On Design Conferences

A GOOD CONFERENCE is a designed experience. I don’t mean a visually over-designed brandgasm. I mean an educational and emotionally considered narrative.

To me, the ideal conference offers a single track, so that all attendees (and all speakers) share the same intense experience over one or more days. The content of each presentation should be discussed with the organizer far in advance of the show, just as the content of an issue of a magazine gets reviewed with editors long before the issue is published.

Too many conferences focus on the mechanics and skimp on the up-front editorial strategizing, shaping, and planning. It is not enough to simply hire people because they are respected in the industry, or because they are in demand, or because their name sells tickets, or because they are available.

A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the sequence in which they are heard should have an inevitability to it, like the song sequence on your favorite albums. The order in which sessions take place is critical; there should be music to the ebb and flow; related ideas should be presented in blocks that help attendees see connections across sessions and topics.

A trained ape can invite the same speakers who speak everywhere else. Conference planners should constantly seek new talent and new ideas. Even more, they should strive to create an environment in which speakers actually want to sit and listen to other speakers, thus further improving the editorial flow and the conscious interplay of related ideas.

To put together great editorial content requires deep and broad knowledge of your discipline, and of the people who contribute to it. It takes sensitivity and experience to choose just the right speakers, on just the right topics, and to arrange their presentations across time for maximum educational and strategic benefit.

If I do say so myself, cough cough.


With thanks to my friend Louis Rosenfeld, who has asked a number of conference founders to share their thoughts on the subject. Watch this space for links to a polished conglomeration of all they had to say, coming soon.

Thanks also to Jim Heid, who ran Web Design World back in them days. And to Eric, Marci, Toby, and Stephen, eternally.

Design Is A Relationship

Mike Monteiro

MIKE MONTEIRO is a man on a mission. He wants to improve design by fixing the core of it, which is the relationship between designer and client. Too many of us fear our clients—the people whose money keeps our lights on, and who hire us to solve business problems they can’t solve for themselves. And too many clients are even more frustrated and puzzled by their designers than the designers are by the clients.

It’s the designer’s job to fix this, which is why Mike first wrote Design Is A Job, and spent two years taking the message into conference halls and meeting rooms from New Zealand to New York.

I wish every designer could read this book. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine—many of whom I consider far better designers than I am—struggle every day with terrible anxieties over how a client will react to their work. And the problem isn’t limited to web and interaction designers. Anybody who designs anything burns cycles in fear and acrimony. I too waste hours worrying about the client’s reaction—but a dip into Mike’s first book relaxes me like a warm milk bath, and reminds me that collaboration and persuasion are the essence of my craft and well within my power to execute.

If the designer’s side of things were the only part of the problem Mike had addressed, it would be enough. But there is more:

  • Next Mike will help clients understand what they should expect from a designer and learn how to hire one they can work with. How he will do that is still a secret—although folks attending An Event Apart San Francisco this week will get a clue.
  • Design education is the third leg of the chair, and once he has spread his message to clients, Mike intends to fix that or die trying. As Mike sees it (and I agree) too many design programs turn out students who can defend their work in an academic critique session among their peers, but have no idea how to talk to clients and no comprehension of their problems. We are creating a generation of skilled and talented but only semi-employable designers—designers who, unless they have the luck to learn what their expensive education didn’t teach them, will have miserably frustrating careers and turn out sub-par work that doesn’t solve their clients’ problems.

We web and interaction designers are always seeking to understand our user, and to solve the user’s problems with empathy and compassion. Perhaps we should start with the user who hires us.

Become a Web Developer: Avi Flombaum of The Flatiron School on Big Web Show 89

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AVI FLOMBAUM, dean of The Flatiron School, is my guest in Big Web Show Episode No. 89. A 28-year-old Rubyist, Skillsharer, storyteller and entrepreneur, Avi founded Designer Pages and NYC on Rails before creating The Flatiron School—a 12 week, full-time program designed to turn you into a web developer.

Listen to Episode No. 89 of The Big Web Show.

URLS, URLS, URLS

Big Web Show 79: Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer

IN EPISODE No. 79 of The Big Web Show (“everything web that matters”), I interview CSS guru, Microformats co-founder, O’Reilly and New Riders author, and An Event Apart co-founder Eric A. Meyer (@meyerweb) about upcoming CSS modules including grid layout, flexbox, and regions; his career trajectory from college graduate webmaster to world-renowned author, consultant, and lecturer; founding and running a virtual community (CSS-Discuss); becoming an O’Reilly writer; the early days of the Mosaic Browser and The Web Standards Project’s CSS Samurai; “The Web Behind” variation of The Web Ahead podcast, and more.

Listen to the episode.

About Eric

Eric A. Meyer has been working with the web since late 1993 and is an internationally recognized expert on the subjects of HTML and CSS. He is the principal consultant for Complex Spiral Consulting and lives in Cleveland, Ohio, which is a much nicer city than you’ve been led to believe. Author of “Eric Meyer on CSS” (New Riders), “Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide” (O’Reilly & Associates), “CSS2.0 Programmer’s Reference” (Osborne/McGraw-Hill), and the CSS Browser Compatibility Charts, Eric co-founded and co-directs An Event Apart, the design conference “for people who make websites,” and speaks at a variety of conferences on the subject of standards, CSS use, and web design.

URLs


Photo: Chris Jennings

An Event Apart Atlanta 2011

YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.

Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.

The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.

Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.

I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along:

HTML5, CSS3, UX, Design: Links from An Event Apart Boston 2011

Meeting of the Minds: Ethan Marcotte and AEA attendee discuss the wonders of CSS3. Photo by the incomparable Jim Heid.

Meeting of the Minds: Ethan Marcotte and AEA attendee discuss the wonders of CSS3. Photo by the incomparable Jim Heid.

THE SHOW IS OVER, but the memories, write-ups, demos, and links remain. Enjoy!

An Event Apart Boston 2011 group photo pool

Speakers, attendees, parties, and the wonders of Boston, captured by those who were there.

What Every Designer Should Know (a)

Jeremy Keith quite effectively live-blogs my opening keynote on the particular opportunities of Now in the field of web design, and the skills every designer needs to capitalize on the moment and make great things.

The Password Anti-Pattern

Related to my talk: Jeremy Keith’s original write-up on a notorious but all-too-common practice. If your boss or client tells you to design this pattern, just say no. Design that does not serve users does not serve business.

What Every Designer Should Know (b)

“In his opening keynote … Jeffrey Zeldman talked about the skills and opportunities that should be top of mind for everyone designing on the Web today.” Luke Wroblewski’s write-up.

Whitney Hess: Design Principles — The Philosophy of UX

“As a consultant, [Whitney] spends a lot of time talking about UX and inevitably, the talk turns to deliverables and process but really we should be establishing a philosophy about how to treat people, in the same way that visual design is about establishing a philosophy about how make an impact. Visual design has principles to achieve that: contrast, emphasis, balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, texture, harmony and unity.” In this talk, Whitney proposed a set of 10 principles for UX design.

Veerle Pieters: The Experimental Zone

Live blogging by Jeremy Keith. Veerle, a noted graphic and interaction designer from Belgium, shared her process for discovering design through iteration and experimentation.

Luke Wroblewski: Mobile Web Design Moves

Luke’s live awesomeness cannot be captured in dead written words, but Mr Keith does a splendid job of quickly sketching many of the leading ideas in this key AEA 2011 talk.

See also: funky dance moves with Luke Wroblewski, a very short video I captured as Luke led the crowd in the opening moves of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Ethan Marcotte: The Responsive Designer’s Workflow (a)

“The next talk here at An Event Apart in Boston is one I’ve really, really, really been looking forward to: it’s a presentation by my hero Ethan Marcotte.”

Ethan Marcotte: The Responsive Designer’s Workflow (b)

Ethan’s amazing talk—a key aspect of design in 2011 and AEA session of note—as captured by the great Luke Wroblewski.

An Event Apart: The Secret Lives of Links—Jared Spool

“In his presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Jared Spool detailed the importance and role of links on Web pages.” No writer can capture Jared Spool’s engaging personality or the quips that produce raucous laughter throughout his sessions, but Luke does an outstanding job of noting the primary ideas Jared shares in this riveting and highly useful UX session.

An Event Apart: All Our Yesterdays—Jeremy Keith

Luke W: “In his All Our Yesterdays presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Jeremy Keith outlined the problem of digital preservation on the Web and provided some strategies for taking a long term view of our Web pages.”

Although it is hard to pick highlights among such great speakers and topics, this talk was a highlight for me. As in, it blew my mind. Several people said it should be a TED talk.

An Event Apart: From Idea to Interface—Aarron Walter

Luke: “In his Idea to Interface presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Aarron Walter encouraged Web designers and developers to tackle their personal projects by walking through examples and ways to jump in. Here are my notes from his talk.”

Links and Resources from “From Idea to Interface”

Compiled by the speaker, links include Design Personas Template and Example, the story behind the illustrations in the presentation created by Mike Rhode, Dribble, Huffduffer, Sketchboards, Mustache for inserting data into your prototypes, Keynote Kung Fu, Mocking Bird, Yahoo Design Patterns, MailChimp Design Pattern Library, Object Oriented CSS by Nicole Sullivan and more!

An Event Apart: CSS3 Animations—Andy Clarke

“In his Smoke Gets In Your Eyes presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Andy Clarke showcased what is possible with CSS3 animations using transitions and transforms in the WebKit browser.” Write-up by the legendary Luke Wroblewski.

Madmanimation

The “Mad Men” opening titles re-created entirely in CSS3 animation. (Currently requires Webkit browser, e.g. Safari, Chrome.)

CSS3 Animation List

Anthony Calzadilla, a key collaborator on the Mad Men CSS3 animation, showcases his works.

Box Shadow Curl

Pure CSS3 box-shadow page curl effect. Mentioned during Ethan Marcotte’s Day 3 session on exploring CSS3.

Multiple CSS Transition Durations

Fascinating article by Anton Peck (who attended the show). Proposed: a solution to a key problem with CSS transitions. (“Even now, my main issue with transitions is that they use the same time-length value for the inbound effect as they do the outbound. For example, when you create a transition on an image with a 1-second duration, you get that length of time for both mousing over, and mousing away from the object. This type of behavior should be avoided, for the sake of the end-user!”)

Everything You Wanted to Know About CSS3 Gradients

Ethan Marcotte: “Hello. I am here to discuss CSS3 gradients. Because, let’s face it, what the web really needed was more gradients.”

Ultimate CSS3 Gradient Generator

Like it says.

Linear Gradients Generator

By the incomparable John Allsopp.

These sessions were not captured

Some of our best talks were not captured by note-takers, at least not to my knowledge. They include:

  1. Eric Meyer: CSS Anarchist’s Cookbook
  2. Mark Boulton: Outing the Mind: Designing Layouts That Think for You
  3. Jeff Veen: Disaster, DNA, and the Fathomless Depth of the Web

It’s possible that the special nature of these presentations made them impossible to capture in session notes. (You had to be there.)

There are also no notes on the two half-day workshop sessions, “Understand HTML5 With Jeremy Keith,” and “Explore CSS3 With Ethan Marcotte.”

What have I missed?

Attendees and followers, below please add the URLs of related educational links, write-ups, and tools I’ve missed here. Thanks!

Big Web Show 43: Krista Stevens of Automattic & A List Apart

Krista Stevens

KRISTA STEVENS (@kristastevens) is our guest on The Big Web Show Episode 43, recording today, March 24, before a live internet audience on 5by5.tv/live at 3:00 PM Eastern. (New time!)

Krista is an Automattician. A reader, writer, editor. Geek. Four-eyed bookworm. Hopeless introvert. True believer.

The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) records live every Thursday at 3:00 PM Eastern. Edited episodes can be watched afterwards, often within hours of recording, via iTunes (audio feed | video feed) and the web. Subscribe and enjoy!

You are all in publishing!

ON SUNDAY, while leading a discussion on the future of web design and publishing, I noticed a slightly confused look appearing on some faces in the audience. The discussion had been billed as “Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel,” and I thought perhaps there was a disconnect for some in the audience between “design” and such topics as where content comes from and who pays for it.

So I asked, “Who here is in publishing?”

A few hands were gently raised.

Uh-huh. “And how many of you work on the web?”

Every right hand in the room shot up.

“You are all in publishing,” I explained.

Now, I like a good rounded corner talk as much as the next designer. I’ve given my share of them. Also of line height and measure, color and contrast, how to design things that don’t work in old versions of Internet Explorer, and so on. In the practice of web and interaction design, there will always be a place for craft discussions—for craft is execution, and ideas without execution are songs without music, meaningless.

But right now (and always) there is a need for design to also be about the big strategic issues. And right now, as much as design is wrestling with open vs. proprietary formats and the old challenges of new devices, design is also very much in the service of applications and publishing. Who gets content, who pays for it, how it is distributed (and how evenly), the balance between broadcast and conversation, editor and user—these are the issues of this moment, and it is designers even more than editors who will answer these riddles.

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Meow Mix

I’VE TRAINED my cats to think they’re in charge, and to think they exact a tribute of two breakfasts from me each morning.

Initially I feed them each half a small can of salmon. The white cat finishes first, and scratches at the cabinets for more. As if in response, I feed them each a half can of whitefish, exactly as I always intended to. They finish with gusto, convinced that they’ve won.

I am so in client services.

And if you want to know how to succeed in client services, I’ve just told you.

HTML5 vs. HTML

THANKS TO THE WORK of the WHAT WG, the orations of Steve, the acclaim of developers, and a dash of tasteful pamphleteering, the W3C finally has a hit technology on its hands. Indeed, it has a cluster of hot technologies, the latest incarnation of what we’ve been calling “web standards” since we began fighting for them in 1998, when browser support for HTML, CSS, and JavaScript was inconsistent, incomplete, and incompatible, and the kingmakers of the day couldn’t have cared less. Moreover, after 13 years, the W3C has finally learned that it’s okay to market to your constituents—okay to actively encourage standards adoption.

Hence the HTML5 logo effort, intended as an identity system for all the hot new standards technologies—and initially bogged down by a controversy in our circle about theW3C muddying the waters. The actual muddying began when Steve Jobs announced Apple’s support for HTML5 by pointing to web stuff created with CSS3. In other words, the inaccurate use of “HTML5″ to cover HTML and non-HTML technologies coincided with the surge of interest in those technologies under that inaccurate label. Which is why some thought leaders in our community have reckoned that the business community’s confusion about what HTML5 actually means doesn’t matter so much, as long as they are clamoring for great sites, accessibly designed with web standards—and as long as developers know the difference between HTML5 and, say, CSS3.

In any case, soon after the standards digerati declared the HTML5 banner launch a communications fiasco, it emerged that the launch was actually merely a communications snafu.

An updated FAQ makes it clear that HTML5 means HTML5, that CSS3 is not part of the HTML5 specification, and so on. The W3C’s clarification allows the standards organization to have it both ways in a fashion acceptable to all. In times past, the W3C argued passionately within its own walls during the creation of web standards, only to passively release them as “recommendations” to a world that often ignored them—the development of XHTML 2 in the pure absence of worldly interest was probably the culmination of that phase. But today’s W3C has learned better. It has learned to engage its constituents and to seek approval beyond its immediate constituents—i.e. to reach out to the business community, not just to the authors of O’Reilly and Peachpit books. Its “HTML5″ identity effort represents a reasonable and meritorious effort to cash in on, prolong, and extend the world’s already keen interest in HTML5 and related technologies and practices. Meantime, the little FAQ page and other minor editorial clarifications allow the W3C to pacify its knowledgeable critics and duck the charge that it is blurring the lines between HTML, CSS, and other technologies.

Now that the story appears to be heading purposefully in a single direction, a kink in the works was inevitable.

That kink is also not surprising and not entirely unanticipated. Just when the W3C figures out that HTML5 is hot, the WHAT Working Group (the splinter group that created the actual HTML5 specification in the first place) has decided that HTML is the new HTML5:

  1. The HTML specification will henceforth just be known as “HTML”, with the URL http://whatwg.org/html. (We will also continue to maintain the Web Applications 1.0 specification that contains HTML and a number of related APIs like Web Storage, Web Workers, and Server-Sent Events.)
  2. The WHATWG HTML spec can now be considered a “living standard”. It’s more mature than any version of the HTML specification to date, so it made no sense for us to keep referring to it as merely a draft. We will no longer be following the “snapshot” model of spec development, with the occasional “call for comments”, “call for implementations”, and so forth.

Those who are surprised should remember that the HTML5 doctype references “HTML” with no version number. In the thinking of its creators, HTML5 was always just HTML. It looked backward (the first web page ever written would be valid HTML5 with the addition of a doctype) and forward. It would continue to evolve. The WHAT WG gave itself the job of steering and updating HTML, while the W3C took on the task of maintaining milestones (a task it will continue to perform).

In practice, the WHATWG has basically been operating like this for years, and indeed we were going to change the name last year but ended up deciding to wait a bit since people still used the term “HTML5″ a lot. However, the term is now basically being used to mean anything Web-standards-related, so it’s time to move on!

To those inside the circle of trust, there is no contradiction here. The W3C will doubtless continue to market HTML5, and, for a time, design technologists will continue to write HTML5 books and teach HTML5 classes, if only to acknowledge HTML’s new capabilities and to clearly mark the break from the technologies and practices of the past. Eventually, quite probably, the WHAT WG’s view will take hold, and we will view HTML as a living specification.

Meantime, we’ll take 5.


Thanks to J. David Eisenberg for the nudge.