beyond tellerrand – two mind-blowing conference days in Berlin

I had heard a lot of good things about beyond tellerrand, the semiannual web/design/tech conference in Germany. I was prepared to listen to an impressive line-up of speakers from the fields of both design and web technology. I was looking forward to reunite with old contacts and meet friendly people.

What I was not expecting was a two-day immersion in out-of-the-box thinking so intense, it would leave me in a state of mental over-stimulation making it hard to get sleep for three days after the epic stage DJ had stopped his remixes of speakers’ words during the breaks and the last attendant had picked up their coat.

To put it short: This was one exhausting experience! In the best possible way. A workout for the brain, comparable to an uninterrupted spinning class of 18 hours. This post is the attempt to summarize my personal experience and some of the things I took home from the event; needless to say, it will inevitably not do justice to the real thing.

beyond …what?

The name (once translated) says it all: beyond tellerrand is a conference “looking beyond the border of your own plate”. Apart from a large crew of location staff, event volunteers, sponsors, etc., it is the brain child and full-time project of Marc Thiele, who puts a lot of heart and soul into assembling conference line-ups that deliver on his high ambitions.

In some regards, the atmosphere reminded me of the former Reboot conference in Copenhagen, where people from the field assembled to “reboot their minds with perspective, inspiration and relationships”. It too was headmastered by a single visionary, Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, and the 2008 edition must have been the last time I came away equally inspired from a conference (I missed the 2009 edition, which also remained the last).

What differentiates beyond tellerrand from many other conferences is its single-track design, essentially turning the talks into a curated two-day stage show. Marc obviously spends a lot of thought on building an arc of suspense, with the first day mainly on the inspirational side and day two with more detailed subjects, yet always ending the day with some universally inspiring topic intended to make the audience go out there and do things. The way it is moderated makes even a crowd of 500 people feel like hanging out in the organizer’s living room, where he meets good friends to talk about interesting things.

In "Marc Thiele's living room", there is free ice cream for everyone! (provided by one of the event sponsors)
Image caption: In “Marc Thiele’s living room”, there is free ice cream for everyone! (provided by one of the event sponsors)

Another distinct aspect of the event is the crowd it attracts. Maybe because it is per definition a “web conference”, it has a wonderful mix of designers and (front-end) developers without being either too theoretical “design-thinkingy” nor too techy; that said, knowing some basics from “the other side of one’s personal tellerrand” (design for developers, some front-end coding for designers) helps to get the most out of the conference.

I particularly appreciated the focus on aspects of design and technology not directly related to business, as for example is commonly the case at many start-up events. This conference was not about how to create a multi-million business out of the latest cutting-edge technology, but about how to make the web more human, better, …well, more “web”. Right down my alley!

It's all the little details that make this such a nice event ...like this interactive "job board".
Image caption: It’s all the little details that make this such a nice event …like this interactive “job board”.

As I slowly recovered from the experienced inspiration overload and started reflecting over the essence of the 15 talks presented, I for myself identified three overarching themes connecting the presentations (below, each talk title is linked to the archived presentation at beyondtellerrand.com):

  • beyond what we think we know
  • beyond the status quo
  • beyond not doing

beyond what we think we know

Both the web industry and professional designers have a tendency for adapting a skewed world-view based on the possibilities of their respective field, while forgetting that not everybody else is like them. People are different, and this is particularly true once we are leaving the realm of professionals in the technology field. Given my rather critical view of how technology – and in particular so-called “users” – are framed in our industry’s narratives, I with great joy listened to several talks that tackled this topic. In the breaks, these triggered great discussions among those already working on these challenges and those for whom the talks had been true eye-openers:

Sacha Judd delivered a hilariously entertaining presentation on a phenomenon at first seeming rather unrelated to one of the biggest and most serious questions in the industry today. Illustrating how teenage female fans of a boy band developed unforeseen creativity and creator skills in contributing to fan media, “How the tech sector could move in One Direction” highlighted how an entire generation of young women has everything it would take to start a career in tech yet do not receive support to pursue such path. Solving the diversity challenge in technology development, she showed, is for instance just a question of opening the eyes to the skills involved in what is all too easily dismissed as just some amateur fan fiction.

Marc Thiele introducing Sacha as the next speaker.
Image caption: Marc Thiele introducing Sacha Judd as the next speaker.

Like the young One Direction fans from Sacha’s talk, also Tim Kadlec spoke about commonly overseen people. In “Unseen“, a presentation about debunking the “illusions of control” we believe to have over our artefacts and challenging Silicon Valley thinking of “everybody has the technology we have”, he highlighted how aspects that we don’t see are aspects that are not being tested, yet they affect real people to the degree that sometimes websites are not usable at all: poor performance such as from bloated file sizes affects people with slow connections (globally, the majority of people use slow connections on computers with limited processing power), accessibility flaws exclude an estimated 583 million internet users worldwide that have some form of impairment, and bad design regularly puts a large share of computer users at risk to fall victim to security flaws. Tim’s message, ultimately, was not to aim for the absolutely perfect solution, but to start injecting thinking about the “unseen” into design processes – slowly improving things one step at a time. (Tim’s talk resonated with me strongly, as it had significant overlapping with my long-standing “non-users” topic.)

Tim Kadlec quoting what is most likely the only time ever that the POTUS would comment on UX design (related to the disastrous launch of the headlthcare.gov portal in 2013).
Image caption: Tim Kadlec quoting what is most likely the only time ever that the POTUS would comment on UX design (related to the disastrous launch of the headlthcare.gov portal in 2013).
Image caption: Personally, I particularly liked Tim’s reminder that designers putting out products that are bloated, inaccessible or insecure are not “bad people”; they are simply victims of the unseen. This is something that always strikes me when valued colleagues start publicly shaming other designer’s work for flaws without any knowledge of the process that led up to it.

Also Erika Hall’s “Beyond Measure” aimed at debunking the belief that reality can easily be analysed in a controlled manner, with a particular focus on the (mis)belief that data is always telling the truth, while totally ignoring factors such as the researcher’s world view’s influence on that data. Showcasing instances where researchers believe to be able to create a picture of reality using qualitative data, her message boils down to understanding that we are imperfect people designing for imperfect people – and that believing that a standardized means of research (big data! surveys!) does justice to the complexity of the world inevitably leads to wrong decisions.

"Data doesn't have meaning", one of many great slides by Hall.
Image caption: “Data doesn’t have meaning”, one of many great points by Erika Hall (obviously slightly out of context here…).

The fourth talk I would put into this category was “The World Is Your Interface“, a very personal presentation: Ariel Cotton telling the story of a life crisis that led her to understand how she is growing as a professional by using everyday life as a source for “user research”. This is not exactly a new idea, but nonetheless something I believe should for example be highlighted much more in design education. Being a designer is not about creating solutions, but about sensitising ourselves for collecting the data that gives us a realistic picture of this world.

beyond the status quo

The more hands-on topics of the conference covered a range of topics from technology choices to processes.

I experienced Paul Bakaus’ presentation on “Progressive Web AMPs” to stand out from the rest of the talks in having the most technology-specific topic of the conference. Interesting, nonetheless, and Paul being one of the top experts on the topic, even though this appears to be pretty far beyond my personal tellerrand. Not working for big media houses, creating optimized “mobile” copies of the web is somewhat conflicting with my core understanding of the web as a universal media – though Paul did a great job to make understand where this value would be, if applicable. Looking beyond what I would normally consider relevant for myself: conference mission achieved!

Mike Kus (“Be the Black Sheep“), on the other hand, had the most holistic look at the design process, showcasing how to extract a client’s identity in order to create truly unique websites rather than following main stream trends and stencils. Lots of nice little ideas for inspiration and as food for thought.

Refactoring CSS Without Losing Your Mind” by Harry Roberts looked at the process of rewriting front-end code that has become difficult to manage over time, providing a lot of valuable insight not only into how to organize such process, but also how to evaluate its feasibility (these strategic aspects of design, obviously, are always of great interest to me).

Una Kravets’ talk not only earned some good laughs for her repeat references to Bob Ross, but was also a very educational run-down of the state-of-the-art in picture formats for the web. “The Joy of Optimizing” was a lecture on how to choose the right format – and on what formats there exist in the first place, as today there is far more to choose from than the traditional GIF-JPG-PNG trio – but also about a pragmatic approach to reduce image quality in lossy file formats to the border of what is visible to the human eye.

It was a great joy to hear Charlotte Jackson talk about her use of pattern libraries and modular design, as I had read about her presentations before. “From Pages to Patterns” was a walk-through of how to break down designs into ever smaller elements, in order to create a common language within a project team and to ultimately build better sites. In my own design work, I have always been highly modular, but especially the design method part of her presentation had some very inspiring ideas for future projects.

Each and every of these talks offered something new to learn. Yet for me, and again this is a very personal review, two talks from my “do things differently than you learned in school” category stood out:

Just a few minutes into Frank Rausch’s talk “Typography is Code“, I knew this would be one of my favourite presentations. Not only did he showcase obsessive attention to detail and quality (a property that seems to be a precondition for becoming a typographer, but also a trait that I share to a certain extent and always enjoy hearing others talk about), but his presentation was also a wonderful example of German humour. With all other speakers being native English speakers, I found it very refreshing to have a German on stage at a Berlin-based event, with a witty, yet distinctively German, tounge-in-cheek style. Lots to learn, and identifying some mistakes I won’t do again.

"Typographisches Handwerk" - subtle joke with the typeface in a talk about typography.
Image caption: “Typographisches Handwerk” – subtle joke with the typeface in a talk about typography. Frank Rausch on stage.

In contrast, Heydon Pickering represented a very British wittiness. Luckily, the auditorium was packed with people, as I was at times at risk of falling off my chair from laughing. “Writing Less Damned Code” was one of the most entertaining technical presentations I have ever witnessed – and incredibly educational as well. I since have already applied some of his techniques in a current client project, yet still waiting for the opportunity to engage in a discussion on “less is actually less” the next time somebody claims that “less would be more”. So much common sense, combined with ingenious solutions and wrapped into a humorous rant (presenting “unprogressive non-enhancement”, seriously?) – just go watch that video if you work with CSS!

Just like with "too much code", Pickering also has a strong aversion against "too many columns" on a website.
Image caption: Just like with “too much code”, Heydon Pickering also has a strong aversion against “too many columns” on a website. (And it is safe to assume that the EU t-shirt is not worn by coincidence.)

beyond not doing

And then there were three talks that IMHO deserve their own category. Not so much for their topic – at least two of them would fit under the subheadings above as well – but for their message. These were the presentations that made the biggest impact on me, and from hearing the overall feedback, I am not alone.

Danny Gregory had the challenging slot of opening the evening party on day one, after a long dinner break, yet with his highly personal talk “Everyday Matters – The Art of the Illustrated Journal“, he saw his audience assembled like children by a camp fire to hear the goodnight story at the summer camp. Surrounding the story of a tragic life event, Danny told how he rediscovered the long lost artist in himself, engaging in drawing as an adult and finding his true passion in that. The talk was illustrated with loads of amazing drawings – even more so when hearing the story behind – and left not just me with the desire to go buy a pen and a notebook and start drawing (spoiler: that’s what I did the next morning, yet shame on me I still haven’t drawn more than one quick sketch; next week, Danny, I promise!).

The very final talk of the conference is also not an easy slot to be at. Not only considering the overall level of saturation, but the need to still offer one more new angle. Jeff Greenspan was just the right speaker for that. “Be Stubborn. Be Naive.“, his title challenged the listeners, and then he unleashed an artist’s career worth of highly political projects that only came to be because he a) always believed it is possible to achieve a goal even if everybody else advises against it, and b) without approaching things with a certain level of naivety he would never have dared to do them. What better way to end an inspirational conference than by giving such a slogan as “homework” to everybody. Be stubborn, be naive. And apply everything you learned these two days to make an impact…

"We may have lost something", Jeff Greenspan says.
Image caption: “We may have lost something”, Jeff Greenspan says.

And then there was Mike Monteiro. His talk (“Let Us Now Praise Ordinary People“) was no doubt the most-lauded presentation of all, and the way he took the stage was indeed impressive. Mike reminded the audience that designers are “just ordinary people” and not some extraordinary elite, yet the power they have to shape things comes with a great responsibility. And no matter how well designers believe to take “ordinary people” into account: if they are not included in the process, they remain excluded. Everybody can take their share in changing the world, yet those proclaiming it most loudly often are most interested in changing it to benefit themselves, not for the common good. The role of designers is not in the first place to change the world, but to facilitate processes that allow all the “ordinary people” to have their voice heard, and their interest represented, in that change.

"Design the right thing", Mike Monteiro reminds of the responsibility for the world we create.
Image caption: “Design the right thing”, Mike Monteiro reminds of the responsibility for the world we create.

beyond 2016?

The next beyond tellerrand conference takes place in May 2017 in Düsseldorf, followed by another Berlin edition in November. Mark the date!

…and in the meantime, if you have a few hours to entertain yourself with deeply motivating talks, this is my personal video playlist recommendation:

  • Mike Monteiro,  because I believe this is a talk worth to be shared widely
  • Jeff Greenspan, the next time you feel the project you really care about doesn’t come off the ground
  • Danny Gregory, before going to bed after a busy work week as you think you cannot fit any new hobby into your life
  • Heydon Pickering, when you are ready for good laughs while learning some cutting-edge CSS
  • Frank Rausch, if you are either a fan of modest German humour, a typography buff, or coming to terms with OCD; or ideally all three of these
  • the talks by Tim Kadlec and Erica Hall, as a compact session in “looking beyond whom you think you are designing for”
  • and any of the other talks, depending on your professional interests.

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