September, 2015 – It’s almost a full house. Close to 1,000 designers and creatives are watching James Greenfield tell the fascinating story of how he and his team rebranded Airbnb. Meanwhile, American designer Cheryl Heller, Founding Chair of the Design for Social Innovation program at School of Visual Arts in NYC, is preparing her notes backstage, ready to close out the day.
Five years earlier, with a limited understanding of event management, we fumbled our way through our first Sex, Drugs & Helvetica conference. When we started, we were all in our early 20s and half of us were still studying, but we felt compelled to bring our idea to life. And now here we were, on the verge of finishing our fifth year and our eighth conference.
The initial idea for the conference came when our previous venture, Positive Posters, (a not-for-profit poster competition) racked up an enormous hosting bill — to the tune of around $10,000. We needed to find a way of coming up with the money. We spoke to friends and colleagues and realised there was an opportunity to create a new kind of design conference in Melbourne. While people liked being wowed by amazing portfolios and work, they also wanted to hear about the ‘real life’ of a designer. What happened behind the scenes? We thought we could help uncover those stories.
We booked a 200 seat venue, we asked our friends to speak and we drove around Victoria to design schools to promote the first Sex, Drugs & Helvetica conference — a $40, one-day event, focused on the practicalities of the design industry.
No one thought we would sell out the event, but that’s what happened. There was a small line at the door when we first arrived, which grew quickly as we scrambled to set up trestle tables for the morning ticket rush. Attendees grabbed our ill-fated show bags and politely sat through an array of AV and technical malfunctions as our speakers told their stories. And before you could blink, the day was over. We had run a small design conference and had a blast doing it.
The first Sex, Drugs & Helvetica was meant to be a one-off event. We had no real experience in managing and organising events like this and our interests were more focused on graduating uni than on creating conferences. But in the days, weeks and months following the inaugural conference, emails, tweets and calls piled in congratulating us or asking for the date of the next event.
We had underestimated what the day had meant to those who attended. While it may have been rough around the edges, it had heart.
After initially deciding not to run the event in the year following, we made the decision to organise and run the conference again. It was a risky and scary decision. Venues were hard to come by and we had to work overtime to sell tickets, but we pulled off a second conference that almost doubled in size.
That year, we introduced what would become our trademark format — six speakers, presenting one project from start to finish. From concept development and client meetings to budgets and managing stakeholders, speakers explored the real day-to-day challenges they encountered as designers and how they overcame them. It was honest, brutal and celebratory. To top it off attendees saw the introduction of ‘The Suit.’ Days earlier our MC, Andy, thought it was a bright idea to wear a conference-branded suit. Thanks to a kind housemate and Frankston suit shop, Andy spent the last session of the day ‘on-brand.’ It became a tradition, with Andy wearing a branded suit every year. We still don’t know why.
In our third year, we decided to expand our conference concept to a new city. We chose Brisbane. We assumed our Melbourne brand reputation would carry interstate, but we were wrong — very wrong. Four weeks out from the event, we had sold 40 tickets. In damage control, we sent one of us up the coast to hustle and sell the remaining tickets. We met as many people as possible, called design studios and in the end, we were fortunate to have a design community embrace us in a way that was unexpected.
We continued the Brisbane conference for another two years. Like our first conference in Melbourne, the support of our small event was unwavering and the friendships we developed over the three years in Brisbane are the kind you have for life.
Our conference grew each year — in ticket sales and in content. We added masterclasses, we added international speakers and we even added a blog, allowing us to work with incredible writers and illustrators. Mimicking our conference, each article was free of fluff and full of honesty. We ran our conferences on consecutive Fridays in September and with our posse of speakers, volunteers and staff, felt like we were a band on tour.
Some of the most interesting and valuable moments in life come about when you decide to act on an idea. Not because you know how to do it, but because you care about it. This is true for our design conference Sex, Drugs & Helvetica.
An idea born after a few drinks had grown into something much bigger than we had ever imagined. Through it all, we also found the time to graduate, ¾ of the team managed to grow beards, white hairs began to peek through and we even matured a bit as individuals. And now, after an incredible five-year ride, we’ve all decided to re-focus on new professional and personal challenges.
Later this year, we will publish a new website with highlights, photos and presentation videos from the last five years. It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ to our friends, our families, to the incredible community of designers, makers and creators, to the speakers who put together amazing presentations, the stellar volunteers who donated their time, and of course, everyone who attended one of our events.
But before we go, there are a few people that we must thank now. Without them, none of this would have been possible. If you ever decide to launch a new business, these are the people that will have your back.
- Tenielle Simonis
- Caz Lambert
- Janet & Mac Hallam
- Cat Wall
- Kate Pullen
- Jessie Norman
- Dahlia Ishak, Ray Turner, Chester and Sam
- John Deer
- Matthew Carmody
- Tim Baxter
- Alex Meadowcroft
- Alex Moshovelis
- Haruka Hoshi
- Annette Murray
- Brendan McKnight
- Magdalena Ksiezak
- Michael C. Place
- Antra Švarcs
Thank you, and thank you for the last five years.
Andy, Leisha, Nick & Zac