Six great ideas from ConvergeSE, Day 1

May 3, 2014

Two design stagsConvergeSE has been an impressive conference, and not just because of the fun-size Snickers and Twix they keep leaving around in big piles.

Here are some of my biggest highlights and take-aways from Day 1. One caveat: I only attended Design and Front-End tracks, so no doubt I missed other brilliant ideas, but these were the six best ideas of the day for me:

“Looking good, feeling good…”

Former Navy SEAL Mark Divine kicked off the conference by making an entire room full of developers and designers get up and do a set of air squats. He followed up with thoughts on how to develop a stronger mind for overcoming challenges. When the stage power failed a few minutes into his presentation, he demonstrated what we was talking about: delivering half of his speech without a microphone or any visuals. His speech wasn’t really about design or our field, but more broadly: how to start each day with a positive, productive mindset that lets you be at your best. He stressed the power of focused breath, positive visualization, positive self-talk, and micro-goals. But what stuck in my head was a simple mantra for the start of every day: “I got this. Easy Day. HOO-yah.”

Links GO. Buttons DO.

J Cornelius (I checked, BTW, and yes, his first name appears to be just the letter J! Whoa…) talked about “Digital Fluency.” Thoughtful speech about the evolution of our visual design vocabulary as an extension of language. He laid out a simple idea that seems so obvious but which often gets muddled in design (especially in flat, stripped-bare design): Links Go; Buttons Do. Easy concept, unless you’ve made it hard for users to know whether something is a link or a button. Yes, iOS7: I’m glaring at you right now.

“Never test anything you can’t live with”

Former Obama 2012 design director Josh Higgins talked about his experience before, during, and after the Obama campaign and the lessons he learned along the way. He talked about how much they tested and iterated designs for Obama to find out what worked best; always tweaking, always improving. One design he didn’t like did well, so it stuck, leading Higgins to note, “never test anything you can’t live with.” This is a perfect corollary to my long-standing advice to other designers to never show anything to a client unless you’ll be happy if they pick it (because, yes, they’ll often pick your least favorite option).

Responsive type isn’t just about style, it’s about performance

Clarissa Peterson‘s practical talk on techniques for improving typography on small screens was loaded with best practices. Web fonts may be lovely, but on mobile phones where bandwidth is tight, they can slow down a site considerably. In short: be judicious in your use of web fonts; or disable them altogether on smaller screens.

“Email should be usable with just one eyeball, one thumb, and at arm’s length”

Fabio Carneiro, an email design expert at MailChimp, broke down a ton of ideas designing smarter, more responsive email templates. This was hands-down the most information-rich presentation I saw during the day. Here’s a link to my Evernote breakdown of his key ideas. His “online brain” is here for future reference. But the best, most memorable advice for responsive email designers was this: “an email should be usable with just one eyeball, one thumb, and at arm’s length.”

“Vector are free!”

Aaron Draplin was a force of nature. His talk, loosely focused on logo design, was brilliant: practical, inspiring, hilarious, and filled with a ton of random asides and self-interruptions. Best thing I saw all day. I can’t really do it justice other than tell everyone to go see him talk the next time he appears at a conference. But the biggest thing I took away from the speech, once you get beyond all the jokes and shouting and the rapid-fire slideshow, was that this guy works his ass off. He showed what his Illustrator files look like, and the sheer number of draft logos he often does during his design process: hundreds of iterations, false-starts, and half-baked concepts scattered outside the active artboard. He provided ten tips for logo design, but his reminder that “vectors are free” was maybe the most important: it’s not about nailing the perfect logo on your first draft; it’s about putting in the hard work, about grinding out concepts and ideas, again and again, until you get to something great. That’s good advice for any designer.

Related: Six great ideas from ConvergeSE, Day 2

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