Six great ideas from ConvergeSE, Day 2

May 5, 2014

A flaming front end horseHere are my biggest highlights and take-aways from the final day of ConvergeSE 2014 (Day 2? Day 3? Are we counting the workshop day? Maybe this is Day 2.5?).

Anyway, let’s call it Day 2, since that’s what it was for most attendees… here were the things that jumped out to me:

“Web design education is homeless”

Sam Kapila talked about the challenges of teaching web design, foremost being that universities have no idea what it is or where it belongs. Does it belong in Computer Science departments? Art departments? Journalism schools? On top of that, web design instructors face bureaucratic and structural obstacles to keeping the curriculum current with the industry. A common misconception is that web design instructors are either just lazy or uninformed about modern techniques, but the reality seems to be that the system makes it extremely hard for schools to teach web design well, even with good people trying to provide the best education.

I’ve written before on why college education is important for web designers, but I’ve also seen first-hand how often design school and university graduates enter the workforce grossly mis-educated on how to do web design, so I’m really not sure how the skills themselves can be taught most effectively. It’s encouraging that educators like Sam Kapila are helping lead the way.

Techniques don’t make bad websites, bad design makes bad websites

Responsive Web Design rockstar/Godfather/humble evangelist Ethan Marcotte looked at the state of responsive web design today, years after he introduced most of us to the concept. His sweeping presentation was rich and thoughtful, but one key idea that struck me was his response to the criticism that many responsive websites were “heavy” and sluggish due to overweight images and elements. He countered with examples of bloated, heavy fixed-width, “traditional” websites that were weighed down by oversized images and resources. The point being — and a good reminder to those of us who build websites — that the technique you use to create or render a website usually matters a lot less than the elements you use to build it.

If you overload a website with gigantic uncompressed images, superfluous carousels, a pile of widgets, and a recklessly tall stack of web fonts, your site may well suck, regardless of how responsive it is (or isn’t). Ethan suggested two solutions for web designers and developers: focus on a “performance budget” and refocus on the old, but still important notion of “progressive enhancement.” Along these lines, be sure to check out Brad Frost’s great article, “Performance as Design.”

“Your style guide is a living document”

Designer and Sass-guru Jina Bolton first absolved the audience of past sins (“nobody writes code perfectly the first time”) then went on to detail a bunch of ways she refactors and cleans up the code behind websites. Essential to all of this was the idea of ditching the practice of working up a style guide after a project as a one-off final deliverable to clients. Instead, she argued for the idea of building and maintaining a web style guide for design and code elements at every step of the process, and viewing it as an ongoing, living document; something that will always be relevant to the current (and future) teams working on websites. While this practice sounds easier said than done, it’s a worthwhile goal for most of us to adopt.

“Making Things is Messy”

Mark Boulton‘s presentation, “My Notebook,” was worth the price of admission to the entire conference. I could do an entire post on highlights from his tremendous insights and tips on the craft and business of design. Needless to say, I need to read more of his stuff in the future. But one of his ideas was to embrace the fact that “making things is messy,” that designers need to accept that the creative process is uneven, fragmented, and mapped with highs, lows, and unanticipated detours. Our job to to know that going into a job, but doing our best to shield our clients from the trauma of witnessing the mess firsthand. As with top professionals in many fields, our job is to make it look easy, even when it’s not.

“Marginal Gains”

Another bit of wisdom from Mark Boulton: good design isn’t always about one brilliant decision or visual concept, it’s about a hundred little design decisions, countless microscopic tweaks and improvements that collectively create something great. Aaron Draplin touched on a very similar idea on Day one: the little details of curves, corners, color, and spacing all add up in the end. As Lester Freamon taught us, “all the pieces matter.”

SVG’s FTW!

Chris Coyier closed out the conference with a manic presentation about why and how everyone should stop making excuses and start using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVGs). A speech on this topic should have been nowhere near as entertaining as this was. I’m not sure if Chris was loaded up on energy drinks, amped up on coffee, or just naturally carries himself with this kind of bounding enthusiasm, but it was fun to watch. And effective. First thing on my post-conference to-do list: start replacing everything I can with SVGs.

Bonus closing thoughts

ConvergeSE 2014 was an excellent conference. Well worth the time and expense. It was well-run, and loaded with outstanding speakers. I haven’t done justice to a lot of fine presentations I didn’t cover here. But what I liked best about the conference is that it had the high-quality line-up of the biggest, most-established conferences, but still had a relaxed, friendly vibe of a smaller, more home-spun event. Best of both worlds. Chris Coyier tossed out the idea that ConvergeSE should be looked at as the “new SXSW.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Related: Six great ideas from ConvergeSE, Day 1

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