Design & Content Conference: A sort-of review

So let’s get this out of the way up front: I have a lot of bias regarding the Design & Content Conference:
My company was a sponsor of the conference.
– The host & organizer, Steve Fisher, is a good friend of mine.

I’m not going to review all the talks — the levels were very good, with 2 exceptions, but wanted to highlight some, as I talk about the “structure” of talks and what I like and don’t. This conference, as I experienced it, consisted of 4 types of talks: The Story, The Essay, The Review & The Editorial. I’ll use examples of talks to talk about each. It should be noted I’m not a public speaker (though I’ve been thinking a lot about giving it a shot), and it’s entirely likely I’m making up terms for actual styles that already exist and are described, so… well. I’m already here, so let’s just dive in.

The Story

The Story talk is where the speaker guides you through one or more related tales, and uses these tales to illuminate her point. Sort of like fables of old, where the story contains important lessons. These are generally always my favourite talks, because I love stories and parables.

Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s talk, let’s just get this out of the way, was one of those really special, you-just-had-to-be-there, life-changing sort of experiences, which makes it hard to review in any way. As soon as video is up, go watch it. Better yet, find out where she’s next giving this talk and pay more or less whatever it takes to see this. Seriously. That good.

Sara’s talk consisted of 3 short, personal stories, all relating to the central theme of kindness. Her slides, which was common in story-style talks, were additive to the talk, but not required. Progressive Enhancement, if you will.

The Essay

The Essay talk is, to my mind, the most basic kind of talk. Think of your standard university essay with an intro, several key points, and a conclusion. That. They tended to be more technical, and, as a group, tended to use slides to explain points (or to repeat what they were saying). I feel like this might sort of a “beginner’s” format, or a safety format. With the exception of Rebekah Cancino & Eileen Webb’s talks, who rose above, these talks were the least interesting to me. One, they tended to be drier, but two, I don’t really want to have to read lots of text on a slide, and information-dense slides were common elements amongst these. Really, nothing is more off-putting than a speaker half-turning their head to read the slide out loud to me.

The Review

James White’s talk, Design Renegade, should have been one of those god-awful masturbatory “portfolio review” talks that artsy designers seem to like to give. But. It wasn’t. It rose above, way above thanks mostly to his unbridled energy, humour and pace. It reminded me very much of a talk by Aaron Draplin I saw a couple of years ago. Packing hundreds of slides into a rapid-fire cross-section of his professional and personal explorations it was wonderful, although, I suspect that how my inner 13-year-old comics-obsessed self identified with it helped. I spoke to several others who were much less enamoured with the talk. Given the nature of the portfolio review talk being very much about the speaker, the success of these would likely be directly impacted by two things: how much you like the speaker’s work; how much you like the speaker. Self-hagiography is a dangerous game.

The Editorial

This style I named because it straddled a line somewhere between a story and the essay. While the essay talks were very linearly-structured, and stories were pretty loose, the editorial tended to talk around a particular point, and were more opinion than essay (which had a veil of objectivity), without the flourishes of the story. In particular, Denise Jacob’s & Parker Mclean’s talks fell into this category. Denise was opining on how to be creative through banishing your inner critic (oh how this talk spoke to me!), while Parker was giving a whirlwind tour through how & why to make accessible content & design decisions. Denise’s slides tended to be illustrative of her points (often literally, with heavy use of photos), while Parker’s slides seemed, for the most part, to be punchlines, or accessories to his jokes. This style of talk greatly appeals to me intellectually, as while it demonstrates clear expertise, it couches it in experience & opinion, so comes across didactic than the essay-style talks.

Special Mention: The Click-bait

I want to take a moment to talk about Jared Spool’s talk, which was great (as his talks are — this was the fourth time I’ve seen him speak). Very Much an Editorial-style talk, but he’s sort of the Buzzfeed of this — in a good way. Everything is set up in a slide that shows some obscure image, and Jared will ask a question to the audience about what they think it means “Look at this graph — You’ll never guess what happened next!” over and over. Which…when I’m thinking back, really should have been annoying. And, perhaps it was. I don’t particularly like being asked an actual question that is really rhetorical. But. And it’s a really big BUT. It was awesome. I learned a lot about metrics (and how/when to ignore them/go beyond them), it was hugely entertaining, and a great way to close the conference.

In Toto

Really, it’s hard to believe that this was the first time this conference was put on — it was so smooth, so well run. Live captioning! Excellent, diverse, high-calibre topics! Tasty lunches! A party at Science World! The Venue itself isn’t fantastic — no coffee allowed in the auditorium, it was split across two-levels with some odd narrow hallways, but the team at the venue clear is great. Linking to the conference to two other Vancouver events: Style & Classmeetup & Creative Mornings was an interesting initiative to showcase Vancouver’s culture. I’m less convinced of the Creative Mornings inclusion (caveat: I didn’t attend Creative Mornings) only because the post-event chaos made the start of Day 2 a little weird.

When it’s announced next year, definitely grab a ticket. I hope I can still be involved somehow too.