What to expect from your first conference


Written by Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn

So you have decided to attend your first conference, but you don’t even know where to start. What do I bring? How do I interact? How do I meet all those people who can give me jobs?

Well let’s slow down and start from square one!

How to choose your first conference

Conferences can be expensive (if you are a student or an educator, make sure to take advantage of educational discounts many conferences offer), so it’s important to find ones that you’re going to gain a lot of insight and value from. If you’re a web developer, chances are you’re not going to get much from an illustration conference and vice versa.

The best way to find out about new conference is to ask around. The big ones that everyone wants to attend are Adobe MAX and HOW, both of which are very expensive but also geared more to in-house designers. That’s not to say you won’t get a lot out of it, you very much will, but the pricing is not necessarily freelancer-friendly. Ask your friends what conferences they’ve attended, or even just watch on Twitter and social media. Oftentimes if there is a designer you admire who happens to be speaking at the event, they will share the event and you can find out more by visiting the conference website.

Conference Etiquette

Generally every conference has a code of conduct listed at the bottom of their site, which I highly recommend you read if you’re going to a conference for the first time. You may find yourself in a situation in which there is a bar and cocktails. Watch your intake, you are at a professional conference and should conduct yourself as such. Don’t get wasted because you will be remembered as the person who went overboard. You also don’t want to spend the first day of the conference nursing a hangover and missing something you paid good money for. You’re there to learn and interact, not to get wasted.

In complete opposition to what we were told as kids, talk to strangers. Make friends. Generally people who are out and about want to meet others and if you are nervous, they probably are too. So put on your big kid pants and walk on up and introduce yourself! Don’t go in expecting to get jobs or hoping to rub elbows with someone to get a gig. That’s never the way to approach meeting new people. However… bring business cards with you as well! You will meet so many new people that it will be hard to keep track of names, but if you trade business cards like Pokemon cards, you can look them up later and remember the face to the name. You never know if your new friend may know someone looking for your exact skill in the future.

Creative Ice Breakers

  • What is your least favorite movie?

  • What is your hobby?

  • What are you obsessed with that is not design?

  • Do you have a secret talent?

The list goes on.

Make friends not connections

One of the biggest pet peeves I’ve seen in the industry is people who interact with someone just to see what they can get from them, or people who are trying to get to someone else by interacting with a friend of that person. What those that do that don’t realize is that we always know when you’re not actually interested in talking to us. I have personally had this happen multiple times in my career, and I have had a lot of industry friends this has also happened to, and believe me when I say word gets around. Within a short amount of time people know who is legitimately there to make friends and who is just trying to get to Person A who they think can get them a gig at XYZ. Be genuine. Meet people that you genuinely want to meet.

On that note, there will be people you admire at these conferences. Go talk to them. If you’re nervous and one of your friends knows them, ask your friend if they could introduce you. I live by a “I want all my friends to know all my friends” life model, and if I’m with someone who wants to meet someone I know who they look up to, I have absolutely no hesitation in taking you to that person and introducing you or dragging you along so you can meet the people you want to meet. As long as you’re a cool human and you’re genuine, you’re good in my book.

Don’t just tell your story, be engaged in conversation and listen to others. Everyone has a great story to tell and you never know what sort of camaraderie you will find just by listening.

If you see someone standing alone, invite them over to chat. Introduce yourself, ask them something interesting about themselves. All too often the conversations go to “So what do you do” immediately and it’s fun to change things up.

After the Conference

You did it. You successfully survived your first conference and you made a ton of friends while doing so. So what’s next?

Connect with those people. Friend them on Facebook if you want to keep in touch, or find them on Twitter/Instagram. Shoot them an email to tell them you loved meeting them.

See if the conference has some way they keep in touch all through the year. Creative South in particular has a Slack channel that’s open to attendees and even those who are considering attending, and we keep in touch all year so that when we meet back up the next year it’s like we were never apart.

Another reason keeping in touch with people is great is you’ll build a group of friends with whom you can chat things through if you’re stuck on a project, meet at other conferences, or even do small meetups throughout the year. Someone may come to your city and you can catch up over coffee, or vice versa.

While this is only a small dive into the vastness of going to your first conference, I hope this will help you. Now go attend a conference and make friends!

What are some conferences to attend?

The Big Wigs:

Adobe MAX

HOW Design Live

South by Southwest

Alt Summit

Us By Night


Creative South

Creative Works

Made in the Middle

Design Week Portland






Letter West

Small Press:

Alt Press Expo



Brooklyn Art Book Fair

Comic Arts Brooklyn

For more zine / small press festivals, we recommend checking out this amazing list curated by Printed Matter.

Shauna Lynn is a hand lettering artist and illustrator located in Chicago. She is one of the authors of Creative Lettering & Beyond from Walter Foster Publishing.

AdviceAlyssa Nassner