An Event Apart Summary from Atlanta 2011: Day 2

07-05-11 Ben Callahan

I had an opportunity to attend this year's An Event Apart in Atlanta and this is a summary of what I took away from day two of the conference.

This is the second of a two-post series summarizing my attendance to the 2011 An Event Apart held in Atlanta. You can read part one here.


Opening Night Party

Sponsored by (mt) Media Temple

I realized after I published the first post in this series that I competely forgot to mention the Media Temple party on the opening night. I have been to enough of these to know that Media Temple knows how to throw a party. I had great conversations with some very smart web designers, developers, and studio presidents. The beer flowed flawlessly and the food was pretty tasty. If only Media Temple's hosting service was as good as their parties. Lucky for me, I'm not too proud to drink their beer.


Eric Meyer

Using Flexible Boxes

Eric Meyer knows CSS. He changed the way I thought about front-end development at the very first AEA I ever went to when he showed me that Firefox (and all the other browsers) have their own set of CSS files in order to create the default look of common markup elements. This seems so obvious to me now, but I was just getting started and he opened my eyes to the possibility that CSS affords us front-end guys.

This presentation was fascinating to me because I love experimenting with new CSS features. The flexible box module is a promising method for handling layout, providing a level of source-order-independence that would be a game-changer. The presentation walked us through an example of laying out the An Event Apart website itself, which was fine as most of the attendees were fairly familiar with the content. However, the end of Eric's presentation was a little disheartening as browser support for this is fairly limited and buggy. Obviously, this is no reason to keep us from playing with it, but using it in production will require JavaScript shims.


Jeremy Keith

Design Principles

I can't say enough good things about Jeremy's presentation style, content, or general attitude toward the web and the group of people who build it. He continually adds immense value to this community and is an absolute delight to hear speak. This presentation was fairly theoretical, as I would consider typical for Jeremy. I love his statement that “The Web is agreement.” In other words, we (as constructors of the web) agree to adhere to a set of rules (web standards, microformats, etc.) and the browser makers agree to follow those same rules. This creates an industry that is truly run by the people (bottom-up vs top-down). 

In terms of practical application, Jeremy mentioned embedding video with the HTML5 video tag and using a fallback of a Flash embed. This demonstrates the HTML principle “progressive enhancement,” something that Jeremy has been very vocal about for a long time. Overall, his presentation was a call for web designers and developers to remember why we have the web, to connect people and share information no matter where they are or what device they're using.


Aarron Walter

Idea to Interface

Aarron is probably most widely known as the lead user experience designer for MailChimp, but he's also an author, speaker (obviously), and father. I loved Aarron's presentation this year as it addressed something I personally struggle with—taking action on all the ideas I have rolling around in my head. It was encouraging to hear that others are struggling with this as well and Aarron brought the practical into his talk by providing a series of tips that can help.

It was refreshing to hear Aarron discuss the idea that design itself is much more than just how something looks—especially on the web. This is something that separates good designers from great designers. Aarron encouraged us to work things out, think them through, sketch and re-sketch, collect inspiration, etc. He suggested that collaboration makes for a better end product which is something we live and die by here at Sparkbox. He showed us his starting point for quick HTML and CSS prototypes (you can see Sparkbox's here) and suggested that prototyping was the quickest way to prove a concept. One amazing statistic he mentioned was that Mail Chimp was able to drop almost half of their CSS by moving to object oriented CSS.

Overall, this was an inspiring presentation and I'm looking forward to a chance to hear Aarron speak again.


Jared Spool

The Secret Lives of Links

In a sea full of geeks, Jared Spool is the prized catch. Smarter than most, incredibly entertaining, and armed with years of research, he managed to speak about links for an hour—and it was fantastic.

Jared jumped right in describing the importance of “trigger words,” words that create the impulse to click. Users visit sites for a reason, trigger words make users think the content they want is one click away. If they find that content, they'll be happy. If they don't, they'll type what they want into your site search. This was actually a critical point of Jared's message: site search logs are full of trigger words. This is a gold mine of information and we should be using this data as a guide for what our users want.

The other major segment of Jared's presentation was on the language and design of links themselves. This is a constant struggle for designers, as they strive to create something that is unique and oftentimes in doing so create more confusion than benefit. “Links are supposed to be blue and underlined”, Jared stated to much moaning in the audience. However, ignoring this is called “Designer Win”—when we care more about how our sites look than the experience they give our users. Jared's point that good design is invisible flies in the face of 90% of the website galleries out there. Our job is to make sure we're making the content available and easy to find—an equal balance of form and function, which is what Sparkbox strives to accomplish.


Kristina Halvorson

A Content Strategy Roadmap

Kristina is the CEO of Brain Traffic, and the author of Content Strategy for the Web. She's been presenting at AEA for a few years now and her effort has drawn much attention to “Content Strategy” as the cornerstone of web design and developement.

We couldn't agree more. We build websites to communicate; content is the stone we use when sculpting those sites. Everything flows from the content—and I mean everything. Kristina explored this in detail, walking through a typical web design process and explaining the role of content in each step. She used five “D” words to do this: discover, define, design, develop, and deploy. The biggest takeaway from this presentation was a simple statement that Kristina made, “Good design can't save your content, but bad content will ruin a great design.” This is so true and it's a principle that we strive to adhere to at Sparkbox. We care as much about the message of a site, as we do the look, as we do the experience. Kristina is preaching a message that desparately needs to be heard.


Jeff Veen

Disaster, DNA, and the Fathomless Depth of the Web

If you know of Jeff Veen, it's probably because you are using a little service called Typekit. Jeff is the CEO there and is a fantastic presenter. His topic for this hour was about the role culture plays in moments of disaster. I can speak from experience on this, and Jeff is dead on. At Sparkbox, the trust we have between our decision makers and the rest of the team is a critical part of what it means to work here. In difficult times, we ask much of our employees. In good times, we reward them. This very cycle was the backbone of Jeff's presentation as he walked us through a crisis Typekit recently faced.

In addition to this, Jeff also provided some great advice on how to do design reviews starting with calling them anything other than “design reviews”. His point was that this places all the emphasis on the look when in fact, everything should be on the table: design, architecture, language, etc. He described how there are two types of group sessions: convergent and divergent. Convergence is about determining the consensus, landing on a viable solution. Divergence is about getting all the options on the table. Simply letting people know which of these two types of meetings they're walking into can save immeasurable time and stress.

The principles Jeff described have already influenced our organization and will continue to do so for the months to come.


Closing Night Party

Sponsored by Typekit

After the last session of the day, we all made our way to Whiskey Blue (watch out for the audio)—an upscale bar on the top of the W Buckhead. I think we frustrated the regulars as we pretty quickly took over the whole bar. It was nice, if a little stuffy, to drink Stella on the roof with a nice view of Atlanta. Of course, our minds were overflowing with inspiring information, so we pretty much just talked shop the whole time.

After a few hours, we headed out for some real food and the end of a great AEA.


Wrap Up

An Event Apart is always a great experience. I would absolutely recommend you attend if you haven't in the past. I always leave inspired and full of ideas to take back to my team. I wish the same momentum for you and your crew!

In case you started with this article, you should know that this is the second of a two-part series. You can see the first article in The Foundry.