Early November is beyond tellerrand time in Berlin – the cosy web and design conference hosted by Marc Thiele. Despite something like 500 attendants, this two-day event feels like a family reunion – and just like last year, the talks on offer were nothing short of mindblowing.
A friend, yet to attend one of these himself, recently asked me what is the secret that makes everybody rave about this conference. And even after some contemplation, I frankly have difficulties to figure out the exact formula. But maybe that is a good thing, it’s Marc’s “magic sauce” after all. That said, I believe it mainly is the apparently large share of regulars, who embrace and spread the open-minded and friendly concept, in combination with a highly interactive set-up: the physical space, but also the single-track schedule with its extended social breaks and the selected speakers that always trigger some deep conversations.
The talks again covered a wide range of topics, but here are my 2+2 personal “must see” talks that I most recommend to catch up on – followed by a brief summary of the other talks at the end.
Two takes on inclusive design
Obviously influenced by my current focus on all topics surrounding ethical, accessible and people-centred design, the two talks resonating most with my ongoing thinking processes were those by Robin Christopherson and Vasilis van Gemert:
Robin Christopherson‘s talk “Out with accessibility – in with inclusive design” was a vivid presentation of how the ubiquity of computers means that accessibility is no longer about establishing special aids to use a PC for those with disabilities, but how we live in “the age of extreme computing [where] everybody is temporarily disabled or impaired on a daily basis.”
Inclusive design, and Robin presented that through a range of examples (to be seen in the video and his link list), is about assuming that everybody may be contextually impaired at times and that thinking about inclusion in every aspect of design means to truly unlock the power of technology:
When that is no longer a bolt-on activity, when accessibility becomes core, when it becomes inclusive to design, then because it’s no longer bolt-on, it can’t be dropped off when push comes to shove. You will be creating products and services that are going to be fit for purpose in this extreme computing age.
The core proposition of Vasilis van Gemert‘s talk “Exclusive design” (video) was that the web is already really good at creating user experiences in visual user interfaces (“we have reached ‘Peak GUI'”), but the experiences provided to those who have to rely on accessible interfaces are on the other hand still very limited, often to just the bare essentials.
Vasilis’ proposal of “Exclusive Design Principles” – an experimental reversion of the Inclusive design principles by the Pacielo Group – hence focus on innovating on accessible interfaces: not just including those with special needs in what has been designed for the privileged (who can make full use of a mature visual web), but designing exclusively for everybody:
The things we make start with everyone.
The talk ended with the audience being invited on stage to sign a huge poster with Vasilis’ “Exclusive Design Principles” (make sure to read them all, over on his blog). This was truly an inspiring talk, thinking design beyond its mainstream framing – just down my alley!
I really enjoyed how the two talks, despite their seemingly contradicting titles (“inclusive” vs. “exclusive”) promoted the same thought – to leave the idea of “making things accessible for special needs” behind and instead acknowledge how an “impairment” can be far more than what is commonly understood as a “disability” and that, no matter what kind and degree of impairment a person may experience, everybody deserves the best possible experience.
Two powerful storytellers
Two other talks also made it to my (admittedly 100% subjective) “Top Four” for their combination of strong and extremely likeable personalities and the empowering stories they had to share:
Mina Markham had been in charge of the design pattern library of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign. In her capturing storytelling style (and, obviously, you have stories to tell when you have photos of a presidential candidate sitting on your desk during a design review), her talk “Styling Hillary” shared insights not only into what it meant to work for such a fast-paced campaign and how important a role having a well-maintained design system played in that, but also into the dark side of success: she truly had to take a lot of offensive online abuse, some of which makes you wonder about the state of our human kind in general, but maybe even more so of the internet in particular (in Mina’s words: “The internet is a wasteland”).
The design work Mina presented was nothing but outstanding, yet I was especially taken by hearing the human story of such an exhausting work project and the experience of being exposed to such backlash, first-hand from such a strong individual. A talk, ostensibly presenting that going your way – and having an experience of a lifetime – cannot be stopped by naysayers of offensive commentators on the anonymous internet. Awesome! Please make sure to spread this video to as many people as possible, and to aspiring young women in the industry in particular.
The task of waking up the audience on day two – after a short night for many – Marc had entrusted to Pip Jamieson with “Creative ambition – it may not be easy, but it will be worth it!” And wow, did she deliver on that! In her joyful and energetic style, Pip had come to Berlin to share her life story of following creative ambition, which came at a price but – as the audience could witness – quite obviously paid off in the long run.
Pip’s insights into how she had bootstrapped the successful creative career network The Dots (“The next LinkedIn?”) while taking enormous personal risks, were an inspiring tale of the ups and downs of following one’s dream. I am sure I was not the only one thoroughly woken up by the power, not only in her stage presence (check out this video!), but in her entrepreneurial passion and the conviction and, ultimately, wisdom that “it will be worth it”.
More to explore
Just as I had experienced in the previous year, beyond tellerrand Berlin again left me behind in a state of mental overload (I still went to attend the World Usability Day event the next morning, but had to leave early as my brain was not able to absorb any more input – like a sponge fully soaked with water).
Needless to say, none of the talks deserves to be ignored in this summary. Let me try to give a brief overview, loosely collected by the underlying main themes I sensed at the conference, so you can find if there’s still something more for you to watch (they are all worth your time):
- If Mina’s talk has gotten you all excited about pattern libraries, make sure to listen to Alla Kholmatova‘s “From purpose to patterns” (she also has recently published a book on design systems).
- If you want to get some more “prep talk” about taking your career into your own hands, make sure to see Paula Scher share ten “Life lessons from the field” she has learned in her exceptional and long career, listen to Jonathan Snook on how he defines “Success”, find out why Elliot Jay Stocks says that “Now is always the wrong time” and that you should start your side project now, and let Joshua Davis teach you how to get paid for the things you want to do (the video of “Pathfinding, memory and recursion” is not online yet, but will blow your socks off; this is the traditional evening talk from the first evening, which are always slightly extraordinary).
- For some hands-on design inspiration, tune in to Yiying Lu talking about “Creating cross-cultural designs” and Dave Rupert praising the value of prototypes in “Vague but exciting”.
- As in 2016, the conference again featured one more technical talk, “The future of the browser” in which Lin Clark uses her comprehensible code cartoons to explain how a browser works and what are the contemporary challenges in that field.
- And there was once again one talk on typography as well: “Type with character(s)”, in which Yves Peters told the story of how difficult it is to get advanced typography features into software and provided a preview into some very exciting upcoming developments for web typography.
See you next year!
To conclude: these once again were two days very well spent …or actually five, since also the preceding side events (for me: the two-day IndieWebCamp and the warm-up party; unfortunately I could not make it to the apparently yet again brilliant Accessibility Club) were very inspiring experiences …or actually seven, if we count in two days for recovery from the inspiration overload.
And I’ll be back. Here in Berlin, that is. While quite some of the people I had the pleasure to meet – many of them: again – are following Marc around Germany for all three annual editions of Beyond Tellerrand (Munich in January and Düsseldorf in May), I think I might want to keep this as a once-per-year special to lighten up the otherwise rather dull November.
If you have the chance: treat yourself to one of these events. You won’t regret. And the people attending, as I already mentioned at the beginning, are absolutely lovely – they for sure will make you feel welcome as part of the beyond tellerrand family as well.