WordCamp Europe 2018 — My Takeaways From Organising The Biggest WordPress Conference In The Known Universe

Exactly a month has passed since WordCamp Europe 2018. Give it another one and it's going to be a year since I embarked on this adventure. I have organised other WordCamps in the past, with WordCamp Zagreb 2017 and WordCamp Europe 2017 being my favourite ones, but WordCamp Europe 2018 was definitely cherry on the top.

After last WordCamp Europe, I was sure I would be applying for next year. There were a couple of reasons for that:

  • Next one was in Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia and a place where a lot of dear friends live.
  • I knew a lot of the organisers already, and I wanted a chance to work with them again.
  • I wanted to learn, give back to the community and continue the great work we did the year before.

And that's what I did. I talked with Sonja and Jenny, mentioned this to them and I was given the opportunity to lead the design team. I knew from the start this was a lot of work and time consuming, so when working with clients I literally planned WordCamp taking up half of my working week, and in the months leading up to the event, even more — which was ultimately the case.

On A Personal Note

To spice things up (like juggling WordCamp and client work wasn't enough), my wife and I were thinking about starting a family. A couple of months after that, we were expecting. Organising WordCamp Europe to me is similar to preparing for a marathon. You take on this responsibility for an event that's coming in almost a year. You plan your time, work and personal life around this because it's going to be a big part of your weekly schedule.

Same with organising a conference — if you haven't prepared, then at some point you are going to feel overwhelmed and risk a burnout or have to step down as work will be piling in and you won't be able to deliver.

Fortunately, I managed to balance all of this for the next 10 months. Our baby boy was born 2 weeks early, month and a half before WordCamp Europe and careful planning helped me to balance private life, client work and organise a conference at the same time. It was challenging at times, but overall a very valuable opportunity for personal growth.

Conference Of The Future

When you are leading the design team, you get this incredible opportunity to shape the conference creatively. We started organising the conference in September and one of the first tasks was to solidify the brand — pick colors, typefaces and define a style. We looked for the inspiration in our host city.

I've been to Belgrade numerous times. I love the city and the vibe. One of the things you certainly notice when visiting Belgrade is the brutalist architecture.

Brutalism as an architectural philosophy was often also associated with a socialist utopian ideology, which tended to be supported by its designers, especially Alison and Peter Smithson, near the height of the style. This style had a strong position in the architecture of European communist countries from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, GDR, USSR, Yugoslavia).

Sava Centar, the venue for this WordCamp was also heavily influenced by this architectural philosophy. As soon as you entered the venue you felt like you were visiting a set from a sci-fi movie in the 70s. I wanted to make the most of this resemblance and I suggested to my team we adopt this futuristic foundation for the event — envision a WordPress conference of the future.

Andromeda Registration Desk (Photo by Florian Ziegler)

During our design meeting, we refined the idea and decided to go with a retro-futuristic theme, inspired by Verner Panton's work. The logo generator we created a year before and continued improving was helpful to experiment with different color schemes until we settled for a blue and red scheme.

WordCamp Europe 2018 Logo

Developing The Experience

Over the next few months, we embarked on building digital assets that were needed and refining the brand in the process. From social graphics and website improvements to press and sponsorship kit. This is of course only a small chunk of work that needs to be done for the conference, but it's still important as it will dictate the direction in months to come.

It's worth noting that this conference with over 2000 attendees is organised by volunteers. The idea is to make the conference affordable to everyone while still providing a great experience. Keeping that in mind, we always try to keep the design budget modest and get the best value for our money. That often means that even though we have a great idea, it might be too expensive to make it a reality. This constraint is not something a designer wants to hear but in this case, it's a good exercise in creativity — investing your time and skill for the maximum impact while saving money in the process.

The organisers are preparing a WCEU handbook where you'll be able to read what goes into bringing this event to life — but in the next few paragraphs, I'll focus on what I enjoyed most while working on this event.

Presenting Content

A booklet is something we had for the past several years — a place to mention all conference related information (schedule, location, venue, sponsors etc.) in a practical pocket form. This year we decided to move some of the content from the booklet to a separate form — A3 paper with map and schedule info on one side, the poster on the other side, folded to the A5 size. There were two important reasons for this.

The venue was more complex this year. It had three levels with over 20 points of interest. I was aware that people might easily get lost in the venue so I pursued the idea of isometric floor plan similar to the ones you would see in shopping malls. I tried several visualisations in the process but the isometric one was deemed best as it displayed both entrances, registration desks and plenty of POIs scattered across this complex venue.

The schedule was the other part we wanted to emphasise this year. Having 5 parallel tracks I wanted it to fit on one page, next to the floor plan, instead of breaking it on several A5 pages, scattered in the booklet.

A lot of effort went into laying out this content making it practical to read and easy to fit into your pocket while thinking about the environment and printing it on the recycled paper. I'll let you judge the final result by yourself.

Foldable A3 paper showing floor plan and schedule
WCEU 2018 Poster — Bring a piece of WordCamp Europe home

Retro-futuristic Theme

As you could see from our floor plan, the tracks were scattered across the venue. We knew people would have a hard time navigating in this big space so we wanted to provide as many visuals cues as possible.

We named the two regular tracks Milky Way and Andromeda. As the venue had two entrances and registration desks, one was named Andromeda Registration Desk and the other one Milky Way Registration Desk. Three workshop tracks were named after space missions: Hayabusa, Rosetta and Cassini. The Communication team helped us by preparing little bits of "Did you know" information that would explain these names to our attendees and put a smile on their face. This really was the biggest WordCamp event in the known universe! 🚀

Workshop tracks with "Did you know?" information

The venue was split into buildings A and B, connected with a long hallway corridor. To make things interesting, we named that hallway "The Wormhole" and in the centre of it was the Wormhole Meeting Point — right next to the info desk and other valuable services for our attendees. Throughout the venue, we used signage similar to the ones you would find on airports — colour-coded by track with arrows pointing in the direction of the room.

Timeline

First WordCamp Europe was held in Leiden in 2013. Over the years the event has grown and changed cities each year. We wanted to present this through numbers and that's how the timeline idea was born. The first idea was to print large banners dedicated to each WCEU, and a month before the conference we had to do some last minute changes in the position and size of the banner. This actually worked to our advantage as the Local team helped find a better place for this — next to the Wormhole Meeting Point.

Timeline graphic of WordCamp Europe

7-meter long wall banner helped us in presenting that data in a fun and interesting way while also pointing to the Contributing area in the next room. The most interesting things are the ones you didn't plan for. During the final day of WordCamp we encouraged people to guess the next WordCamp Europe location. Attendees liked the idea and soon a big chunk of the wall was filled with ideas.

Where to next? (Photo by Florian Ziegler)

Wrapping Up

You space your work throughout the year, but the last weeks before the event is when you see how your plan holds up. Ordering T-shirts, swag, stickers, signing off test prints or sending the final_FINAL_Latest version of the files to the printers. It's a lot of work, and our team handled it without any problems.

Looking back, I was probably edgy the last few weeks before the event, which is normal considering all the stress that adds up when you are ultimately responsible for thousands of T-shirts and other swag items being produced up to our high standards. We have a great deal to thank our Local team for finding wonderful and reliable vendors to work with and to everyone in my Design team for often jumping on some last-minute things.

Working remotely can sometimes feel like you are in this alone. That's not the case. You are working together with amazing and talented people from all over the world. You communicate, learn and share ideas in the process and it can be a life-changing experience for many first–time organisers.

If you feel like you'd want to contribute, you can sign up for the 2019 organising team — the Call for Organisers is opened until July 31st.

Signing Off

Being an organiser the second year in a row puts a lot of strain on your free time, still, it was the two most fun and challenging years for as long as I can remember. I got the chance to meet a lot of new people, work closely with some and in the end — make new friends.

Organisers and volunteers on stage (Photo by Florian Ziegler)

I'd like to thank all the 2018 organisers and especially my design team for making this WordCamp a one to remember. Thank you, Kelly, Wendy, Phillip and Mišel for your hard work — you are awesome!

4/5 of the Design Team: Lucijan, Wendy, Kelly and Mišel. Phillip unfortunately couldn't make it to WCEU (Photo by Michael Burridge)

Seeing how we pulled out one more great event, it was hard making the decision to skip the 2019 organising team but I feel I need to take some time off and focus on other things before committing to any big engagements. One step at a time.

Preparing closing remarks slides (Photo by Florian Ziegler)

See you in Berlin. I can't wait to see what the team prepares for us!