Marc Thielein conversation with Vasilis van Gemert

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Marc Thiele is the organiser of the Beyond Tellerrand conferences in Germany, a series of web conferences that try to look beyond the ordinary. Marc explains what makes his conferences such a treat to everyone involved, not just for the speakers and the visitors, but also for the partners.

As soon as you give up believing in the good of what we do you are lost.

Another topic we talk about is Marc’s endless positivity. Some of us, like me, tend to maybe focus a bit too much on the negative side of our industry. Not Marc. He sees all the wonderful stuff that’s happening. Inspiring!


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Vasilis: You're listening to The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting, a series of conversations about quality with Vasilis van Gemert and an eclectic mix of designers. In this episode I have a conversation with Marc Thiele, organiser of the incredible Beyond Tellerrand conferences in Düsseldorf, Berlin and München.

Of course we talk about organising conferences, because that’s what Marc does. We look into the details: what is it that makes his conferences so special, and we look at the bigger picture: what are the important topics of the moment and what are the topics to ignore. We also talk about Marc’s unbelievable power to somehow find something positive in even the hardest of times. But as usual we start with the question What makes a thing good?

Marc: That is a tough question just because you can see it from many directions, right. One direction would be usability, if something is usable. In a certain way it makes it good. You know if you have a hairdryer you want the hairdryer to dry your hair. If it does the job it is good right. It doesn't mean it is well designed or looks good or […]

V: So that's the basic, that's functional.

M: Yeah that is functional. And I think and there is like something where you say like it's pretty, I like it, it is visually appealing. So it satisfies something in you. I can't really say what it is but it is like it gives you a pleasant feeling if you look at it and you go like oh that's beautiful, that's lovely. That's good and quality as well. And if you can combine these two things I think then you might have nailed it and might have the perfect thing right? Like it is beautiful and usable.

V: Yeah.

M: Then you are a really good designer maybe if you create something like this. So if you go by definition right.

V: Yeah.

M: But I think what you just said that people ignore your topic. There is a reason because it is very subjective sometimes right? I mean there's objective factors where you can measure maybe quality but there is like a lot of subjectivity as well in it. Because like you know quality is like to everybody else quality means something different. You know?

V: Absolutely true so if you listen to all these podcast well most of them are in Dutch, so it will be hard for you but everybody […] well there are some similarities. So everybody starts it is a hard question and it depends. Almost everybody says that.

M: Yeah of course 'cause also like because in some way you want to step back a bit because you don't want people to judge you based on what you said. Because like it is very subjective again.

V: Ah okay, yeah, yeah, yeah. So they are all scary. Okay that could be.

M: Yeah cause other people could go like oh that's bullshit what he says because […]

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So what if nobody were listening what would your answer have been?

M: No, no, no my answer would have been the same like. It is like you know I don't know how it is with you having kids you get these questions from your kids a lot, right? These questions where you really don't have the answer to but you go and go like oh yeah let's sit down and talk about it because […] and then you have to come up with an answer for the kids. Sometimes it is I don't know.

V: I think that's a very good answer.

M: But then you sit down and do research.

V: Let's find out, yeah.

M: That what I tend to do with my kids as well. If there is a question so what is quality I go give you the answer that I gave you just a second ago and then I go like let's find out what other people say. And I mean we have the internet, it is an incredible source of opinions and you can find out and check what other people say. You agree, you disagree and by that you make up your own opinion. You go like okay I think that is what I think as well. I think it is good.

V: And when it comes to the product that you are making? So you make I guess high quality conferences. What is it that makes […] that separates the functional conference from a real good one?

M: Yeah so for me personally again especially having had a new one in Munich right now. That was one where I was scared to run it because it is a new audience, a new area and you think you know like okay it works in Dusseldorf and in Berlin and you have built a kind of a community, returning people coming back who trust in your decisions, your choice of speakers, the way you run the event. But if you go to a new area, expecting many new people to come the scariness was will they get the idea of it or is it like am I …. and it worked in Dusseldorf and Berlin doesn't mean that it works anywhere else, right? So I think for me my rating of the quality of the event I did is something I can't steer in the beginning and direct in the beginning but after the event I can look back at it and then make the decision was that a quality one or not. Based on a. quality of speakers of course. Did they deliver, was the mix of topics good that is important for me it is a good mixed bag of topics. Not just one topic.

V: And these are things that you kind of control, not all the way of course […]

M: No but it is like you know over the years you get a certain feeling for that kind of stuff. And you speak to people. So one example is someone I found on Instagram called Dina Amin from Munich. She creates stop motion movies, she is a designer from Egypt and I have never seen her speak just know her work from Instagram. I know that she was giving workshops in Egypt but based on that I said like have you ever spoken at an event like this and she said not really. And I was asking would you like to? And she like yes so I had a Skype conversation with her just to get a feeling for the person and then over the years you get a pretty good nose for like the character of people. And I thought like she is a perfect fit and she did such a great talk.

V: Oh yeah?

M: Honestly, not just the content but also the message she delivered as a woman from Egypt being in a tech industry without like those raised fingers that we know is often seen in the internet going like oh that's wrong what we do, like all these kind of criticism, very positive and very highly energetic way of talking about it. Fantastic. And that's what I mean like you you know have to take a risk sometimes to find quality. But you know like I am very happy that now she is getting invited by Typo Berlin to speak, John was asking her, she is on Smashing TV. Isn't that great? And that in the end proves quality.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, yeah. Fantastic.

M: So but for me is like my personal own measurement is like really what I said like the speakers, the content quality then the atmosphere is very important for me. So that's something that's not a thing […] of course there is feedback from people right. So in a way we can measure atmosphere but like in general there is no measurement of atmosphere.

V: And I guess atmosphere is also harder to control you can do something about it but not all?

M: No and also you will never please everybody, never. I gave up on that and that's […] you can't. If there is 500 people in the room you can never please 500 people and there is never 500 people who all like you. There is always someone who goes like what an idiot.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: You know. And that's fine. You know that's fine. You know the thing is like I want to please the majority and […] you know that's my […] as many as possible.

V: Yeah I guess more than just the majority.

M: Yeah, yeah.

V: In your case I mean I guess a big majority is happy with the conferences, right?

M: Yes it is true and I am happy about it. What Kevin in his talk just said like is we tend to nowadays be too quiet about ourselves work, so we are not proud enough of our work any more because it quickly gets to a point where people said I could look at him, you know like he is wearing his nose up but you know we can be proud of good work. So if you do something good and then people like rub your back and they go like well done and you go like yes, yes, well done, fantastic. So actually it is okay to be proud of your own work, why not.

V: Yeah you should be because it is really good what you are doing. And I guess in many ways right. I think there are more factors that we can name of your conference which makes it good. So you do things to make the audience happy right?

M: Yeah exactly.

V: I think that's really important for you.

M: That's my goal. And not just the audience I mean like everybody there and that's what I always say. And it is a slight difference between the audience and everybody there cause I mean also the volunteers helping me should have a good time, also the speakers should have a good time and what I want to do is like break the barriers between the speakers and the audience. We are all together there and that's my highest aim. I often speak about it but people tend to […] they are not listening exactly 'cause they don't really get it. You never see any reserved space for the speakers in my theatre, you will never see like a VIP sign or something like this. They are no special, they don't have any different colour for their badges, we are all the same there, right? And I just want to make sure that people understand that everybody in the audience could actually do the job on stage. In theory, you know what I mean.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: I don't want to lower the work and the stuff that the speakers do they can come …. but just like from the idea I think if you think like that that we are all the same and we will all do that and take the barriers away the connection between the people speaking on stage and the audience automatically gets way better. And that's why I try to not introduce someone with the work they do and with their like CV I always try to tell a short human introduction just to give them the idea okay it is a person.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You always tell about how you met the person.

M: Yes exactly.

V: Fantastic.

M: That's important for me.

V: Okay so these are really well thought out designed things?

M: Yeah.

V: Yeah you thought about all these things.

M: And that's people ask me like some of my friends always have the joke when I did Dusseldorf and Berlin they said like you only work four days a year right? And I am like yeah. But are you having a problem with that? But in reality I am sitting a lot on my desk in my studio on my own thinking about all that kind of stuff like how to tweak little things and I never tell people about these things example is the DJ, Toby, that in 2013 came to me and who suggested they sketch notes in music. I took a risk there but said to him let's try it and now he is one of the parts, like one of the established things of the event. But in the year we started it […]

V: And it is really good so maybe people who haven't heard it.

M: Yeah Soundcloud Baldower and there's like sounds […] snippets of that.

V: Yeah. So what he does he sits on stage while the speaker is talking and he picks out the little bits and pieces of what the person is saying and then during the break he mixes it into funky music.

M: Exactly so he calls it sketch notes in music and that's actually what he is doing. Like he is trying like sketch notes you try to draw a little bit that summarizes the essences of the talk and a few pictures with like arrows and a few key words and that's what he is doing in music. Yeah and we did it and I didn't go on touch and said to people now we have a DJ sampling talks, so I didn't explain it, there was just this guy doing music and then people started to complain about like the electronic music and on twitter go like can we have some other music as well. But piece-by-piece it dropped that he was actually sampling the talks and they went oh that's actually quite nice. So that's what I like if people find out by themselves. They also get the feeling that they found out right. So in last year I did movie posters for the speakers in Dusseldorf because I did the venue at new picture frames in the entrance.

V: Oh yeah that was wonderful.

M: So I took like a few of the stills from the opening titles and made movie posters for the speakers without telling them. And when they queued to get in they were like oh there is movie posters and I love that kind of stuff to play around with it not telling people but like really find out little bits and pieces.

V: This sounds a little bit like what Peter Bilak told me a few weeks ago about his definition of quality was that everybody who is involved has to be happy and otherwise it is not good enough.

M: True. That's a good definition.

V: So he said when you design a product if the person who builds the product is unhappy then it is not a good product.

M: Yes.

V: And it can be good for business but it is not a good product.

M: Yeah and that's a good way of putting it because what I do after a certain period of time or even after every event when I used to have my dog I took him for a walk in the forest and I grounded myself by going like oh well that was a great event but you know is everything still satisfying for me that way. Because of what you just said like if I am not happy how should I transport the happiness through what I do to the people coming right? So I often ask myself is it still the stuff that I want to do and only if I can give myself a true yes without any self doubt. When I am like I am not enjoying it anymore you know but it makes my money so […] I think when I reach this point I have to stop.

V: Yeah.

M: Because it might work for another year or two but I am pretty sure that people will recognize it if I don't like it anymore, you know what I mean? If the passion is not there anymore.

V: I guess so.

M: And then by the way it was like one of the themes this year I think in Munich that everybody on the stage really was so passionate about what they did. There was like Carla Diana talking about robotics, there was Stefan Sagmeister talking about beauty and why beauty is functional, there was Harry Roberts talking about CSS and performance and why that matters and you can see like how much he is like into that certain topic. There was Robin Christopherson a blind person talking about accessibility. So it is a lot of people very specific in their field.

V: That's interesting because the Berlin talk there were pretty many people who actually seemed to be a little bit fed up with their work.

M: Yeah, true.

V: Looking for new things.

M: Exactly but that's quite interesting how really by accident and not curated that somehow works out that people seem to have a theme at one of the events but just because it is a trending matter of time like that people […] you know like […]

V: Could be age.

M: Yeah.

V: Right?

M: So you say like the Berlin speaker line up was pretty old already. No.

V: No.

M: But I mean some things happen by accident that's what I want to say like and that it could also lead to look like quality because if you recognize that and then turn it into a thing for that and use it […]

V: I guess so and especially in design you need accidents because otherwise you keep repeating yourself right? You need new insights, you need surprises.

M: Yeah that's the reason for doing these little things. I am not always […] and that's why I also never say like there will be free drinks at the event of there will be free cake or this […] like always trying to not set the expectations. You always are able to surprise people.

V: Also one thing that always strikes me you have many sponsors but you always […] if I go to conferences there is […] what is it […] businesses trying to sell me crap but not at your place you somehow […] it is also that you somehow get the all the big agencies that come there to do something useful.

M: Yeah also another thing I do in my free time when I am not working four days a year is like I am busy with finding I like to call them partners and not sponsors.

V: Oh yeah, yeah.

M: That's a big difference in the wording already. For me a partner is someone I work with to achieve something. A sponsor for me is like someone more inactive, like more a passive thing that I take your money you sponsor my event.

V: And you get something in exchange.

M: Yeah. And that's what I make very clear when I approach them as well I want to know what you want to do. Do you want to hire people, do you want to get awareness for your brand, product or service or whatever. And then if they listen to me I can explain them who is coming, which kind of audience they can expect. What they shouldn't do like a table with a desk and a laptop on there, it is a barrier, you block out people so that's one of the first things I do if they have a booth, open up your space and invite to talk to you and don't do it by having a table between you and them and you know this kind of stuff. So I really have a conversation with them and try to found out and that's what I really like.

V: Yeah.

M: And I tell them not to do […]

V: Big lunch sessions things like that.

V: Yeah. And don't do a standard …. like just have a sofa if you like to invite people to go to your space. Depending on what the people want to achieve right when coming to the event. But again it is just a matter of listening carefully to them what they want and then shaken up things. And what you just said like at other events often times you have got the feeling that the people behind the desk are just there because they get paid to be there for the company. A long time sponsor like Trivago for example from Dusseldorf they want to be there that's the difference. They want to be part of it, they want to hang out there and meet the people. And yes I also tell them make it interesting to come, have something for them, start with a goodie bag insert, don't do like flyers I tell them and don't do […] I coordinate that stuff as well so that we don't have three sponsors or partners putting in power banks. So you know like just say like oh that's already there, try to think of something different and yeah .

V: Yeah that's very hard. Goodie bags every event I go to I throw away so much stuff.

M: Yeah, yeah and that's a pity. I mean it still happens that people don't listen and then you get the flyers and you get another pair of sunglasses or bottle opener or an usb stick or whatever you know.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: And my kids can only use a certain amount of sunglasses. So […]

V: Yeah. I was at a conference a while ago they had a goodie table. So you didn't get a goodie bag but you could pick.

M: Yes. How do you call it a buffet kind of style right?

V: Yeah.

M: So yeah I heard about it. Actually pretty good idea, pretty good idea just to get an empty bag and then you pick what you need.

V: I went home with nothing.

M: Yeah that speaks for itself. What I also like to do is like I want to give the exhibitor and the audience again the feeling, so I call it exhibition that's the space where I put the partners into but I also invite friends of mine, for example the T-shirt printer they come and do silkscreen printing. I have a graffiti artist between them. I have like people showing their art work, a skateboard shop and I mix that with the partners so that's more colourful and that's more interesting for the audience to check into the exhibition and talk to the people. And that helps both sides like my friends the artists they sell a bit of stuff and the partners are able to speak to the audience right?

V: Yeah. It is really clever, really clever. It is all the little details that make your conference a very special one. Like the breaks in between every talk there is a break.

M: Also there like people ask me half an hour break after the first talk why is that. I then just give the example imagine you are jumping out of the plane, into the bus, train to just arrive get your coat check, put your coat away, get registered, not even the time for coffee, 10 o'clock it starts, you get into the theatre, watch the first talk and I give you the chance like half an hour after the talk to really arrive and have a coffee and meet your friends you know, that's what I […] cause I know that not everybody arrives the day before the event. So.

V: I know in Dusseldorf I can take the train, the early morning train in Amsterdam and be on time.

M: So and therefore I have that in mind that those people arrive really close to the start of the event. They can have another long break before the second talk actually to finally arrive, really, to meet the first people, shake hands.

V: Really good. Incredible. So you also I mean you travel a lot from event to event so I guess you are pretty up to date of what the topics are. And there is of course two sides to look at this. You can look at it from what are the topics that everybody is talking about and then what I am also interested in is what are the topics you think are worth it from all these topics that people are talking about. And are there topics that people talk about that are not interesting?

M: I have to admit for me again on a personal view more technical topics for me and myself and my life get more and more unimportant. I mean they are necessary also again thinking of the audience because there should and have to be practical parts at least in my concept of the event some take aways that people can get inspired to learn some of that new stuff, some new technologies and things and sometimes getting […] and having to be pointed to certain things. One topic for example accessibility. It is like a very important topic still way under represented in my opinion which can be pretty technical but Marcy Sutton for example in Munich did a really really good job on that. She gave a talk that really addressed the new people to show why it is important to do and how easy it could be to implement accessibility into your web project but also address the people who could easily go like oh I know all this shit already and she gave them some food for them not to go like oh that's boring I know all that shit already she gave them a very good talk about that. And that's a technical talk in a way where I think like that's still important to have. Also like the performance topic talking about mobile. Not the mobile we have got here but like in countries in the whole world where mobile is still a new thing and they have crappy phones, slow connections.

V: Yeah.

M: So Harry gave a good talk on that. So that's the technical parts where I think that's important to know that. But for me more and more the, how can I put it, the talks about like human interest like why design influences something, why technology influences something, what's robotics is that a topic in daily life that will come up. So that's more and more these topics that really as a human being interest me and that are also interesting for my general life and not just in my work. And that slowly, for me personally, shifts in that direction. So I could see […]

V: But the impact of design or the ethics or […]?

M: Impact, yeah ethics also this and you know yes I could sit in the 50st talk about CSS grids because that's a new hot thing right but yeah there is like […] certainly it is necessary to have these talks still there right also like the conferences like just about PHP or JavaScript it is just not these days for me anymore. I am slowly getting away from that kind of thing.

V: I think Beyond Tellerand was never really about only that. You had a few technical talks but never really specialists.

M: But I have to be careful just because my personal interest is shifting that I don't go and like completely wipe out all the technical aspects of my event because that's why people come still and love the idea of the event because of the mix so that's why I wanted to say right. So I always have two hats on if I talk about stuff like this the important topics.

V: Yeah. And then if you look at the new topics that are buzzing right now, like for instance machine learning and robotics and conversational interfaces, things like that. Do you see these as a trend or these […]?

M: No it is like with many things they started very playful. So playing playing around and testing stuff. You know and something out of these playing around technology one of the examples is Mario Klingemann.

V: Yeah.

M: With his talk right?

V: Yeah.

M: I think there is a lot like really interesting. Not just like technically seeing but also ethically seeing stuff. You know if he makes other people speak with the language of someone else. Scary shit. I mean.

V: Yeah.

M: And it is only the beginning right. And again and he plays around with it in a very playful way. But he has the talent to deliver a talk where people like me with no clue what he is actually doing there but you get a glimpse of how that works and understand like what it can do and how easy it can be in the future, right?

V: It looked so easy yeah I remember his talk. I came home and said okay I am gonna do it and I just couldn't do it. I gave up.

M: He is a good example for like how playful he works with that kind of technology. But if you take that one step further into your daily life like especially talking about fake news and like news that are not true and then if you can like proof that with like moving pictures of people saying something.

V: Yeah.

M: Scary. Yeah. So and the same with like Carla Diana's talk that she gave about robotics and about like […] there is like always the playful things and that way you go like okay it is that little cute robot like you can interact with like very […] oh it is talking to my kids. But take a step further robots in hospitals like nursery and what they can do. Often maybe human people like people getting not paid enough they don't want to do the job any more. You know like then the robot can step in and really do like small parts of it at least. If it is good or not that's another thing, like it takes away jobs or something and now the discussion. But just from the technology point of view it is interesting what robotics like get into it it is not just like a toy anymore. Just like a dog that barks to you and can talk to you, reacts and like it is getting serious nowadays. It is a very exciting time. I am like a little bit scared for my kids.

V: Oh yeah really yeah?

M: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Again seeing what kids already do with their phones and with their stuff. I mean the last 14 years, my daughter is 14, so much changed. I mean they can't imagine a world without the internet any more.

V: No.

M: And we are in the generation where we still know the times without the internet. And being without like having your own computer it just was about to start. Like starting with a C64 in my case.

V: Only landline telephones.

M: Yeah acoustic couplers to get your connection to the internet whatever it was back then. But my kids they don't know a world without that kind of stuff. And it is like so fast, everything is like so fast and they are communicating and I sometimes fear like they grab their phone, they are always connected, always, everywhere. And that's a shame.

V: On the one hand it is nice.

M: It is very practical and also as a parent […]

V: I think it is also something that I would have wanted as a kid for sure.

M: Absolutely, there are certainly practical aspects. So back when I was a kid my mom said be back home at ten, she had no idea where I was if anything happened I was fucked because I am somewhere in like a neighbour's village and my kids like they can simply use their phones to contact me or I can contact them or send a message or whatever. It has never been easier to trace like where your kids are not because you want to stalk them but just a matter of secureness right. They can report I am leaving that place going to another place.

V: Yeah from security but also from a social aspect. I mean when my daughter gets home she can keep on talking with her friends.

M: But on the other end it is like this constant connection to your phone not even let it go when you are having lunch having it right next to you like watching which snaps you get or which WhatsApp and Instagram followers and hearts and like […]

V: It is a real problem if I look at my students they have a constant flow of messages on their screen.

M: Constant, constant.

V: It is just non-stop.

M: And I was asking my kids lately to please write down the times they are connected to the phone, physically connected because they are holding in their hands. They don't want to do it but I said please do it just for one day. and then write down as soon as you pick up your phone write down the times. How often you do it, how long and then filter out what was really important while you were doing it. And they are […] but just do it once and then you see it on paper how much irrelevant shit you do half the day.

V: And what did it cost? Did they […]?

M: No they didn't do it. They rejected to do it but it would be a good experiment just for themselves and really see with knowing already like how much irrelevant stuff they really do.

V: I think it is hard. It is also interesting to see that this is the first […] we are the first generation who gives their kid a phone. There are no best practices for that yet. We have to find out.

M: Absolutely.

V: I have no idea.

M: Our kids will then maybe get an idea because they went through all that.

V: Yeah.

M: Yeah I mean we had to find out by ourselves. That was a conversation I had lately with a few people as well about like computer, internet and all that kind of stuff. So we did like the first steps and found out this […] we did many mistakes maybe and we are still doing many mistakes.

V: Yeah I know a kind of things happenings that we couldn't have foreseen of course.

M: Yeah. But you know my kids are born into it they get thrown in it and like they just have to live with what's there. And yeah we started to shape what's there but their task actually is like giving it some usage. Crazy I mean it opens so many possibilities but in a way it is like very dangerous as well.

V: So what do you think about our industry? I can get a bit depressed every now and then if I look at I mean all the talent, so the biggest talent they work at advertising […] If I look at it simply they work at advertising selling shit that's the biggest creative talent. That's what they are doing. That's […] if you look at a bit from the negative side at our industry. Is that what I am teaching for or […]?

M: No I don't think so and I don't think […] It is a huge problem that what you just describe that you get frustrated about stuff because as soon as you get frustrated you lose your passion and faith and hope in it. Because then you easily go like you know I give up, I just turn […] I become a baker or a butcher or whatever do some practical thing because as soon as you give up believing in the good of what we do you are lost. And that's why I say like having my two brothers die and my mom as sad as these parts are and as negative as they are as an experience I always try to find something positive in it.

V: That's incredible, wow.

M: There is always something positive in it.

V: Okay.

M: You will find in any negative situation you will find something positive.

V: Yeah, yeah.

M: It is just making the effort to sit down and think about it. If you say like you are frustrated about like this situation having designers work at agencies working doing crap someone has to do it. And if people earn money with it it is a good thing.

V: Okay, yeah.

M: But you know Kevin just in his talk just said exactly this. Sometimes yes we always talk about like can you make the logo bigger or use Comic Sans as an example and you go like no because we don't have to do that. Just do that it is your client, take the money do it and then if you want to change the world do it in the rest of your time. I think, so in that case if you are frustrated let's say you have a designer where you think like he is doing really good work or she is doing really good work but working for the agency where the output is crap in my opinion, why not try to contact that designer and go like motivate that designer to do some other work with their talent they have got for better things.

V: Yeah.

M: That's my kind of thinking. Another example is I just recently read a blog post about the microblogging from Paul Robert Lloyd from … and he is right with the situation where we are at Twitter and what it means. I like the IndieWeb movement in general what I don't like is the negativity and the pessimistic view of the things. He roughly says something like Twitter turns into like this kind of negative space. Everybody is just grumpy. Yeah but we made it like this. Because we complain constantly. So why not send out more positive things then we might be able to change that kind of stuff. If we change ourselves we are gonna be more positive on Twitter we gonna change Twitter. And if everybody would […]

V: Like it is weird what happened there right?

M: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

V: Is that maybe a normal thing I don't know. I don't know is it that […] have to complain I don't know.

M: Yeah, yeah, it is influenced by so many things like the press I mean look at the news these days. It is just like people dying there, a war there. It is like all negative press because it makes a better headline.

V: Yeah, yeah.

M: You know.

V: Either that or cat gifs right?

M: Yeah. And so and that's why I said to Vitaly from Smashing Magazine in a conversation we had a couple of weeks no months ago in I think it was in New York. When I said to him you know like what if we have something like one positive tweet each day, just thanking someone or just spreading out how great someone's work is. Just like to try to do that. It is difficult.

V: It is not that difficult you know.

M: No, exactly it is not.

V: People are not used to it but it is not hard. It is very easy.

M: Why is it so much harder for us then going like oh you know look outside there is no sun or blue sky, it is all cloudy, shit weather it is cold outside. You know but we have a beautiful view.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: We tend to get so negative the same with […] one thing I like to ask people which I did on my blog as well before you hit send on Twitter think about do I really need to say that. Does it help anyone or does it help me? I mean if I want to put out some negativeness because I am really angry about something and in the end you say like yeah I want to send that but think twice. You know like often times you might say like no actually […]

V: There should be an I am angry button. That you post it but it doesn't get posted.

M: I mean it is okay to […] I don't say like don't be negative at all anymore because like the negativity in me it provokes positivity.

V: There are many problems of course that need to be addressed and talked about. I mean that's what we are designers for as well right?

M: Yeah.

V: Yeah but we need to be inspired as well.

M: And maybe if you not just say this is the way it is and it is negative maybe with saying this we might come up with something this is how it is and it is negative but maybe this could change it. So think a bit further and then you already have in the negative statement that you make you have a positive approach that says like I wanna change it.

V: But I am asking this because last week I spoke to a friend of mine Maarten Kappert, he is a creative consultant and in his spare time he is working to well let's say make the world a better place but in his non spare time he is working on making the world not a better place. So that is a very weird thing, right? So he is actively well not really destroying, no he is doing actively what he doesn't want to do. And I think that is a very weird thing.

M: It is, it is but in the end at some point not everybody has the benefit of doing what they do and also make a living out of that. So sometimes you are forced to, up to a certain point, I don't say like making the money with what you do justifies everything right so don't get me wrong but it is […] if you work in […] I don't know what he is working for but like if you work in an industry […]

V: Well it is not even […] I mean he is not working for arms producers or something. He is working for a travel agency for things like that. I mean it is not evil but it is not good either. It has gotten too big maybe you could say.

M: Yeah it is a really good question it is like […] I mean also there like self reflection would be a thing like we need more often to sit down and think about what you do and then go like I am still okay with it and can justify that. I am not selling arms as you say or I am not like selling bombs or I don't know. Not everybody can be like […] in Germany we have a word says Gutmensch like just doing only doing good. And there are some people who do that and who sacrifice their life for like getting people water in Africa or like […] you know I am not doing that as well and I still I believe I am trying to do my little bits and pieces here and there to change the world to a better place. There are people doing a way way way better job than I. I think it is just like just these parts where you go like yeah but I am doing bits and if it is I divide the trash into you know like to help […]

V: Yeah. I mean of course it is good that he is in his spare time he is doing good but yeah. I thought that was an interesting question and I also asked him and he said no it can't be done. I asked him if you could work with big corporations and I mean a lot of what these corporations do is actually not that good for let's say for the community. It is good for short-term goals, for making more money. I asked him can you change that as a creative person who is working with these companies and he said no.

V: You can change the work maybe for the industries but there is an example that comes to my mind here, the open source community for example. There used to be that studio, I think they split now, Hellicar news from England. Pete Hellicar and Joel Gethin Lewis they are interactive designers like work a lot of inspirational stuff. And they spoke at my 2013 event and they made […] I might mix up things but I think they made something with Coca Cola and the band - ah I am so bad with names - one of those pop bands that is popular right now at the moment. Anyways they made a music video like a 24 hour challenge that's what they did and the idea was that I think Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola, it doesn't matter, the client wants to have this video online and there was an algorithm and people could vote for a song so the audience in the internet would write a song with the band live in 24 hours. They would perform a video and there was like visuals coming out with that. And Pete and Joel they did the algorithm for the visual stuff and their contract said okay you can use that for the video but after we are done we can open source the core code of the project so that other people can use it for their projects and we also can […] And Pepsi was like hm we are paying you a lot of money to actually write that stuff right so why should we open source it and be […] and then they say like because that's where people connect good with your work, with the project. That you know Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola whoever did the video which is not really a […] there is nothing in there that helps anyone you know like it is just […]

V: Not really.

M: It is entertainment. But through that open sourcing they have a positive impact on things because Pete and Joel they then used that code to create something for autistic kids, visuals where they showed a video which showed the impact and which made me cry actually because there was a mom with her kid, I don't know the age anymore like six years maybe, and she never reacted to anything and they did the visual stuff and then she was going like trying to touch the kind of light bulb that was going on. And then the mom started to cry because that was the first time her kid ever in her life reacted to anything.

V: Wow.

M: And that was the impact they had with that Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola project through the code so […]

V: That they could re-use it okay, yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: And that's maybe a way of where designers also can use the ability of a project they did and use the outcome.

V: Use evil for good.

M: Yeah.

V: Yeah, interesting.

M: There's examples you just have […] again if you walk with a positive head on you find these kind of examples. But if you always think or concentrate and focus on the negative you will never […]

V: No. I guess you have to look for ways to […] yeah, very interesting example, very good. Are there topics that you avoid for your conference, that you actively avoid that you don't want?

M: Not really I have to say. I trust […] I mean of course there is topics I would never ever get too much into politics for example. But I know if I invite someone like Mike Monteiro that he will speak politically about like the USA and the internet. I am pretty sure when he is coming to Dusseldorf in May that he is going to speak about Twitter and Facebook selling guns and you know like this kind of stuff you know. That happens but I would never invite him to speak about this. I know that in his talk he will speak about it and I take the risk saying like oh yeah that's fine.

V: Everybody who is coming there will know that he will […]

M: Yeah.

V: Yeah, yeah.

M: So but I am usually not looking for political talks too much.

V: No.

M: Because I think politics is a thing that is very subjective again as well right? I don't know. But you know I don't avoid it, let's say it this way. I think in Munich I said, after the event, when someone said to me so how do you find interesting people I said everybody actually is interesting. If you just see like again an example of the butcher. If the butcher gives a good talk and a passionate talk about his work and how that […] all excited he gets other people excited in it. So it could be even a good talk about the baker and like you know just like being like people want to speak about their work and have a good way of expressing.

V: I did a sausage-making workshop once. It was fascinating. It was really fascinating for hours. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: You see. So it's just saying like really I mean I am a bit tired of saying like oh you need passionate people and bla, bla, bla, bla it is like follow your passion. Kevin just said it on stage it is not that easy. But you know on the other hand if you are passionate you are way more motivating for other people as well. And that's the kind of mix I want to have like inspiration, motivation, technically and in a design way, a thinking way as well. And then I think that is the interest of what I have to […] for my audience like through the passion they have a chance to listen to an interesting topic and also maybe an important topic.

V: Yeah, yeah. Good, so how did you start out? So that was […] you started quite a long time ago with […]?

M: I was running a community called Flash Forum in Germany together with Sascha Wolter and in 2001 we decided to do the first event in Munich called Flash Forum conference. And we did that yearly then from then on 2001 and until 2009 I think. In 2010 it was still called FFK, Flash Forum Conference, but already subtitled Beyond Tellerand to like slowly shift to my new brand. Because Sascha back then said like he is not interested in running the forum anymore and I think in 2008 he stepped out and it was my own thing.

V: Okay.

M: And that was also the date when my oldest brother got diagnosed with cancer and we had one of these conversations about how do you deal with the fact that you might die earlier than you expected. And he said like living every day more intense as if it is the last day of my life. I mean you hear that in movies but it is different if your brother tells you that, right.

V: Shit, yeah.

M: And he sadly died in 2015. In December 2015 but his doctor back then said three years maybe so he made like 10 out of it which is again the positive and the negative.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: But when he said that I had like this kind of moment I think you call it epiphany I don't know. This kind of moment, very intense moment that said to me I wanna live like this as well but not being that sick.

V: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: I sat down and filtered out in a year of work life what I really like. I mean I was satisfied and I liked my job. I was working freelance, run the Flash forum, had two kids, I was a happy person. Just I had this moment thinking like what is the one thing I really like to do which came to the one event I was running. I was looking always looking very much forward to the April event meeting the people, connecting the people, finding the interesting people on stage and you know I said like let's try and do that full time. I went to my wife, I told her. She luckily said yeah go for it. It wasn't that easy but you could imagine like having two kids and a house to pay off and then […]

V: I am gonna quit my job, okay?

M: Yes. But I gave myself a goal of three years and said like let's try that but don't be stupid, after three years, sit down, look back and think about also financially does it work. And it was very satisfying to run it but it also worked out financially which means we can pay the bills. I am not here with my Porsche. So […]

V: You left it at home right with the other cars.

M: Yeah. I am here with my yacht. No I am really happy honestly, 100% happy and satisfied with what I do and I love it. I really really love it and up to the point and I know there will be a time when I might get like this one moment where I go like am I doing it now as a job or do I really still like it. It is my job but […]

V: I mean I guess you really like meeting people and that's what you do.

M: Yes totally, totally.

V: Connecting people.

M: And you know like hearing from you and do this and then remembering oh I just spoke to someone who does a similar thing and then have these two people meet right and connect them. It is wonderful. I think it is really really great and if it is only listening to people and telling them how good their work is. Because I don't do good work. You know what I mean like I am just like doing this conference kind of thing.

V: Yeah we came to the conclusion that your conference is actually a quality conference.

M: Yeah, thank you.

V: You do good work.

M: Yeah and I had this moment at Wacom one year where we had this kind of meeting with the evangelist team of the Wacom people where so many unbelievably talented people have been there I was sitting next to someone who did the matte painting for Alien who was like drawing stuff constantly and it was like oh he is so good, oh he is talented like graphicians and 3D artists and then there was me. I was like […] back then I was still working with Flash using the Wacom tablet more as a mouse than anything else, right.

V: Yeah, yeah.

M: But then we had to introduce ourselves for five minutes each and it was my point and I told what I did so I was running the Flash Forum conference and the forum for the community and I closed by saying like you know I don't know what I actually do here because like seeing all the work of you I ask myself why am I here right and then one guy raised his hand can I say something and I go like yes sure. He went like we need people like you to show our work.

V: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

M: Sometimes we don't speak a lot about ourselves and if people like you put us out there in the light that's what we need and that's what your job is.

V: It is really, I mean, these conferences they are really inspiring every time I come back from one of your conferences in the train I am working with new ideas. That's how it works.

M: Great and that's […] but sometimes you need someone like him standing up and say that because I was like […] you know like you are all so talented. He was like he just pushed me in an angle I went oh he is right, true.

V: I have the same thing with Beyond Tellerand in Berlin where I spoke. I had watched Paula Scher and there is this and this and this and these persons who have done all this amazing shit and me. What am I doing here?

M: Yeah.

V: Yeah. Incredible. You always have incredible speakers as well. So where do you find them? I mean it is not the least speakers I mean these are true, true icons. I mean […]

M: Oh yeah. It is hard to describe. Sometimes it is a bit like I describe it as me being on a ship without a steering wheel on a river and just go with the flow with things that happen. So I invited, one year I invited someone who spoke then I asked someone else and you find out that they are friends. You didn't know but then they must ask this other person oh I see you spoke at this event, how is Mark and how is the event and they come back to you and say like oh I just heard good things about you from Stefan for example Sagmeister who opened quite some doors for me.

V: Yeah, yeah.

M: And then I thought like it gives you the confidence to also ask people just out of the blue. To just approach someone like Paula Scher and ask. So I met her in 2012 for the first time at John's even, John Davies event in New York, he did an event in the SVA theatre, school of visual arts where Paula back then was teaching. I think she still is I am not sure though. Met her for the first time but from 2012 to 2017 when she finally came and speak in my event it's five years. But I never got tired of asking her. I know she is busy you know but if she then last year we had lunch then and she said like yes I am coming. And you know at that point I think like it is worth without being a pain in the ass you know to often like show people you are still interested and not because she is a well known person but because I admire her work, I have the highest respect of her work of her character and she gave a talk where you can say someone who doesn't like her work, or her would say like oh that was a portfolio kind of talk you know about her work […] but you know I think I have my highest respect for what she does 'cause imagine she does 40 years of work or even more and she is still relevant not many designers are that.

V: No, no, no and not many designers are still designers.

M: Yes.

V: They become managers.

M: Yeah and it is just you ask how do you get these people. Just by being me really. I tell them what I do and I show my interest in their person and not only their name or what they are and that's sometimes surprises people. Because they go like oh he is not inviting me because I am me he is inviting me because I am who I am, an attractive character, a personality. And that's really the truth I mean I have to have in mind of course the topic and who else is coming to have a good mix and stuff but you know that comes second. Most important for me is the person. And the same approach when I tried to get Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters on stage one year. When I was talking to the agent she was like how many people are coming and what she didn't get was I didn't invite Dave Grohl because he is Dave Grohl. I said to her you know I wouldn't even announce him under his real name because I don't want to have any fan boys or fan girls there so I would invite Helmut Somebody to speak about his musical career and announce him like this. And then she went like oh okay I get it. I just said to her like I am selling out these 500 people anyways you know I want to have him just to be there because I like his work, his music, I am a huge fan of course but I want to have him as a person speaking about his career and life as a rock musician. And she is like okay now I get it. And I was very close to get him.

V: Oh yeah but it didn't work out?

M: No.

V: Oh, that's a pity.

M: In the end he said like […] it was after the, not the last album but the one before 2014 I think and he said like they wanna take a break and spend time with their family after the tour exactly in that time frame so […] yeah, yeah.

V: So you don't get anybody but yeah.

M: Yes it is just like really my approach is to show them really I am interested in their work and their personality and not like their big name.

V: Thank you Mark. Do you have any other things that you want to say to the people of the Netherlands?

M: No I think a lot of the stuff I want to say when I am on a mission I already said. It is like stay positive that's way better to be than being negative. It makes you more happy and it influences other people to be positive as well.

V: Thank you very much.

M: Thank you man!

V: This was episode 54 of The Good, The Bad, and The Interesting with Vasilis van Gemert (that’s me) and Marc Thiele. If you feel the urge to give any feedback you are more than welcome. You can send me an email via vasilis at Or, if your feedback fits in a tweet you can find me on twitter via @vasilis. Another thing you can do is helping me pay the bills for the transcripts of this podcast. These transcripts are necessary for those of us who can’t, or don't want to listen. They’re handy for robots or people who want to analyse the contents of these conversations as well. Support can be done in many ways, and they all make me very happy. You can find all options on, like bitcoin, patreon or a virtual cup of coffee. A steadily growing list of wonderful people are donating monthly, like Paul van Buuren, Job, and my employer CMD in Amsterdam.

Next week I’m going to talk to Dean Birkett.

This transcript was funded with the generous help of CMD Amsterdam, Job, Paul van Buuren, Remi Vledder, Peet Sneekes, Peter van Grieken, Jan Jaap Rijpkema, and Ischa Gast. If you want to you can help as well by donating a (small) amount.