Talk Web Design 2016

30/06/2016 by Jason Hobbs

In late May 2016, I managed to secure a not-so-sneaky ticket to Talk Web Design; a free, one day one-track student conference run by University of Greenwich.

Talk Web Design have had some fantastic speakers over the years and 2016 was no exception; with names you’d usually associate with £200+ conferences giving up their time for free. For me, this was a great opportunity to catch some speakers I’d yet to see – in particular Rachael Andrew and her knowledge on future gridding systems – but also to get some insight on what knowledge they’d impart to an audience made up solely of undergrad and postgrad students.

Sometimes conferences work when there’s a running theme (eg. DotYork), but equally they often work when each slot is entirely different. Talk Web Design was definitely the latter, boasting a strong mix of practical examples, case studies, advice and inspiration crammed into a day that left you both exhausted and motivated to go try something.

Richard Rutter <br/ >“Don’t Give Them What They Want, Give Them What They Need”

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Richard ran through how Clearleft had recently worked with Kensington & Chelsea Council to produce their new website. More specifically, how they’d worked with the council, using the ‘building and planning’ section, to produce a framework that can then be rolled out site-wide.

Working almost solely on NHS entity websites for over three years now, I immediately began to recognise many parallels between them and council websites. The politics occurring within, the public’s mixed views of the entity, the fragmented nature of what the user needs and what the client wants to do; it was all things I’d witnessed before.

It was interesting to see that Clearleft’s approach was almost identical to Mixd’s; conducting staff / user interviews, producing content audits, and conducting ‘design a homepage’ and ‘card sorting’ experiments to gain a greater understanding of the user’s needs. One particularly good tip from Richard was shadowing call-centre staff, as their most common job is typically the most difficult / impossible task to do on the website.

Some particularly amusing parts were the council member’s adamance of using official, technical terms instead of lay-man’s terms; ’subterranean dwelling procedure’ in place of ‘basement planning’. Also, a genuine conspiracy theory from a K&C resident that “the council was purposely making the website difficult to use so they could hide things from us”.

It’s no secret that public sector websites like NHS entities and councils are generally some of the ‘drier’ websites to work on. But what made Richard’s talk my favourite of the day is that it illustrated to the students that because these websites are structurally complex, they are often the most challenging, and therefore rewarding, to work on. And once you launch the website, the sense of achievement and pride that you get, knowing you’re helping the public interact with their government services.

Andy Clarke
‘Imaginative Grid Systems’

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Andy is a self-confessed “grumpy git” when it comes to the monotony facing modern web design; and with websites like “Every F**king Website” and Blandly popping up online, it appears he’s not alone.

To illustrate how we can still apply methodical approaches to grids without them becoming boring, Andy wheeled out his most recent project: a redesign of the WWF website. He first showed how, as much as 12/16 columns made things samey, it actually creates a certain amount of versatility; but also showing how using two gridsets (eg. 12 and 5) in one page creates asymetric interest. Then he cycled through some gridding variants he’d come up with, using both horizontal and vertical axis, to bring some visual interest to the adoption pages.

Whilst Andy did throw the “how do you make it responsive?” out of the window, you couldn’t deny the immediate creative freedom you got when you forget about tooling for a moment and actually just designed something. His talk somewhat mimicked the sentiment Mark Boulton had in 2014 in his workshop at Handheld, where attendees were asked to focus on creating something visually appealing.

Brendan Dawes
‘Good with Computers’

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Brendan has been one of my favourite speakers since I saw him at Handheld a few years ago. Even if data visualisation and hardware isn’t your thing, his ‘cool uncle’ energy is something you can’t help but be drawn in by.

Brendan continued where he left off at Handheld, demonstrating the random stuff he’d been creating and how their seemingly worthless nature later translates to real commercial interest. His ‘Happiness Machine’ has since evolved to be an installation for AirBnB at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

In a world where our industry has been focused on tooling and process to make our profession more and more commercially viable, Brendan is a reset button to just play; to expand upon random thought without worry of if, and when, it’ll find it’s place in the world.

Summary

I think David and Prisca have done an amazing job creating a free catered conference with such a high calibre of speakers. I really wish we’d see more of these conferences that bridge the gap between industry and academia.

I would definitely urge the students from further afield – in particular our Leeds University and Leeds Beckett contacts – to put aside a bit of cash for 2017, so they can come down to Greenwich and go to Talk Web Design. I may even submit to do a talk in 2017.

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