"Join Zoom Meeting." I can't think of three words I detest more these days. Just typing them sends shivers of despair down my spine. It's not that I've given up entirely on my online engagements - one would be crazy to do so in 2020 - but after months of exploring every online activity possible, I am nearing the edge of my tolerance. It might be down to the psychological effects of the infamous 'zoom fatigue,' which was coined way back in April. Apparently, there are concrete scientific answers to why we're all sick and tired of watching each other on those small squares on our screens. The effect of watching your colleagues, loved ones, or even strangers, from the waist up only, is one that can make even the strongest of us want to shut the laptop and happily stare into a blank space. The burnout we all experience with our personal screens is real.
But then again, here we are. Nine months into this new reality, we are still logging in to attend meetings, classes, talks, and events, all for the sake of feeling connected - with the world, but also with our previous selves. What is it that keeps us coming back, and what is it that makes us go away? What better place to look into those questions than the world of creativity. And in particular - creative events.
Creative events! Remember those? You know, the ones we used to actually attend. Buy tickets, make plans with friends for a drink after, maybe even travel for a festival or conference. Get inspired. Meet people. Exchange ideas. Are those things of the past, or can we still find a way to make this magic happen?
Looking at the past months, we most definitely try. The majority of events in the creative fields - big and small - have made some sort of pivot to offer their online audience experiences. Of course, we are acutely aware of what we're missing by not being in the same space. The loss of real-life interaction is not unique to creative events, and the grief over it is an overarching experience in our entire being. But does that mean we should ditch all efforts in trying to emulate it? What about the sense of community, camaraderie, inspiration that can be found and shared nonetheless? Should we give that up altogether just because we can't meet?
Trying to make some sense of this new territory, I spoke with two people who have had to deal with it first-hand: Matt Alagiah - editor-in-chief of It's Nice That, and the host of the Nicer Tuesdays monthly events, and Rizon Parein, the founder and creator of Us by Night, an Antwerp based design festival.
The events are quite different in style and delivery. Nicer Tuesdays is an established monthly East London get-together, with four talks on offer, beers, and a chat. US By Night, on the other hand, is an annual experience that shakes up the classic conference format by combining elements - a market, games arcade, food courts, cocktail bars, and being held at night - that makes it more like a music-festival-party than a design conference.
Adjusting to a new reality that shook their business to the core, each event responded differently. Yet, the ideas and personal dedication shared by their leaders paints an exciting view of what the future holds for the design community and events in particular.
We started at the beginning, circa March 2020, as everything around us came to a halt and the process of understanding that events were not going to happen - at least not the way they thought it would.
Rizon: "Our 5th edition was originally scheduled for September 2020. But as the years' events started to pan out, it was clear that we couldn't keep this plan, so we decided to postpone to April 2021, thinking this will be a reasonable enough time for things to shift and for us to be able to host the edition as we imagined it. But as we all know, this is not where we are at the moment, and with the pandemic situation not seeming to be ending or changing soon, we had to make a very difficult decision, and in October released the official announcement we are canceling this edition altogether, with no future date to be held at the moment. We just didn't feel we would have enough certainty to allow us to move forward - not with the intention of having an audience of over 3000 people."
Matt: "I think we were relatively quick off the mark in pivoting to digital events. As a business, like much of the UK, we shifted to working from home in mid-March. We actually hosted our first Nicer Tuesdays Online – the virtual version of our monthly event – just five weeks later, at the end of April. And we haven't really looked back since! In the summer, realizing that our events were going to be online for the foreseeable future, we designed and built our own bespoke events platform."
Photos by Daniil Lavrovski, courtesy of US By Night
2020 brought with it an inevitable acceleration of the digital realm. Along with it surfaced new approaches, reservations, dilemmas, and excitements. Where on the spectrum of these does each of you find themselves?
Matt: "The best thing about pivoting to online has been the fact that now our audience, and our speakers, are truly global. When we were hosting a monthly event in London, it was great for the London creative community, but we weren't able to programme very many speakers from outside the city, and our audience was obviously very London-heavy as well. Now, we get speakers from all over the world – we've even had one speaker (the amazing Haein Kim) join us at 4am Sydney time! And our audience has been just as global – we regularly ask our audience where they're tuning in from, and it's been amazing to see.
Another thing that has changed the purpose of Nicer Tuesdays is Extra Nice – which is a new offer we launched in early November. It's a new way for It's Nice That readers to support their own creativity, the community around them, and us at It's Nice That as well. Part of the deal is that if you sign up, you get a ticket automatically every month to Nicer Tuesdays Online. For us now, that means we think a little bit differently about Nicer Tuesdays – it's not just an event we put on for our audience; it's also a way for us to build a sense of community, to talk to our Supporters in a more direct way. It's interesting how that has changed our thinking about the event."
Rizon: "Throughout the year, we've had tempting proposals to take the virtual event path, but that just didn't feel like our language. Of course, this is something we took very seriously, and it wasn't an afterthought, as the financial implications of postponing and then canceling are, of course, huge. We are fortunate in the sense that we have partners who believe in us. But yes, at the end of the day, the right decision was to say no to an online version of the event and wait. Us By Night is about being social, not about looking at a screen. Even in the event itself, we try to encourage people to leave their phones and laptops in the bag and just be engaged and present in the experience itself. Thinking about moving to a screen-based event just felt very off-brand and not inline with our values."
Photos by Daniil Lavrovski, courtesy of US By Night
I terribly miss physical socializing and sharing experiences, and digital gatherings feel so artificial compared to the "real deal." Still, I can't bring myself to give up events, as they are the only connection we have left at the moment. What about you?
Rizon: "With Us By Night, we try to promote vulnerable connections; we are about hugging, about sweat. That part of our event wasn't just 'a part', it was the main thing. You get to learn and explore your DNA as you go, and after the first events, we knew that having the community meeting in one space is not something we can forego. This aspect of the event makes it so beautiful and precious, so I had to protect that.
I guess we are 'all or nothing' in our core. So to me, it's either having Us by Night again precisely as we imagine it or not having it at all. Even if that means that the last event we had was the last ever Us by Night - so be it. I'd rather have that amazing experience in mine and everyone else's memory than have to dilute that into a different format, something it's not. And to have that pure memory - I'm fine with that; this is how I would want it to be remembered."
Matt: "Yes, networking and mingling were a massive reason why people came down to Oval Space on a Tuesday evening. It's tricky to replicate that in a virtual space. We have a Chat alongside the stream on our online events platform, and we actively try to encourage dialogue, discussion, and submissions from the audience. It works really well, and we often have audience members ask the speakers questions using the Chat. But it's not quite the same as being in the same physical space with someone and having a drink together. That said, it was only ever a London community we had in the space. In a way, this is another thing that Extra Nice is all about. We want it to be a community, a global community, with Nicer Tuesdays Online being a central part of it."
We're still at the point where it's hard to imagine the future, let alone make decisions about it. But obviously, there are already conclusions as to what we've learned so far. Where do we go from here?
Matt: "We don't want to lose the amazing opportunity we've enjoyed of programming speakers from around the world. We also love having a global audience join our digital events and wouldn't want to stop giving those audiences a regular It's Nice That event to enjoy. At the same time, we're keen to go back to doing physical events at some point, because they were a lot of fun and I believe the local audiences where we've done events in the past (mainly in London and New York) have really enjoyed them. So, I think we'll likely try to do both in some form or other, perhaps a hybrid event or two separate regular events."
Rizon: "I'm really looking forward to seeing how the scene evolves and the whole event sector comes out of it. I would definitely want to go and check out other events that are testing the waters, attend them myself, and feel with my own eyes and body how the audience behaves - are they reluctant or relaxed? I'm sure there will come a day which will act as the tipping point, in which we'll feel that moment of 'alright! Now's the time to get back to business'! And when we do - it will be bigger and better than ever."
Photos by Daniil Lavrovski, courtesy of US By Night
The effects of the pandemic on the creative community were more than just its events, of course. How did you find it influenced the community or yourself?
Matt: "There has probably never been an event that has impacted [..the creative community..] in such a similar way as Covid has this year. So many people we've spoken to have talked about how hard they've found it this year, staying motivated, keeping positive, and keeping inspired – that's before you even talk about how much harder it's been this year for some people to find work. However, we've also been really amazed by how strong the creative community has been this year, and by how many creative projects and initiatives have been set up to fight for causes and help other people. I've been blown away by that. I'm not sure the creative community has ever taken up causes in this way and dedicated their talents to fighting for them. In that way, creativity has definitely become more conscious this year. (In fact, we just published an entire series on this topic.)"
Rizon: "Thinking about our business and what we want to offer the community, this year has been sort of a blessing in disguise. Until now, we were growing so fast it was getting hard to keep track and grow responsibly and thoughtfully, so in that sense, this pause allowed us to do that. It's a great time to restructure and grow smarter. I can see we were a bit too rushed, and now we take the opportunity to build better partnerships, think about our responsibility to the community in terms of diversity in gender and in race. Those were things I thought we were doing, but only now when we have more time I see there is so much more that can still be done".
For the creative community, conferences and events make for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. They are a crucial aspect of our ability to learn, share experiences, and play around. Rizon and Matt gave me some hope in the people who design these events - they're bringing the pieces back together, one event at a time.