Work in Progress: How We Designed Our First Virtual Summit

Here’s what we learned about organizing events and creating community in 2020.

This time last year, our entire creative discipline got together for two days at our headquarters in San Francisco for our first-ever Design Summit. Folks from all over the world flew in to meet fellow designers, listen to presentations, and connect on a personal level. Coming out of that summit, we were excited about what we had taken part in, and how we might make it even better the following year. What we didn’t realize at the start of this year was that our lives and work would be forever changed due to a global pandemic. All the things we took for granted with an in-person event had to be rethought.

How might we bring that same excitement for coming together in person to a virtual experience?

It felt like a daunting task.

We started by forming a small working group of dedicated volunteers, and our first priority was to come up with a theme. A theme that everyone could get behind would help rally people and bring us together, even if it was just through our screens. We brainstormed a bunch of different ideas and ultimately settled on three main concepts: togetherness, change, and empowerment. We then discussed what sort of tone we wanted for the summit. Similar ideas kept popping up: warmth, comfort, support, a break from the day to day, group therapy, a spa day.

Following the brainstorm, we enlisted the help of some writers at Square. They came up with a slew of phrases, which the working group talked through and voted on.

Ultimately we landed on “Work in Progress.” This idea stemmed from common language that we all use in our professional lives. We often place the letters “WIP” in file names and documents to convey the idea that “we’re working on it.”

So much of this year has truly been a work in progress.

We’ve all been working on, and through, so much this year, not just at work but also at home with our personal lives and in the world in general. The theme felt perfect and fitting for our summit. It even became the mantra we ascribed to when things were not always on track.

Our designers started taking cues from the theme to inform the branding we were creating for the event, including our swag kit and website. We wanted both our swag and website to be functional yet unique. We designed a broadsheet that included content from our internal digital Design Handbook, and also included more timely elements like quotes from people about their experiences working during the pandemic. The broadsheet also had heavily designed spreads that doubled as posters in the hope that people would tear them out and hang them up at home. We also included a pair of slippers as a nod to the desire for comfort (like a spa day) and the reality that many of us wear slippers at home, all day, everyday.

Our website was functional yet playful with the schedule, speaker bios, and an area for session recording links and slides as well as a header you could customize and little graphical Easter eggs.

With the actual scheduling of the summit, we looked at what other, bigger conferences and events had done, but alas, most were all the same. No one seemed to have come up with anything extraordinary. And perhaps that’s because in reality, there is no substitute for in-person interactions. We thought about scavenger hunts at seller locations, sending food items from different cities, and meet-and-greet “watercooler” virtual sessions. Ultimately we settled on a few things:

  1. We spread out the content across an entire week to ease calendar burden with the hopes that everyone could attend more sessions.
  2. We brought to life our Company We Keep blog series with hosted panels so folks could get to know others around the company.
  3. We created a “lobby” meeting invite that ran in the background of the summit week every day for people to pop in and chat about sessions or just meet each other.
  4. We facilitated two social “breakout” sessions at the beginning and end of the summit week with conversation starter prompts for folks to learn more about each other.
  5. We created a Spotify playlist for folks to add to, which was played between sessions throughout the week.
  6. We started a dedicated Slack channel for casual conversations, photo sharing, and logistics.

While these ideas didn’t replace the feelings you get from in-person connections, they helped bring people closer together to learn more about each other. Sessions near the end of the week had nearly as much attendance as the first day. People sent around fun photos and videos of their swag kits. And in our post-summit survey, several people commented on all the new people they had met and learned from.

Some even said they preferred virtual to in-person for the summit.

Ultimately, our goal of creating excitement for our creative community was met, even in a virtual space, due to the efforts everyone in our group took to put together a great week of programming, friendly to most time zones, spanning a range of creative disciplines, sprinkled with some moments to really meet other creatives and learn more about each other. And while we didn’t come up with any fancy methods to make people feel like they were in the same room, we did create a shared virtual community for a week. And our dreams of replicating in-person experiences will continue to be a shared Work in Progress.