12 Cool Ideas from Event Apart Chicago

Oct 16, 2009

I was lucky enough to attend Event Apart Chicago this week, a fantastic web design conference with some of the leading figures in the business. A brilliant conference in a beautiful city.

If you want to check out stuff in depth, here’s "a feed apart," a collection of real-time tweeting going on at the conference and my own rough notes (day one | day two) from the individual sessions. But for a quick skim, here are twelve of the most interesting take-aways from the conference:

Jeffrey Zeldman

Photo: FLICKR / John Morrison

Zeldman doesn’t see the point of your redesign

1. Jeffrey Zeldman suggested that the most important question to ask at the start of any redesign is "What problem are we trying to solve?" If the client can’t answer that question, you might not need a redesign. He points out that "you get tired of your site before the public does," and that doing a redesign mostly for cosmetic reasons is rarely a good idea. A redesign should take place to help a web site do something better or more effectively, not just to give it a new look.

2. Zeldman’s tips on design for non-designers: Limit the number of colors, type styles, type sizes, and use a simple layout. Do that, he says, any almost anything will look somewhat cohesive visually.

3. Along the same lines, Jason Santa Maria offered his "drop-dead guide for not making ugly stuff with type":

  • don’t use two scripts
  • don’t use two display typefaces
  • don’t use two sans serif faces
  • rule of thumb: ONE OF EACH (the key is contrast)
  • if possible, pair fonts from the same designer
  • look for contrast, not similarity, between fonts in use

4. Jason Santa Maria also suggested that when it comes to design, it’s better to think first and sketch out your ideas before sitting down at a computer. Let the computer be “a tool of refinement,” not the starting point for thinking through ideas for a design concept.

5. Kristina Halvorson said that the biggest reason for delays in web projects is content: people don’t plan for it, wait too late to create it, and don’t think through all the different types of content they will need to launch. She argued that web projects should START with a content strategy before a design strategy. And, perhaps most alarmingly to designers everywhere, she pushed a bold rule: “never use lorem ipsum.” (dummy text leads to mock-ups and design concepts that are removed/detached from the real site that will be delivered)

6. I didn’t love Dan Brown’s presentation (a bit too abstract and high-concept for my liking), but I loved — and totally agree with — this quote: “the curse of being a designer is you are perpetually unsatisfied with your work.”

Whitney Hess

Photo: FLICKR / John Morrison

Whitney Hess just called you a wimp.

7. Whitney Hess gave a great talk on user testing. “It looks good” is the worst feedback you can get from users: you want to hear what they don’t like, what confuses them. And the process of user testing and improvement should be ongoing, not a one-time exercise. She advocated doing user testing live, yourself, vs. online testing (“Don’t be a wimp! Be in the room with the test subject. Feel the pain!”) She quoted principals from a successful web business (iridesco.com) that relied heavily on user testing and feedback: “You have to have humility and listen. Users aren’t always right, but you need to hear them.”

8. Andy Clarke urged designers to shut off Photoshop and Illustrator and start designing “in the browser.” He argued that Photoshop mockups create static, unrealistic, flat model of a design for something dynamic. “We’re designing web pages, not a photo of a page.” Echoing many of the speakers, he advocated a “content-out approach.” He also argued emphatically that web pages don’t need to look the same in every browser — they just need to WORK in every browser. Experiences can vary.

Eric Meyer

Photo: FLICKR / John Morrison

Eric Meyer: Pro-JavaScript, Anti-Haircut

9. Eric Meyer predicted that within the next two years, JavaScript will largely replace Flash plug-ins on the web. He showed how JavaScript tools are helping enhance the web and lead innovation that browsers are slow to provide. “We don’t have to wait for the standards bodies or browser makers anymore.” Some cool stuff he showed: modernizr (making old browsers behave like newer ones), cufon (font replacement with JS, not Flash), typekit (a third-party font-replacement tool), raphael (JavaScript vector drawing), bluff (JavaScript graphing), and processing.js (lots of funky vector animation and games)

10. Luke Wroblewski talked about web forms and how they are almost all terrible. His pitch, in short: Nobody likes forms. Forms get in the way. Make them easy for your users. He provided a lots of examples and best practices (too much to summarize here), but his book covers it all in detail.

11. Dan Rubin’s talk was a bit all over the place, but he argued a simple, important principle: “If your design needs instructions, it probably needs to be redesigned.”

12. Dan Cederholm demonstrated lots of ways to use “progressive enrichment” in web design by using CSS3 today. His new book goes into detail. Lots of this will only be visible to people using newer browsers, but since most of it presentational, people with older browser won’t know what they’re missing. He refers to a Shaker design philosophy quote that applies well to web design: “Don’t make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.”

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