Come together to learn: the secrets of the best design talks, conferences and courses

Discover what makes the best design events and courses with It's Nice That, Shillington College and more.

Over the past year there has been a big buzz around ‘learn-it-yourself’ approaches to professional creative development as MOOCs (massive open online courses) provide a convenient way to follow courses in a way that suits your working and personal life. However, while these tools are great for learning craft practices, they’re considered to be less effective for building your underlying creative skills than shared, live learning experiences – and where there can be a dialog between you and the person/s teaching. And live events generally have more laughs too.

I spoke to creatives running some of the best conferences, lectures, seminars, talks and discussion groups around the UK to find out how they’re engaging with creatives in live settings in ways the MOOCs just can’t match.

It’s Nice Here

Curated by publishing platform It’s Nice That, Here London is described as 'a one-day symposium of inspirational talks across the art and design world.'  Exploring the creative process – idea generation, developing concepts and examining how designers produce their work, It’s Nice That editor-in-chief Rob Alderson sums up the ethos of the event as ‘a celebration of visual creativity; the work and the people who make it.’

Questioned on their values as a company, Rob lists ‘positivity, eclecticism and meritocracy’ as the three core values of It’s Nice That, essentially providing a platform to a wide range of creative talent and showcasing established names alongside newer talent.

Taking a fairly unique approach to speakers and what it is trying to do, Here London injects fun into a tried and tested lecture format, finding new ways to promote and present ideas. “The tone is pretty different to comparable conferences,” reflects Rob. “The mix of speakers is very diverse and it takes itself slightly less seriously than some events.”

Speakers collaborate with It’s Nice That to formulate talks which focus on revealing ‘untold stories’ associated with each and every creative process, such as funny anecdotes, unexpected or unusual outcomes and how creative challenges are overcome, says Rob.

“We are so used to seeing the finished product (particularly bouncing round the blogosphere), so it’s great take a step back and find out how and why things turned out like they did.”  

Accessibility is key, as Rob stresses engaging a wider audience is something they are committed to: “It’s massively important. We don’t believe art and design events should just be for a few people who went to the right university and know the terminology.”

For the price of a ticket attendees are presented with a series of ten in-depth talks, broken up into 25 minute slots to give the day ‘pace and rhythm’ “It’s not about being lectured from the stage, it’s about being inspired,” says Rob, adding “this doesn’t mean we dumb it down; you can be intelligent and accessible at the same time.”

Attracting a mix of professionals and beginners across the creative industries, students can expect to rub shoulders with creative directors and leading professionals in an informal setting at Here, who have so far ditched the idea of formal break-out sessions, in favour of allowing attendees to initiate conversations at their own pace.

Conversations in the crowd

Occupying the ‘exciting, slightly awkward space between education and industry’ Crowd Talks launched in 2013, as a design discussion event that hosts talks across the country, aiming to ‘break away from the traditional lecture format’.

Inspired to develop their own event following a panel discussion evening they organize for their degree show ‘Now What’ in 2012, Brighton University graduates Roz Edenbrow, Laura Gordon, Matt Dreyer and Jake Evans were united on ‘the feeling that the most interesting design conversations happened after the lecture, not during it.’

Observing a shift in the student-tutor-university relationship that seemed to reduce ‘experimental, boundary pushing education,’ largely as a result of tripling tuition fees, the group realised there was a need to encourage ‘a more active discourse around art and design culture, both in relation to education and industry - and the links between the two.’

“We promote an approach to learning that strikes a balance between professional skills and the motivation to reinvent that profession,” enthuses Laura. “I don’t think it’s British politeness that holds people back from developing or sharing their opinions – I worry it’s a product of an education system that doesn’t nurture open debate from a young age.”

“We’re big believers in learning through questioning,” says Roz. “We get to hear a range of opinions from different people with different backgrounds; we hope this gives people a wider view to help them form their own opinions and work out where they stand on an issue.”

Taking a relaxed and informal approach when talking to both students and practitioners, they seek to involve the audience in debate.

“Two way discussion is key to Crowd, and this marks us out from the rest of the design lecture landscape.” says Laura. “We’re passionate about involving and learning from students, not just imparting advice. The informal atmosphere allows us to have a different conversation than more established events – our favourite parts of Crowd are when people are arguing, laughing or being unexpectedly profound.”

While the audience are not pressured to get involved in the discussion she notes that generally there is always enough debate to get people talking, ‘people always have something to say.’

Admittedly they have experienced varying levels of success with the format. “It’s a spontaneous, evolving venture; the events rely massively on the mood and feeling of both the audience and panel which can be risky, but it means that when it works well the discussion takes on a life of its own.”

Scheduled to take the stage at Pick Me Up in May, the team are also looking to the future, strengthening their ties with Universities as a way to link up with young designers and ‘be actively involved in the future of design education’.

Events for everyone

It’s this largely unchartered territory that is further explored by London based collective Let’s Be Brief (LBB), which was founded on the idea of problem-solving. “We felt that there was a lot of stuff out there in the design world that celebrates the aesthetic without necessarily asking broader questions of why or critiquing the culture,” says founder Steph McLaren-Neckles.

As a multi-disciplinary team with a foundation in communications, culture and education, their main point of differentiation is the ‘why and how we do, what we do.’ striving to ‘connect the dots between culture, communications and business for creative thinkers and doer’s.’

Rather than targeting their events at a fixed demographic, LBB believe in the ‘democratisation of education and critical thinking’: “It’s about catering for creative professionals who have an attitude and aptitude for learning and personal development and who see learning as a continuous process,” says Steph. “It can be the difference between producing standard work and something that is truly ground breaking and relevant.”

Their website further enforces this philosophy, acting as an educational and inspirational resource and evolving online journal reveals Steph. “Our aim is to contextualise everyday phenomena and trends for modern day communicators; equipping creative practitioners with a new tool kit, for 21st century industry.”

Earlier this year LBB ran their first Pop-Up School in Dalston, curating a series of masterclasses and talks covering a range of topics geared towards start-ups and freelancers. As a business owner herself, Steph understands all too well the challenges faced by today’s freelancers, enlisting the support of industry professionals – experts in their field – to deliver the workshops. “We thought it important to address some very practical skillsets such as marketing yourself, building your brand and managing your own time.”

Return to the classroom

Despite these new approaches traditional education with structured courses over days or months still very much has its place. Shillington College is one of the best for these.

Set up as an ‘inspirational learning environment’ the college aims to get junior designers and beginners up to speed and equip them with the skills they need to design in a professional studio environment.

Running two intensive courses in Graphic Design and Web Design at campuses in London, Manchester, Melbourne, Sydney and New York, Shillington pulls in students worldwide keen to develop their aptitude for design.

“Our teachers are all qualified and talented designers with both local and international design experience,” says Shillington College director Sarah McHugh. “Their backgrounds range from global advertising agencies to boutique self-run studios, and all are passionate about sharing their knowledge and experience with enthusiastic new designers.”

Crediting her teachers as a ‘constant source of support’ student Becki Clark says the three month Graphic Design course has given her the confidence to explore her interest in illustration and typography, and take the first steps towards publishing her first book.

Work created by Becki Clark on her Graphic Design course at Shillington College

“With the skills I have learnt at Shillington I will be able to design and illustrate the whole thing myself which I couldn't even think about doing before!”

“We are constantly pushed to explore our ideas, and put what we’ve learnt into practice,” continues Becki. Offering an intense level of study in an environment surrounded by like-minded people, she adds “I’ve learnt more in the past 3 months than I did in 3 years at University.”

Structured around a regular working day, design briefs are set to industry standard deadlines with no brief running for longer than two days. “Our students come from lots of different backgrounds, previous students include solicitors, tree surgeons - even a pilot!” says Sarah.

Yet regardless of experience level, Shillington instills a sense of pride and encourages a shared mutual respect amongst class members, as she adds “Each student is treated like a junior designer from day one.”

Creative professionals who have an attitude and aptitude for learning will reap the rewards, concludes Steph Neckles of LBB. “The future creative economy is going to be more and more reliant upon independent businesses and freelancers which share a commonality with start-up culture. In that sense individuals will need to keep up with changes and developments in industry to remain relevant.”

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