Reinvention and Building Ourselves — Build 2012

Process and Creation

This year was my fist year at Build. With talks and themes that reminded me of dConstruct in its more abstract theoretical content, it wasn’t easy to capture in bite-sized tweets but gave us a lot to think about.

There were very wide-ranging topics and points that made it tricky to bring together common themes, even on a more abstract level. I think this separates Build from more content-curated conferences, but each talk was more like its own story, making Build this year a conference of stories.

In an attempt to better understand the way we work, there was a lot of talk about the creative process. Kirby Ferguson dispelled the ‘myths of creativity’, these reasons that humans have created to excuse away their lack of ability to continually produce great new ideas.

Using terms such as ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ suggest creativity is something inherited at birth which make you lucky to have it and otherwise unfortunate.The Romantics popularised the idea that creativity is an expression of the soul and so tied completely to the individual. The myth we’re probably most guilt of perpetuating is that of the idea as a lightbulb, something which is just spontaneously switched on. This doesn’t do justice to the hard work used to arrive at that point, and the knowledge gained in order to understand whether it is the right idea.

Kirby told us the basic elements of creativity based around his ‘remix’ theory: creativity is either copying, transforming or combining. Creativity through copying is when something starts out as derivative, which helps the creator learn from the process of making, but then turns into something new. Creativity through transformation is an improvement upon an existing design. Creativity through combination is when existing components are combined to make something new. Kirby gave technology, in particular the web, as examples of combined creation; it’s often too technologically demanding to build something from the ground up. Kirby posited that if we keep ‘remixing’ in this way, eventually we can make something new.

Robin Sloan talked about creativity and invention and distilled the creative process into four stages: Notion > Theory > Formula > Prototype. Rob Giampetro spoke about creation through ‘unbuilding’, “exploring the other side of building.” Unbuilding can act as a critique of what has come before and Rob has broken it up into four strategies: negation, removal, reversal and incompletion. Negation is subverting the typical method of production. Removal and reversal can both act as statement, where something is defined by where it is not, or by the things it is not; it encourages the viewer to consider what the world is without that object. Incompletion as an unbuilding strategy interested me the most as it is the most significant to the web. Incompleteness is openness and encourages collaboration, rather than just ‘being unfinished

Mandy Brown spoke about editing as a creative process, and mae the point that an editor isn’t just someone who cuts, but someone who also creates new joins, bringing the cuts together to make a coherent whole.

Jeff Veen spoke about the process involved in solving problems in three stages: identifying the problem in as much detail as possible, building a solution and then integrating that solution.

Multiple Discovery

Kirby Ferguson’s ideas about process lead him to point out that creativity isn’t necessarily about originality. Multiple discovery (where the same discovery is made somewhere else at the same time) is common. Innovation can be inevitable when we’re all building with the same materials. All works contain elements of other works and we are not self-made; we draw a lot more from our culture than we acknowledge or admit.

Reinvention and Building Ourselves

Many of the speakers talked about understanding ourselves and our position within the industry and the world. They spoke about learning from this, using it to improve and refine our processes.


Ethan Marcotte spoke about understanding our current position on the web and how we need to reinvent the way we’ve been working. Quoting Paul Robert Lloyd, Ethan said that we need a new aesthetic to match the way the web now works across so many devices, a new definition of beautiful. Our old dependencies on print design don’t work any more, we need to be inspired by other media but not governed by it.

Mobile broke everything because it reminded us that the control we thought we had over the way things looked on the web was never real. We need to learn to let go of the idea of that control, and remember that we’re succeeding as long as the basic promise of *access* is being delivered.

The root of many of the problems we face when designing for a flexible web is the fragility of this delivery. There are so many potential points of failure.


Ethan’s suggestion of dealing with all these potential points of failure was to communicate them to the users. When we communicate these ‘seams’ in our designs to our users, they become features and not bugs.

Mandy Brown also spoke about seams when editing. Editing and the cut is about finding the natural seams, not violently breaking work apart. Both were talking about embracing seams, not trying to hide them. Our work on the web isn’t permanent, it can be ever-changing and so trying to reach perfection is madness.


Jeff Veen’s talk was centred around equanimity. Equanimity is a state of emotional stability in a difficult situation; seeing and understanding what’s happening around you rather than just reacting. Jeff’s job as the leader of a team is to provide this equanimity and he spoke about his strategies for doing this.

Most notably, Jeff focused on the culture of a team and having principles to encourage productive communication in difficult times; both are formed around trust. The culture of a team is built on shared values and shared accomplishments, strengthened through equanimity. Effective communication is created through having objective techniques for subjective situations; design critiques, ambient accountability communication (with IRC and status boards) and always asking “Why?” over and over again, until you find the root of a problem.


Jeff also spoke passionately about the importance of having purpose. I think this was a great underlying theme and something that a lot of us working on the web find incredibly important. Jeff described purpose as discovering what problem you wanted to solve and ensuring the place you are in is the right place to solve it. He pointed out that putting problems into their simplest form gives them longevity. Jeff’s example was Typekit; they might provide web fonts as a service, but their idea in its simplest form is to make typography on the web more beautiful.

Robin Sloan asked why should we bother trying to invent new things? Why try? His answer was that there have been so many life-changing inventions in the past, there must be the potential for many more in the future.

Tiffani Jones Brown
approached the idea of purpose and understanding ourselves from a different direction. In order to discover the truth, we need to get away from the ‘bullshit epidemic.’ It’s not that we’re lying, it’s that we’re failing to say what we really mean. Tiffani acknowledged that it’s hard trying to get to the bottom of what we’re really trying to say; to understand ourselves in order to express ourselves.

Jeff Veen had a fantastic proposal for how we should understand and measure our purposes; “measure momentum in days, measure projects in weeks, measure vision in years.”

What do you take away from a conference?

Conferences that are obsessed with “take aways” tend to be filled with buzzwords for employees to take back to impress their bosses, so what do we get out of conferences that are quite the opposite? I think the overwhelming feeling I got from Build was the need to continually re-evaluate what we do, why we do it and how we do it. In an industry that’s always changing, we can’t get stuck in our ways or we’ll just get left behind…

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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