Learnings from By Design Conference 2017

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Sara Vilas
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I need to start this with honesty:

I hate design conferences.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m pretty much against all design conferences, meet-ups, and events alike.

I hate bullshit, and auto-proclaimed “experts”. I really hate sitting somewhere to hear someone purely talking about themselves, without a context, without providing the audience any learning but their own life story — which can be sometimes interesting, but 90% of the times, it’s just not. I hate when the topic sounds like something groundbreaking and then the speaker just talks about Design 101. I definitely can think about 1 million things I would rather do than attending any of those events.

But By Design Conference caught my eye back in February. Targeting designers, entrepreneurs and creative minds in general, they had people in their lineup that I was really interested on hearing more about such as Debbie Millman from the Design Matters podcast, Jonathan Lee from Google and Josh Higgins from Facebook.

As a design mentor at Designlab, I always try to expose my students to how design works in different companies. Facebook and Google are a big topic always, but I never really met anyone that worked in there. The Design Matters podcast is also something I often recommend, together with The Crazy One podcast from Stephen Gates (Head of Design at Citi).

So, with an interesting lineup and after some careful consideration I decided to join the By Design Conference.

The conference was held in Bratislava (Slovakia) on May 20, 2017. The old town is lovely and the venue was right in the middle of it, in the very classy City Theatre which has been active since 1948.

Alright, down to the learnings!

Mark Portman, Editorial Designer

This was a lovely surprise and the first talk of the event. To be honest, I didn’t know who he was so I had no clue what to expect.

I loved Mark Portman’s talk. He was showing his work merely as examples to talk about something greater that involves us all: the relationship between print design and web design, the definition of “editorial design”.

Sometimes we forget that web design is not just a thing on its own. It’s not this mushroom that appeared with computers and smartphones. Sure, things have changed — a lot — and evolved a lot, too. The digital medium has a lot of things we need to learn but in essence, design is still design.

He talked about grids in print design and how he applies the same concepts to web design. I personally loved the images he showed about editorial grids and his personal sketches:

Newspaper grids. Doesn’t it look like UX wireframes too? :) Design overlaps everywhere!
Look at this sketched wireframe! I mean… no, sorry, just a magazine sketch ;)

He talked about the difference of designing as an art director and designing for others to be art directors. When you design a website that is very heavy in content (like his TheGuardian.com), a magazine, or newspaper (he also did the print version of The Guardian), you won’t be there day after day to put things together. Instead, you need to create a design system that holds everything together and allows others to focus on content. All of this, still providing a consistent and great language to the audience.

He also talked about how you don’t have to be a massive agency to get huge and great clients, and how his team relies on collaborating with great minds that are specialised on certain things.

I also absolutely loved how grounded he is, showing it by sharing this quote:

“Why do designers think they have better ideas about what things should look like than ordinary human beings?”

I loved how he structured the talk and how he talked about everything in sequence, drawing a parallel between his work and his definition of Editorial Design.

Tilman Solé and Loran Stosskopf, partners at MUCHO

Tilman and Loran had a nice show on stage. There were some funny moments that had us all laughing and even some funny pictures and GIFS too!

They also presented some very cool work from their MUCHO agency, which I was not familiar with. They mentioned how they agreed with Mark Portman on how Editorial Design is bigger than what give it credit for.

I specially liked a project they presented about wine, and how they shared the process they followed, including this mood board and digital sketch:

However, besides the funny moments and cool projects, I just felt I was listening to an agency pitch or portfolio pitch.

Jonathan Lee, Google

I was really looking forward to this one — and he didn’t let me down!

Jonathan shared his insights on Google and his trajectory there. He talked about how things work there and how Material Design came to be. It was just awesome to get insights on how one of the biggest companies does design.

He took us through his 6 years of work at Google (congrats on the anniversary!). I loved his enthusiasm to push things just a little bit further every day and how he talked about creating rules where things are messy.

He linked to Mark Portman’s talk in terms of how there is a need for a design system in every project. He redesigned Gmail back in the day and started getting interested on learning about other teams, what they were doing, and how could he help.

Jonathan Lee’s Gmail redesign

Besides his Gmail redesign, he talked about coming up with the paper concept for Material Design and getting that project started to drive collaboration and consistency across a huge company like Google.

Material Design

He lead the redesign of Google, including the rebranding for which he showed us a bit of the process and alternative versions that were proposed:

Google logo redesign project: designers sharing work and proposals

He also started the Google Design blog initiative to share their work with the world.

Now Jonathan has just moved to the Assistant team where he will be investigating new ways of people to interact with Google.

If you’re already feeling like he’s awesome and you should be doing more, wait for it. He’s also serving as President of AIGA New York (the American association of designers) and is also a critic at Yale Graphic Design.

In the talk, he encouraged and advised everyone to just TALK to people to build trust and collaboration. Just go to their desks and ask things. And if you’re the proactive type, be careful on stepping on someone else’s work — it can cause you trouble. Keep people in the loop, count people in, collaborate with everyone, and be friends with your developers.

And I bet there’s A LOT of them at Google

I specifically liked how he explained his relationship with developers. In a world where devs and designers are a different specie, it’s so important to have a good collaboration going on in order to ship amazing products. Involve them in the process so they can raise their worries ASAP. Make sure they have everything they need from you. Explain them why something is important for you and ask why the solution you have created is a problem for them, so they can help you come up with something that is both a great user experience and easy to develop. So remember: just walk up to their desks.

Later on in the day, Jonathan had a live show with Debbie Millman for her Design Matters” podcast where he talked a bit more about himself and his motivations. He also talked about how being a design manager is really hard and he feels he is still learning to be good. He mentioned that it’s very hard to manage people in general, to keep them happy, motivated, and challenged. He also talked about avoiding micro managing by just hiring people you believe in.

Later in the afternoon, Jonathan was also interviewed by Debbie Millman for one of her podcast episodes

I hope I can hear from him again about what he will be creating at the Google Assistant team. He is very excited about setting new rules and coming up with new things on a territory that we barely know anything about with challenges in terms of languages and accents that will be very hard to tackle. Keep an eye on him, he will still be creating (and leading teams to create) amazing stuff.

James Jarvis, Illustrator

This was the most artistic talk of all.

James Jarvis is an illustrator and has dedicated his career to drawing in different styles and for different clients. He also has designed toys and merchandising.

I loved his work and his drawings. I loved his evolution and how he went from very detailed to very philosophical.

Similar to MUCHO, besides the inspiration side of it, not much I personally got out of it.

Debbie Millman, branding designer, hosts the Design Matters podcast

She’s been named one of the most influential designers alive. She has worked on very big brand projects and logos such as Burger King or Häagen-Dazs. She also teaches, writes books and articles, and hosts one of the best design podcasts called “Design Matters” — if haven’t already, go listen!

She is fascinated about people’s trajectories, how did they get to where they are. She has done amazing work herself and puts all her knowledge out there for others to learn.

I liked her personal story and how he encouraged everyone to think about the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?

She showed us a drawing that she drew when she was 7 that pretty much predicted her current life. She also talked about how we try to follow a path that we are supposed to follow and we don’t really listen to ourselves most of the times. In design, specially, we just get so caught up on working for big brands, big companies, big projects and big money, that we forget what it is that really drives us and makes us unique, different and, ultimately, happy.

Always a good reminder. A very intimate and personal talk about personal growth and how creating the podcast was her way to start giving back.

She’s a really good interviewer that got great insights from Jonathan Lee and Hartmut Esslinger, who comes next.

Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design

This guy is a legend. He was an industrial designer that worked with Apple on the design of the original Macintosh and on the Snow White Mac’s design language. Later on, he decided to create his own agency which is currently one of the biggest agencies in the world.

Hartmut connected to the conference via Skype since he was having some health issues (just some high fever) that didn’t allow him to travel. Debbie Millman drove the conversation.

I loved how honest he was and how he didn’t care about anyone’s opinions. He is a zero bullshit type of guy and I have to love that.

He told us a bit about his growth and trajectory. He said that he told Steve Jobs back in the day that Apple was a great idea but its design was shit and he was lucky he was selling something — LOL! He has a background designing cars also, as german as it gets!

He founded Frog design and told us he had trouble getting clients at first because they didn’t take him seriously because he was quite young and not super experienced. He went and won awards and kept pushing to make it work. And, well, he ended up making it to the very top!

He was asked what he though about companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon, and which one he bets on surviving the next 10 years. He voted for Apple because of its strategy. He made sure he mentioned Apple doesn’t do anything unique or new, but they package things very well.

About Google, he said they have great ideas and products but its design is still not good. And he was not talking just about the visual side of it, he said he absolutely hated the Google Search’s suggestions and ads. He mentioned how he booked a room in a hotel and then he kept seeing ads about that hotel. “Why the fuck do you keep showing me this when I already booked it!?”

About Amazon he said it’s just a logistics company, nothing special about it.

About Facebook… Well: “Facebook is getting to its end. For how long can you really fool people into a reality that is so fake and bullshit? You don’t have 100 friends or 200 or 500. If you’re lucky you have 5. So get the fuck out and talk to them in person”. LOVED IT. Although I love Facebook too and how I can connect with family back at home, I gotta say.

He also said that to be a great designer you need talent. You can learn a lot of things, but to be really good you need that something you can’t simply learn. He said there’s a lot of bad designers around and very few that are really talented. I guess that happens everywhere, we can’t all be #1, can we?

Overall a great interview from Debbie to Hartmut.

Rejane dal Bello, designer for non-profits

Rejane is a great designer. She has worked on amazing agencies doing great work that she took us through, specially interesting from a typographic perspective. Currently she has her own little agency that she just started.

She shared a few things that were really interesting.

On one hand, I loved her passion for non-profits. She has helped places like the Dutch Alzheimer Association and the Paz Holandesa hospital in Peru. She digs deep into the topics she’s designing for and she mentioned she struggles a lot in the process (she rather hates it, actually) in order to make sure that at the end the concept and the visual side are 100% tied together.

On the other hand, she shared a bit about when to change companies which I thought it was a really good perspective: “If you feel like you’re at home, like there’s nothing else you can learn, it’s time for you to think about moving elsewhere”.

Josh Higgins, Creative Director at the Facebook Factory

I was very curious about how Facebook works as I mentioned at the beginning, so I really liked getting a peak from Josh’s talk.

He started by talking about his experience as lead designer on Obama’s 2012 political campaign. It’s not everyday that you get a peak on how it is to design for politics, which I found really interesting!

He used to design posters for things he believed in. This one gave him the opportunity to actually work for Obama — ain’t that cool!?

He shared that it was very intense because of the time constrains; very demanding because every little material counts in a campaign and can have the power to potentially be the difference between winning and loosing. He and his team designed a million of things in any type of medium: rebranding, posters, event materials, entry cards, landing pages to support all minorities and groups, and even the optimisation of the online form to raise campaign funds. For that, he did a lot of A/B testing to get to the best possible version. Learnings from that: breaking the form into steps converts 5% more and having a big picture of Obama helped a lot, too!

Form by steps, with a big Obama pic = lots of funds raising for the campaign
I loved this poster for the campaign with an Obama’s quote

I also liked how he talked about the need for consistency. He created guidelines to align the headquarters with every single state’s office; also offering help so the materials at a local level could be as good as the ones coming out directly from the main office.

I think it’s a really interesting experience in which you really need to be connected to what the politician stands for as well as understand his challenges and opponents.

Josh’s work at Facebook seems very similar to that: he also does work mostly to grow and promote the brand across many different materials and mediums such as print, landing pages, posters, advertising, events… anything!

He also lead the creation of the videos you see for your birthday and friendship anniversaries

He has also pushed for creating an analog design workshop area, in which they get classes on screen printing, hand lettering and other analog techniques.

Overall learnings

Even though there was still a lot of that ego I’m not fond of, and I had moments in which I definitely thought it was more of a personal show off than something the audience can benefit from, I definitely enjoyed the By Design Conference.

I recommend it to anyone in Europe, adding also that the organisation was really good and the city very cheap!

Overall, you can see a theme that was really recurring: “masters of all”. All of them had done and had worked on multiple mediums. Most of them still do it on a day-to-day basis.

Being a generalist is the way to go on design. The different disciplines and different stages give you a richer and broader view and understanding of design, which is not just creating logos or creating websites. Design is solving problems, reflecting a brand’s identity, wherever that has to happen.

At the end of the day, creativity is all about solving problems by merging ideas from different fields. To be able to solve those issues you need to be exposed to as many different concepts as you can, so even though you may be working on something specific at the moment, be always open to broaden your knowledge at any opportunity you find.

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