What I learned at BlendConf

Sep 10, 2013

blendconf2013I spent two days in Charlotte for BlendConf 2013. It was a fine conference with a talented line-up of speakers and a diverse mix of attendees.

Here are a bunch of things I took away from the experience:

1. Side Projects FTW.

At least five different presentations featured speakers who told stories about how working on side projects not only gave them personal fulfillment, but helped grow their careers.

Tim Smith (who runs FOUR podcasts and one web training site), said that his first podcast changed his life: “The East Wing saved me,” he said. His biggest lesson across all his projects: “Create something you can be proud of. The audience will follow.”

Along those same lines, illustrator and designer James White told about how many design projects he did for his own enjoyment and shared on Twitter eventually led to big freelance projects. It also let him meet Kurt Russell.

Matt Stevens had almost the exact same story: for kicks, he created and shared some odd, abstract illustrations of his favorite old Nike shoes, and eventually attention and momentum grew. Nike came to him by the end and asked him to develop a full campaign for them.

Designer Bryan Veloso has spent years working a website about J-Pop stars (and is still working on it). And while he has been frustrated by his inability to finish it, the experience helped teach him to learn how to program and gave him a wider range of professional skills. “Just because you don’t ship, it doesn’t mean you don’t learn.”

2. Beards are back.

I’m not sure what it means, but I saw and met a lot of people with long, aggressive beards at BlendConf.

3. I’m scared of a world without devices.

Did you ever watch a movie or show about a zombie apocalypse or end of the world, when hopeless people wander without phones, WiFi-enabled tablets, or, most horrifying of all, access to Evernote? I got a small, horrible taste of that darkness this past weekend.

BlendConf had a “no devices” rule during conference sessions. If you’ve ever been to a design to tech conference, this is revolutionary. Usually when you look around a session at a design conference, you see an ocean of glowing MacBooks. Organizer Berman Painter suggested that by keeping our devices in our pockets and our notebooks closed, we might make a better effort to listen and talk to others. “Make a new friend!” he exhorted us many times.

I took notes in a bound notebook; using a pen more than I have in years. As a southpaw, I got the tell-tale smear of ink on the side of my left hand. By the end of day one, my hand cramped.

On the other hand, I did find myself being more extroverted and outgoing than I normally tend to be at these kinds of things. I introduced myself to a lot of strangers. I lingered at the lunch tables and chatted with people. I even met up with a bunch of other attendees and went to a BBQ place in Uptown. Ok, fine, Berman… maybe it wasn’t the end of the world.

4. “Have conversations, not presentations”

Yesenia Perez-Cruz of Happy Cog talked about “Flexible Design Processes.” Some clients need detailed, fleshed out mockups. Some can think abstractly and work with style tiles or wireframes. Others really need to work with you in the browser. Two key take-aways from this session: first, there’s no “right way” to do this. You have to “be like water” and adapt yourself to the client you’re working with. Secondly, as she put it, designers need to think less about pitching their designs and more about “having conversations” with clients to figure out the best design approach.

Along the same lines, Viget’s Mindy Wagner talked about how to win and work with design clients. Her big point: you don’t need to be Don Draper, wowing them with your personal brilliance and a dazzling pitch. Instead, she puts a premium on doing your homework before meeting and starting work with clients; understanding them before you meet them and trying to “figure out what lens they’re looking through.” She talked about lots of nitty-gritty techniques for working with clients once you’ve got them and getting their feedback. A common theme that ran through all of it, which echoed Perez-Cruz: design is a two-way process, not a one-way flow from your brilliant mind to the client. It’s a relationship, like any other; so it requires good, authentic communication, both when things are going well and when they’re not.

5. The job description doesn’t really matter.

Leslie Jensen-Inman talked about the increasing demand for “Design Unicorns” — professionals with strong design and technical skills, along with a wealth of “soft skills” (presenting, facilitating, storytelling, leadership, etc). Increasingly, people want to work with designers with a broad toolbox of skills and talents, not specialists on one part of the business. As a generalist and (I hope) a bit of a design unicorn, I applaud this. But it also means I’ll need to continue to grow and learn as a designer. Also: I’ll continue to need more caffeine.

I’ve left out tons of other things I had in my notes, but overall, it was a great conference. My only regret is missing some other great sessons. But, as someone once said: “choice is tragic.” In the meantime, I’m looking forward to BlendConf 2014…

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