...and then you visited the Beyond Tellerrand conference and the world around you flipped.
One can’t really know what may be discovered when visiting the city of Dusseldorf. The beers, freshly baked pretzels, mate soft drinks, and the best döner you’ve ever had open the list. Dusseldorf will most certainly be remembered as a city of parks: as you explore the city, you notice the nature is being kept free and bursts fiercely through the rows of concrete at each step.
What you also come across are fantastic people, who by luck are the disruptors in the fields of design and software development. Some of those are extremely logic-oriented like Nadieh Bremer, and some are driven by emotion, just like Jonathan Barnbrook. Those that praise artificial creative expression, like Mario Klingemann, and those that support traditional ways of self-expression, like Yuko Shimizu. This May, we discovered this all in Dusseldorf while visiting the 7th Beyond Tellerrand (BT) conference!
We were instantly struck with the attention to detail that the organisers paid to the event. The flags of the event were welcoming us at the entrance, dancing in the wind. Every each of us got a tote bag with event branded t-shirts, mugs, pens, water bottles, stickers, and other goodies for starters. The movie-style posters of BT were covering the walls of the resting area.
The people are those that make the event successful. Besides from the assistants doing a great job, Tobi Lessnow would rock the stage, DJing new comps at each break. Marc Thiele, the founder and producer of beyond tellerrand, would introduce the speakers with a short gripping story about their first encounter. I believe Marc made the event so special by creating a certain vibe around; sometimes it felt like we all are just a bunch of friends getting together to have a good time.
Key topics and ideas
“Enough impressions, tell us something about the event!”, you may be thinking. Well then, let’s dive in!
The talks were covering different sides of digital design and software development, often both at the same time. When reflecting back, I can do nothing but notice talks intertwining around similar topics. Where is the technological development heading? What are the best principles in design and development? How to keep the users engaged? And, lastly, a big question - what does it mean to be a human? Deep. Go grab your beer and keep reading further.
The conference started with the talk by Christian Heilmann, a Program Manager from Microsoft Edge team, who addressed the issues that developers come across in their daily life. “If Tetris has taught me anything, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear”, he’d repeat. In his opinion, developers live in a fast-paced development world these days, and are trying to crack so many errors and bugs that they forget to celebrate small achievements, and keep solving things, even if those are beyond their control.
Of course, some questions then pop up - what’s actually worth solving and pay attention to? How to make a right prioritization? As W3 HTML Design Principles states, “in case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementers over specifiers over theoretical purity. In other words costs or difficulties to the user should be given more weight than costs to authors; which in turn should be given more weight than costs to implementors; which should be given more weight than costs to authors of the spec itself, which should be given more weight than those proposing changes for theoretical reasons alone.”
Users. The development should stay user-oriented, with services either providing a high responsibility to the user, or letting the user adjust the platform to their own needs. After all, there is really no right or wrong - it’s whatever fits the user needs. We all must learn to let ideas go, learn to fail, and let the user guide our teams and shape the final product.
The world keeps spinning, and technology enhances day by day. More than that, the world has been made smaller and more connected, thanks to the software developers. The talk on technological advancement has been taken over by Mario Klingemann, who’s extremely partial to the generative art. The algorithms he creates would search through hundreds of images to create something totally new from the existing works. For a moment, while listening to his talk, I thought that machines will most certainly overpower us, humans, as they become creative. However, if one looks at the creativity and innovation as just putting existing pieces together in a more unique way, then in a sense we are all given equal creative possibilities. There are more similarities between us and the machines: the machine only does what the human taught it to do. Following the same logic, each of us is also only doing what we were taught to do. So all in all, by making machines we are in some way just replicating the humankind.
Jamais Cascio once wrote that “even the most disruptive technologies, the innovations and ideas that can utterly transform society, carry with them the legacies of past decisions, the culture and history of the societies that spawned them. Code inevitably reflects the choices, biases and desires of its creators.” In other words, everything is created by us, humans, and therefore is based on certain assumptions.
As Jeremy Keith, a web developer and writer behind Adactio, and BT speaker, later put it, “we shape technology, and then technology shapes us”. As we observe the modern world, there is nothing to do but to embrace technology, to make the world even more connected and even more creative.
Technological advancement has only been one of the big topics of the conference. The best design and development principles were paid a particular attention to as well. A scissor-hand designer, Jina Anne, has been evangelizing design systems, as they prove to bring clarity to the language that the team speaks, and thus also bring a common understanding of the popping issues, which results in a more optimized workflow. She believes that putting the designers and developers together and generally keeping the teams multidisciplinary is what builds a sure path to success. That in return lets each of the team members equally evolve during the project. In general, a proper communication plays a crucial role in the overall well-being of the team.
Sharon Steed, a keynote speaker and communication coach, has revealed that everything begins with empathy. We as human beings are naturally inclined to be empathetic, in other words, we are all driven by the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. According to Sharon, empathy empowers communication, which then empowers collaboration. In order to build successful teams, thriving communities and strong environments, and in order for people in that environment to collaborate, people have to first find a common empathetic point.
The storytelling has been addressed a few times at the beyond tellerrand conference as well. One perspective was introduced by Espen Brunborg, a creative director from Primate agency. In his opinion, breaking the user expectation is what makes the web & mobile storytelling more compelling. The storytelling can’t happen without a storyteller, though. Therefore, as a creator, one has to present the service not as “something”, but as “someone”. It is crucial to the software success that the personality of some sort, something that the user can relate to, is incorporated to the service.
The thought on the personality has been dragged further by Sarah Drasner, the award-winning speaker and author, who explained the connection to the neuroanatomy. The positive experiences get registered in amygdala - an "emotional center" of our brain. Amygdala, however, is closely linked to hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes the memories and experiences. By arousing a flow of emotions, especially good ones, the positive experience gets memorised and strongly connected to the service. That’s exactly why it is so important to develop a service personality: it doesn’t only make the overall experience pleasurable, but also makes it a lot more memorable.
As a side note, I could do nothing but notice how the speakers are influenced by their past experiences and knowledge. For instance, Nadieh Bremer, an award-winning data visualisation designer, has been studying astronomy in the past, which had a direct impact on her work. As she pointed out herself, she prefers going for the round shapes in data visualization (I think we know why, Nadieh!). It seems like the sense of gravity is sensible in all her data visualization works. Another instance that comes to mind is Yuko Shimizu, an influential illustrator, whose work has been criticized a lot back in her university time as uncommercial and impossible to sell, which shaped her into who she currently is - an artistic fighter that shows us over and over again that surrealistic artworks are powerful when incorporated into media, and can easily beat even the most awesome photographic work.
We all have different motivations, different backgrounds, and different experiences that have shaped us into what kind of professionals or human beings we are. So, when we think again about the digital products, how much do people who stay behind those products influence the final product? Needless to say, the influence is huge. Therefore, it’s worth putting our best intention to the products we design, keep sharing best practices, and with that, keep spreading love and care for each other. Let’s shape the next design and development generation that makes this world a better place bit by bit, where each of us feels responsible for the future of the field, but most importantly, where creativity sparks and earlier unimaginable products become a reality.
Beyond Tellerrand conference was a great place to rest and learn. It’s been a hive of the brilliant ideas, most-wanted answers, and infinite inspiration. We’d most certainly advise you to visit the conference, and ourselves would love to return to it again!