Just before lunch today I did a presentation at Webfontday 2012, a one-day conference organised by the Typographische Gesellschaft München. Up until recently I only talked at typography / graphic design conferences. Because of the rapid rise of webfonts I now have couple of web design / webfonts events under my belt too. My introduction to these was the inaugural edition of Beyond Tellerrand, a web design and development conference in Düsseldorf, Germany. This year the three-day event starts on Monday and Tuesday with a program covering design, technique, inspiration, and networking, and continues on Wednesday with intensive workshops. As this was the first non-typography / graphic design conference I attended, I really had no clue what to expect. Yet Beyond Tellerrand managed to go beyond these non-existent expectations. Next week the conference holds its second edition, with Luc(as) de Groot and Nadine Chahine focussing on the typography aspect of web design.
The setting of Beyond Tellerrand is quite unique. The Capitol Theater in Düsseldorf is a well-known venue for musicals, theater and other events. Instead of being a straight-up big hall with rows of chairs, the audience area is furbished with small round tables with an oldstyle shaded table lamp at their centre and a couple of bistro-style chairs around them. This creates a very peculiar, cosy “red plush” atmosphere, reminiscent of a Parisian cabaret in the early 1900s.
The presentations at Beyond Tellerrand 2011 were very varied. As I am not a web designer myself, some of the more technical topics went a little over my head. Nonetheless I got surprisingly much out of the two days. The Monday morning session was kicked off by Mozilla evangelist Chris Heilmann who showcased a couple of impressive in-browser possibilities including live three-dimensional rendering, and asked salient questions about internet security and the need for a single universal password sign-up system. Steph Troeth explored user experience design (UX) tools and activities, while web developer / designer Aaron Gustafson opened my eyes to progressive enhancement’s unexpected other side of the coin: graceful degradation. Not exactly my area of interest, but especially Chris’ and Aaron’s talks genuinely captivated me.
The Monday afternoon session followed a similar pattern – inspirational talks alternated with more technical ones. Designer and illustrator Naomi Atkinson examined the behaviour of celebrities and their use of (social) media, looking at how to apply their behaviour and patterns into the everyday work ethic of designers to increase their visibility and success. Heiko Behrens did something complicated and rather impressive that involved changing parameters in mobile apps, all on-the-fly. For me personally the most engaging talk on Monday was Smashing Magazine co-founder Vitaly Friedman calling web designers to task, urging them to be less preoccupied with appearances and instead focus on the invisible side of design, the foundation and basics of communication. Finally creative coder Seb Lee-Delisle exposed me for the first time to the awesomeness of live-coding. Starting with a single pixel simply moving from left to right on the screen, he ended with fireworks, snowfall, and three-dimensional trees, all in native code! To his credit I understood every single thing he coded, and that’s saying a lot because I can’t code to save my life. Also, in true rock star fashion, he was the first speaker to walk down the show stairs seen in Vitaly’s picture above. Mind-meltingly good…
After the dinner break, my presentation Two Decades of Trajan in Movie Posters: The rise and fall of the Roman Empire was scheduled as the pre-party talk on Monday night. Basically I was the last thing keeping the audience from beer. Although quite a few people stumbled in late because they had to wait for their dinner, I had a great time.
The second day started in great fashion with Des Traynor revealing how data visualisation can both obfuscate and enhance information, and even completely misrepresent it (the examples from Fox News amongst others were hilarious). His guidelines for presenting data had a rock-solid foundation in psychology and how our visual brain works, and made me seriously reassess how I design charts myself. Usability-focused copywriter and information architect Steph Hay did a very motivational, American-style presentation perfectly in line with the topic of her talk: how to engage your audience by creating compelling, engaging content. Up there with Vitaly Friedman was web designer and organiser of New Adventures Simon Collison’s analysis of the state of web design. His almost meditative yet captivating talk invited self-reflection, and even was quite moving at times.
After lunch Tomas Caspers failed to grab me, even though I was interested in finding out more about accessibility. For some reason he projected an endless stream of puppies, kittens and other cute baby animals, which made it hard to concentrate on the complicated topic. Author, teacher and web designer Dan Rubin displayed a great empathy for, and understanding of the psychology of test subjects in usability testing and prototyping. His system of combining Photoshop mock-ups and HTML & CSS was brilliant in its simplicity. I didn’t understand all of Jake Archibald’s code in his talk, but I immediately became a fan of his outrageously funny and irreverent presentation style. The last presentation was also covering typography. Jon Tan’s excellent Welcome to the brave new world of web type closed off the event on Tuesday. Much of his talk covered a field I also am most interested in: how we unconsciously react to the appearance of typefaces and typography, and how type speaks to us beyond the words it spells. His mix of font-geekiness and full-on brain science was very infectious.
Beyond Tellerrand really does what it advertises: it looks beyond specialisations and gives a varied snapshot of the state of web design, exposing the audience to topics outside their area of expertise. I am writing this post sitting next to organiser Marc Thiele at Webfontday (terribly sorry, my German simply is too poor) and he assured me there still are a limited number of seats available. If you want to take part in the Beyond Tellerrand experience, at €249 for two days it’s a steal. Tell Marc I sent you.