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Learning to learn again at Mixin Conf 2016

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Equilibrium heads to the first annual Mixin Conference

Being the most remote capital city in the world, it’s rare for Perth to host industry events with inspirational guests from the other side of the globe. Last week however, on a wonderfully sunny Friday, seven incredibly talented and vibrant web designers, developers and artists from four different countries assembled at the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia for the first – and hopefully not last – Mixin Conference; a day packed with thought-provoking talks, constructive discussions and free coffee. Our delegation walked away from the event eager to bring the ideas and principles we had absorbed back to Ground Zero at Equilibrium HQ to determine how we can incorporate these key principles to enhance our workflow.

First in line was Andy Clarke, a UK-based designer, lamenting the current state of design in the industry as a plague of unimaginative, framework-dependent layouts. Clarke commented on how art direction can and should be incorporated in design to communicate the substance and meaning of the content, explaining that almost all principles of print design can be translated into the web, including use of images, typography, shapes and whitespace. He demonstrated how subtle yet commonly frowned-upon abstractions of layouts can convey significantly distinct interpretations. We should appreciate that content doesn’t always need to be packed to fill every empty space and embrace the concept of a greater vision dictating the design process.

From a philosophical mood, we instantly shifted to a more technical and tangible subject; image optimisation. Una Kraverts, a UI engineer at Digital Ocean, presented us with a problem we’re all aware of but so often ignore or carelessly throw at the bottom of the priority list. Kraverts made the undeniable proclamation that images are the largest threat to a website’s performance and thus user experience. We do our best to optimize our images by running them through processors, but the issue needs to be dealt with earlier in the development process by only serving images at the largest size they will appear at. Another simple yet incredibly impactful concept that we are eager to start implementing is the use of radically scaled down placeholder images that are blurred and transitioned out once the real image has loaded. Doing so prevents the site’s layout from jumping around and allows the user to establish an understanding of the structure without disruption.

Following a short recess, which entailed delicious mini-muffins, we were in for a bit of a reality check with the next speaker; Alice Lee, a designer and illustrator formerly doodling for Dropbox, Google, Facebook and many others. Rather than speak about design principles or technical concepts, Lee took us on a journey of growth, rediscovery and how she got back on her feet when things looked hopeless. Almost everyone has experienced the notion of “conscious incompetence”, a state of being painfully aware of the low quality of your work. Sometimes we need to step back from the grind of monotonous production and engage our creative side with fun, low-stakes projects. Taking the time to practice in a carefree environment helps us to harness our abilities and find inspiration.

Coming in to up the tempo was Joel Califa, another Digital Ocean veteran and all round cool guy. In his own way, he illustrated one of the most stressful issues facing almost everyone in the web industry; when there are countless skills in demand, how do we choose what to learn? To help us figure it out, Califa threw us some protips and explained his method for organising and sorting only those skills that make the most sense to learn. His basic rule was this: “If it’s needed five years from now, or if it’ll help me become what I want to be, then I’ll learn it”. We must understand the ever-changing landscape of the industry and evaluate a short list of key skills that will be relevant to our desired roles.

After a much-appreciated lunch break, we returned to a somber affair; a eulogy for some of the old tricks developers know and love (sort of), but we must let go and move on. Delivering the parting words was Australian developer Mike Riethmuller, who acknowledged the passing of negative margins, clearfixes and pixel-based typography. Many of these patterns have stuck with us for so many years, but were only ever intended as quick hacks, but now we are working with a much more modern web that deserves modern solutions. Riethmuller explained the usefulness of flexbox, viewport units and calc(), methodologies that we currently use as much as possible to ensure a more robust experience.

The last of the US speakers, Jina Bolton, delivered an intriguing presentation on the value of well-devised design systems, complete with animal puns at every turn. Being the lead designer on the Design Systems team at Salesforce UX, Bolton knows a thing or two about how to create, implement and maintain an effective design system, which is more than just a style guide, it is a fundamental philosophy that influences every aspect of product design. At its core are a set of top level goals, her example of which was “Clarity, Efficiency, Consistency, Beauty”, around which each decision should be made. Depending on the complexity of the operation, there are many ways to approach a design system, but most interesting was the concept of a centralised repository for all design components from which teams can reference and keep up-to-date.

Closing out the day was Espen Brunborg, a Norway-born Scotland-based designer, who, with the help of his friend Mr. But, educated us on the music and comedy of web design. Brunborg protested the lack of art and creativity in designs, blaming our habit of favouring speed and automation in lieu of originality. We often strive for creativity, but are almost always faced with the reality of meeting users’ expectations, the music of design. However, there must be a balance of science of art, of utility and beauty. The concept of comedy is to break expectations, to engage the user in unique ways and create memorable experiences. A homepage shouldn’t intimidate the user with buttons and call to actions, but rather convey the essence of the product and influence voluntary action. We look forward to being able to incorporate this principle in upcoming projects.

There was a lot to take away from these seven incredible people and we were left with an earnest enthusiasm to further improve our strategies and methodologies to ensure our products are of the highest quality. We learned more than just technical skills, we gained a deeper appreciation for the fundamental principles that shape our careers and our lives.

We look forward to seeing you at Mixin 2017.

For more information contact:

Robert Gillman

Equilibrium | Front-end web developer
(08) 9218 8622
robert@equ.com.au
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