You wouldn’t want to disappoint Victor Papanek, would you?

Musings about An Event Apart in San Diego 2014


First off, my travel agent who made arrangements is so fired for waiting until the last minute to book this trip—missed getting a room with the sweet convention rate, confused physical distance for travel time in booking another hotel, and decided the best thing for the flight down was to route through LAX. As that travel agent is me and I was scrambling for time at the last minute, I guess I should cut myself a little bit of slack.

Looking back through my notes on this year’s An Event Apart, a couple of trends showed up throughout the presentations. As this is a marvelously curated event put on by a crackerjack staff, I have no doubt that this was intentional. While it’s impossible to capture everything presented during the conference, here are a few takeaways.

Design for people

The opening keynote from Jeffrey Zeldman said it most explicitly, but the message came through again and again from other speakers. “Design for people, not for browsers.” While it is true that we have screens that we need to be aware of (both in their limitations and their possibilities), and new screens are on the way with new devices that are always in development and new technologies like Willow glass or drumpants (the pants that drum!), we can’t forget that there’s a person using that screen.

That person needs to complete a task, and it’s our job to figure out the details that will help and delight them. These details include the form of text, its placement and rhythm, and the language we use. It also includes the kinds of systems that we create.

Progressive enhancement

Some, but not all, teams design with the core experience first and work out from there. Not all teams get it, claiming that the mobile use case is different than the desktop version, so nobody would want to do a thing. Well, this is certainly untrue. The mobile moment has arrived for many industries, and this trend will only continue. How do we respond?

“Your job,” said Jeremy Keith, “Is to provide universal access to everyone, not every feature to everyone.” We’ve spent far too long building everything with the assumption that our users have a fast network, the same user preferences, and a screen roughly the same as ours. But even with the best of intentions, that isn’t the case—data from one enormous UK site suggests that nearly 1% of users will not receive JavaScript for some unknown reason, so what do our sites do then?

It’s been said before and it will be said again, but a mobile-first design will work better on a desktop machine than going the reverse. Starting at the smallest details on the smallest screen scales more cleanly. It makes the process a lot easier.

Speaking of which…

As our work changes, so must our processes

Whether it’s the way that you research your user’s needs (you are researching, aren’t you?), or the way that you present a comp to a client, our process must change because the work we do is always, always changing. It no longer makes sense (and one could argue whether it ever did make sense) to spend hours on endless comps in Photoshop—whether you use style tiles as presented by Samantha Warren, the pattern lab demonstrated by Brad Frost, or something else, there are other ways to present what you’re working on aside from an endless series of comps that clients/bosses will pick and choose from like some sort of salad bar.

We need to shake off the habits of the past and learn the possibilities of the new. The web has always been flexible, we just made it rigid since that is what we were used to. During his workshop, Luke Wroblewski presented a great graph of our 20+ years of designing for desktops, and how we have only been designing for mobile devices for 6 years or so. Or said another way, there is a lot to unlearn from the desktop world and a lot to learn about the mobile world.

This is, of course, not the first time we’ve heard the refrain of changing our process. On the flight back, I was re-reading Designing With Web Standards, and this paragraph stood out:

We can’t get to tomorrow’s web by following yesterday’s design and development norms.

Definitely as true today as it was in the first edition in 2009.

“We need to aim higher than building the biggest income disparity the world has ever seen.” — Mike Montiero

With great power comes great responsibility

It’s one hell of a time to be in this industry. People value design, design makes headlines and sells companies. But as we create things, we need to think about more than just the bottom line or conversion rates.

The software and websites that we create are imbued with our values. The assumptions that go into forming the use cases, the design principles that we use to test whether the project is successful, the language we speak to the user in sensitive or tricky situations, the typography and measure of text that we craft, all of these elements reflect what we’re thinking as we design, consciously or not. And what do we do with this power and these values? We make hundreds of camera apps or Yet Another Social Media Sharing Site.

Several speakers mentioned that there’s a knowledge gap between designers and the rest of the world—how do we do good work when the people who judge it and pay for it have no vocabulary or reference to decide whether it’s good or not? We have a responsibility to the craft to educate others on what we do. We have a responsibility to be gatekeepers for our users.

There was once an ad for Zenith televisions (ask your parents) that went, “The quality goes in before the name goes on.” But before the quality, we need, as the final talk so memorably spoke of, we need to figure out whether we are working on the solution to a problem that needs solving. “You are responsible for what you put into the world!” intoned Mike Montiero, channeling design badass Victor Papanek in the closing talk. Not only do we need to educate others on what the craft of design means, we need to be gatekeepers on what goes on the web. The work you choose defines you. Choose wisely.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.