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Primate goes to New York

Photo of the venue, New World Stages

So we went to Generate Conference in New York. Not the one in London, which is an hours plane ride away. No, we decided that spending a disproportionate amount of money and travelling for a combined 48 hours – including a 10 hour delay due to missing engine parts – would be much better. And it was.

So what did we learn on this journey across the Atlantic? A whole bunch of stuff, as it turns out. Read on for my highlights. (And by highlights, I mean loosely connected thoughts assembled largely from the tweets I sent during the conference.)

Brad Frost

Apparently, opening Keynote speaker Brad Frost doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s not alone. In Brad’s own words:

“We’re being blasted in the face with more stuff than ever before”

– Brad Frost

What does he mean? Pretty much every week, a new framework pops up, a new technology emerges to ease our pain points and a new set of tools promises to revolutionise our workflow. It’s hard to keep up, and it’s ok to admit that we can’t be the master of everything.

Instead, we should make sure we get the basics right, and not be ashamed to reach out to fellow experts who are good at things we’re not so good at.

Lara Hogan

One such expert is Lara Hogan, who in the second talk of the day urged us to recognise performance as a vital part of user experience. Whether it’s choosing the right image format – PNG 8 is better than GIF, apparently – or simply evaluating the performance cost of our design decisions, we can all make steps towards embedding performance as part of our culture.

“What value does this hero image add?”

– Lara Hogan

JoonYong Park

Lara’s talk was followed by JoonYong Park of Firstborn fame, who was less concerned with practical advice as he was with promoting an attitude to a creative life. It’s difficult to do it justice in a few words, but if you’re interested, here’s the shorthand:

1. If you wait for the perfect opportunity, it will never happen. It starts with you.
2. Crave the challenge.
3. Life experience = creativity.
4. Don’t be a dick.

Discuss.

Netta Marshall

Usually at these conferences, there’s a bit about front end, some new technology stuff, a case study or two, a dash of process, and a couple of how-tos. What we don’t often see is what our jobs mean, what impact we can have on the wider world, and what responsibilities we have as designers and developers, beyond making sure our web sites are accessible and work without Javascript.

In the last talk before lunch, Netta Marshall sent me back to my university days, reminding me of an idealistic self I have somewhat outgrown. As she spoke about her work for Watsi and Palantir, I found myself asking: Does it matter how technologically awesome, how responsive or how lightweight our web sites are, if their purposes aren’t sound?

Dave Rupert

Picking up after lunch, Dave Rupert of Paravel endeavoured to teach us all what we can learn about web design from Japanese biker gangs. To be honest, I’m not sure what that is – somehow that lesson got lost in a magnificent blur of awkward dancing and ridiculous hairstyles.

But I did learn this: prototypes are great. What’s more, I learned that prototypes aren’t complicated, hard or expensive to build – especially not with tools like Codepen. Having been aware of Codepen for a while, I was surprised to see the full extent of its use. More than just snippets of code, whole pages can be designed, built and tested on the fly, making the concept of ‘designing in the browser’ a lot more accessible.

“Prototyping solves arguments”

– Dave Rupert

Anton and Irene

Next up were Anton and Irene, who recently left FI to set up their own show in NYC.

I’ve come to think that there are two main camps of web designers. There’s the standards camp, where performance and accessibility are king, where scroll-jacking and parallax are evils that betray our noble quest. Then there’s the creative camp, where accessibility and standards are sacrificed at the altar of creative expression, where worth is measured by the swooning of apple-centric users. Anton and Irene, both with a background from FI, are definitely in the latter camp.

But as much as the current paradigm require us to frown at gratuitous animation and JS-heavy interaction, there’s no doubt that Anton and Irene, not to mention JoonYong Park, push boundaries and explore the medium to an extent commercial agents seldom do. And that’s not only inspiring to the designers in the room, but important to the industry as a whole.

Jonathan Snook

Having just witnessed the creative explosion that was Anton and Irene, it’s safe to say Jonathan Snook’s talk on CSS structure brought me back down to earth. Not the most inspiring of subjects (for this designer, anyway), it was still reaffirming: hearing others argue for practices you already subscribe to is worthwhile sometimes.

Mike Monteiro

Last, but not least: Mike Monteiro. Reminiscent of his ‘Fuck you, pay me’ talk, Mike had most of the audience chanting along to his preaching – because let’s be honest, that’s what he was doing – which, to be fair, is a pretty good way of getting your message across. Entitled ’13 ways designers screw up client presentations’, Mike’s talk was full of useful, albeit somewhat obvious, advice like:

Designing for designers is bullshit.

– Mike Monteiro

And:

“A good designer who can sell work is more valuable than a great designer who can’t.”

– Mike Monteiro

And:

“Avoiding confrontation is increasingly expensive.”

– Mike Monteiro

And he’s right. Learning how to sell our design is just as important as learning how to design things, and standing up to people and embracing confrontation as a natural part of our job is not only character-building, but positively impacts the bottom line.

Edit: Turns out Mike has posted his thoughts on Medium.

Final thoughts

So. 4 days in New York. 1 conference. 2 lovely people wined and dined (hi Wyatt, hi Dave!). 3 days of sightseeing networking. 4 minutes of panic as the explosives test at the airport showed a positive result. A whole lot to take back to Edinburgh.

Worth it.

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Author: Espen Brunborg

Espen can easily ruin conversations with questions about chimneys.

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