Embracing WebVisions: A View from the Outside
I’d never been until this past week, but I’ve always wanted to attend. If my memory doesn’t fail me, one of my neighbors actually went to the first WebVisions conference in 2001, way back when I lived in Portland. My neighbor was learning CSS. I was still trying to leave Quark Express behind for InDesign. How far we’ve all come since then, eh?
Over the past 15 years — surely inspired in part by the success of Webvisions — lots of informal tech-centric events have sprouted up utilizing that “start-up ethos” and have permeated our work/life: There’ TED Talks for rich futurists (and wanna-be rich futurists), BarCamps for people who want to use technology to fix politics/healthcare/transportation, “unconferences” for community folk, hack-a-thons for devs — all the way down to local meet-ups for every company that feels like flexing their brand muscles.
The team running the WebVisions Portland event (bless them for all their volunteer work [ed. note: his words, not ours, but thank you] ) did an excellent job. I found something good in nearly every talk, but there were a few presenters that really stood out to me. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share my thoughts about what I think made them so good:
Draplin Gets It Done
Aaron Draplin had been getting a lot of attention lately through his extensive speaking schedule and the subsequent book about his life in graphic design, Pretty Much Everything. So, I thought it was a perfect time to pop in to his workshop on Day 1 at PNCA, Behind the Scenes with the Draplin Design Co: Tips, Tricks, Triumphs, and Turds (I couldn’t resist a title with “turds” in it). His stories about designing for Metallica and being on WTF with Marc Maron were equal parts hilarious and insightful. The amazingness only continued on as I saw his Day 2 presentation. He completely crushed it. His presentation was colorful, the slides were lightning-quick, talk was interesting, and very, very funny. He crushed it so much that after his presentation there was a huge line to buy his new book (not to mention a second line to have him sign it). I managed to pick up a signed copy, which now sits front and center in the Autodesk lobby. A handy tome for quick logo design inspiration.
The Mastery of Monteiro
The man, surely, everyone wanted to see, Mike Monteiro, did not disappoint either. To me, his talk on Thursday surpassed even his very popular polemic about paying designers fairly and on time for their valuable work, Fuck You, Pay Me. Mike is a powerful force for social justice and integrity on Twitter, and he brought that spirit to WebVisions.
Web design is an intersection where art meets technology, so I wasn’t surprised to hear ideas that went well beyond visual design and dove deeper into the technological realm.
This is the Golden Age of Design…and We’re Screwed was about how design has finally been given a place at the big table. Traditionally, organizations have relegated design to the periphery of the business landscape (especially in start-ups). But, now that design is being taken seriously there aren’t enough talented designers to go around. He’s right. Many of the “newly minted” designers want to graduate to the big paying jobs and responsibilities before they really gain the experience they need to be competent designers, UX experts, or app developers. They need training. And yet front-end design is what users experience the most—further necessitating the need for competent designers.
His call-to-action was a rallying cry—an even mix of forcefulness, empathy, anger, and thoughtfulness, and delivered in a manner that would have made Che Guevara smile. Should we continue to waste our time solving the problems of the 1% by making apps that solve dinner delivery problems in San Francisco, or are we better off spending our energy mentoring the next generation of designers?
There’s nothing better than a freebie. Thankfully, WebVisions was giving away copies of Douglas Rushkoff’s book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus to everyone who attended the conference. I’m a big fan of Rushkoff, so it was great to get a copy of his latest book. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s all about how we’ve embraced Internet technology (welcome to the future!), but it hasn’t solved our problems as we once thought it would. Rushkoff asserts that this is mostly because we aren’t designing these new systems the right way. He believes corporations are too focused on growth at all costs when there are more important options (rather than heaping piles of cash) we could be choosing that would make everyone’s lives better. Rushkoff’s part was stellar. He’s a fabulous speaker who will make you think twice about what you apply your design skills toward.
Beyond the Web
It seems to me that web design is where art meets technology, so I wasn’t surprised to hear about ideas that went beyond visual design and deeper into the technological realm. A few standouts for me on the tech front were:
- Kevin Hoyt’s talk about beacon technology, in which he demonstrated in real time how simple yet complicated this technology can be and how it’s going to revolutionize how designers treat physical spaces. The Internet of Things (IoT) isn’t just about plugged-in refrigerators. Soon, we’ll be having real-time relationships with our favorite retailer’s websites whenever we visit their stores. The trick is not making that experience creepy—something that can be solved by good design.
- A talk about artificial intelligence by Mark Wyner centered around whether it’s possible to program empathy. We certainly seem to want to try by asking robots to do things that normally present tough ethical dilemmas to humans. Mark assured us that “artificial intelligence won’t create an apocalypse of robots who take over the world…Maybe.” Phew. I think.
- When you find yourself nodding along to a presentation, you know it’s good. That was me during Boon Sheridan’s talk about making UX decisions, Rules, Hunches & Coin Flips. He debunked some common best practices and stratagems that people employ when they pitch battles of ideas. Favorite quote that I’ll be employing in my next big brainstorming session: “Always ask the marketing people to draw on the board.” It helps them illustrate their bullet points; they shine in that format.
Those were just a few of my personal faves. We’re so very thankful to Brad Smith and the rest of the WebVisions team for inviting us to be part of the event in person as part of our Autodesk sponsorship. The crowd was full of smart people who are extremely capable with tons of digital design tools — but they also know the answers to the design problems that confront us won’t be solved by the tools we choose. They’re solved by looking at challenges from perspectives that are firmly rooted in our own humanity.
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Eric Suesz works at AutoDesk and was kind enough to allow us to publish an amended version of his WebVisions Portland event recap.