Inspirations From An Event Apart DC 2015

Yep, I admit it. As much as I love what I do, there are times when the day-to-day gets to me. Meetings, wireframes, comps. Wash, rinse, repeat. Sometimes we’re so bogged down in the day-to-day that we forget to invest in ourselves. We need a break. We need a breath of fresh air.

Earlier this summer, my boss asked me if I’d be interested in attending "An Event Apart" in Washington D.C.

I’m sure most people don’t jump up and down at the thought of conferences. Long meetings in warm rooms listening to long-winded speakers presenting poorly disguised sales pitches, zzzzzzzzzz …. Wait, where was I? Oh, sorry.

An Event Apart is not an ordinary conference. It is a career-changing, challenging, practical, inspiring experience for designers, developers, project managers, content creators, and strategists.

An Event Apart was my much-needed breath of fresh air.

"When you're finished changing, you're finished."

- Benjamin Franklin

We all have an established workflow. Usually it involves presenting a certain number of comps to a client, right?

Unfortunately, I think most of us have figured out the hard way that this doesn't work. The sheer volume of comps is overwhelming for our clients. We're handing them finished designs that they've had little-to-no say in. There's so much to look at, the important design decisions (structure, hierarchy, flow) often get lost in discussions about button color or typeface. As a result, the design team is producing ridiculous amounts of throwaway work.

It's time for change.

Atomic Design Illustration

Brad Frost discussed a workflow he developed called Atomic Design. It has five distinct stages:

  • Atoms. The basic building blocks of your design (Ex: label, input field or button)
  • Molecules. Combine two atoms together to give them meaning. (Ex: combine a label, input field and button to create a search box).
  • Organisms. Put simple molecules together to create complex systems (Ex: webpage header consisting of a logo, navigation and search)
  • Templates. Combine organisms to create the skeleton of the page.
  • Pages. Pour real content into the template. Evaluate your template for success.

Example style tile from

Atomic design allows a team to move seamlessly from abstract to concrete. It's flexible because it's not tied to a specific device or screen resolution. It also allows teams to involve their clients in design decisions at earlier stages (using element collages, or tools like style tiles or pattern lab).

But Atomic Design wasn't really the heart of the discussion.

It's not about using a particular system. Take time to craft your own.

No two projects are the same. So why do we insist on creating rigid, fixed workflows for ourselves? A successful workflow needs to be fluid and flexible. And honestly, clients don't care about the process type. We don't need to sit down with them and explain what atoms and molecules mean. They want to know how our process is going to work for them. Will the work be completed quickly? Will they get to have a say?

Brad said, "Collaboration and communication trumps process and deliverables". Does your current workflow have these two things? If not, it might be time to evolve.

"Simplicity is about taking away, not adding. And knowing what to take away is the hardest."

- Gerry McGovern

Look, Ma! A box!

Give a kid a present for Christmas and what do they play with? The box.

Being a user advocate is not a popular position to put ourselves in. Often, what the user needs (the box) is different from what our clients think they need (the shiny new toy). How do we communicate this to our clients? How do we become a powerful advocate for the user?

Tiny tasks add up. "Can you add this photo?" "Let's add one more field to the form" and "Let's put some icons there" seem like innocent enough requests. Are we really paying attention when these tasks cross our plates? Are these requests actually benefitting the user? If we're not careful, these tiny tasks will eat us alive.

Just because it's pretty doesn't mean it's better. (It was painful to write that, believe me).

"Design is a war between ego and empathy."

I like to be right. I think that's probably true of most designers. However, if we're not putting ourselves in the user's shoes and figuring out what THEY really need from us, we're not doing our job. It's our responsibility to be the advocate, the go-between. Take the time to really digest what your client is asking you to do, even for the smallest tasks, and think through the consequences.

Sometimes our gut instinct is pretty good, sometimes it's not. Back up theories with data and then test, test, test.

Extra credit reading: Gerry McGovern's excellent article on A List Apart and "Mc-Governisms" live-tweeted from AEA 2015.

"The most dangerous phrase in the English language is 'We've always done it this way'"

- Jen Simmons

Have you noticed that websites have started to look the same? There's probably a reason for that. There are some great frameworks out there (Bootstrap, for example) that are being adopted, and while powerful, many designers have adapted similar layouts and styles for clients. I don't think it's laziness, but a desire to replicate an idea that's been wildly successful. It's just human nature.

Jen Simmons challenged us to get out of our comfort zones and find inspiration in unexpected places. Look at old print magazines, advertisements and art history books. Take something old, refresh it, and make it new again. See, Apple is doing it! ;)

An Event Apart Cupcake

The most innovative designs happened when someone took a chance and tried something wildly different from everyone else. Who knows, maybe you can start the next design trend!

Jen's talk inspired me to create an inspiration board for my next project. You can check it out here on Invision.

"Move faster and have more fun!"

- Dave Rupert

Several speakers touched on the idea of prototyping and it challenged me. I've always been a visual designer; I haven't ventured much into the world of code because it seemed too intimidating. I learned how to design for web in the era of photoshop slices, image maps and hotspots (please take a moment to snicker) so my experience with code is extremely limited.

Time budgeting.

Prototyping allows a team to spend less time designing the container, and more time designing the content. Less throwaway work is always a plus, in my book! And PMs will be thrilled that their project timelines are shrinking.

Web design is a team sport.

Hoarding the process can build a weird animosity among team members. Better communication and more collaboration between designer and developer will result in a stronger product.

Other benefits of prototyping?

  • It helps solve arguments. It's easier to have honest discussions between developers and designers about what is possible or appropriate.
  • "Wow" upper management by getting into production faster.
  • It's just more fun to play with a working model of your product than it is to spend countless hours with a static photoshop mock.

"Don't wait for someone to hand you a dream project. Know yourself, change yourself. Make something."

- Jeffrey Zeldman

Jeffrey Zeldman was one of the first speakers at An Event Apart, but this quote summarizes AEA perfectly for me. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by such influential, amazing leaders in the web design community. Thank you AEA for empowering me to be the best designer I can be! Oh, and thanks for the yummy cupcakes too.

An Event Apart Cupcake

If you'd like to attend An Event Apart, find out more about it here

Erin Fike
Graphic Designer
or drop us a note and say hello!