Interlink Conference: helping designers help people

Mark Busse – No Comments

Speaker Elliot Jay Stocks at the Interlink Conference. Photo by Steve Mynett

An edited version of the following article was published on on June 7, 2011:

Walking into the Interlink Conference felt a bit like witnessing two worlds collide. Half the audience was the hardcore designer set, with their retro haircuts and designer eyewear, the other half developers, with their nerdy t-shirts and techno-gadgets. Or was it the designers with the tees and toys and the nerds with the hipster fashion? The crowded auditorium at Capilano University was a sea of glowing Apple logos, and the line between designer and developer was so blurry it didn’t seem to matter anymore. In fact, perhaps that was the point. All of the more that 300 attendees and 15 speakers that came to Interlink Conference June 2 to 4 were there to share and learn from each other about how to make the web a better place and help people make their lives better.

Being the first ever edition of this conference format, rookie organizer Shawn Johnston opened the day by sharing his vision for Interlink, explaining that his intention was a “peer-to-peer discussion both among the attendees and between speakers and workshop leaders and the audience”.

The topic of inspiration sometimes seems ubiquitous at design conferences, but web industry veteran Denise Jacobs kicked off the conference by sharing practical tips for embedding this often elusive muse into a creative process “on demand”. Jacobs countered basic ides like ignoring our inner critic or giving ourselves permission to produce bad ideas with examples of strategies, habits and tools a web designer can use in the daily pursuit of creativity and inspiration.

“It doesn’t matter how much you like some ideas, as they may not like you back.” explained Portland’s popular and well-spoken design guru Frank Chimero. Stunning the audience by declaring he’d scrapped his planned presentation, instead talking about his personal journey, and the frustrations and revelations he encountered in his design practice. Using the metaphor of the painter stepping back from the canvas to evaluate the process itself, Chimero discussed the difference between the “how” of design (the techniques and tools we use) and the “why” (the choices we make). Chimero presented an argument that it was where these overlap that real design happens. Referencing the continuing rapid changes on the web, Chimero challenged the audience to consider that designers “don’t actually solve problems, they produce design responses” with a myriad of possibilities for most design challenges. “If we solved design problems, there would be only one Twitter client app.” joked Chimero to chuckles from the audience. “There’s a different between good work and valuable work, and we don’t have to choose.” Chimero continued “But valuable is how you get to good. The point is to make stuff to help us live better.”

The first of many UK designers was Elliot Jay Stocks, who used humour to challenge the audience to move past established Web 2.0 aesthetics with a straight-talking rant about “cheesy effects” and illogical choices so commonly made by web designers. Refreshing was Stocks’ contention that it was the obligation of serious web designers to learn the fundamentals of traditional graphic design and apply it online. “Bogged down by web design?” asked Stocks cheekily, “Then go do some print design—it’s so liberating.”

“Good design does not necessarily mean good experience”, argued New York-based designer Whitney Hess, as she explained her user experience philosophy and introduced the audience to a set of ten design principles anyone could apply in their own practice. The foundation of Hess’ approach was the notion that “user experience is the establishment of a philosophy about how to treat people,” echoing Frank Chimero’s earlier sentiment that good web design is about making people’s lives better, not just creating pretty graphics or cool effects. Through creative use of striking photography and a charming presentation style, Hess inspired many in the audience to frantically jot notes, a sure sign of a compelling conference presentation, and more than a few attendees posted tweets about how they planned to initiate a set of design principles themselves.

Still reeling from Hess’ inspirational talk, the audience next met UK-based mobile interface designer Sarah Parmenter, a straight-talking (and striking) Virgo perfectionist who claims she started designing iOS apps “because she likes surrounding herself with aesthetic things.” From the benefits of an application definition statement to a series of examples and techniques, her glossy presentation included practical tips and tricks for any web designer wanting to make the leap to designing interfaces for mobile devices—something she claims is inevitable for anyone in the web design field these days. Parmenter also emphasized the importance of respecting the user experience, a theme woven throughout the entire conference.

The most technical presentation of the day, Yahoo designer (and one of only two Canadian speakers) Jonathan Snook walked the audience through an overview of the evolution of CSS and demonstrated a series of useful techniques and tips. While not everyone in the auditorium were as engaged by this code-heavy presentation, Snook’s talk reminded all that using technologies such as HTML, CSS and JQuery is an important part of being successful as a web designer—and not nearly as daunting or awkward as in years past.

“At less than 15 years old, our industry is still young—it hasn’t even had sex yet.” began DIBI Conference producer and English web designer Gavin Elliot. He certainly got the attention of those in the auditorium, but it didn’t get much better unfortunately. His presentation, called “A Better Process” was billed as an intro to web design process which we could put into action to make our own work better than ever. “We don’t build websites, we build systems” was the most memorable statement in his slick presentation, while the core of Elliot’s talk lacked much practical or applicable learning suitable for this well-informed audience.

The final conference presentation was by yet another Brit, this time web designer Simon Collison. His presentation was arguably the most academic, rooted in the fundamentals of visual language as he discussed applying a more analytical approach to content and structure and how they affect the choices we make as designers. “The influx of type choices online requires us to think smarter about type design choices” argued Collison, echoing the sentiments of Ethan Dunham and others. His contention that static web design, versus adaptive or responsive web layout resonated with numerous attendees who could be overheard discussing ways to make their own interface designs more flexible.

Still buzzing from a jam-packed day of conference presentations, attendees returned to Capilano University on Saturday for hands on workshops by industry experts. Simon Collison continued his theme of the importance of visual language with his “Analytical Design” workshop, explaining some of the science and meaning behind the decisions we make and offering ideas and methods for improving design process. Canadian Steve Fisher, who argued that there isn’t any fundamental difference between UX and design, gave attendees practical tips on how to spend more time examining the reasons and motivations behind the functions and interfaces we create. “I’m in the process of blowing out at least 30% of my process because I think it has been lying to myself, stakeholders and other team members.” Fisher explained. “Things like static wireframes essentially lie.” Wrapping up the workshops was a pragmatic, no-hype introduction to HTML5 by Manchester-based developer and Opera Web Evangelist Patrick Lauke. “HTML5 is a huge topic.” says Lauke, “People use it to refer to “really cool shit” for everything that is out there.” explaining that HTML5 is still basically a proposition under development, but in the final stages of review for W3C recommendation. “What people think of as HTML5 is most often javascript or CSS3.” explained Lauke. Attendees were treated to an overview of this new specification along with some useful training in new syntax/semantics, improved form interactivity, and the “flash-killer” features like native support in browsers for video, audio and canvas.

Aside from a few comments about the inconvenience of the venue location in North Vancouver, and the mayhem of the Stanley Cup playoffs (go Canucks!) interfering with some social activities, Interlink successfully delivered on its promise of bringing thought leaders together from all over the world to spark discussion and debate regarding the evolving and constantly changing face of the web. One group of attendees chatting over drinks on Saturday night discussed a longing to see more real-world project case studies and panel discussions next year. “Apart from a few hard to follow and slightly obscure talks, I was thoroughly impressed with the level of quality of the discussions.” offered Calgary-based designer and developer Matt Trienis. “Lately, I’ve been feeling like I need to step up my game, and Interlink really confirms that.” said Vancouver web designer Catherine Winters.

Congratulations to Shawn Johnston and his volunteers for hosting the first of what will surely be many more successful Interlink Conferences.

Photos from the conference can be on Flickr.