Armin Vit on Brand New Conference
Armin Vit on Brand New Conference
Armin Vit is a co-founder of Under Consideration and the highly regarded branding review site Brand New, which many would agree has become a leading critical voice in the branding world. As well as building a huge online following, they’ve been running design conferences under the same name since 2009. As part of a plan to cover the 2017 Brand New Conference in Chicago for FFF readers, we caught up with Armin to see what it’s like behind the scenes and what they’re planning for this years event…
It’s clear that Brand New Conference has become an influential and standout event in the global design scene—attracting top notch speakers, brands and sponsors. How did it all start and why do you do it?
In 2010, Brand New — the blog — started to become pretty large in terms of readership and what made it reach that level and continues to do so today was the very specific topics we cover: logo, identity, and branding work. That’s it. No posters, no music packaging, no illustration.
This focus is what made it stand out. We had had the itch to do a conference since 2005 when we were at the peak with Speak Up (our first blog) but we couldn’t figure out what made it different enough from other general design conferences. With Brand New we had a great point of differentiation. We also had a rough 2009 because of the recession and started taking bigger risks with our own projects as a way to give us a kick in the pants to make money on our own and not rely on clients.
So we put most of our savings into the first Brand New Conference and it paid off! We had a fantastic reaction to the announcement that there would be a conference and we sold out a 450-seat venue in about 2 months. So we were ecstatic with the reception. After the first conference we just knew we had to keep doing it both because it was fun to do and it provided something that wasn’t there before as well as because it proved to be financially good for us.
With any successful event there’s usually more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. Any anxious moments or challenges that stand out?
I recently read that event management is the fourth or fifth most stressful profession… behind being a soldier, firefighter, cop… you know, professions where you can die just by showing up that day to work. But, still, event management is considered super stressful. And I can vouch that it is. It’s stupid stress… like, will the coffee taste good? Will the programs be printed on time? Will the speakers show up? If they show up will they not suck? How does one get 3 million umbrella insurance and workers compensation?
The amount of tiny details is insane but deep down, I think the source of the stress is that you want your audience to feel like they got their money’s worth and that the experience was memorable and different enough to take off from work and home for 3-4 days. We obsess about “what will people think?”
In 2016, for the Nashville conference, on the afternoon before the event, while prepping everything we noticed that only half of the tote bags had arrived at the venue. The other half were in Austin, TX, with the printer. That has been our biggest freak out because you have less than 12 hours to fix it. Luckily, UPS was able to deliver at 8am and we stuffed the goodie bags from 9am to 11am and they were ready by the first break.
You must have met quite a few eminent designers and characters over the years and seen a thing or two when it comes to presentation styles and talks. Can you share some personal highlights?
One of my favorites has been Erik Spiekermann, he speaks a hundred miles a minute and everything is in near monotone but it’s somehow beautiful and funny and hypnotic. He is so smart and charming; it was just great to see him on fire, closing out our first conference.
Bob Gill was memorable… it was like getting yelled at by the owner of a Jewish deli from behind the meat counter, but it was all graphic design gold.
Another memorable one was Mario Eskenazi from Barcelona when he was in Chicago in 2014. He speaks English but not super fluently so he had a script he worked off of that was beautifully written with the most minimal use of words. He spoke very low and slow, which is usually a bad thing, but his work is so good and every sentence felt like a cliffhanger. I have never seen a more quiet auditorium… until he finished and then everyone cheered like crazy.
Brand New Conference moves to different host cities and venues. How do you go about selecting a venue and have you considered hosting more outside the US? (I’ve heard the UK is the place to be).
We’ve done 4 of them in New York… we feel like that’s our home and our key audience. We love doing it here. Our second conference was in San Francisco because we figured we needed to do one on the other side of the U.S.; it didn’t go as well so we went back to NY for 2 years. Then we thought Chicago would be cool because it’s such a lovely city and good for traveling to. Then back to New York in 2015.
Nashville has been our biggest gamble… in the sense that it’s not a big city with a large built-in creative community so we were relying on people wanting to fly to Nashville. We chose it because it just seemed so much fun; we did a scouting trip and the venue knocked our socks off and the music vibe was great. For 2017 we were going to go back to NY but the venue kicked us out because they decided to do renovations so in a crunch we decided to do it in Chicago again, as time was very limited to find another venue.
In 2016 we actually did a conference overseas! In Amsterdam. It was great. Not as well attended as we would have liked. About 375 people but what was amazing was that over 40 countries were represented by attendees. We’ve considered London a number of times but are concerned about the cost of doing it there.
The design of the identity of the conference itself is usually ambitious in itself and you often share about how it was created (2015, 2016 ). Which years are you most proud of and any chance of a glimpse of what you’re planning this year?
Last year’s in Nashville was pretty special. I think it was a great showcase of computer-y graphics with the patterns we did mixed with a lot of hand assembly and manual production that was completely unexpected: vinyl album name badges and programs with hand-placed rhinestones. That’s something people remember. Our 2015 stuff with the spraypaint was very ambitious too and I think it’s my favorite graphically because it was so in your face and bold. But what’s funny is that every year, the older identities seem so… cute and naive, when at the time I thought they were the best thing ever. So the challenge is to keep challenging ourselves by continuing to surprise attendees.
What’s your take on the future of the conference format and what keeps people showing up in person at these events versus watching on a live stream or just engaging online?
There really is nothing like watching a live conference with 300 or 500 or 800 other people who love what you do the same way you do. There is an energy and an appreciation that’s impossible to replicate through a livestream. When a speaker gets a big laugh or a big gasp from showing something amazing, that’s such a high for the speaker and the audience and it’s a wonderful feedback loop that energizes the whole room and that oozes into the conversations during the breaks and at dinner and drinks in the night. It’s just contagious fun.
You watch a TED talk, alone in front of your computer, and no matter how good it is, you are not going to feel the message literally pump through your veins as if you were watching it live. I think that’s waxing too poetic but I think the fact that people keep showing up to what is an old and tired format is a testament to how effective it is in influencing people in a positive way.
You should do one in the UK. Darn that’s not a question is it. Did I mention that already? OK.
We would love to, really. Maybe one day…
What should we be looking out for this year or is it all still under wraps?
The speaker line-up is still under wraps. I can say that we are expanding our horizons a little bit with maybe 2 or 3 speakers that break away from our “YOU MUST DESIGN LOGOS” rule to speak, so we’ll see how those are received. In terms of the identity, we are just now beginning that process and all I can say is… it will be reflective.
At risk of sounding like a typical tight Scot—it looks like tickets are cheaper if people buy them quick, right?
Yes! Until early May, tickets are on pre-sale at $350 for professionals and $175 for students. Once we announce speakers, prices go up to $450 and $225. If you have faith in our ability to pull off a good event, now is the best time to buy.