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How to get the most out of a design conference

Morgan Smith's Layout avatar

So you’re getting ready to go to a design conference – yippee! These are (arguably) some of the most creative and inspiring gatherings around the country. So, how do you maximize the experience?

Everyone’s motivation for attending a conference is a little different, so it’ll all depend on what you’re hoping to gain. Some designers may be looking for inspiration, some might be there to discover new workflow tips, and others might be there to mingle with other creatives.

Whatever your motivation is for attending, these five tips will help you get the most out of the conference and go home feeling satisfied!

Tip 1: Bring a notebook and actually use it

Conferences are wonderful places to find inspiration and knowledge, but sometimes they can cause a sense of information overload. By bringing a notebook and actually taking notes, you’ll retain information much more effectively than simply relying on memory. Plus, you never know when inspiration will strike. You might find something that sparks your next big idea, and without a place to jot it down, you may lose some of that creative energy.

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If notes aren’t really your style, don’t fret – it’s a loose interpretation of the word. Maybe you’d rather bring a sketchbook and doodle your way through the conference. Maybe live-Tweeting the speakers is all you need to stay engaged and recall the moments that inspired you. Whatever your favorite medium is, find a way to incorporate it with the conference. After all, you’re a designer – your notes can be as creative as you’d like them to be. (Just don’t get too carried away, so they still make sense in a week!)

Tip 2: Be ready to mingle with everyone in the room

One of the major benefits of attending a conference is the ability to network with other creatives with all levels of experience. From beginners to those who have been in the industry awhile to the pros that are speaking on stage, everyone has the potential to offer you useful advice and new perspectives. This is why it’s incredibly important to be ready to talk to anyone, and not just people already in your circle.

If you’re nervous about networking, start slow and simply say hello to people you sit by or stand next to in line. These are low-pressure scenarios that allow you to easily strike up a conversation with someone. If it goes well, great! You just found a new friend to eat lunch who might even turn out to be a future project collaborator. If it doesn’t go so well, don’t sweat it. The line will be over shortly and you can always choose a new seat around new people!

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If you’re not sure what to say to strike up a conversation, then all you need to do is…

Tip 3: Prepare some talking points

Before you leave for the conference, take a moment to reflect on your recent work, clients, struggles, and successes. What advice can you give to others? What problems would you like opinions on? To help you find these talking points, consider the following:

  • Think about a recent project that went smoothly. What contributed to the success?
  • Think about a recent project that didn’t go so well. Where were the hiccups?
  • What’s one thing you wish had known when you started designing?
  • Name one person/place/thing/idea that continues to inspire your work.

By identifying these points before you arrive at the conference, you’ll be prepared to talk about your work and share ideas with other designers. Plus, having talking points at the ready will help move the conversation along in the event that it hits a dull moment.

Tip 4: Have a badass business card

So let’s say you strike up a great conversation with the designer sitting next to you, and they can totally relate to all of your talking points. This is someone you definitely want to stay in touch with, which means you should swap contact information with them. The best way to do that? Business cards.

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Sure, the idea of business cards can sound kind of lame and stiff, but you’re a designer handing them off to other designers – that means they can be as unique and wonderful as your own personal design style.

If you’re looking for a little business card inspiration, we think these ideas are pretty darn cool.

If it’s been a while since you’ve designed your business cards and you find yourself attending a conference last-minute, don’t stress too much about trying to refresh them (as long as the contact information is correct). “The best business cards are the ones you actually remember to put in your pocket. ”

Tip 5: Freshen up your portfolio

If you’re connecting with new designers on Twitter and handing out business cards and talking about potential projects to collaborate on, eventually someone from this conference is going to find your website. Are you ready for that?

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If you have time before attending, take a glance at your site and make sure the content is fresh and accurate. Are your latest and greatest projects in your portfolio, or has it been a while since the last update? At the very least, make sure your contact form is working properly and your email address is listed correctly. To maximize success at this conference, you want to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward, both in person and online.

While the conference experience will be a little bit different for every attendee, these five tips will help you get the most out of it and build your network. What other tips would you give conference goers? Share your best advice in the comments!

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