January 2013

Insomnia, cupcakes, and the importance of trilogies: The New Adventures story

We approached Simon when we hosted Insites: The Tour in the summer of 2011, and his honest and remarkably frank interview had everyone in the room enthralled.

Greg and Simon. Photo by Everyplace.

When it came to putting together Insites: The Book, we called on Simon to share his personal story once more, this time in print. Now, for the third (and final?) edition of the New Adventures paper, we conducted a very special Insites interview with Simon and Greg, who offered their thoughts on the journey that has been New Adventures.

INSITES: Let’s start at the beginning. Wasn’t it 2010 when you came up with the original idea, Simon?

SIMON: Yeah, June 2010. I had insomnia, and at 5am I jumped up with a start. All of a sudden I knew I wanted to make this happen. I’d had some good experiences at a few events abroad, felt inspired, and wanted to create a new platform for design discussion. Specifically, designing for the web but ideally high level, intelligent discussion.

INSITES: What about the risks of doing an event in a ‘crowded space’ like the UK.

SIMON: I didn’t really think about any of that initially; that all came naturally. The first thing I did was sound out the speakers that very morning. I had ten people in mind who I believed could do something meaningful. I was scared though, so I thought I should ask speakers with some gravitas. And Elliot. [Colly laughs, Elliot mumbles “Bastard”].

SIMON: But there was Jon Tan who hadn’t spoken in the UK on that scale before, and it was Greg’s first talk in the UK. So there were a couple of fresh faces. I had their agreement in principle and rough dates, then the next day I went to the Albert Hall and booked the place. I walked into the auditorium and looked at the size of it and the number of seats, sort of shit myself, and then I just gave them the deposit before I could change my mind.

INSITES: So, the event was always going to be in Nottingham?

SIMON: Yeah, that was easiest, but also I know this city from a creative perspective. I know there are good people doing great work here. Plus, it was a reaction to the fact that most events are always in capital cities. Or Brighton, the furthest possible place from everybody in the North. [Everyone: Laughter] In the most expensive hotels as well ... and it doesn’t even have a sandy beach. I don’t really get it.

Nottingham is surrounded by numerous cities, full of good practitioners who care about what they’re doing and want to inquire deeper into their discipline; interested in pushing themselves but also the whole community. So, it struck me that it might be pos- sible to sell that hall out. I like that folks from Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and so on can just come down for the day. What I didn’t expect was attendees from Chile, Australia and America.

INSITES: How do you encourage themes without dictating what the presenters should talk about? How do you foster that atmosphere? It feels somehow different to when they’re presenting at other events.

SIMON: I hope it is different. If you compare it to something really unique and hard to describe like Brooklyn Beta then New Adventures is quite formulaic. I guess there are two things. The first are the people, the goodwill of those who come to the event. None of them are trolls, they all speak thoughtfully on Twitter during the event and many write reflectively about the day afterwards. They really seem to get behind it, and I get a sense that everyone wants it to work, which I think is really supportive, and I love that.

As for topics, we don’t ask for details straight away. We gently coax out certain ideas through discussion, and we always describe this as an opportunity to try something different with a supportive audience. All the presenters see each others ideas and when everything is ready we release the topics. There is a gentle curation, for want of a better word.

INSITES: Why do you think this audience in particular is so supportive?

GREG: I see no reason why it’s not the same people who go to other events. But the reason they may be different at New Adventures may be because the whole vibe is different. Whether it’s the microcopy on the site, or the way people feel when they arrive on the day, or Collison doing his introductions. I dunno. It’s just like there’s lots to learn from lots of different things and they all equate to a different atmosphere.

And as Collison said, compared to Brooklyn Beta it’s a formal event, but it’s very human orientated; a very friendly event compared to some others.

SIMON: I agree about details like site copy. Greg has often pointed out a new conference site and remarked ‘Have you seen how bad the copy is on that site?’. We make a great effort to make sure our copy has personality and doesn’t feel corporate. Everything we do from day one involves building and supporting the community around New Adventures. Would you agree, Greg?

GREG: Totally. Imagine if you worked for a big digital company and they sent you to this conference. It’s almost as if they’d be embarrassed to mention the importance of the community aspect. It’s probably unlike the forty other events they get sent to each year.

SIMON: I like to think of somebody in a shirt and tie, with a briefcase, ending up at New Adventures and feeling totally confused. I’m not saying that we’re particularly off-the-hook but, you know, everyone is there in plaid or self referential design-joke t-shirts, gorging on cupcakes and laughing at swear words. It’s definitely not a corporate event.

GREG: People take holiday days to come to New Adventures if they can’t persuade their company to send them along. That’s pretty cool.

SIMON: With topics, I like that we can talk about web design from a broad perspective and not be too microscopic about the nuances and tools. We can think about the bigger picture, and look for bold outcomes. I like to think most of our speakers are on a level with the audience and vice-versa, and we’re all in it together.

INSITES: What about the affordable price. Did you ever approach it with a view to making money, or was it purely covering costs?

SIMON: You’ve just reminded me of a tweet I saw the other day. Referring to us, she said “Oh god why are these conferences so expensive this is ridiculous.” I followed the conversation and she carried on, saying “Yeah, I’d be happy paying £20.” [Laughter].

And I worked out that if that were the case I’d need four-thousand people crammed in the hall to cover the costs. There’s often a misunderstanding about these things. That tweeter might be charging £500 for the websites she builds, and might have a very different understanding of expense in the business of web design. To some people, even £125 is just too much money for too little reward. That’s that.

The first year tickets cost £80, the lowest possible price. I just did some basic sums, no big cash-flow sheet, and added a little contingency. I actually made £3,000 profit, but spread across five months to run a conference around my other commitments; I don’t think anyone would begrudge me that.

Conferences can be affordable. I joke about Brighton, but dConstruct is one of
my favourite events; thoughtful, unexpected talks, some interesting community stuff, and it’s still very affordable. Obviously you have to mortgage your house to spend a few nights in Brighton, and a pint of crap lager is £4, but you know, it’s worth it.

With our tickets I just thought: if I were a freelancer working in my bedroom in Bradford and I can’t usually afford to go to conferences but I can get a train down to Nottingham and back and pay £80 to see great speakers, I’d do it. And people did do it.

INSITES: I agree. It was accessible both in price and location. What were the big wins and harsh lessons you learned?

SIMON: There are very few negatives. Things can happen that make your heart sink. We lost power on stage once but nobody noticed because it was in between talks. On the first day we had to start half an hour late because we didn’t manage the badge collection well and everyone was hungover and turned up ten minutes before we were due to start. When you’re on a tight schedule that’s very bad. Also, there were a couple of talks I wasn’t happy with, where speakers changed things or surprised me in a bad way.

It’s a situation where six-hundred people each give you some of their hard-earned money, and I feel that creates a contract that you have with each person. That feels like a burden for two or three months, and I’m desperate not to disappoint anyone, but you can’t please everyone and that’s something I’ve absolutely learned, beyond just New Adventures.

In a nutshell, you build in contingency and try your best but inevitably things go wrong. And if you’re working to a six-hundred person scale, when things go wrong they can go wrong in a big way. But most people will just ride out the rough edges, it’s ok. It’s all a learning curve.

INSITES: You obviously felt happy enough to do it again for 2012 and you brought Greg on board. Greg, what kind of situation were you in at the time and how did you decide to get involved? I’m assuming it was over pints?

GREG: I think it was over pints as all good decisions are made in that way. I think I had left Erskine. Is that right, Collison?

SIMON: That’s correct, it was April 2011 when we got drunk and you convinced me to do a second event.

GREG: We hadn’t hung out for a while because he’d been traveling everywhere and we’d just started working on Fictive Kin projects together. So, we just met at the pub and I ended up getting drunk and Collison was talking about New Adventures and why he was doubting doing it and I can’t remember what I said to him. But I remember thinking ...

SIMON: It was basically do you want another pint? Do you want another pint? Do you want another pint? Until I’d had enough pints [to say yes].

GREG: Thats standard Collison tactics. If you don’t want to be alone just keep buying him pints and he will stay at the pub.

INSITES: Simon, did you realise you could only do it if Greg helped?

SIMON: The first New Adventures was hard work, and I’d also had that big fight with PayPal to get my money released. I had to borrow £25,000 off an Australian who I’ve never met. It was, at times, a nightmare. There were so many things that made me think I just couldn’t go through all that again. But also, I thought if I do two then I’ll have to do three because you can’t just do two. Imagine only two Star Wars! Or only two Godfathers. Actually, only two Godfathers would be a good thing.

I’d begun to settle on it being a one-off. I was wrong, because there were things niggling at me that I wanted to improve, but I couldn’t do it on my own. I found it quite an isolating experience and having all the weight on just my shoulders was very stressful. I needed a partner. So, yeah, Greg convinced me.

GREG: I was generally really drunk throughout the first New Adventures. I couldn’t remember anything, so I wanted to have another party where I remembered stuff. And the only way that was going to happen was if I offered to help.

INSITES: So now it’s the third one. Is it the last one? If so, why? Is it going to re-form in a different shape?

SIMON: It’s 100% definitely the last New Adventures in Web Design. I personally can’t see another, although I’d love to have an annual party with six hundred brilliant people in my hometown. It’s amazing when Foursquare is actually useful for four days.

Right now I can’t imagine what else there is from a high level design perspective that we could do with web designers speaking to web designers. It needs to change.
One idea that we’ve spoken about is where we’d have a lineup of film directors, artists and illustrators and people like that talking to web designers. That’s not entirely unique but it would certainly be new for our region. But also, I like the idea of web designers speaking to a non-web design audience, spreading our knowledge to new audiences like print and traditional design folks. It could morph into something like that.

We really need to take a break, think about it, do a Glastonbury and let the grass grow. Come back to it afresh and probably change it somehow. What do you think, Greg?

GREG: Yeah, I’d love to keep the brand alive. I think it’s really important to do that. If you just do three events and call it quits and there’s no New Adventures ever again, I’m not sure how much impact that has. But if we do something new with it and continue to evolve the thing, I think that’s pretty important.

SIMON: Last year we were talking about New Adventures having a new life online with a fresh approach, something like A List Apart but really open where anyone can write about their ideas and often, but it’s too early to say. I’d like it to have some sort of legacy, I’d like it to evolve, but I think we need to take it out of the auditorium for at least eighteen months.

INSITES: The papers are an interesting aspect because they embody the same spirit which goes into the conference. What roll do you foresee for the papers? Would you like them to be highly regarded and cherished, and are they going to live on beyond this last conference?

GREG: I’d love to make more papers. We could just make them whenever we want. That’s the beauty of a newspaper as opposed to books and magazines. The essence of them is throwaway, even if it does have intelligent or exciting stuff inside, it’s still disposable. That’s the medium. I just love making it because I love sharing this knowledge and if people throw it away, they throw it away and if they keep it, they keep it. It’s got a real punk rock thing about it. I think it’s pretty exciting and pretty intriguing.

SIMON: Some people preserve them in the poly- thene bags, but I’m like Greg; I like the idea of people reading them on the train half folded and then sticking a cup of coffee on top of it. Keeping it, but not feeling precious about it.

As an extension of the conference, it’s nice because it gives us the opportunity to commission a few extras. So you’re on your way home and you can keep having the New Adventures experience. You can sit on the toilet and read something by The Standardistas. I think that it’s really nice to have a tangible object from a transient conference. It’s also really nice from a print perspective because you never know how things are going to turn out; each bundle is slightly different.

INSITES: So, there’s going to be a gap in January 2014. If someone came to you with an idea for their own event, what would you say to them?

SIMON: I’d be very encouraging, but I’d ask some key questions. For me it’s similar to someone who wants to get on stage and speak, which is commendable but do you have something to say; a line of inquiry which interests you. Do you want to draw conclusions and share this with people? Do you have big questions? If so, consider speaking.

I think it’s similar with events. If someone wants to put on an event for the sake of it or for personal gain I’d be concerned because I think you really need to love the idea of an event or meet-up, whatever it might be, and have a real purpose.

The motivation for doing it has to be the biggest factor. You want that dialogue, or you want to create a platform for cer- tain people. You must want to create something you believe in, that fits with your own principles.

For something on the scale of New Adventures it’s a good idea to test yourself organising something else, whether it be an event at work, or project manage something significant. If it’s a smaller meet up, something which happens once a month in a bar and you have a couple of speakers, it’s not such a logistical nightmare. You can do it, and you can do it well. But in any case, you can’t just wing it. It has to be from a perspective of doing something you love.

Simon and Greg were interviewed by Keir Whitaker and Elliot Jay Stocks via Skype on 4th January 2013.



Insites: The Book is a beautiful, limited edition, 256-page book presented in a numbered, foil-blocked presentation box. This very special publication features 20 deeply personal conversations with the biggest names in the web community.


This article was commissioned for our January 2013 magazine. Like it? View all articles, grab our RSS feed, and subscribe to our newsletter.