Deconstructing Build

A collection of circumstances prevented me from getting along to Build Conference this year, much to my shame. And while videos of all the events – main talks and fringe events – are available, I know from experience that nothing can replace just being there, with your peers, having your head sent into a spin by the words of those preeminent in their field.

Andy McMillan – Build’s architect – has put together what he calls a ‘hand-crafted’ web design conference. Post-event his head must have been spinning with the torrent of praise coming his way. The thought he put into it was evident at every turn, with no detail left untended to. He is but one man yet made all this happen, the likes of which is rarely seen in Belfast.

The event has become something much bigger than it arguably set out to be. With a heavy emphasis on fringe and social events, spread out over a week, and with a much broader appeal than its humble tagline suggests, Build is as close to a design festival as it gets. Although a web conference, the wider design community beats a path to Build’s door and the whole shebang is spread over a week. Speakers’ topics this year extended to typography and the design process, while fringe events pushed the ‘web design conference’ description beyond breaking point. This was a festival of design by any other name.

I’ve been around long enough to see at least one national design body try and fail to motivate successive generations of designers and engender a sense of community. Through Build (and a not insignificant amount of other activity such as Refresh Belfast) Andy has achieved it within a couple of short years. Build it and they will come indeed.

I don’t know Andy and have no idea what he has in mind for future years, but his seemingly endless drive will surely result another landmark event in 2011. For what it’s worth I hope Build retains its unique ‘belfastness’. I also hope it ditches it’s increasingly inappropriate “love us because we’re small” marketing bent. Those tickets aren’t cheap, and for good reason. This is a first class design event, worthy of the title of festival, and deserves to be enjoyed and lauded far far beyond the often clique-y world of online design.

Forget #buildconf. Next year’s Twitter hashtag should be #buildfest

Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.

My father was a joiner, serving his apprenticeship in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He took a simple pride in his work, going on to develop his skills in a number of construction firms across the city. I don’t believe he would have labelled himself a “craftsman” and I am confident that, while knowing no project he worked on would be complete without his contribution, he had a balanced sense of where that contribution sat in the greater scheme of things. We are fortunate to still have a couple of pieces of furniture that Dad made over the years as labours-of-love. They are simple, usable items.

Intense introspective

When I first read Jon Tan’s recent blog post it resonated hugely. His thoughtful appreciation of our industry is a heartening summary of how quickly things have changed and improved. On reflection, and without any disrespect to Jon – should so much soul-searching be triggered by what amounts to a moment of awkwardness at a social occasion? Should it matter what others’ perception of us is?

The drive towards a craft-based approach to design for the web continues to gain momentum, something worth fostering. Craft implies care, thoroughness. If we are to be craftsmen, we also need to accept that dedicated craftsmanship is often carried out in relative anonymity. Our contributions, if they are effective, will go unnoticed by most. Intuitive usability implies a lack of conscious effort on the part of the end user which, in turn, suggests a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the user.

My Dad ended his working life as a Clerk of Works. You may not be familiar with that role. I don’t believe Dad would have minded and would quite happily have explained his job to anyone. As our profession matures and we struggle with perceptions and interpretations of what we do, we should prepare for nothing but a muted response from those outside the industry or elsewhere in the design community.

We do great things, but they are not made any greater or lesser by how others perceive them.

You’re either with us or you’re against us

During his years in trade, Dad came into contact with engineers, architects and tradesmen of all kinds. He took an interest in them and how they contributed to projects. It informed his own work. To the best of my knowledge he never took it upon himself to accuse others of not being genuine joiners. As in all professions, he knew there are two types of practitioners: those who are effective, and those who are not.

I have written before of being proud to work in a profession that places effective practice over showboating. However there has been a trend of late for loud, showy pronouncements suggesting what designers are or are not, depending on their approach. The defense is always that these statements are designed to “provoke debate” or similar. I really wonder. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the intention appears to be to create divisions in our field where there are none; to create a ‘them and us’ based on approach and technique, rather than effectiveness of output.

A situation where a relatively small number of (I should state – exceptional) professionals, with the biggest platforms, who shout loudest feel empowered to define what we should or should not be is one that I’ll call unhelpful. Producing great work sets the best possible example to
others in the profession. Sharing of the process gives something back to the community. Does proselytising really add any more value?

Future proof

We want to attract the best possible calibre of people into our industry. A clear sense of ourselves and what we contribute as UI and UX designers is crucial to that effort. Promotion of best practice, which is always changing, is a positive. There are suitable ways and means to do this. I suggest that haranguing those with a different perspective is not one of them.

Reading much of our internal debate of late, I cannot help but hear Dad’s voice and what he said to me in so many situations over the years:

“Just get on with it, son”.

I commend this sentiment to the industry.