10 Things I Learned at Interventions, a Student-Led Design Conference

Photo by Brian Bae

I was lucky to attend Interventions, Scout’s student-led design conference, in Boston in April. Here are ten things I learned while I was there.

1. Design is a balance of building the right thing and learning to build it right.

Jing Jian and Hannah Pileggi, Photo by Joe Thomas

This was a main message of the keynote from Airbnb folks Hannah Pileggi (Experience Research Lead) and Jing Jian (Experience Design Lead). They went over their process of building Airbnb’s Experiences feature, which allows locals to host unique and genuine activities for visitors in their area. They spent a year doing research before they even touched any digital designs to make sure they knew exactly what problem they were solving and how they were going to solve it. Even after its launch they are looking for ways to improve.

2. Meet your users where they are.

Hannah and Jing started their research process by putting up flyers in touristy areas of San Francisco and followed a willing traveler around for a few days! They observed, they learned, then they invited him back to beta test their Experience, which included activities that real locals would do, hosted by real locals. They learned from that initial beta test Experience to tweak their process into what is now Airbnb Experiences, and they’ll probably tweak it again because they’re talking to their users! It’s so important to observe real behavior from your users rather than just making assumptions.

3. A fun way to make a presentation look nice is to use gradients.

Hannah & Jing, Photo by Joe Thomas

This one is not deep. However, it is something I learned about adding some creativity and design into presentations. Who likes making presentations? No one. A fun way to make them look nice is to create a pleasing gradient background and put some nice high contrast text on top if it! Et voilà, a beautiful set of slides.Thanks Airbnb.

4. Supporting all devices doesn’t necessarily mean you have the same experience on all devices.

Ethan Marcotte, Photo by Brian Bae

Ethan Marcotte, casual creator of the term “responsive web design,” discussed how the ~web~ as we know it continues to evolve. He said that it’s time to stop thinking about web experiences in terms of pages and instead think about them as combinations of interchangeable/rearrangeable patterns. Supporting all devices means that you should provide the right experience for that device, which may mean a different experience. Someone on a slower and lower technology smartphone in a foreign country may not be able to see the same fancy shmancy animations or super high-res photos, but designers should still consider them because every user is important.

5. MAKE STYLE GUIDES (yells at self in mirror)!

Related to Ethan’s previous piece of advice, the best way to get around the ever-changing Internet is to make your product a series of interchangeable, rearrangeable patterns. And how do you keep track of those patterns? With a Style Guide bay-bee! So Make Style Guides that are easy to update and understood with terms that everyone on your team can agree on! Ideally make them dynamic and coded!! Automate them so that you save time later! Put more work into it now to make it easier in the future!!! IT IS WORTH IT CARLY (AND OTHERS) TO MAKE NESTED SYMBOLS IN SKETCH I SWEAR YOU WILL THANK YOURSELF!!!!

6. Dig deeper and use scale, humor, and data in surprising ways to grab attention in visual storytelling.

Dan Zedek, Photo by Joe Thomas

Dan Zedek, a Northeastern professor who worked at the Boston Globe for many years, gave a super interesting talk about how to use design to tell stories. Dan recommends employing the above tools to grab attention. He went through a bunch of really wonderfully designed stories that use these tactics, so I’ll link them here.

  • Arresting Words from the Boston Globe — explores the words recorded when police make arrests (data! scale!)
  • She Giggles, He Gallops from The Pudding — analyzes gender tropes in film with screen directions from 2,000 scripts. (related: film dialogue by gender) (data! digging deeper!)
  • How Music Taste Evolved from The Pudding — every top 5 song from 1958–2016 in a crazy cool interactive audio experience (data!)
  • Sheldon’s Challah from the Boston Globe — follows an adorable man who makes challah for his family every week and mails it to them with video interspersed amongst the content of the article (scale! humor!)

7. It’s important to consider the ethical implications of what you’re building, even if you don’t know what they are yet.

Can Design Save the World? Panel featuring Chelsea Atwell, Danielle Olson, Hajj Flemings, moderated by Debbie Millman. Photo by Brian Bae

The first of two panel discussions at Interventions was called “Can Design Save the World” and discussed the social impact of design.

Disruption of Destruction panel, featuring Briana Hokanson, Adrian Phillips, Phil Getzen, Amanda Pinsker, hosted by Keith Frankel. Photo by Brian Bae

The second panel was called “Disruption or Destruction?” and discussed the power of introducing new technologies into design.

The panels at Interventions ended up overlapping a bit, and a big issue that kept coming up was ethics in design. It may not be immediately obvious how your product may hurt your users / is ethically questionable, but there is a good chance that it does, even if it’s in a small way. Someone should be held responsible for that, but who? Should that be the CEO? Or the designers? Or the engineers? The designers and engineers were just doing their…so WHO IS TO BLAME?!?! If you don’t stand up for your users, who will?

8. Representation, diversity and accessibility are important in design.

This was another common theme at the conference. It came up during the panels when someone brought up how hand dryers don’t always recognize darker skin tones, so a simple act like drying your hands in a bathroom becomes difficult if you are a person of color. Someone else mentioned how police departments across America are attempting to use machine learning to predict what types of people are more likely to commit crimes in the future…but what happens if that information they’re using to feed these data models is already biased? That data is likely to be biased as well (which is incredibly dangerous). Having a diverse team to build and test your product will help prevent these types of issues which can have immense repercussions.

Kamal Mansour, Photo by Brian Bae

Kamal Mansour of Monotype told the story of creating Google Noto, which was a project that digitalized some communities’ written languages for the first time ever! He discussed how it was difficult to track down all of the resources necessary to get each language properly set in Google Noto and how fulfilling that was to represent all the languages that had not been supported before. Imagine if you couldn’t text your buds because no one thought to support your language on a smartphone. Making sure everyone has a seat at the table in design is important for more reasons than you can count.

9. Design is awesome and powerful AF and we should not take that for granted.

Debbie Millman, Photo by Joe Thomas

The “Can Design Save the World?” panel was moderated by the incredible Debbie Millman. She made cases for both sides of the argument, and discussion ensued. To me, what was clear after this panel was that design certainly can change the world, and we need to figure out how to harness that power for good and not evil. Does that sound melodramatic? Maybe, but design is seriously capable of changing our behavior. As designers we need to recognize our power but not abuse it.

10. Students are badass and capable of amazing things.

Laura Marelic, Photo by Brian Bae

Laura Marelic, badass entrepreneur/designer/developer/person and founder of Scout, gave a talk about the power of student-led design. She founded the studio with nine members five years ago, and credited its success to giving creatives a seat at the table and requiring everyone to be a leader, no matter their experience level. Now the studio has grown to such enormous scale that Scout was able to put on this conference!

As a former Scout member myself, I could not be more proud/impressed/intimidated/in awe/in love. The students of Scout are amazing and inspiring and I want to harness their powers and learn how to be as cool as them. This conference was truly incredible and I can’t wait for the next one.


Interested in helping Scout organize our next conference, or other opportunities to get involved? We’re recruiting for our Fall 2018 team now. Information about applications is available here!