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Future of Web Design 2008 recap, Part 2 In which I summarize and give my thoughts on the presentations from the conference day.

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In which I summarize and give my thoughts on the presentations from the conference day. The conference was at the Roseland Ballroom, a really cool concert venue on 52nd Street. It was pretty much one speaker after another, with a few breaks. Here's what I heard and thought.

FOWD 2008

FOWD 2008 video screen

The future of web app interface design

Ryan Singer, 37signals

I actually wasn't very impressed with this presentation, the gist of which was twofold:

  1. Designers don't work with programmers.
  2. Designers don't explain their decisions.

Perhaps it's because our Standard Operating Procedure at Aztek is to integrate the design and tech teams right at the start of every project. Not only that, but the designers are also the HTML/CSS/jQuery coders, so when we build a site we know what the designer's intent was with every nuance, because we were the designers! That being said, there were a few good points I took away from this speech.

  • explain why you made the choices you did; identify arbitrary vs. meaningful design decisions
  • talk about cost when making arguments or defending decisions - don't just say "No"
  • when designing app interfaces, start with HTML and make a working prototype before adding "design" - don't start in Photoshop and then try to shoehorn the app into your design

Ten minutes of design inspiration (watch the video)

Hillman Curtis, hillmancurtis, inc.

I enjoyed this, even though it was short. Hillman showed one of the short films from his "Artist Series", the one he did on James Victore. I won't try to summarize the film, but the most telling thing I got out of it was when he said, "Graphic design is a big f***ing club with spikes". Hillman encouraged us all to go out and use that club. Not necessarily the kind of thing we do here at Aztek, but it inspired me in my personal artistic vision.

The Experience Layer: Using Flash, JavaScript, and other technologies to engage users (watch the video)

Dan Mall, Happy Cog

This was a great presentation. Dan is an excellent speaker, and his accompanying Flash presentation was engaging and compelling. He talked about progressive enhancement, adding extra feature layers on top of a well-structured, accessible site. His main point was that Art Direction is about emotion, and we can use these new technologies to provoke emotion in our viewers in a progressive, "web friendly" manner. Three sites he specifically pointed out as good examples of progressive enhancement were The Responsibility Project (the What's Your Policy? widget at the bottom of the home page), Comhaltas (an Irish music site that uses scripting to add audio pronunciations to Irish words in the copy), and Tennessee's winter vacation site (there used to be lightly falling snow on the site, but it looks like it's not there anymore).

Educating clients to say yes (watch the video)

Paul Boag, Headscape

Another excellent speaker and great topic. Of all the talks, I took the most notes at this one, so I'll try to summarize.

Change the designer/client relationship from "master/servant" to "peer/peer"

  • We as designers have to be the expert - have a methodology, use information gathering for backing up arguments, use third-party sources to justify decisions, and write down anything the client agrees to
  • We have to be positive - if the client asks for something "stupid" or "wrong", instead of a flat no, the response should be, "OK, we can do that, but here's what the consequences will be if we do. How about instead, we do this alternative?" This helps get the client involved before the final presentation.
  • We have to shape the client's role for them - focus on the client's problems, not just solutions; focus on the client's business and how this design or project is going to help that business; focus on the client's users - get the client away from their personal opinion of the design and ask, "How do you think your users will react?"
  • When dealing with "design by committee", try very hard to meet with people individually, or use questionnaires to get individual feedback

Tactics for dealing with "Difficult People"

  • Existing clients - quote third-party experts to back up decisions
  • "No clue" clients - be the expert and take control of the process
  • Micromanagers - ask why a lot and focus on the problems presented by the client
  • Marketeers - explain the difference between print and the web; don't talk design - talk marketing

How to take advantage of jQuery and other JavaScript libraries for your design

Karl Swedberg, Fusionary Media

Unfortunately, I was the most disappointed by this talk. I don't think he was a very good presenter, and there was nothing new for me in what he spoke about. He did mention a few other JavaScript libraries besides jQuery (Dojo, Mootools, etc.), but he had very few examples of what you can do with these technologies, and what he did have wasn't very compelling.

Whatever happened to the Art in Design? (watch the video)

Mike Kus, Carsonified

Yet another fun and engaging speaker. Mike is a great illustrator, and he had some nice sketched-up graphics to accompany his talk. He urged us to tell stories (50% of the design is the pixels, the other 50% is the concept/story); to do a lot of research for preparation; to get away from the computer and use traditional art tools in order to break away from the normal; and to carry out the execution of a design to 100%. He even made a little printed handout of his slides that he gave away after his talk. We've got it pinned up on our bulletin board.

Web Design Fundamentals: Learning from the past to better the future (watch the video)

Patrick Haney, Harvard University

I remember this being a good talk, but honestly, I don't remember many of the details. The notes I have are "build a site that works in everything first [before adding enhancements]" and "Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign - Cameron Moll"

Charting Daily Data: Nicholas Felton and Daytum.com (watch the video)

I didn't take notes for this one, simply because I was so astounded by the sheer scope of what Nicholas was able to achieve. If you haven't seen his Annual Reports, go take a look. Charting this much data is just crazy. This strikes me as a great example of what I've heard called "magnificent obsessions."

The future of community and crowd-sourced design

Derek Powazek, Powazek Productions

Derek, I'm sure, needs no introduction. Aside from Dan Mall, I thought he was the most engaging speaker there. He spoke about "crowdsourcing", using users to help create content (like flickr, youtube, etc.) and pointed out some of the successes and pitfalls. It was a fun speech and you can see his slides here. It's not really the kind of thing we do here at Aztek, but neat stuff anyway.

That's about it. Overall, I came away with a great view of where we are going with web technologies, and a mandate to use these tools for good, not evil. In other words:

  • Tell stories with design, don't just make it pretty.
  • Make sure everybody can use it first, then make it flashier for those who are able to see the sparkles
  • Engage your clients and make them part of the team
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