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6 things we've learned from 2016's design festivals

We all love going to design festivals. It's a great way to encounter fresh inspiration, new trends and a burst of enthusiasm for your creative career. In an ideal world, we'd attend them all.

Of course in reality, squeezing in just one or two design events a year is an uphill struggle. So in this post, we bring you six of the best takeaways so far from 2016 design events you may have missed.

This is very much our personal selection, and no doubt we've missed out some great talks. So we'd love to hear your top 2016 takeaways too: please share them in the comments below!

01. Unified Design is the new RWD

Cameron Moll introduced the concept of Unified Design at Generate New York

Cameron Moll introduced the concept of Unified Design at Generate New York

Every now and again, a new term comes along that succinctly clarifies how we can move web design forward. We've had "responsive web design" (RWD), "mobile first" and "content first". And now comes what Cameron Moll describes as 'unified design', which he outlined in a talk at Generate New York in April.

The well-known designer and founder of Authentic Jobs explained to the audience that unified design means providing web visitors, "a cohesive experience, regardless of where that experience begins, continues, and ends". And it's essentially a response to changing technological world.

While traditional UX models assumed people would navigate a website or app in a linear manner, on one device, the world has moved on. Nowadays, we dip in and out of digital experiences via multiple touchpoints and a variety of devices. This means designers quickly need to catch up by providing what Moll called "data symmetry". For instance, if people add something to their shopping basket on an ecommerce site, will that information also show up if they click onto the same site via their smartphone?

"Let's replace Responsive Web Design with Unified Design," Moll urged the audience. Yes, it's that important.

02. Timing is everything for creativity

Fred Deakin addresses UAL students on day one of the workshop

Fred Deakin addresses UAL students on day one of the workshop

At the Modul 2016 workshop at University of the Arts London (UAL) this January, Airside co-founder Fred Deakin offered this advice about organising your creative tasks to better match your brain's energy levels.

"You can move from a generative state – brainstorming, designing and so on – to a more structural admin type of energy, such as scheduling [and sending] emails in a second," he said. "But to switch back the other way takes much longer. And scientists agree with me!

Deakin's solution is to: "Use your cleaner morning energy on the creative things you have to do and hold off on those emails until later. They need less insight and can usually be steamrollered through, unlike the tasks that require inspiration and enthusiasm."

03. Storytelling is changing completely

Whether you work in branding, graphic design or web design, over the last few years you'll have heard a lot about the importance of storytelling. Well, now that's all about to change, according to production designer and film producer Alex McDowell, who gave an eyebrow-raising talk to Design Indaba in Cape Town this February.

In what he called today's "post-cinematic era", what constitutes a 'story' is fundamentally transforming, he says. Stories have traditionally come from one author and followed a linear narrative path. But technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality mean different ways of telling stories can emerge. By way of example, he cited a VR immersion project created by Dr Silvia Earle called The Future of the Ocean.

"The next generation are art-scientists," McDowell said. "The opportunity to turn storytelling into something that can powerfully change the world is in all of our hands right now." How? To answer, McDowell quoted American inventor Buckminster Fuller: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

04. Working for free can be a good thing

Working for free can help you get the right kind of paid work in future, said Tom Muller

Working for free can help you get the right kind of paid work in future, said Tom Muller

Belgian graphic designer and comic geek Tom Muller gave an entertaining talk at Reasons: London in February on why we should sometimes work for free. It's a risky process, he admitted, but can reap rewards by allowing you to do the work you want to do, which can pave the way for getting more work of the same kind.

Muller cited New York fashion photographer Bill Cunningham's quote: "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do, kid. That's the key to the whole thing."

Working for free is about trust, respect and setting terms. It's all about the long game, and the golden rule is that "if you can afford it, you should do it," he said. "When you work for free, the currency is creative freedom."

05. The next digital revolution is upon us

If you're one of those creatives who hates new technology and wants everything to stay the same, then Kevin Kelly has some bad news. During his talk at SXSW Interactive in Texas this March, the founder of Wired magazine outlined 12 tech trends that he sees as "inevitable" and that will change everything we do radically over the next 30 years.

Chief among these is AI or artificial intelligence, which involves computers and machines taking over intellectual tasks from humans. For example, Google has taught its AI not, "how to play video games," but "how to learn how to play video games," – which is fundamentally different.

What we're moving towards, Kelly predicts, is AI as a utility that can be produced and distributed. "It's going to become a service. It's going to be generated in a generating plant that's far from you and sent over the wires to wherever you want, just like electricity."

And in the same way the invention of electricity changed every business, Kelly believes the next 10,000 start-ups will use some form of AI: they won't make it, but purchase it. "The formula could be "Take X and add AI. Instead of electrifying it, we're going to cognify it," he suggested. See the full talk in the video above.

06. You should design with your mouth

In this talk at SmashingConf San Francisco Mark Boulton discusses his experience while working on challenging clients such as CERN. And he explained how design systems can provide consistency and prevent the degradation that results from disconnected experiences.

A design system helps you establish a shared vocabulary, becomes self-policing and creates design health, he told the audience. "It's one thing I think we don't do enough of. At the start of a project, you should say: 'These are our principles, and this is what we stick by.' And very rarely do they get changed. It's like KPIs at the start of the budgeting year: they get set and they very rarely change, despite what happens along the way."

The design industry, Boulton believes, is getting better at this. "But a lot of the time, especially with graphic design and typographic design, it's really bad at drawing straight lines between measurable outcomes and what you produce as a designer."

How do you do that? "I design with my mouth. Not literally, that would be weird. But I spend a lot of my time talking to people. My time is spent creating the environment within which good work can happen. And if I do my job really well nobody notices and we do great work."

Have you attended a design event this year? What were your top takeaways? Share them with the community in the comments below!

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Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity (opens in new tab), published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.