Reasons to be Creative

The Reasons to be Creative main stage

This year I had the opportunity to attend Reasons to be Creative in Brighton. This conference had been around for quite a few years under a different guise, Flash on the Beach, which, as the name implies, was focused on Flash; something I've never quite gotten into (sans a few horrible splash intro screens when I was playing around with web development as a teenager—but let's not go there).

My colleague, Adam, repeatedly told everyone at Simpleweb how it was an amazing experience until our ears bled. To shut him up, I acquired a ticket, but let's be honest, at £60 for a student ticket for a three-day conference, it'd be really rude not to. I swear my degree has almost paid for itself by way of ridiculous student discounts alone.

For the uninitiated, Reasons to be Creative is a three-track, three-day conference. Although multitrack conferences break my heart on several occasions by way of overlapping awesome speakers; they do allow for more flexibility as well. Considering the veritable cornucopia of talks that I attended in total, I'm not going to attempt to cover all of them—some talks heavily relied on visuals and slides, some of them had live coding, and some of them just didn't have as many talking points as others. I'll cover some of my favourites below.

Kevin Warwick

A picture of Kevin Warwick speaking

The first keynote was covered by Kevin Warwick, a Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, doing scientific research in several advanced subjects that are far beyond my comprehension. Kevin believed we all are going to become cyborgs in a couple of decades, which, admittedly, sounds a bit intimidating. During his talk, Kevin presented some of his research experiments into cybernetics, which at one point involved him implanting a chip in his arm communicating directly with his nervous system, allowing him to control a robotic arm over the internet from across the Atlantic Ocean, amongst others. He demonstrated a video showing robotics being partially able to control Parkinson's Disease, which was amazing. I hadn't heard of Mr Warwick before this conference, but it turns out he's quite well known, to say it the least, for these sorts of experiments.

This talk set the theme perfectly well for the rest of the conference. There are many professions out there that the web industry can derive inspiration and ideas from—as well as closely cooperate with, including this kind of crazy, ridiculously bonkers science stuff, illustration, film making, and many more. Kevin inspired me to broaden my horizons, and contemplate the future in which I may become a cyborg myself—and, heck, consider how humans could possibly hack with our own hardware in a few decades time. Arduino is only the beginning!

(Admittedly, the cost of failure is a bit higher, but hey. For science!)

Inayaili de León

A picture of Inayaili de León speaking

"Communication is the most important part of our job. So why are we terrible at it?"

Inayaili set out to solve this question in her excellently delivered talk. As she went through a standard day at work for her at Canonical, being a remote worker, I was reminded of how much time we actually spend communicating and how comparatively little we spend actually making things. This isn't a bad thing—communication is vital in every project. Despite all of the time invested in communication, we're often pretty rubbish at it. What can we do about this?

A lot of the problems we face regarding communication is that we forget how important it is and don't devote it enough attention. When we spend time talking to people in meetings, at informal chats at a co-worker's desk, or just having a chat about a client at lunch, we often don't devote conversations our whole attention: we check Twitter, we sneak in a game on our phone, or just keep our mind focused on something else. I know I'm certainly guilty of this. If we do this, nuances in the conversation can easily be lost, leading to further communication down the road. Inayaili presented some challenges for us to improve our communication, and the first one is:

Create a human moment. The next time you're having a work conversation in person, give them your focused attention.

Secondly, Inayaili moved on to external communication with clients. It's our job as web professionals to communicate and get our point across—not the client's. It's your job to make them understand what you're saying, and if they do understand, you'll be taken more seriously and appear professional. Don't just assume clients will get jargon. Mike Monteiro's excellent 'Design is a Job' was first quoted here:

It's your job as a designer, and as a communication professional, to find the right language to communicate with your client. When you say a client doesn't "get it", you might as well be saying "I couldn't figure out how to get my point across. I am a lazy designer. Please take all my clients from me".

Inayaili's second challenge is to get your point across, and do it well. The next time you're going to think "they just don't get it", don't let that happen. Make sure they do get it.

Following on from this, she continued to share some general wisdom on how to best communicate with people. We're funny creatures, humans. We're often motivated by pride and work harder for meaningful causes or just the sense of appreciation than just monetary compensation. We place more value on our own thoughts and ideas than anyone else's; though what are the odds we're always right? We catch other people attempting to justify and rationalise their decisions, but we all do this, and it becomes clear once we listen to ourselves. This is normal. If we catch ourself attempting to blindly justify our decisions, stop. Inayaili's third challenge: Listen to the justifications and try to learn to speak without them. Don't try to avoid responsibility. Our communication will be better, and our projects too.

The talk finished with a call to action: We often try to have empathy with our users. Apply the same to our co-workers. As well, invite more participation, ask for feedback, actually truly listen to this and take it to heart.

In summary, this is a talk that everyone could really gain from, no matter if you're a designer, developer, project manager, or professional cat herder. I've certainly returned to work with a changed attitude as a result.

Christian Heilmann

A picture of Christian Heilmann speaking

Christian is a developer evangelist at Mozilla, and presented the first keynote of the second day, "The Web Thing".

A very fitting title for the talk, as this was not focused on a single topic, but on the web as a whole and his thoughts on it. We generally see the web as something extremely cherished, something we want to look after, cuddle to sleep every night, and care for; which is entirely reasonable, as it pays our bills and it's ridiculously fun to work with. Most end users, however, see it as something awesome, in the true sense of the word (huge, impressive, but maybe slightly daunting and scary). We tend to forget this.

As well, we're also going slightly astray by getting excited by new, cutting-edge technologies—only to apply those only to our own sites, side-projects and tech demos, chickening out by saying that "in the real world, clients don't want cutting-edge stuff". If this really were the case, why are we building the technologies at all? Be brave, and implement something cool on a client project if it benefits the user and you have the wherewithal to do so.

In the modern day and age, there's no point complaining that something doesn't work right. Three out of the five largest browsers are open-source, we have the ability to report bugs, commit fixes and communicate with the people who make the standards. This wasn't the case a decade ago.

This is highly relevant considering the current efforts on the element being standardised as we speak. I'm pretty sure this is the first HTML element standardisation effort being spearheaded by web authors, not standards authors or browser vendors.

Christian suggested how we could best move the web forward. One of these things were to be better at working in teams, leading to my favourite quote of the entire conference:

Don't build for yourself. Assume the next person who looks at your code is a lunatic axe murderer who knows where you live.

Truer words are rarely spoken.

However, occasionally, we really should forget about fancy, shiny new things and not forget that we essentially make things for the users. Don't be afraid to make things ridiculously simple or disregard best practices if it adds benefit to the end user of your website. Use the technology we have available and be pragmatic about it. Say an essential feature can be implemented in HTML5 and JavaScript, but there are no polyfills available (say WebRTC-related) or it would simply be easier to write a fallback with Flash? Go for it! We have the official approval from a standards-advocate.

That being said, it's okay to present inferior solutions if the browser simply isn't capable. If the client wants the site to look the same in every browser, send them a JPG. Let it go. Don't use polyfills for heavy animations and interactivity for IE6, this is just pestering the elderly!

Christian is a highly experienced and very eloquent speaker, leaving us with this gem:

Today is the tomorrow you expected yesterday.

Evgenia Grinblo

A picture of Evgenia Grinblo speaking

Evgenia is a user experience researcher at a mobile design agency in London, and presented at the second slot of the second day.

It's been almost a week since I watched this talk, and I still can't put my finger on it, but Evgenia's talk was definitely the one that made the most impact on me. I can't tell exactly why, and now, as I'm writing this, I feel like whatever I end up doing, I couldn't possibly do this talk justice by summarising it.

I think it's a mix of her poignant, lovely anecdotes and stories that perfectly tie into the talk about empathy, that it can, contrary to popular belief, be taught, and exactly why this is so important. She discussed the difference between the two different states of empathy: Cognitive (adopting the perspective of someone else, and understand their actions) and Affective (sharing the emotional state of another). Empathy effectively makes us advocates, and stories are an extraordinarily powerful way of achieving this.

She continued talking about how we can practice empathy as creatives, and this is essentially through qualitative user research (talking to a small amount of people, but in-depth) and understanding them.

We assume people is stupid. We're emotional. We make irrational decisions. We're bad at predicting the future. We have bad memories. We make up opinions. This is okay, and it's just the way we are. However, we're not really stupid. However, we do ask stupid questions to the user that are more focused on getting their design opinion ("Do you think the size of this logo is appropriate?") instead of trying to understand their goals. Users aren't designers, don't treat them as such.

Even if we haven't done usability testing, that doesn't mean our interfaces are bad. Sometimes they're pretty good, because through practicing empathy and understanding your target audience, you can regardless end up with a pretty good product. However, if we have the resources, no matter how small, usability testing can make the difference between something 'great' and something 'magical', even if only to a few users. I think that's worth it.

Evgenia ended the talk with a load of excellent resources for user-testing on a shoe-string budget. I recommend you check those out if you're interested (her slides are there too)

As I write this I can still recall her anecdotes and stories. Such a great talk. This write-up in no way does it justice. Thank you, Jenny.

Gimme 5

A picture of all the Gimme5 speakers on stage to give their final thanks

Gimme 5 is an hour-long session consisting of twelve people, often new or inexperienced in public speaking, getting a chance to be thrown into the deep end and present a talk in five minutes. This really enforces succinctness, which makes for an interesting format. If the speaker is good, you've got an excellent five minutes loaded with knowledge, and if the presenter really wasn't up to the task, you don't have to listen to them for more than five minutes. Either way, after doing this, the speakers have got some experience under their belt and would find it easier to pick up speaking elsewhere if they should so desire (and the two most popular talks get invited back to next year's Reasons).

That being said, there weren't really any bad presentations at all—the standard was through the roof. Some of my favourites included Mark Skinner, who talked about designing for happiness and why this is important; Matt Parker, who presented a rather amusing game in Unity, literally involving flashing people at the beach; and Adam Onishi, talking about the designer-developer relationship and how to improve this.

Again, the standard of this session was excellent. I was on the edge of my seat with my poor brain really struggling to keep up with the sheer level of information and inspiration. This is a great initiative from John, and I would really love to see more conferences pick up on this format.

Other notable moments

  • Brosmind; Lernert and Sander: These guys are absolutely hilarious. Their talks mostly involved showing off their previous work and talking about their processes, and their charisma further enhanced their pretty brilliant work. I do think having two speakers on stage at the same time adds another level of spontaneity to the presentations, which takes it even further. Thank you so much for the talks. I was in stitches throughout.

  • Mario Klingemann: "Better Living Through Lasers": Mario showed me exactly what a passion for one's craft looks like, displaying more physical projects created by laser cutters than I could possibly recount. Mario is an amazing speaker, as well. He could be talking about different varieties garden slugs for two hours and I'd still be at the edge of my seat. This one's impossible to describe (relied heavily on slides), but it definitely needed a special mention for the sheer, unleashed creativity and passion.
  • Conclusion

    Alternate title: "What happens in Brighton stays in Brighton"

    I went to Brighton expecting to meet two colleagues there for the Simpleweb road-trip, but except for that I only knew a few people going, most of which I hadn't met in person yet. I'm a bit shy at times, but was definitely hoping to meet a few new people.

    Reasons to be Creative did a really great job of facilitating socialising. There was a two-hour gap between the penultimate talk of the day and the final evening session, affording time to head out and eat/get changed/have a shower/walk the dog/whatever. This ensured mostly everyone was brought back together by the end of the day, and with cheap drinks at the bar afterwards, as well as an excellent pub less than a thirty-second walk away, the area was buzzing with conference attendees. I met so many great people and this has definitely been the best conference I've been to so far in terms of the social aspect. Some of us headed to the beach after the pub closed, which seemed like an excellent idea after a few. Maybe not so much the day afterwards for some of us; hence the alternate title: What happens in Brighton stays in Brighton.

    Thank you, Brighton. Thank you, John. Thank you, Reasons speakers and attendees. You've been wonderful, and I'll most definitely be back. Next time I'm staying for dConstruct too – it was apparently a stonker.