24th January, 2019

A certain sense of inevitability

This editorial was written for the New Adventures magazine, January 2019.

The first New Adventures took place in 2011, sparking a trilogy of events that helped push digital design forward with bold ideas and honest opinion. The whole thing was a blast. Some seasoned conference-goers considered it their favourite, and for many it was their first event.

The support was always heartening, and we even received a couple of awards. Wherever I went in the intervening years, people would ask if New Adventures might return. ‘Never’, I’d reply, not allowing myself to entertain the idea.

Early last year at a couple of events, the question seemed to find its way into most conversations, and I began to respond with ‘Maybe’. I came to realize just how much I’d missed the conference – and missed you – and wondered if a return might play a role in re-energizing digital design. With every passing week, the industry seemed to be losing its way: misguided thinking, obsession over tooling, and a future so uncertain that we’d rather look away. New Adventures seemed like a positive response: to reconvene and collectively examine our challenges. A certain sense of inevitability developed, and eventually I turned to my wife, Geri: ‘Let’s do it!’

Unpicking the present

Digital experiences are forming in new ways. We need to think many steps ahead, be ever more collaborative and unerringly efficient. What we build must be resilient, performant, and accessible. There’s a gold rush of new apps vying for our loyalty, and we fret about them all lest we back the wrong workhorse. We feel responsible for the world beyond our desks; told we’re complicit in the breakdown of ethics and labour, that we’re enablers of miseducation and exclusion. It’s not easy for anyone, and there’s a lot to wrestle with. Open-minded events like New Adventures aim to empower individuals with practical guidance that works right now, while also contemplating the future as a community.

As ever a lot is going on, and yet design is in a frustratingly inert state. A proliferation of shiny tools has transformed our processes so we might endlessly repaint the same set of approved patterns that little bit faster. Our obsession with good behaviour and best practice sees us struggle to innovate, while all around us moves at pace, shaping the environments and defining the boundaries within which we operate.

Perhaps digital design needs an injection of fun and weirdness: more thought for arts and humanities; a wider frame of reference so we might rediscover a sense of curiosity, and zeal for new ground. If we increase our range, might we travel farther? Can we put wiggles in otherwise straight lines so we might find something new? How can we visualize our future unless we try to unpick the present and find alternative ways of seeing?

No small ambition

Early in 2018, Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe, highlighted the shallow nature of most design discourse, which led directly to an in-depth self-flagellation from guilt-ridden online mag UX Collective. To summarize Vinh’s stance: today’s practitioners have little time for intellectual content and long-form insight, either unable to make time to read it, or just plain uninterested. Tips, tricks, and listicles are today’s currency: simple stuff for short-term gain. Quality varies, and intentions are not always honourable, many little more than thinly veiled sales pitches or revenue drivers.

Much of the content feeds a kind of denial where we package our abilities as a noble craft immune to uncertain futures: we’ll be alright because nobody else – not developers, and definitely not machines – can do what we can do. Never, ever.

And so, designers write for designers, and design publications deliver what designers want – not what they need. Those who might offer real substance by way of talent or experience can’t always spare the time to contribute. Crucially, we’re missing the essential influence of thoughtful critique and direction that shapes other disciplines such as art and architecture. Paul Lloyd echoes this need with his article ‘Look around you’.

There’s a call for more ‘independence, honesty, depth, and breadth’, and further democratization, where design becomes accessible and meaningful to millions of people. That’s no small ambition, but it’s achievable, and we can start by demanding better content.

Readying for relaunch

Before our relaunch, we’d planned to expand beyond the conference, and establish a new possibility space where diverse thinking and intellectual inquiry could thrive – design looking outwards as much as inwards. Few, if any, publications seek to engage design-minded practitioners with an intentionally broad subject matter. We considered turning NA into a full-time pursuit with smaller quarterly events and an always-on web presence; new platforms for fresh thinking, immersive learning, and ambitious ideas.

If I’m honest, it’s been a difficult few months. A lot has changed since 2013, and our return has been an exhausting struggle; from selling tickets to chasing suppliers, everything’s been so much more challenging than before. The reasons are many: the way people work has changed, priorities have shifted, the world is in meltdown. It’s now an immense risk to run an event of this scale, and that realization hit us hard after the relaunch, shattering our confidence. The events space is crowded, and it’s not a good time to invest in a new publication, let alone one focused on diverse content. Of course, if anyone out there wants to help us realize these ambitions, we’d love to talk.

Bigger and better than ever

So, are we feeling down? Nope! Once again, the web has come to Nottingham, and we’re excited to see friends old and new. As ever we’ve worked closely with our speakers to deliver a programme built around key themes. We finally convinced Ethan Marcotte to join us, and long-time supporter Jeremy Keith will, at last, take the stage. It’s also a pleasure to invite Clare Sutcliffe, for whom NA was a catalyst for not one but two life-changing events. Our themes are carried into this little publication with articles and poetry you can enjoy on your way home.

We’ve perhaps our best workshops to date, and the packed fringe offers something for everyone. It was important to acknowledge the thriving Nottingham tech community, with local stars Helen Joy and Jessica White in our main lineup, and Women in Tech, Nottingham hosting the lunchtime takeover. A lot of excellent things have happened in this city since our last conference.

We expanded our commitment to a safe and inclusive environment, though a lower than anticipated budget and other factors saw us fall short of a complete offering. We were thrilled to provide free passes to thirty diversity-ticket applicants and learned lots in the process, discovering some inspiring people who need a little support. Our thanks to those who applied, and to everyone who generously contributed additional tickets.

Facing the future together

And so once again we’ll reconvene and recalibrate, and fill the hall with goodwill. Our sincere thanks to everyone who has supported this conference, and to anyone who ever gave something of themselves to digital design and the web. If we’re investing our lives in this industry, we should steer the appropriate path. Now is the time.

The original version of this editorial appeared in the New Adventures magazine, January 2019.

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