Cole Henley

New Adventures in Web Conferences

Last week saw the long descent from Edinburgh down to Nottingham for New Adventures in Web Design, the first in a new series of annual web design conferences run by Simon Collison.

I'd been to a few conferences last year, but after getting so much from Simon's talk at DIBI last year I was really looking forward to seeing the direction he would take a whole day conference.

Bowling Shirt © Andy Lobban

The conference kicked-off with an evening's bowling courtesy of the lovely chaps at Erskine Design. It was a great chance to meet other attendees, catch up with old friends, put faces to twitter names and show off the bowling shirt i'd spent the past two evenings (and part of the drive down) slaving over.

The next morning was a late start on account of unhealthy consumption of gin the night before. We descended on the Albert Hall for registration before kicking off the day with Dan Rubin on the New Language of Web Design. I'd seen Dan talk at DIBI last year and really enjoyed his presentation style. He provided a great foundation for the day's talks and touched on one of the key themes of the day: that web design was now coming of age.

The Coming of Age of Web Design

The coming of age of web design is something I've been thinking about a lot recently and Dan's discussion resonated strongly with my background in archaeology - a discipline which had never seemed to come of age and also largely borrowed it's terminology and tools from other fields. It does feel with the onset of HTML5 and CSS3 that at last our field has reached the third of the three traditional ages of man: childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Childhood is defined by dependence - a complete reliance on others - and the infancy of web design was no different, taking its influences from the tools and vocabulary brought to it by its early practioners. When the opportunity arose, the adolescence of web design saw a desperate bid for independence - striving to carve its own indentity through its own technologies and methodology, and ultimately coining the principles of web standards

The chief characteristic of adulthood is interdependence - the ability to appreciate one's influences but to have confidence in one's specific context and to begin defining one's own language and identity. This was something excellently expanded on in Mark Boulton's proposed New Canon for web design that set out three principles for our design process: Respond, Connect and Bind.

  1. Design for content first (content out rather than canvas in)
  2. Create connectedness
  3. Bind the information to the device

Mark - like Dan before him - highlighted the role of Responsive Design in signposting a new direction for and emphasised the second theme of the day: that we should design foremost with content.

Content first

Greg Wood © Andreas Dantz

From the language we employ to the emotions we evoke and the colours we use, it was refreshing to see through much of the talks the focus on designing with content rather than designing for content.

Sarah Parmenter gave us a compelling insight into the micro-attentions to detail that can inform the design process whilst Greg Wood gave us a tantalising insight into the method behind his beautiful, art directing madness

It is sad that we have often come to emphasise the systems that contain our web content and the effects that display them over the words and pictures - the fabric - which our websites are made of.

Working for a small web design agency this is something I wrestle with on a regular basis where the container for content and visual detail is identified by the client as the primary concern in a design or redesign exercise. However, one thing which I feel could have benefitted from more discussion on the day is where and when to draw the line: many of us are chiefly designing the optimum conditions - a series of environments - for content to inhabit.

Emotive Design

A third strand of the day was the power of Emotive Design, brilliantly explored in Jon Tan's ode to the amygdala: design to trigger emotions and evoke reactions as this is when split-second decisions and reactions will be made. Trust your inspiration.

Andy Clarke's talk expanded on emotive design, borrowing from comics to explore how design can imply pace and elicit a range of responses in the visual narratives we create. It was a new and interesting discussion and this was probably the only talk of the day that I think would have benefitted from a longer slot.

Its not just about the tools

Brendan Dawes © Marc Thiele

The final theme of the day was to exercise care and restraint in the tools that we use. Elliot Jay Stocks aired his concerns about following design trends and echoed my concerns about abusing the availability of the latest CSS3 techniques. Elliot also stressed the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone and taking in new influences and perspectives.

As someone who has recently taken up letterpress as a hobby this point really resonated with me and was something supported in the final talk of the day from digital artisan and fellow stationery geek Brendan Dawes.

Brendan's uplifting talk was my highlight of the day. His energy, humour and enthusiasm took us on an entertaining journey through the role of design in his life from whence some choice gems emerged:

Check out the great snaps of the day on flickr or on Ashley's tumblr.
Also consider checking out Phil Rickett's excellent write-up

Final Thoughts

The Drive Back © Andy Lobban

The New Adventures conference was outstanding from start to finish. The attentions to detail throughout were phenomenal. I met some truly great people and I can safely say I've never felt as inspired coming away from a web conference.

I really enjoyed the format of the talks, emphasising more and shorter talks than at other web conferences I have been to. I felt this kept the talks much more focussed. I also liked the preference towards a session-based Q+A rather than questions after each individual talk, although I felt this might have benefitted from a longer, more directed discussion than was possible on the day.

The Albert Hall venue was fantastic although if I had one comment it would be the uncomfortable seats but that would be a minor quibble. The socials were really great: the bowling was an inspired idea whilst the free booze at the after-party was thankfully bountiful.

What stood out above all else was the exceptional value of the conference and what Colly was able to squeeze into an extremely affordable ticket price.

Above all though New Adventures was made by the people - the speakers, the delegates and Colly. There was a collective excitement and energy to the day which was infectious. I just hope it can sustain everyone until the next thrilling installment in 2012!