Design, Creativity and web nerds at dConstruct 2010

The beginning of september is always a good time for us web nerds, because some of us get to meet up, have a ‘few’ drinks, and listen to some of the smartest people in the world at dConstruct. This years theme: Design & Creativity.

After arriving on Thursday afternoon, collecting my long-awaited iPhone 4 and freshening up from the trip, I ventured towards the traditional pre-pre-party at The Fountain Head. The thing I love about arriving a day before is that you can get acclimated to the level of awesome people around you. And per tradition, one tries to hang around with these great web nerds for as long as possible, eventually ending up at The Old Ship.

But let’s talk about the conference, shall we? If you have six hours, stop reading and get the podcasts.

Marty Neumaier’s Designful Company

dConstruct kicked off great with Marty Neumaier’s talk about design and branding. The most important thing in branding is to know that the brand is not what you say it is, but what they say it is. Without being radically different, there is no way to differentiate yourself. But being different has it’s threats. Because in most cases, this that are good and different, don’t do good in tests.

It is important to know where you stand on the crossroads between good and different. Mr. Neumaier captured the essence of this greatly in “this diagram”:

Wherever you are in this diagram, you will have to remember one important thing. If you want to innovate, you have to design.

Brendan Dawes’ Boil, Simmer, Reduce

Every concept starts from an idea. One can stay close to this idea, but to get to a result, our brain needs to fire a couple of neurons. Mr. Dawes takes this on by expanding the initial idea with as much information as possible, letting this information simmer, and eventually reducing back to the best parts of the mix. The proverbial meatballs in the soup, if you will.

The essence of this process being: “You know when the design is finished, when there is nothing left to take away.”

Dave McCandles’ visualized data

“Data is the new soil.” We can grow a lot of beautiful things from data, yet a few things are important to remember. The power of data is in the balance of text, images and numbers. Do not visualize the data too abstractly. Do not visualize the data too stylistically. But most importantly: do not tell the user anything, show it to them.

Because “being told is threatening, seeing is believing.”

John Gruber’s auteur theory

The infamous Mr. Gruber talked on a subject he is known for. No, it wasn’t all about Apple. It was about the importance of good taste. The quality of the result in most projects, is not the product of the knowledge and skill of all people involved. The quality of any creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever has control.

What it really is about is that it is essential for one person to make the final decisions, and that this person must have good taste.

Hannah Donovan’s improvisation

Starting your talk with a piece of musical improvisation was one of the most gutsy and lovely things I have seen at a conference so far. Hannah Donovan did so, together with Jeremy Keith and a very good piano player, whose name I’ve shamefully forgot.

The start of the talk was automatically a demonstration of the power of improvisation. The talk was about finding the common ground between improvising on a music instrument and improvising on the web, which had a few key factors in common.

  1. Tools shouldn’t get in the way. They should be an extension of your body.
  2. Improvisation occurs successfully if there is a common language. It is narrowed and supported by structure and a framework.
  3. Roles are needed in improvisation. This allows for every person involved to work within their own boundaries.
  4. Communication and Expression is needed between the improvisers. In music, most of this is non-verbal, on the web one can do this verbally, or by showing empathy and a familiar train of thought to others in the project. Which brings us to:
  5. trading parts. By mimicking each others behavior and trying to get into each others heads.

James Bridle’s historiography

First off, Wiki Racing is awesome. But that’s beside the actual point James was making.

James talked about an astonishing phenomenon called Historiography; the process of how something came to be. Historiography is fully focused on the temporal context of a subject. Stories have many sides to them, and historiography shows these stories.

The context of a story can tell more about it than the story itself. Oh, and James printed all of the revisions of the Iraq War wikipedia article, into an amazing set of books.

Tom Coates’ omnipresent network

Tom Coates talked about an great amount of amazing things, which all greatly resonated with just about anyone I talked to afterwards. I was trying to summarize it all, but that was inferior compared to the next three quotes.

Every object around you intricates all of the planet.

The web used to be a bunch of individual silos linking to each other.

The API’s that services produce are the road infrastructure of the web. Every piece of data that someone adds to such service is something you can work with.

The important thing to take away from this talk was to “be valuable in context.” There is so much information out there already, and there are so many places to quickly and easily gather even more information, that information has become like ideas. Great ideas are worthless without great execution. And great information is worthless without great use of its context.

Because everything the network touches is our playground.

Merlin Mann’s nerds, nerds, and those goddamn japanese toothpicks

To conclude an astonishing day of talks, Merlin Mann took the stage. Telling us that we are nerds. Telling us why we are nerds. And telling us that that’s a good thing. Because Merlin had no slides. Merlin needed no slides. Tom Coates used up a whole month to create slides, so Merlin decided to compensate for that. And I’m talking out of my ass now.

We web folk are nerds. And that’s a good thing. Because nerds care. Not to be melodramatic, but Merlin showed me why I am constantly moaning about living in Maastricht. I constantly moan about web companies in my city that don’t care. I constantly moan about people who don’t care. Nerds care.

The thing we need to look out for is becoming isolated. Because we care about things, we focus on them. And sometimes we lose context. And this context is of great importance. We shouldn’t lose that context.

We also love digging into subjects very deeply, almost obsessively deep. Don’t stop looking around and dig too deep. Figure out what to be nerdy about next.

And the biggest, most obvious thing that Merlin said, but was so important I had to note it: Put yourself in a situation with people that are way smarter than you are.

As a whole …

dConstruct 2010 was amazing. Clearleft put their finest foot forward and the crowd that got attracted to it might have been even better.

I am very grateful to have been able to spend time with some amazing friends I’ve come to know from earlier conferences. And I am happy to have met some awesome people like Al, Ed and Chris as well as some great people I already knew or followed online, like Faruk, Dot and Jon.

… and I talked to Merlin – frickin’ – Mann.

See you next year, Brighton.