New Adventures Conference 2019

It’s been six years since the glorious Nottingham Albert Hall played host to the last New Adventures conference in 2013. It’s fair to say the digital and design world has changed a frightening amount in that time, so it’s with a reassuring comfort of familiarity that we welcome it back.

While the curators of New Adventures, Simon Collison and Geri Coady, officially label the event as a digital design conference, it’s much better described as a whole immersive creative and inspirational experience.

This starts from the moment you first encounter New Adventures online, with everything incredibly tightly branded with a new blue and pink colour scheme. Coupled with an extremely thorough and informative website – to put even the most anxious mind at ease – it gives the event an almost festival-like feel.

Workshops run the day before the main event itself from Harry Roberts, Jeremy Keith, and sponsors Shopify, as well as pre-conference meet-ups including a DXN social and the now legendary JH bowling. It’s a great way for acquaintances old and new to ease themselves into the event, especially helped by the well-crafted name badges, complete with personalisable social interaction stickers.

The day itself starts in much the same fashion. As Simon reiterates in his on-stage introduction, this is an event formed around inclusivity, not a series of condescending lectures. You are free to come and go as you please, encouraged to use your laptops and phones, and he’s even bought the first 100 coffees from local company Outpost Coffee Roasters’ pop-up in the foyer (complete with its own New Adventures branded coffee, naturally). There’s also a hessian goody bag filled with stationery, stickers, pin badges and the much-loved exquisitely crafted magazine.

It’s not a spoiler to say there’s a very definite theme of ambition and change running through the whole event, pre-empted by Simon in his magazine editorial. With that in mind, the day is opened by Rizwana Khan performing her specially commissioned poem about Wonder. It sets the tone for the whole event, depicting that just because we can strive for perfection, doesn’t mean we should. It’s good to experiment and innovate, as we are soon to find out.

If you needed that reiterating, Jeremy Keith (@adactio) reminds us that it’s nearly 20 years since John Allsopp’s infamous Dao of Web Design article, which talked so preemptively about embracing the web’s flexibility and not conforming to the usual corporate publication barriers. Although we are still web ‘builders’, long gone are the days of “under construction” signs, or confidently labelling ourselves as ‘architects’. Now we often simply reach for the easiest bolt-on solution.

There’s an interesting comparison to pace layers – with the slowest moving parts effectively holding the most power – and how we have forgotten the craft, and indeed importance, of not having a single point of failure. Too often we commit solely to JavaScript, in its many ever-changing iterations, and neglect the importance of solid HTML and CSS fallbacks.

“Choose the least powerful language for a given purpose”

he later cites as the Principle of Least Power, with modern examples such as Juicero’s failure. With almost a decade passed since closing speaker Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Web Design article, are we really still building the web in the best way? Jeremy urges us rethink our tools: Who do they benefit, and, crucially, how well do they fail? The overall message is one encouraging us to take hold of our responsibility, to reclaim architect status and ownership of what we build.

Luckily, that change might not be as far away as you think as Clare Sutcliffe (@ClareSutcliffe) explains in her talk. In 2012 she herself was an attendee at New Adventures when she met new face Linda Sandvik in the badge pick-up queue. Within no time at all they founded the hugely successful Code Club, thanks in large part to her being forced to fulfil her goals after announcing them in a BBC interview.

If that wasn’t enough, she then met her husband at the following year’s New Adventures, which, if nothing else, illustrates what type of amazing connections can happen at these events. It’s a refreshing success story, built on her pillars of good working practice, surmised by a quote she reads from Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Josh Brewer (@jbrewer) is a name well known to most attendees, having been Principal Designer at Twitter, and representing sponsor Abstract at the conference. Through his years of experience he details the importance of transparency in your work, and the necessity to feel the accountability in everything you do. He reminds us why it’s essential to always – in his words – “bring design to the table”, to create as if you are feeling invincible, but, crucially, always embrace failure as part of the process.

Of course, with current industry practices – notably in larger organisations – that can be easier said than done. Cue Jessica White (@JessPWhite), who takes the stage with a rallying call for us to return to a more collaborative way of working. As she explains, we need to start not only treating others as equals, but also as experts in their own fields. Designers should be presenting ideas early and always asking for feedback.

Importantly, we need to speak the same language – and thanks to her call-and-response to the definition of M.U.A. (Made Up Acronym), reinforces the necessity of cutting through the usual corporate bullsh*t, becoming less cross-functional and more multi-disciplined, and starting ‘tiny acts of rebellion’ to produce creative results.

“Are you working on too many things?”

asks next speaker Ashley Baxter (@iamashley– an all-too-familiar feeling for many in attendance. She explains how she has cut back on her side projects to focus on her insurance business With Jack, and wanted to create something better in an industry that was lacking creativity. By gathering real feedback it allowed her to take a far more personalised approach, coming to the realisation that it’s imperative to build something people actually want.

It’s fantastic to see someone fighting against the current money-driven race to the bottom that the web is experiencing, producing a truly viable product and experience by solving real problems and by validating ideas, not just through financial goals.

Quite often at conferences, the post-lunch lull slot is the hardest for speakers. Not so for New Adventures, which has Brendon Dawes (@brendandawes), a man so full of offbeat ideas that even the slowest metabolism would be energised. As Simon says: “Brendan is important to me because he reminds us of the possibilities”. Indeed, he’s someone who doesn’t just talk about changing our attitude to innovation but who has literally made a living from pushing creative boundaries, and reinventing the space between analogue and digital.

He reminds us of the importance of understanding an end product and how it is made through a series of experiments, and without that experience of building things and doing things you don’t know how to do, we can never innovate. Everything starts out ugly, but you should embrace your mistakes and be naive sometimes, looking for beauty everywhere, even in ideas you’ve already rejected.

It’s easy to forget in such a beautiful setting that we are the lucky privileged few that can actually makes these ideas happen. As Helen Joy (@LittleHelli) discusses, this extends to our everyday web-building environments – we often sit designing websites and apps in a shiny office on a 27″ iMac, when the reality is that the vast majority of people won’t view or use our products in this way. In a truly humbling talk, she details the many ways in which this is the case, not just through obvious barriers such as disability or technical restrictions, but often more temporary or situational impairments.

The headline statistic is that in the UK alone, 4.3 million adults have zero basic digital skills, of which 24% are under 65, and a huge 4% are under 45. We need to question our assumptions, as we are often trapped in digitally privileged filter bubbles and aim for a universal web, being collectively responsible to lower barriers and break digital divides.

Naz Hamid (@weightshift) describes himself as a “Third Culture Kid” who’s now a “Third Culture Adult”, and the different perspective that gives him. As he correctly surmises, diversity makes us smarter and it’s up to us to facilitate that through building bridges, championing others, and – along with one of the day’s running themes – design for inclusion. He ends with a simple sentiment that resonates widely:

“Let’s do better.”

All of which brings us to the keynote speech. As Ethan Marcotte (@beep) himself – the aforementioned founder of Responsive Design – says, it’s a very different talk from what he would usually give. Whereas Jeremy had talked about how we should be held responsible to how we build websites, this was a stronger, more political and ethical reasoning of why we should be creating them in the first place.

He starts with a very clear metaphor – images of starlings, on their own fairly helpless, but together in a murmuration, one of the most beautiful sights on earth. Make no mistake, this is a call-to-arms, building on the ideologies we’ve previously heard all throughout the day.

The slides themselves are stark, clear and emotive: “We don’t talk enough about the power of design”; “The web wasn’t a network of communications, it was an ideal”. He talks about previous historical divides, from Robert Moses’ bridges to the unfulfilled liberating promises of the sewing machine. It’s all scarily comparable to the web. He proposes that the idealistic days of innovation are forgotten, replaced by a familiar new pattern: Advocacy / Adoption / Institutionalisation.

As many of the other speakers have noted, long gone are days of creative design leading the way online, replaced by corporate greed. He points to several striking examples including smart technology’s human input side – requiring low wage workers to power some of the biggest AI in the world – and Netflix’s extreme personalisation of content.

Indeed, he asks, what entry-level design looks like now, citing AirBnb’s near automated prototyping tools. So what can we as creatives and designers do? Ethan has a clear suggestions: we should have a voice saying how our work is used, and in saying how automation impacts our work process.

However, it’s the next slide where all of the magic from New Adventures, the entire inspiration of the day, the collective ideology, comes to fruition. In one beautifully constructed short phrase he simply writes: “We need to unionise, my loves”. Much of the usually quiet, restrained crowd start spontaneously applauding. Many are standing. Several are whooping.

“This is a rare, beautiful opportunity”

he ends by saying, reiterating that it’s all about one thing: hope.

The reaction is multi-faceted, but mostly it’s a collective sigh of relief. For several years now the industry has been changing, coinciding with many of the same reasons that New Adventures faded from view in the first place. No-one has been happy about that, but everyone seemed unsure of how to change things.

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say New Adventures 2019 really feels like a catalyst for change, a pivotal moment when the previously subdued fightback really begins, when we regain our responsibility as designers and developers. And not just for the sake of ourselves, but for the benefit of the web as a whole, and inclusively for everyone who uses it. As the conference tagline has read throughout – now is the time.

A huge tribute is owed to Simon and Geri for providing such a welcoming platform for this to happen. It’s no surprise that the after-party, with its fully-inclusive setup, was worth the trip itself, filled with lively discussion with like-minded people, all inspired by the day’s events. If that wasn’t enough, the next day saw an inaugural coffee tour of Nottingham as well as the regular fr00tball match.

Having had such a wonderful resurrection, we can only hope that New Adventures can find a way to return in 2020. In the meantime, you can recap this year’s event over at the coverage section of the website.