A Smashing experience

The true and inspiring story of some Ueno people who popped over to Barcelona for a conference

A few weeks ago, Ueno sent a bunch of people from the Reykjavík office, yours truly amongst them, to attend the Smashing Conference in Barcelona. The idea behind the conference is to get designers and developers closer together, by going on about the latest trends and techniques used to create modern front-end jazz. The Ueno designers reckoned it was a complete cack waste of time (exaggeration), while the Ueno developers got plenty out of it. Which makes sense as the talks turned out to be significantly more development-skewed than everyone had expected.

Here’s what took place.

The conference was held over two days at the Palau de la Música Catalana, a World Heritage site and a stunningly beautiful place to spend our time. The same goes for the city itself of course, although I didn’t get to explore as much as I’d hoped due to the pretty packed schedule. The evening we arrived we found some nice bars though, and one in particular sticks in my mind as it had jars on the wall with all sorts of distilled stuff in them, which made it look a bit like a sinister movie laboratory full of pickled body parts. Staff were not particularly evil, so we tipped them accordingly.

Some of the team went to Burger King. Not me though.

The beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana. What an incredible venue!

Day One

On to the actual conference. It started well with tapas and coffee on offer at the venue, so I snuck some bits & bobs back to the hotel with me in my free Smashing goody bag. Other contents: bank card protector thing, drinks canteen, leaflets, lego, pen, rubber unicorn duck.

Brad Frost kicked everything off, his presentation about the advantages of working together (cleverly entitled “Let’s work together!”) beginning with a video of Freddie Mercury belting out his “Barcelona” number. Quite quietly as it turned out, but I’d say the lack of volume only diluted the desired effect by about 25 to 50 percent. The rest of the talk was genuinely entertaining, although to be honest I recall little of what Brad actually said, as my notes only really stretched to the musical intro part of the presentation and the fact that he found out his wife was pregnant via an elephant (clarification needed?).

I do remember, however, that he pointed us to photoshopetiquette.com, which is great for helping designers sort out their PSDs nicely to help those who inherit them. I posted it to our design channel on Slack immediately.

A gold star (not real) also goes to Sarah Drasner, whose talk on animating with Vue.js provided one of those ding moments at conferences where you realise it will be worth all the travelling & faffing about to get there. (Admittedly there wasn't really much faffing at all, as Jón — head of ops in Iceland and the organiser of the trip — did a great job. But I do like to whinge where possible, so that bit stays.)

Sarah’s was a very interesting and illuminating presentation, and made me want to go away and learn more about Vue. Seems like page transitions are a doddle, which is great news for someone like me who really struggles with that irritating aspect of making websites.

Another stand-out show on day one was Anton & Irene. Their “Real work/life balance in the studio” was very good fun, albeit for me the main takeaway from it was “get a rich client that can cover your salary, then just do whatever you want the rest of the time and pow there you have work/life balance.” They described their fascinating Misplaced Design and One Shared House projects, both really well executed and well worth checking out.

I’m not sure my retired teacher parents — who both really liked their jobs — would agree with Anton & Irene’s sentiment here, but it’s a nice soundbite nonetheless.

Stephanie Walter also merits an honourable mention. Her talk on “Cheating the UX when there is nothing more to optimise” highlighted how the perceived time a user takes waiting on a task can be reduced with clever effects, micro-interactions, and — a new one for me — “Optimistic UI.” (Basically, don’t wait for an interaction to complete before showing a completed state, just say “done” and hope for the best, but yes, obviously there’s much more to it than that.)

After the massive amount of new information I had absorbed on day one at the Smashing Conference I needed a lie down, which I did around 10pm or so. Watched some TV first, read up on some daft stuff Trump did that day, and also had a quick call with my wife to catch up on how things were at home. They were fine. I brushed my teeth, and had nice dinner (sushi) and couple of drinks. (teeth were brushed after dinner, maybe re-order the previous sentence.)

Day Two

Being pretty tired after the long day before, when I checked the schedule for the morning and saw that first up was a “mystery speaker,” I thought this could be the ideal opportunity to have a lie-in. Thankfully, I decided against that and holy hell how it paid off! I discovered something magical that morning!

Turns out the “mystery speaker” was the amazing Lea Verou. “CSS Variable Secrets” wasn’t the most inspiring of titles; I thought variables were a necessary but essentially boring thing, and my usage of css variables had previously been just to declare some global bits & bobs in different media queries. Dull. But please note the past tense in the previous sentence, as good lord my eyes have now been opened. The ideas she presented — as well as her engaging style of presentation — get a full 10 thumbs up from me.

Lea showed us how easy and beautiful it can be to keep style and behaviour completely separate, and I had another ding moment where I wanted to start writing up some of the examples immediately. I didn’t though, as I left my laptop back in Reykjavík. But Lea, if you’re out there, know this: That day you changed at least one person’s life (his usage of variables) for good (the next couple of years).

Lea Verou killing it as mystery speaker

There were other excellent speakers that day but they were just unlucky to be on the same day as Lea, so I can’t offer the same levels of praise to them. But just know that they were all good, apart from one. What follows is a “best of the rest.”

Denys Mishunov stood out with a very original — assuming he hasn’t done it a million times before at other conferences — presentation about health issues affecting developers. It was a thought-provoking talk and I personally found it very valuable indeed. It was reassuring to find that all of us are a bit mental.

Monica Dinculescu’s presentation on web fonts really changed my thinking on how much fun you can have with them. (Previously: none.) She showed off some really interesting techniques for animating with fonts, and why icon fonts might not actually be dead yet as a consequence. Also, dealing with FOUT/FOIT — crazy that this is still difficult, but Monica had some nice new techniques for dealing with it — and her awesome font-matching tool.

Chris Coyier was the perfect choice for wrapping up the conference. In my opinion he was the funniest of all the speakers, as I assume he is everywhere he goes. He said a lot of stuff about how great SVG is, and showed loads of fun usage examples. He has a book out about SVG also, but I am not going to link to it here as he spent 5% of his presentation plugging it (in an amusing fashion).

At the end of the last day we went to watch Barcelona FC play against some hapless opponents in the pissing rain. I wore a poncho for the first — and hopefully last ever — time. I did have a photo for this bit but decided against including it, you never know when nonsense like that comes back to haunt you.

Instead, here is this:

I visited 0 of these places.

Takeaways

  • SVG is both old and the current big thing.
  • Web fonts are definitely not boring.
  • CSS variables are way better than I thought.
  • There are capable JS libraries out there other than React.
  • Don’t work too hard.
  • If a cab-driver says the rates are 500% higher because there is a football match on, do not believe him.

It felt like Smashing really put the effort in with their range of speakers, and if you’re a front-end developer I’d highly recommend attending. Maybe not so much if you are a designer, although I think if I were I’d still have enjoyed it plenty.

I honestly feel like I’ll be a better developer for the experience, and have already started implementing some of the ideas I was exposed to at the conference in Ueno projects. Well done all involved, and particularly me for my excellent attendance record throughout.