Dear web conferences,
It’s not you, it’s me. Something’s changed and it’s not your fault. I’m just on a different path to you. Maybe we’ll be friends in a while, but at the moment I just want some space to do and try other things.
I still love you. But we just need a break.
I’m taking next year off speaking at web conferences. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, or contribute, but more that I have better things to do with my time right now. Speaking at conferences takes about two weeks per conference if it’s overseas once you factor in preparing and writing the talk, rehearsing, travel, and the conference itself. That’s two weeks away from my wife, my daughters, my new job and a team that needs me.
Two conferences the world over
What I’ve noticed this past year or so is, largely, we have two different types of web conference running the world over: small independents and larger corporate affairs. The former is generally run by one person with hoards of volunteers and is community-focussed (cheap ticket price, single track). The latter is big-budget, aimed at corporations as a training expense, maybe multi-track and has A-list speakers.
As well as these two trends, I see others in the material and the way that material is presented. ‘Corporate’ conferences expect valuable, actionable content; that is what corporations are paying for. Schlickly delivered for maximum ROI. ‘Community’ conferences have their own trends, too. Talks about people, empathy, community, and how start-ups are changing the world. Community conferences are frequently an excuse to hang out with your internet mates. Which is fine, I guess.
My problem with both of these is I’m not sure I fit anymore. I’m not what you would call a slick presenter: I ‘um’ and ‘ah’, I swear, I get excited and stumble on stage in more ways than one. Some would say I’m disrespectful to the audience I’m talking to. I’m lazy with my slides, preferring to hand-write single words and the odd picture. I’ve never used a keynote transition. I’m not really at home amongst the world’s corporate presenters who deliver scripted, rehearsed, beautifully crafted presentations. They’re great and everything, but it’s just not me. Not for the first time in my life, I don’t quite fit.
And then there’s the community conferences. I feel more at home here. Or at least I used to. This year, not so much. A lot of my friends in this industry just don’t really go to conferences that much anymore. They have family commitments, work to do, and – frankly – just aren’t that into getting pissed up in a night-club after some talks with 90% men. Younger men at that.
Time for something different
All of that may sound like I’m dissing the conference industry. That’s not my intention, but more like a realisation that, after nearly ten years at speaking at events, I think it’s time I had a little break. Time away to refresh myself, explore other industries that interest me like typography and architecture. Maybe an opportunity to present at one of these types of conferences would present itself; now that would be cool.
I know it’s a bit weird me posting about this when I could quietly just not accept any invitations to speak. To be honest, I’ve been doing that for a little while, but not for the first time, writing things down helps me clarify my position on things. For a while I was angry at web conferences in general. Angry at the content, disappointed with speakers, disappointed at myself. Then I realised, like so many times before, that when I feel like that it’s just that my ‘norm’ has changed. I’m no longer where I used to be and I’m getting my head around it.
It’s just this time, I’m going to listen to my head instead of burying it two feet in some sand.
When I told my eldest daughter, Alys, about Rebecca Meyer passing away, she wanted to draw her a purple picture. Rebecca was the same age as Alys and she knew ‘exactly what she’d like’. So, here it is:
A Purple Princess for Rebecca Meyer from Alys Boulton, Age 6
In memory of Rebecca, whose favourite colour was purple.
I’ve been doing a talk this year called ‘My Handbook’. it’s a rather silly little title for a bunch of principles I work to. They are my ‘star to sail my ship by’, and I’m going to start documenting them here over the coming months, starting with Environment – a post about how, for me, design is more about the conditions in which you work.
I’d describe myself as an armchair mountaineer. I enjoy reading about man’s exploits to get to the roof of the world, or to scale precipitous walls under harsh conditions for no other reason than the same reason George Mallory said he was climbing Everest: ‘Because it’s there’.
In any expedition to a mountain, great care and consideration is taken over the kit, the climber’s skill, the team around them, the communications, the list is seemingly endless. But, the biggest single factor in a successful trip are the conditions of the mountain. Will the mountain let them up. And back down again. Assessing the condition of a mountain takes experience, time and careful consideration; it may be snowing, too warm, too much snow on the ground, too cold, too windy. The list of variables is endless, but the climber considers all of them, and if necessary moves to adjust the route, or simply doesn’t attempt the climb.
Now, let’s shift to design – not necessarily web design, but commercial design of almost any kind. Let’s say you take a brief for a project, you begin the work and suddenly in the project, other stakeholders come on board and start to have comment on your work and direction on strategy that was unknown to you. We’ve all had projects like those, right? Suddenly, your work becomes less about what you may think of as ‘design’, and more about meetings, project management, account management, sales, production work. You know, all of those things that have a bad reputation in design. Meetings are, apparently, toxic. Well, I’ve started to look at this in a different light over the past few years.
As I’ve grown as a designer, like many, I’ve found myself doing less ‘design’. Or, rather, less of what I thought was design. Five years ago, I thought design was creating beautiful layouts, or building clean HTML and CSS, or pouring over typefaces for just that right combination. Now, this is design. But, so are meetings.
Experienced designers spend time making the environment right whilst they are doing the work. Because, frankly, you can push pixels around forever, but if the conditions aren’t right for the work to be created and received by the client in the right way, the work will never be as good as it could be. But, what do I mean by ‘conditions’? Here are a few practical things:
The physical space: I see a large part of my job as making the environment in the studio as conducive as possible for good work to happen. That means it’s relaxed, and up-beat. Happy people make good things.
A Shit Umbrella: It’s my job to be a filter between client and my team on certain things. Someone recently described this as being a ‘Shit Umbrella’.
Politics: Wherever you get people, you get politics – because people are weird. I spend a lot of time on client projects trying to traverse a landscape of people to understand motivations, problems, history or direction. Once you understand the landscape, you can assess, and work to change, the conditions.
People first, process second: We fit the processes to the people rather than the other way around. Our team runs things that works for us, but that’s the result of a lot of trying & discarding. Like tending a garden, this is a continual process of improvement.
Just enough process: I’m a firm believer in working to the path of least resistance. Being in-tune with how people work, and changing your processes to suit, helps create a good environment. But we ensure we impose just enough structure. To much, and it gets in the way. This doesn’t work if you don’t do the previous point, in my experience.
Talk. Do. Talk.: It really is true that the more we talk, the better work we do. We talk in person, on Slack, on Skype, on email. Just like meetings, there is an industry-wide backlash against more communication because the general consensus is we’re getting bombarded. But recently, we’ve been working to change that perception in the team so that talking, and meetings, and writing is the work. It’s tending the garden. Making the conditions right for good work to happen.
Making things is messy: This is actually another point from my ‘handbook’. Since the 1950’s clients and designers have been sold a lie by advertising. Design generally isn’t something that happens from point A to Z with three rounds of revisions. It’s squiggly, with hundreds or thousands of points of change. A degree of my time is spent getting people – clients, internal clients, the team – comfortable with the mess we may feel we’re in. It’s all part of it.
I see all of this as design work. It’s also my view that much of the disfunction from large agencies to other organisations is that this work isn’t being done by designers because they don’t see it as the work. It’s being done by other people like account managers who may not best placed to get the conditions right. Designers need to take responsibility for changing the environment to make their work as good as it can be. Sometimes, that means sitting in a board room, or having a difficult discussion with a CEO.
Mountaineering is so often not about climbing. You may do some if the conditions are right. Design is so often not about designing beautiful, useful products. But, you may do some if the conditions are right.
… it really doesn’t matter what we think about Chrome removing visible URLs. What appears to be a design decision about the user interface is in fact a manifestation of a much deeper vision. It’s a vision of a future where people can have everything their heart desires without having to expend needless thought. It’s a bright future filled with seamless experiences.
I read Jeremy’s post and kept re-reading it. My instant thought was of food.
I enjoy cooking – have done for a decade – and the more I do, the more I care about ingredients. Good produce matters. Now, I’m not talking about organic artisan satsumas here, but well grown, tasty ingredients; in season, picked at the right time, prepared in the right way. The interesting thing is most people who eat the resulting dish don’t think about food in this way. They experience the dish, but not the constituent parts.The same way some people experience music – if you play an instrument, you may hear base-lines, or a particular harmony. If you enjoy cooking, you appreciate ingredients and the combination of them.
But ingredients matter.
And they do of websites, too. And the URL is an ingredient. Just because a non-power user has no particular need for a unique identifier doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. They just experience the web in a different way than I do.
Without URLs, or ‘view source’, or seeing performance data – without access to the unique ingredients of websites – we’ll be forced into experiencing the web in the same way we eat fast food. And we’ll grow fat. And lazy. And stop caring how it’s grown.
I’m so happy to tell you that Five Simple Steps has been acquired by Craig Lockwood and Amie Duggan. The dynamic duo behind Handheld conference, The Web Is, FoundersHub and BeSquare. Before I tell you again how thrilled I am, let me take you way back to 2005…
Next year, it will be ten years since I wrote a blog post called Five Simple Steps to better typography. The motivation behind the post was simple: the elements of good typesetting are not difficult, and, with a few simple guidelines, anyone could create good typographic design. That one article became part of a small series of five posts: five simple steps, with each article containing five simple steps. It was a simple formula, but it turned out pretty well.
Soon after that initial post, I wrote Five Simple Steps to designing grid systems for the web, then the same for colour theory. This was now 2006 and I’d just left my job at the BBC. It was a dreary October day and, whilst sat in a coffee shop in Bristol after just visiting one of my first freelance clients, I was talking over email to the Britpack mailing list about compiling my posts into a book. In 2008, Emma and I hired my brother to help me design it and in early 2009, we finally released it. And with the release of that first book, Five Simple Steps Publishing was born. But we didn’t know it at the time.
Over subsequent months and years other authors saw what we produced and wanted us to publish their books. Before we really knew it, we were a publisher with a catalogue of titles and providing a uniquely British voice to the web community. But publishing is tough. As we found out.
All over the world, publishers’ profits are being eroded; from production costs to cost-difference in digital versions. And – except for a couple of notable companies – you see it in the physical books that were being produced for our customers by competitors: terrible paper quality, templatised design, automated eBook production. Everywhere, margins are being squeezed, and the product really suffers.
Our biggest challenge was that Five Simple Steps started as a side project, and always stayed that way. Over time, we just couldn’t commit the time and money it needed to really scale. We had so much we wanted to do – there was never any shortage of great authors wanted to write a book – but could never find the time and energy when we had to run a client services business. Oh, and also during this time, Emma and I had two children. Running and growing two businesses is somewhat challenging when you’re being thrown up on and have barely four hours sleep a night.
So about a year ago, Emma and I sat in our dining room and faced a tough decision: wind down Five Simple Steps, sell it, or give it one more year. We chose the latter. It was a tough year, but Emma, Nick and the team worked to make the Pocket Guide series a great success. So much so, it required tons of work and compounded the problem we had: Five Simple Steps needed to take centre stage rather than be a side project.
A month ago today, Emma and I announced that Five Simple Steps was closing. The team were joining Monotype, and Five Simple Steps could no longer be sustainable as a side project. The writing had been on the wall for a while, but the stop was abrupt for us, the authors and the team. We tried to find the right people to take the company forward before the sale, but we couldn’t find the right people. Luckily, immediately following the announcement, a few people got in touch about seeing if they could help. Two of those people really said some interesting things and got us excited about the possibilities: Craig Lockwood and Amie Duggan.
Craig and Amie live locally in Wales. They run conferences: Handheld conference and The Web Is conference later this year. They also run a co-working space in Cardiff called FoundersHub. They have a background in education and training, and together with their conferences and BeSquare – a conference video streaming site – they have the ecosystem in place to take Five Simple Steps to places we could only dream of. As you may gather, we’re chuffed to bits that Five Simple Steps is going to live on. Not only that, but it’s in Wales and in the competent hands of friends who we know are going to give it the attention it deserves.
Emma and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.