Time for some New Adventures (part 1)

Yesterday saw the second New Adventures in Web Design, organised by Simon Collison (Colly) and Greg Wood. In his editorial piece in the conference newspaper, Colly said he'd vowed "never again" after last year's conference, but that he was talked into doing it all over again by Greg over a few jars of ale. Thanks Greg, you were right to bully Colly as it would have been criminal if this fantastic event hadn't happened again.

The format is somewhat unique, 8 speakers in one room (with a massive organ) punctuated by Q&A sessions, coffee, lunch in a bag and, new this year, awesome cupcakes. The conference itself lasts a day and includes a pretty decent after-party in the trendy Lace Market area of the city. I can't comment (as I didn't go) on the workshop day or the frootball tournament (which is happening while I'm typing this on a train) but I would assume that they both lived up to the high standards of the rest of the event.

The Speakers

As with the 2011 event the line-up had some huge names from the world of web design. I was particularly keen to hear Dan Mall and Trent Walton speak, having seen and admired their work for several years. That doesn't mean that I wasn't looking forward to hearing the other speakers, especially Robbie from FreeAgent (software that I use regularly and love to bits).

The topics covered were all cerebral, as noted by Colly in the paper, "…talks that make attendees work a bit harder; the full impact not necessarily hitting us until days, weeks or months later". This isn't an event that aims to teach you how to animate DIVs with CSS3 transitions.

Some themes

Although independent, the talks normally include several themes that are repeated throughout the day. This year, it seemed that the speakers were all trying to encourage downtime, tinkering, broadening experiences, making opportunities for creativity, smarter working practices and a diminishing focus on tools, all things that firmly resonate with how I think about what I do as a maker for the web.

Sadly my notes aren't as exhaustive as they could be from all the talks, so I'll do my best to sum up what I thought and what I've personally taken away from them, but apologies to any speakers that are not covered in as much depth.

Dan Mall @danielmall

Dan Mall was perhaps the most explicit in his discussing of process, giving several examples of projects where he was working for clients and one where he swapped roles and became a client (for the development of his own website).

Dan focused his talk around relationships, be that client to designer or content to content, and some key phrases jumped out at me:

  • "Humans > Algorithms"
  • "Your client has to be your partner - they aren't an extension of your team, they are your team"
  • "Sites need smarter work, not more work"
  • "Create empathy, become a client"
  • "Enjoy yourself"
He also spoke about the "Invisible Deliverables" that he and his team have produced during projects. The motion comps that explain transition animations, the quick (fake) CMS that helps to define subjective qualities of items on a site, the cartoon flip book to help explain tagging, etc. - and it was fascinating (and reassuring) to see other people using techniques that I have used in my design process.

I can't claim solo ownership of my own "invisible deliverables" having been bullied into creating tools to aid the creative process by my good friend Nick (@makeusabrew), but I can say that thinking about a problem and the best way to offer a solution has led to some of my most effective work to date. Suffice it to say that I totally agree with Dan's statement, that "the client facing deliverable isn't always the most important thing to make".

Naomi Atkinson @naomisusi

Naomi and her semi-geordie twang took to the stage to make us think about "Going Beyond" with a talk designed around celebrities and their brands. This covered topics including self-promotion and marketing, but also focused on using our skills to make the world a better place (whilst making some money).

Using examples including Katie Price and Jamie Oliver, Naomi clearly walked us through evolving a brand to get noticed by anyone, an industry or a company. I thought she was a bit too obvious at times about getting yourself in front of a company or an industry, but the overall points made were sound advice. In particular, I thought the breakdown of how to get noticed by anyone was very good, splitting it down into categories:

  1. Reference (linkedin, about.me)
  2. Portfolio (dribbble, website)
  3. Opinion (twitter, blog)
  4. Products (pulley, bigcartel)
  5. The real world (just get out there and meet people!)
This comes down to a phrase that she used a couple of times "being everywhere", though I would build on that to say that your "everywhere" should be a well-considered subset of all available places. Curate your networks to make sure you have time to keep them all up to date as we are all busy people and having 10+ social profiles to update is too much like hard work.

I'll also echo what Naomi said about giving something back to the wider community. There is still money to be made in doing work that is for the greater good and aiming to use our skills to do better is a noble ambition. I've certainly turned down work in the past that was based around dark patterns and using my talent to help claw more money out of people who really couldn't afford to lose it and I'd hope that all readers of this blog would do the same.

This is definitely one of those "days later" talks that Colly was referring to, as at the time I thought her examples were a bit obvious and limp. However, going back over my notes and thinking more about how this applies to my craft and my opinions, I've found that Naomi has sparked thoughts about my involvement in our family charity and how to do more little things to improve the area and community that I'm in.

Travis Schmeisser @rockthenroll

Unfortunately, Travis' talk was one that I have very few notes from. I found it quite difficult to follow the thread that he was using and as a result zoned out a little and ended up thinking about personal projects and work a bit too much. I do, however, remember his one slide that said "loosen the fuck up" and while the swearing was perhaps a bit much for public speaking, I do remember nodding in agreement.

What I did take away was an idea that we've allowed ourselves to get too uptight and safe with our work. There's too much focus on getting more followers, the bigger job or the better client and instead we should be looking to get back to the original excitement that was felt when starting out in this journey. From my notes:

How did we get to this point where we are safe? How do we get back to the pure enjoyment and excitement we had when we were younger?
So let's take a step back from chasing more followers on twitter, getting more readers on our blogs and more hearts on dribbble. Instead, let's get together and just have some fun.

Robbie Manson @rougebert

Robbie is a young designer from Scotland that works for FreeAgent, an online accounting startup based in Edinburgh. I've not heard him speak before and by all accounts he's a new face on the speaking circuit. Given the response he got I think we'll be seeing him a lot more in the future.

He spoke with an intense, considered style, pausing regularly to let his words sink in, allowing us to fully process his beautifully put together slides.

Robbie started by talking about 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I should shamefully admit to not having watched). His point was about humanising tools, to the point where the humanity was being lost from us as a species. This led on to talking about Time To Screen (TTS) and Time To Tool (TTT), the concept of how long it is after waking up in the morning before we see a screen, or how long after getting a brief or an idea we jump to a tool to start creating.

The TTT discussion led on to thoughts about how CSS is not a tool for creativity, how graphics applications are still more effective for producing "happy accidents" and experimentation and how failure is valuable - so long as you learn from it.

He echoed previous sentiments that we are becoming pre-occupied by tools and that it is increasingly easy to substitute better thinking about a problem for a new tool. Interestingly, Robbie provided some examples of how to achieve better thinking, showing the audience how he uses 6-up sketching, printing, regular computer breaks and team work to make a more considered design.

By not doing something by hand, you somehow don't commit the work to memory so completely. You make more mistakes. The computer understands the drawings, but do you?

He showed how the team at FreeAgent had thought around the problem of showing customers what they were working on, and talked through the delightfully illustrated "Depot" that was their final solution. I've used the depot regularly to get an idea of what is on their radar and comparing my experience to what Robbie was saying, they've hit the nail on the head with it.

Robbie's talk finished with him taking us through a painful few months where he was forced to slow down and "refuel". After jumping from a mezzanine floor and shattering his heel, Robbie had to take an extended period off work, giving him time to think and consider how he approaches design and what it was he wanted to do. This story had some great elements to take away, not least the statement:

You can't live in the fast lane too long, you'll run out of fuel.
The last words were the most important, however, "remember, it's just people designing for people".

This was a really impressive talk and one that I'm certain to have done a poor service of summarising properly here. So I can only recommend that you pester Colly to post the video online, or, at the very least, to get Robbie to post his slides. You will be a better designer for seeing it.

Trent Walton @trentwalton

Trent flew over for New Adventures from Austin, Texas and I'm so glad that he made the trip. Sadly, I didn't attend his workshop on web type the previous day, but his talk was up there as one of the best of the conference. The guy is an absolute star, with great thinking, bags of talent and a really awesome way of communicating what's in his head to an audience that soaked up every word he uttered.

The talk was titled "Break Everything" and the first part focused on sharing his childhood with us. We learnt about how his Dad loved to renovate and race old cars, build new structures and rooms for their house and generally take things apart and re-build them.

It wasn't immediately obvious how this was related to the web industry, but slowly it was revealed and it made an awful lot of sense. Breaking things is important.

We break things to identify limitations, to develop an understanding and to allow us to make things better. We break rules for the sake of progress - what would the web look like if no-one went out-of-bounds?

Trent showed us through his "breaking" which included experimentation with better typography for the web and, more recently, responsive web design. He explained that while breaking stuff wasn't always fun, it was necessary, and it was through breaking his process and starting from scratch that he slowly, and painfully, found a way to make responsive websites.

As he so exactly stated, responsive design isn't bolt-on. We can only understand it by getting involved, we must think in proportions and not pixels and we must let go of Photoshop. Amen.

It was great to see how Paravel, a small web shop that Trent is 1/3 of, was working to create amazing sites, with strong hierarchy and visual standards that were also featuring leading web technology such as responsive design, media queries, web typography, fluid images and videos, etc. It was also inspiring to hear how Trent viewed sharing his findings and the importance of community, movingly explained through a story about a funeral from his childhood.

His parting words were "Community is everything, participate" and I couldn't agree more.

Cameron Koczon @fictivecameron

Cameron has an electric personality, full of charisma and energy, you could feel the room immediately warm to him. I guess I'd describe him as my stereotypical vision of a New Yorker, bold, confident and loud!

He talked through his thoughts about the role that design plays in a business and how "everyone should be an entrepreneur". He declared 2012 to be the "year of design" as companies and startups are increasingly seeing that design is the most important aspect of their business. He was, however, keen to point out that "Design does not equal decoration". Very true.

My notes from Cameron's talk were almost all calls-to-action, including things like "found a startup (this is hard)", "join a startup (this is easier)", "mind your identity", "support one another", "successful designers reinvest" and "see it through to the end". Rousing stuff, and all things that I have resolved to take with me as I look to make progress with my career this year.

Perhaps the biggest thing that Cameron said, and something that I think all businesses would be wise to consider, was you should see "Design as a partner, from the beginning, with equity". To paraphrase Trent Walton, it's not bolt-on.

Denise Jabcobs @denisejacobs

I'm not sure what to say about Denise's talk as it was among the more surreal experiences I've had at a conference. Presented in the form of a story, Denise took us on journey to escape from Cubicalia to find our brain in Wuzzy Wuzzy via The Land Of The Laughing Buddah and ending up in Betterbalancia. It was a bit on the crazy side.

Hidden among the sound effects and weird storytelling there were some really good insights and rather than trying to explain the story, I'll just cover them off in short form here.

  • Stop overthinking, slow down and get your brain into alpha mode.
  • Allow creativity to come on to you, rather than rushing to find an answer while your brain is in beta mode.
  • Play more, relax and let your brain and soul work together in their own way.
Perhaps I'm too rigid and stuffy to fully appreciate a talk like Denise's but I eventually found it all a bit much and retreated to the comfort of following the dry humour from the audience on Twitter. At least it wasn't just me that was struggling to get a grip on what was happening!

Frank Chimero @fchimero

Frank was the last speaker of the conference and perhaps the most eagerly anticipated by all the designers in attendance. Frank has built an admirable reputation as highly intelligent designer and with his recent success in getting funding for his book "The Shape of Design" via Kickstarter (with $112,159 in pledges) and his presentation had all the hallmarks of classic Chimero.

He started off by showing a photo he took in an Apple Store where a woman had brought a small pony in with her. Seemingly invisible to the rest of the store, Frank noticed and photographed this pony and used this story to segue neatly into another photograph (or set of photographs) from the 1800s.

Muybridge Horse Sequence

These photos are extremely famous now, as it was a series of shots of a galloping horse, taken to settle a bet between gents, but having a much bigger overall importance as it was the first time that someone "split the second" and captured movement over time.

Frank used this as a way to get into the meat of his talk, discussing what makes a design "good" and how space and motion are the most important elements to consider. Gaps between things allow movement.

He talked about how spacing between letters affected our experience of the words, how doors represent opportunities, transformation and change and how design is about the journey from A to B, but neither A nor B. In essence, it is "the bits in-between".

As with Robbie's talk, hearing Frank speak was enlightening and inspiring, so much so that my notes were few and far between so again I'd recommend anyone that has an interest tries to find his slides or a video of the talk - it will be worth your while to.

The above graphics were part of Frank's conclusion as to the role of design and it's placement in life and I think they are an excellent representation. The last thing I'll mention is something that I've heard from Frank before, and something that echos one of Robbie's points from earlier in the day, "It's [design] just people all the way down."

Summing up

New Adventures 2012 was a great experience all round. A fantastic opportunity for me to go "home" and see old friends, drink too much and stay up way too late, a chance to explore my thinking about web design and the role I play in the overall community and a chance to meet some fantastic new people.

After the talks had ended for the day I retreated to the Old Market Square for a coffee and to collect my thoughts, which lasted about fifteen minutes before heading up to the Lace Market for a cosy dinner with some web friends old and new ("How do you know each other?" "We met on twitters." "Standard.")

It was a great day, topped off with meeting a bunch of really nice, interesting people and a few cheap drinks courtesy of Colly and Greg. I hope there isn't the need to bully Colly into putting it on again next year, and if he does I'll be first in the queue to get myself a ticket.