic design today. He also repeats many of his speeches on tour across the country.

In fact, many designers do this (especially the well-known ones), so if you miss a panel, you can often find it on YouTube. For example, here’s Draplin giving the speech I just mentioned at the 2019 Awwwards conference in San Francisco:

Nothing can match hearing these designers’ talk about major topics in the same room as you. However, if you’re like how I was at AIGA THRIVE 2019 and only able to attend half of your next conference, checking if you can watch the panels you missed on YouTube is the next best way to experience them.

Overall, AIGA THRIVE 2019 was the perfect introduction to design conferences for me and if you are a designer in the Southeastern United States, I highly recommend that you go. I think I talked a professor and a friend into going to AIGA THRIVE 2020 and I hope to see them there too.

What are your conference stories?

Now that I shared my experience at AIGA THRIVE 2019, I’d love to hear what tales you have to tell from previous design conferences. If you’ve never been to a design conference before, I hope what I wrote will help you have a great time when you decide to start going to them.

I’ll be writing about my takeaways from AIGA THRIVE 2020, so follow me here on Medium so you can see it as soon as it gets published. Also, I will live tweet as much of the conference as I can (while being respectful to the presenters), so follow my Twitter for future posts on that and more.

UPDATE: Due to the coronavirus cancelling many conferences, I felt it would be awkward to write about the great time I had at AIGA THRIVE 2020 on this blog. The article has been shelved, but you can still check out my live tweets on my Twitter. Stay safe and healthy during this turbulent time.

Featured Image: The acorn is a common symbol of “the city of oaks”: Raleigh, North Carolina. Despite AIGA THRIVE being hosted by AIGA Raleigh, it always takes place in Durham, North Carolina. Illustration by Ethan McElvaney.

Ethan McElvaney

A eLearning developer and civic tech designer with several years of digital media experience. I aim to make engaging training for healthcare, civic, and education professionals so they can do their best work. I also like volunteering with Code for America, hiking, and playing action role-playing games.