DC Design Talks Post-Mortem

As I mentioned, today I went to the inaugural DC Design Talks conference in Falls Church, VA. Unfortunately, I ended up staying for just three speakers because:

  1. The conference was even more (pure) design-oriented than I expected
  2. The material covered was more elementary than I had hoped
  3. I had another migraine (my third in three days. argh.)

I mention these things so that it’s very clear what kind of review I can offer and to emphasize that there was more to it than I was around to see.

General Impressions

The conference was held in the pseudo-classroom area of a local web shop. It was small, but that was okay; I also prefer going to concerts in more intimate settings than an arena. I don’t know the numbers and am not good at guessing, but I’d say there were well under a 100 folks in attendance. This was definitely not MacWorld or Adobe MAX, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It felt a little less like the first day of high school where you seem to spend half of your day trying to figure out where you’re supposed to be next.

There were a few minor technical glitches, but frankly the venue was small enough that microphones were kind of on the overkill side, anyway. Happily, the organizers seemed to understand their constituency all too well. There were surge protectors and outlets all over the place for the laptops that would surely be out in force at a geek-centric conference. No need to worry about running out of battery life. There was also reliable wi-fi available. It would’ve been nice to have the login credentials printed in the conference literature, but they weren’t hard to track down. That was another huge win. Even the big boys often have trouble providing reliable wi-fi at their events.

The conference was organized a bit like a day of high school. There were nine speakers scheduled (not including the opening remarks) with about a five minute break between each speaker so we were parked in our chairs pretty much the entire time. It would have been nice to have a little more mingling time if for no other reason than to stand up. Perhaps eight sessions would have sufficed. The schedule was packed a little tight.

That brings me to my lone complaint about peripheral matters: the chairs. They were not comfy. My ass was falling asleep within minutes and went completely numb not long after. Knowing I was going to be largely sedentary for the remainder of the day didn’t help matters. If I were to recommend just one item to change, it’d be the chairs. Oy.

Subject Matter

As I mentioned, the subject matter was more design-centric than I expected. I was anticipating a web design conference. That is, a conference covering multiple aspects and disciplines of web design from technologies, to standards, to techniques, to methodologies, etc. The focus, though, was more on pure design as it applies to the web. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but as a developer and engineer, I’m the wrong audience. The material just wasn’t varied enough to offer much for me.


As I mentioned above – and this can’t be stressed enough – I didn’t stay all day. I stuck around to hear three speakers. I can only speak to the sessions I saw and I won’t generalize beyond that.

Web Typography (Samantha Warren)

My guess is that this was one of Samantha’s first public speaking appearances. She wasn’t polished, but I can get past that pretty easily. I’m not the most polished speaker either. Nonetheless, she was presenting an interesting topic so I was looking forward to hear what she had to say.

Unfortunately, the content didn’t deliver. Her slides were beautiful – she appears to be a very capable designer – but the session didn’t progress much beyond quoting a few definitions of “Typography” and then offering one of her own. There was very little real information, wisdom or experience conveyed. Most of the presentation involved looking at webpage examples and pointing out what I thought were relatively obvious characteristics of the typography chosen. One of the notes I scribbled summed it up pretty well, I think. It said, “Too much what, not enough why or how.”

That said, I did learn a couple of things. I learned about measure and, more importantly, about optimal measure within a document. I also learned that greater leading (line-height in CSS-speak) should be employed on dark backgrounds. I had never thought about that. It would have been nice if she had spent more time discussing why these things were important rather than just telling me that they are important.

Creating a Component Library (Nathan Curtis)

This session essentially covered the organization and reuse of site components – be they wireframe stencils, visual comp elements, code, etc. As an engineer and unabashed fan of reuse and loosely coupled components, this is a topic near and dear. And Nathan was clearly a practiced public speaker. He presented the material very well.

Although the general subject matter and high-level concept are ones that I find compelling and even critical to the long-term success of projects, the specifics of the session didn’t have much to offer me. The material was heavily weighted to the pre-development side of the SDLC. I won’t belabor that point since it’s something I’ve already mentioned.

I did come away thinking, though, that creating this library of “stuff” appeared to be extraordinarily time-consuming and would probably not be a good fit for smaller companies, companies that redesign frequently or companies that, by necessity, must be nimble with their design. The techniques presented seemed best suited for large, static organizations creating large sites. This kind of effort could quickly become cost prohibitive for smaller companies or companies that redesign with any kind of frequency.

Speaking in Styles (Jason Cranford Teague)

This session keyed on another subject I’m fond of – CSS. Jason, too, was a polished speaker and clearly knew his stuff in spite of a minor typo in a bit of Javascript code that some dolt in the peanut gallery just had to point out. There’s one of those at every conference, it seems.

My only issue with this session was that the subject matter wasn’t as substantive as it could have been. Maybe the rest of the audience needed to be sold on why they should be using CSS, but I certainly didn’t. I’ve been evangelizing and espousing the use of CSS for years.

I would have liked to have heard more discussion about how to overcome the limitations of CSS. If the audience needed selling, then this is probably one of the primary reasons selling was required. In my experience, a lot of folks aren’t using CSS as extensively as they should primarily because it’s not an easy thing to do. In addition to the browser limitations (see me looking in your direction, IE?), there are also baked-in language limitations. There’s no way it should be this difficult to create a 100% height container or vertically align one block within another.

As Jason correctly pointed out, the only way to avoid the limitations of CSS is to know and understand those limitations. Too little time was spent highlighting those limitations, much less offering workarounds and alternatives.


On the whole, I think the conference series has real potential. Not for me, maybe, but it’s not the fault of the organizers that I chose to be a developer, right?

Even operating on a shoestring budget, the organizers pulled off an event that, though small, had a professional feel about it. I’d like to see a wider range of material covered and I’d like to see some more advanced topics mixed in with the elementary ones, but this was only the beginning (I hope). I have to believe they’ll evolve down that path as the conference matures.

Being a developer, I’m not sure whether I’ll personally attend on a regular basis, but I suspect I’ll send one of my front-end developers and I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on the schedule in case some developer-oriented material begins to make its way onto the agenda.

Subscribe3 Comments on DC Design Talks Post-Mortem

  1. M. Jackson Wilkinson said...

    Thanks for the review, Rob. Honest feedback is always appreciated, and there’s a lot of this I agree with. There are a couple things to clarify and add:

    One thing worth noting is that the DC Design Talks are part one of a three/four (we’ll see) part annual series that segments the DC web community into concentrations. In the late spring, we’ll be holding the DC Developer Talks, which will focus on back-end development (php, django, rails, etc). In the summer, DC Strategy Talks will cover folks who do high-level planning of web sites and businesses. So as a developer, you really weren’t a part of our target audience for this event, and our goal was to make this more purely about design. Hopefully, you’ll be interested in attending the event for developers, which is more likely to be your speed.

    Because this was the first event, and we had an audience different from the normal Refresh DC crowd, we felt that a somewhat elementary CSS primer was appropriate, just for the many graphic designers in the audience who had never touched markup. For those of us familiar with the material, the hope was that it offered a perspective on how to talk about CSS, how to teach designers how to think in CSS, and perhaps how to sell clients on its value.

    Finally, we wanted to give less experienced speakers an opportunity to get out there and actually give a talk. It’s tough to break into the scene as a designer, and the best way to learn is to just start doing it. In this case, that meant taking a few risks on speakers, and trying to offset that by having seasoned veterans like Nathan Curtis, Jason Cranford Teague, Thomas Vander Wal, and Jackson Fox do their thing. While I agree that content and presentation were the weaker side of the event, I think I have a grasp on how I can mitigate that in the future by taking on more of a mentorship and coaching role. I still think the objective is a worthy one.

    In the end, yes, we expect that content will mature along with the series (and the audience), and that next year’s Design Talks will take a more advanced approach. It will still likely lean toward pure design, as that’s really the segment we’re targeting, but it will address more sophisticated issues in that field.

    Thanks for coming, and I do hope we see you out again.

  2. Rob Wilkerson said...

    That makes perfect sense. As I mentioned, I do see a lot of promise in the series, so I’ll be back if the content migrates towards my interests and will send one of my designers if it lingers in that realm. Either way, I like the idea and I like the implementation. You all did a nice job.

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