Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The good, the bad and the ill-fitting is, when it all comes down to it, just another type of open source project. It is run by volunteers - volunteers who are passionate, committed and dedicated to delivering an exceptional conference experience for all attendees. Like any open source project, we as a team own the conference, we are responsible for its outcomes whether they be negative or positive.  Naturally, we're open to suggestions (and criticisms) from the community we're promoting so we can respond appropriately - and improve conference outcomes in the process.

The team has recently received feedback from some sectors of the community around conference t-shirts. Specifically, the concern raised was that the only t-shirt option available was a 'unisex' fit, and that this offering did not meet the needs of female attendees. We'd like to take this opportunity to respond to that criticism, provide some insight into the decision making process leading up to the situation and the action we're taking to address it going forward.

As a first comment for future conference organisers: T-shirts at conferences are difficult, deceptively difficult. Seemingly more than any other conference item, they generate angst, controversy, emotion and have a history many an organiser and delegate would rather forget. It is also not something that can be solved the same way for every conference, suppliers are notoriously variable, with samples and promises not always telling the full story. If our experience has shown anything, it's that what works for one conference may not necessarily work for another, even with a tried and tested vendor. The information contained at is of great value and if you haven't read it click that link now, but be aware that, as we discovered, problems can arise from the last places you expect.

Before going through the issues we faced, a huge thanks should go out to Sae Ra Germaine, one of the core organising team and designer of the 2012 shirts, it is simply amazing!
It is also complex. Indeed, when we first approached a manufacturer, their initial reaction was 'Yikes! You want that on a t-shirt, are you crazy?!!', but Sae Ra persisted. We shopped around shirt printers, with most having similar things to say about our sanity, but eventually selected a provider who came highly recommended from a former organiser.

Now, the only way the design could be applied to a t-shirt is using a process called sublimated printing. In contrast to simpler, more traditional methods, sublimated printing uses a heat transfer process to achieve near photographic quality on various types of material. The downside, as we eventually discovered, is that the limitations in the material that can be used mean that going beyond the 'pre-cut' sizes and styles available from the manufacturer was a problem. We requested a large range of sizes, both mens' and womens' cut, and tried most of the sample sizes on. Sizes are sizes, right? Sadly, no. This quality assurance step identified that the womens' size 22 was really about a size 16. This was difficult to accept - the two ladies on the team - Sae Ra and Kathy - are curvy women - and were disappointed that not even a supposed size 22 was going to fit!

The mens' sizes, although a little off, were more realistic. Given that we were now near 3 months into this process, and due to the lead times involved in production, we faced a decision around how best to serve the conference. The options available to us:
  1. Offer both mens' sizes and womens' sizes, knowing the womens' sizes were unrealistically small, and would likely attract significant negative feedback from female attendees. This played heavily in our decision making. Having achieved a level of almost 25% of female speaker participation, it seemed inappropriate to insult our female constituency by offering skin-tight babydoll tees. We even contacted the manufacturer, who, after the previous commitments they had given, were as horrified as us - but unfortunately they were limited by the size range of their suppliers. 
  2. Offer only mens' sizes. Never a serious option.
  3. Identify alternate vendors, seek samples and repeat the sizing try on process. At the time, this simply wasn't considered a feasible option given the timeline for the conference. Trial runs typically take 3-4 weeks, assuming you get things right first time around, and we were very conscious about the time required for a production run. 
  4. Our provider offered a 3rd 'cut' of the shirts in what it referred to as a unisex style.  and offer as wide a range of unisex sizes as possible. We recognised that this wasn't an optimal solution, but it addressed the fact that we knew we had a large proportion of female attendees, and avoided the issue of the skin-tight, impossibly sized female babydoll tees. Samples of the unisex style were made and tested on a wide range of people - both male and female - to ensure that the sizing, fit, and cut were realistic. Only after all this was considered successful did we decide to go with this option. 
The rest, as they say, is history. Registrations for the conference opened, including a page showing diagrams and measurements of the shirts in production, and nothing more was thought of it. That is, until last week when a flurry of tweets and blog comments appeared taking issue with the lack of specific female shirts.

So where does that leave us now? Well, the flood of feedback has showed us that our decision to go with the unisex shirts was made in error and that further consultation should have been made prior to 'pressing the button'. We are now liaising with a custom dye sublimation supplier, who can manufacture a womens' sizes, in a more female-friendly cut, to practically any size we want. Such services unfortunately don't come cheap, however we recognise this is a very important issue for the conference participants so we are committed to doing everything we can to get it right.

We are making genuine efforts to ensure that the requirements and preferences of all attendees are catered for, and are very appreciative of the patience and understanding that the community has generally shown us. Be it shirts, accommodation or any other aspect of 2012, if you have a comment, criticism or suggestion, PLEASE don't hesitate to contact us via one of the below addresses. These are the best ways to contact the organisers and will ensure that the issue is brought to the attention of the most suitable person as soon as possible.

P.S. We couldn't say all that about the shirts without giving a little preview could we?


  1. The flurry of comments may have been related to the reminder that went out for speakers to register--I know that's when I first noticed the t-shirts, as I couldn't complete reg without choosing one :-)

    And, fwiw, as someone who is happy to wear "unisex" shirts if that's what's on offer, I wasn't upset at the lack of specific female shirts. But when I had to choose something, it was a bit of a pain not to find *any* shirt that would fit me, fitted or otherwise.

  2. Personally, I would like to see a conference without an included t-shirt, where the t-shirt was an extra you had to preorder at additional cost. Similarly the rest of the stuff you're given.

    Most people already have a sufficiency of shirts, hats, drink bottles and bags, that this stuff just ends up as clutter, or waste, and adds significantly to the cost of the conference (even if you spend sponsors' money). I think it would be much better to permit the preordering of merch for those who want it. Cutting down on costs and saving on eventual landfill.

    Once there is no bag, I would tell sponsors that you don't want their keyrings, stubby holders, and pamphlets; and instead offer them a stall where they can put these things on display for people who want them.

    You could offer a top sponsor the ability to provide a branded USB key, that's of a useful size it can be reused later, that could include some advertising material, and the conference handbook.

    A few conferences I've been to have used this strategy, and I don't think anyone has been bothered by it. People who've wanted stuff have been able to get it, and others haven't ended up with an entire bag of useless items.

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