The job, the process and creativity – naconf 2012

New Adventures in Web Design was a fantastic new conference last year. It was small, low-priced, the talks were all new and everybody attending had taken a risk, basing their decision to attend on their trust of the speakers and organiser Simon Collison. It was a huge success which meant that this newbie conference now had to live up to its reputation in its second year.

It was a brilliant event again. There are a lot of web-themed conferences in the UK, some with narrower themes, some associated with particular disciplines and some that cover the industry as a whole. One of the things that makes New Adventures unique is the connectedness of the talks, which are all loosely tied together under a theme, leaving a lovely feeling of a whole exploration of that theme through the many different speakers’ eyes.

Themes of the day

Whilst the theme across New Adventures isn’t explicit, I picked up on a few strong threads running through each talk. All of the speakers looked at our roles as designers, (or design-ish as Dan Mall put it) many touching on process and many discussing the driving force behind our work.

The role of the designer

As the web industry evolves and matures, it gives us a chance to go further than defining our roles as designers. Naomi Atkinson spoke about learning how to promote yourself. Using examples from the land of celebrity, Naomi showed that you’ve got to keep building on your brand language to stay memorable, know your market and how to sell to them, and use your knowledge to help others.

The idea of using your knowledge to do good was a big part of Naomi’s talk and she recommended trying to help the areas that really need our help; local and struggling businesses, education and the NHS. Naomi pointed out that business and doing work for the greater good needn’t be exclusive of each other, you can still make money helping others. Cameron Koczon also spoke about these areas needing help from entrepreneurs and how startups can be created in these areas to solve real problems that have a real impact on the world.

Cameron’s talk focused on designers in the founding roles of startups. He insisted that if you’re not doing something entrepreneurial, then you’re missing out, especially on an opportunity to effect change. Cameron explained that designers need to push to be seen as more important roles in startups, that design suffers from dogma, an association with client services and a general lack of understanding that results in there not even being a designer-founder equivalent to the developer-founder role of CTO.

The driving force

Trent Walton discussed the possibilities of doing good through expanding the web asking what would the web look like if no-one ventured out of bounds? Trent spoke about trying to push the web forward as a driving force behind your work. He compared our creating of websites as being like hobbyists working on cars, it’s our livelihood so we should treat it as such; working hard and not being scared of getting frustrated or breaking things. Many of the speakers discussed how failure is an important part of the design process, how we break so we can learn to make things better, break so we can understand constraints and break so we can ultimately learn from that failure.

The design process

Robbie Manson pointed out that this failure does not mean making mistakes. As long as we understand why our failures happened, we can learn one more way that doesn’t work and therefore be one step closer to success.

Dan Mall was an inspiring start to the day with a talk all about design process that featured fantastic case studies which really helped us understand the process behind his work. There was a time when showing work from your portfolio at a conference was boastful but Dan explained some of his work for Star Wars, Crayola and his personal site redesign in a way that covered genuinely useful advice about client work.

Hearing about client work was refreshing in an industry that is often dominated by talks from startups and side-projects. He spoke about the importance of empathising with clients and treating them as a partner in a project. Dan recommended that one of the best ways of doing this was to become a client yourself, run a project and hire other people to do all the work, as being a client is the only real way to understand how a client feels.

It was comforting to hear Robbie Manson talk about how it’s often rubbish when people talk about ‘process.’ He pointed out that, as creatives, we don’t have linear repeatable predictable processes. That’s not creativity. Creativity is logical but messy. Robbie explained that this is why it’s not so easy to design in the browser using CSS, as CSS relies on intent. By using rougher tools, and maybe those that aren’t designed specifically for the job, like Photoshop, we can experiment quickly and experience happy accidents which are the most endearing elements of software. Robbie told us that we rely on our tools to help us get our ideas down, we shouldn’t become preoccupied with our tools to compensate for our lack of creative thinking. The key phrase I took away from Robbie’s talk was “the more invisible the tools, the more creative the thinking.”

Creative thinking

By far the most memorable talk of the day was Denise Jacobs on the brain and creativity. A mad break from the format of other talks, Denise told an epic story with the moral of “Don’t force creativity, give it time and space and let it come to you.” Denise talked about how to bring your brain into an ‘alpha’ state to help activate it and encourage creative thinking, advising the best ways to activate your brain:

  • walking
  • going to sleep
  • having a shower
  • lying down
  • closing your eyes and breathing slowly

Denise’s story covered a problem that I know very well; communication addiction, brought on by social networks and constant alerts. She explained that we really suffer alert withdrawal, and we need to learn the importance of lo-fi downtime to give our brains a break.

What makes good design good?

Frank Chimero finished the day with a huge overview of what makes design good and why it means so much to us as designers. One of Frank’s defining features of what makes good design was design that moves. Frank explained that good design moves the designer when it is being made, it moves when it is published, moves through its resonance, and moves through its proliferation. Good design gains a life of its own and moves on its own.

Frank spoke about how our medium differs from others in that our canvas of the web is always moving and changing, so what we’re designing is only a temporary solution to the problem. This means that when we’ve previously described ourselves as designers as problem-solvers, we weren’t right, as our output isn’t always the final and ultimate solution.


I could write thousands and thousands of words on the intertwined themes of New Adventures 2012, but this is my first uBelly post so I don’t want to put you all off! Needless to say, this conference was incredibly inspiring and, as all good conferences should, left me feeling eager to work and as if I understand myself much better than I did the day before.

Published by Laura

Laura is one of the recently joined nUbelly writers. She's a very friendly and noisy freelance web designer/developer. Since first learning how to build sites (badly, with tables,) she's been mad about the web and the amazing community around it. Her big, but ever-changing, interests are mobile web, lovely semantic HTML, web fonts & WordPress.

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