What I learned attending Awwwards, Design Matters, and Figma Config ‘20

Takeaways from these design conferences as a young designer

February 24, 2020

9 mins

I’d like to first acknowledge the fact that I’m incredibly thankful to be working at a company that supports the enrichment of their team through external education. I recognize that not everyone has the exposure nor the privilege to participate in these conferences, and am very grateful I was able to be in such enlightening environments.

By sharing my takeaways, I hope I can give others the same inspiration and resources I’d received from my attendance of these events. Find my recap notes from some of the talks of each event below!

Awwwards Digital Thinkers Conference

January 23rd-24th, 2020 • Tokyo, Japan • Website

Summary

Awwwards Digital Thinkers Conference will forever hold the title as the first conference I’ve attended as a full-time designer; in retrospect, this was admittedly an amazing introductory experience. From the first time I landed on the website, I was already impressed by the high attention-to-detail the organizers put into this initiative. The talented speakers, diversity in talks, and the quality of presentations refocused the needle of my career map and elevated the bar for the quality of work I want to produce in future years. It was very inspiring to see stunning reels from the best agencies and freelancers in the industry.

Attending a conference abroad in Tokyo offered a unique experience hard to replicate elsewhere. The large majority of the audience and speakers were Japanese and being exposed to their culture and approach to design was incredibly inspiring. It reflected, to me, the fact that design is a universal field that surpasses language barriers. With translation tools, we were able to come together in learning from our multi-tongued array of speakers.

A small detail I also really enjoyed was the interesting way in which organizers generated conversation starters. On everyone’s attendee badges, there was a small miniature cartoon printed on the bottom right corner. Only one other attendee at the large conference had the same one; if we found “our match,” we were rewarded with prizes. This made it easy and fun for everyone to talk to those around us and form new connections.

Claudio Guglieri— Huge Oak | Website

“The First of Everything”

Charlie boldly stated that history has proven that the most creative time periods were ones when creatives were given an active forum to share ideas and work with one another. Thus, we’re living in an age now where being creative should be the easiest… right? A contrarian to this opinion, he explained how we are being bombarded with inspiration in today’s time and how it’s the #1 enemy of creativity. To him, creativity is a hack and we should not cling too deeply onto things we see in our circles, yet instead add our own flavors to our designs. Like sugar, a little bit of inspiration can give you a kick, but have too much and you’ll get sick and unmotivated.

“Creativity is not talent; it’s a process that’s can constantly be refined.”

He continued this idea by explaining the “Rubber Band Effect of Inspiration” where your work is a build-up of what has already existed. The more you go back, the more you move forward in finding that lightbulb moment. To him, ideas are just new combinations, an amalgamation of old ideas. The ability to see these relationships increases your ability to create ideas as well as being in an environment where creativity can happen.

Yeka Haski, Artist and Illustrator | Website

“Character Design”

I was blown away by Yeka’s gallery of character illustrations and found the story she told of her recent struggle as a designer very relatable. When she first moved to Tokyo, she was captivated by the myriad of characters she saw plastered across the city. However, she slowly fell into a depressive episode since it felt as though all possible characters had already been created; it seemed there was no potential for her to make a breakthrough in this field. As designers, we can all relate to that anxiety of ideating a masterpiece when it seems as though our industry is already saturated with ideas already taken.

What I found empowering was that Yeka was able to spin this situation and turn it into an opportunity for growth. She began to draw a single character each day and started an Instagram account to record all of her work. She’s been at it since April 2018 and now has an entire collection to show off. These vivid, funky characters opened doors to many new opportunities for her and reframed her thinking of the creative process.

Other talks I really enjoyed:

Design Matters Tokyo Pop-Up

January 29th-30th, 2020 • Tokyo, Japan • Website

Summary

My write-up will be based solely on the first half of Design Matters Tokyo as I was only able to attend Day 1. It, however, certainly did not stop me from meeting very cool designers from across the world during the coffee breaks (Portugal, Thailand, Denmark, and Japan to name a few).

What I liked most about this conference was that it integrated workshops into the schedule, making the day both engaging and interactive. As an attendee, I not only had insights thrown in my direction, but I was also able to apply techniques the speakers use in their daily processes in group activities. I also enjoyed the fact that most of these speakers were also from companies with in-house design teams, making their takeaways applicable and relatable to my day-to-day processes in my role.

Because the audience size was a good size, it was also comfortable to facilitate more intimate conversations with those around. At the end of the day, I was even able to meet Michael Christiansen, the organizer of the Design Matters conferences, and chat about our times in Tokyo.

Yuhki Yamashita, VP of Product at Figma

“Redesigning Design”

Yuhki’s talk centered on the main ways design has changed in today’s modern day. The first?

“Design was pixel-pushing; design is now problem solving.”

He explained that design systems have shaped the speed and methodology in which we’re building designs — these well thought-out smaller pieces are legos of bigger, grander designs. Secondly, automation has made our process much easier. Take Mapsicle for example — creatives no longer have to find images of different locations, but can instead create and import them directly with a plugin. Lastly, he believed that open-source libraries are the reason why we’re able to build so quickly. With public design systems so readily available, we no longer have to start from scratch to craft more complex designs. Thus, because designers are no longer spending time pushing pixels, there’s more time to iterate faster on ideas, and, ultimately, for problem-solving.

Yuhki stresses the notion that designers are no longer the only ones working in the file. Designers, PMs, and engineers are also providing design critique and feedback, making the conversation a collaborative discussion in today’s world. This places the importance on tools that offer real-time multi-user functionalities such as Figma that shape the design process to be that much quicker and effective. Additionally, the ease that a platform offers to easily design together to achieve a solution is invaluable to the timeliness and quality of that final outcome.

Workshops I really enjoyed:

Figma Config

February 6th, 2020 • San Francisco, CA • Website

Summary

I was first heard about this event from a Slack message sent to me by a coworker. While my experience with Figma hadn’t been extensive, I applied to attend as I was keen on learning what the capabilities of the application were and how it could affect my day-to-day process at work. This one-day user conference not only opened my eyes to the power of this innovative platform, but also provoked striking discussions in my head as to how we should operate as designers in a future full of wicked problems. Special thanks to Figma for selecting me for a scholarship to attend; you can find a recording of the keynote talks here.

Craig Mod | Website

“Two Books and a Long Walk”

Craig focuses his talk on impactful side projects he’s worked on the last couple years — the first being a book that he made while he was working at Flipboard documenting exhaustion of outputs: Github commits, mockups of screen designs, and the sorts. He revealed this artifact to his team after an important launch, stirring strong emotions in the room to the point where tears were shed. He continues to explain that, since then, the value of the book has only increased. This is due in part to the it’s impossible to go back in time — you can only change the latest version of the app today and, due to various constraints, can never really experience it the same way again as devices themselves are constantly changing.

Through this example, Craig highlighted the importance of self-reflection on the products we’re building and the increase of self-awareness. By converting digital productivity into a physical product, he was able to more accurately understand the impact him and his team really made in those early years at Flipboard. Since most of our outputs day-to-day live in a digital context, the value of building shape to your work and community is ever more important because “our minds will lie to us later” — a consequence of our short-term memory.

Other talks I really enjoyed:

If you found this piece helpful, I’d definitely recommend attending some conferences this year and sharing takeaways of your own. Venture out, meet some cool people, and get inspired.


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