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The top 20 web conference talks of 2012

Conference season is pretty much all year around now. There are web conferences about everything. And diversity was a big issue this year. There was a dedicated conference for women, JS Conf EU actively reached out to find 25 per cent women speakers, and the issue of speaker equality even sank the British Ruby Conference.

But what were the best talks of 2012? Last year we let Lanyrd's data decide; this time round we've asked a bunch of designers and developers to recommend their favourite presentations. We concentrated on talks that are available online, so you can check out the videos and/or slideshows. This means, of course, that many didn't make our list.

For Samantha Warren, designer at Twitter and creator of, for example, all the best talks happened at Brooklyn Beta, but sadly none of them are online. And Craig Lockwood, who runs Besquare and the Handheld conference names Life at the Intersection of Code & Design, by Evan Doll, founder of Flipboard, as one of his highlights: "Evan Doll spoke to a very technically knowledgable audience at iOSdevuk about design iteration at Flipboard. Evan spent many years working at Apple on iOS and shared some epic stories about his time at the big A in a talk that lasted 90 minutes but still kept the audience wanting more."

Frontend developer Anna Debenham, meanwhile, whose own talk about the game console browser landscape made waves this year, enthuses about Seb Lee-Delisle's presentation at dConstruct. "It's audio only," she sighs, "but it's a shame it wasn't filmed because it was very visual and had glowsticks. He's an amazing presenter." She also recommends the audio of Dan Williams' Atoms Are Hard, a Skillswap session wading through the trough of disillusionment of the Internet of Things.

But here's our final list, in alphabetical order. Sit back and enjoy:

01. 10 Things to Make Your Site Faster

Speaker: Chris Coyier
Event: WordCamp San Francisco 2012

"I love Chris Coyier," praises Carl Smith, Chief Keeper Upper of nGen Works. "He's so approachable, hilarious and makes learning fun. You could see the audience was relieved that this was going to be a high energy talk full of simple things they could do today. Tips that would make their work better immediately. I'm not technical at all and I understood everything he presented to the group."

02. Aaron James Draplin

Speaker: Aaron James Draplin
Event: Portland/CreativeMornings

Gavin Elliot, founder of the upcoming Industry web conference, says: "Aaron has one of the best presentations I've ever seen: just sit, listen and learn. Open your mind as to how you can use what he's saying in your work, right now."

03. Adam Savage: Why We Make

Speaker: Adam Savage
Event: Maker Faire

Shane Mielke, formerly creative director at 2Advanced Studios and now freelance designer, says: "'It does not matter what you make. It does not matter why. It just matters that you’re making something.' Those words and many other comments about setting goals, problem solving and being passionate about your interests all make this yet another must-see Adam Savage presentation."

04. Adapting to Responsive Design

Speaker: Mark Boulton
Event: Fronteers

"I've referenced Mark Boulton in my own talks and articles plenty of times, and with good reason," explains user interface designer Dan Rose, who talked about Repurposing Photoshop at Future of Web Design NYC recently. "His approach to Responsive Web Design is unequivocally practical. This talk covers how Responsive Design affects not just designers but everyone in your organisation, suggesting that a philosophical approach to selling and producing the web is an inevitable change."

05. Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content

Speaker: Karen McGrane
Event: Breaking Development Orlando

"I only have one favourite this year," states Dan Mall, founder and design director of SuperFriendly. "Karen McGrane's Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content. Lots of future-friendly thinking about where and how content exists in a world with increasing device disparity."

06. Admiral Shovel and the Toilet Roll

Speaker: James Burke
Event: dConstruct

"dConstruct 2012 had the best talks of any conference I'd ever attended," says Laura Kalbag. "The day was headlined by James Burke talking about predictions, technology and what the world could become. It was a fast-paced talk and resulted in a lot of minds being blown."

07. A Happy Grain Of Sand

Speaker: Aral Balkan
Event: Handheld and NDC 2012

"I've seen variations on Aral's talk many times over the last couple of years and I love it every time," enthuses Laura Kalbag. "Covering the importance of experience design and how it touches every part of our lives, it's a funny and inspirational talk."

Craig Lockwood agrees: "Aral Balkan presented a revised version of his Happy Grain Of Sand talk at Handheld Conference and left the audience crying with laughter and feeling incredibly inspired. User experience can sometimes be a dull subject for a talk, but Aral is so passionate about his subject that he comes alive when on stage. I now look at toilets and washing machines in a whole new light…"

08. CSS for Grownups: Maturing Best Practices

Speaker: Andy Hume
Event: SXSW Interactive 2012

"I wasn't at SXSW this year but there was a massive buzz about Andy's talk with lots of people saying it was their favourite talk of the event," Anna Debenham explains her choice. "As someone who writes CSS every day, listening to the recording made me feel a little uncomfortable! The talk is based on his years of experience working on big web projects, so take some time to have a listen, and you might be surprised by how much it changes the way you think about writing CSS."

09. Is Your Site Fast Enough?

Speaker: Andy Davies
Event: Port80 conference

Craig Lockwood says: "Andy Davies talked about the importance of web performance and how code bloat can dramatically affect the user experience. Andy is clearly a very knowledgable guy but had the skill to present to a mixed ability audience about a technically demanding subject without being condescending or overly technical, a rare skill."

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10. Illustrating UI

Speaker: Matt Hamm
Event: Web Expo Guildford

"I really enjoyed seeing illustration on the web being talked about," says Gavin Elliot says, "as it's not often you hear about it and the benefits like storying telling and describing actions and processes visually instead of with words."

11. Jason Santa Maria

Speaker: Jason Santa Maria
Event: Kickstarter Benefit CreativeMornings

"Loved this because not many people talk about when things have gone wrong in the past, you hear success stories but don't always hear the screw ups," web and UI designer Sarah Parmenter explains. "I loved Jason's honest approach to this talk, he's a great, calming speaker anyway but this talk particularly resonated with me."

Craig Lockwood adds: "I really loved Jason Santa Maria's Creative Morning session entitled 'Saying NO'. Jason talks about learning to say 'no' to projects that don't excite and the importance of turning down work which is not enjoyable. Jason has a great style of presenting and I'm sure I will come back to this session over and over again."

12. Responsive Design Workflow

Speaker: Stephen Hay
Event: Mobilism

"I've spent the better part of the past two years trying to wrap my mind around what the best workflow is for web design, and though it may not be possible to definitively declare what it is, Stephen Hay has provided some useful insight on his approach," Dan Rose explains of another one of his favourite presentations. "I especially enjoyed that he tackled the question, 'If we're not delivering designs in Photoshop, what do we deliver?'. If you're open to considering a different approach to your design workflow, this is an essential talk."

13. Rolling up Our Responsive Sleeves

Speaker: Ethan Marcotte
Event: An Event Apart

"Unravelling some of the mysteries of responsive design and in his inimitable storytelling manner, Ethan's talk diminished some of the issues I've personally had with responsive design," admits Sarah Parmenter. "I heard this multiple times last year and it still sticks."

Carl Smith agrees: "When Ethan takes the stage it feels like you're in a great lecture at a prestigious college. I've seen Ethan speak several times and I'm always left with the same realisation. He is one of the best storytellers in our industry. His true gift is weaving in new approaches to how we build the web with lessons from history and his life. Giving us new terms and concepts we can understand because they are wrapped in narrative, After hearing Ethan give this talk I learned not only new ways to move from chaos to order, but how to enjoy the experience.

14. Seven Deadly Myths of Mobile

Speaker: Josh Clark
Event: Breaking Development Orlando

"Josh is an amazing presenter with a very light and personal presentation style," applauds Carl Smith. "He shares his ideas and knowledge in a way that builds up and embraces the audience. He understands their pain and acknowledges their intelligence. In this presentation he exposes mistakes we're making based on myths we've all heard and many of us had ingrained in our approach. Attendees walk away with a new perspective and a desire to be mobile myth busters."

15. Simon Collison

Speaker: Simon Collison
Event: Kickstarter Benefit CreativeMornings

"Simon is one of the most incredible humans I've ever come across," says Gavin Elliot, "a very open talk which gets you thinking. Look at yourself and be you."

16. So You Have An App Idea

Speaker: Dave Addey
Event: Handheld conf

"I may be a little biased as this talk was at my own conference," admits Craig Lockwood, "but Dave Addey's 'So You Have An App Idea' is pretty special. As a native app developer, Dave presented to a room full of web designers an informative and highly entertaining session on developing native apps."

17. The Immobile Web

Speaker: Jason Grigsby
Event: Breaking Development Orlando

"Jason Grigsby gave this outstanding talk at Breaking Development conference about browsing the web on TVs," says Anna Debenham. "I learnt a ton from it for my research into game console browsers, because there are a lot of similarities between browsing the web on a console and a Smart TV. It's an important talk because in 2011 and 2012, we focused a lot on how our sites will look on small screen devices, but in 2013, I'd like to see more about how we'll cater for big screens."

18. The Mindful Designer

Speaker: Robbie Manson
Event: New Adventures in Web Design 2012

"Robbie's thoughtful talk, The Mindful Designer echoed a reflective start to the year at New Adventures," remembers Laura Kalbag. "Speaking about the creativity and not being hung up on the tools we use, Robbie gave an insight into the design process that's often missing from conference lineups." Gavin Elliot agrees: "I'm a good believer in embracing chaos, and whilst Robbie isn't describing chaos he goes on to explain embracing the unpredictable to find the valuable elements of doing so."

Craig Lockwood adds: "Robbie has a great style, which is laid back but still highly engaging. The Mindful Designer has some beautifully sparse slides coupled with Robbie's extremely insightful narrative. The talk tackles the difficult subject of failure, and how failure can be valuable, provided we are mindful of why."

19. The Start-Up of YOU: 21st Century Career Strategy

Speaker: Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
Event: SXSW Interactive 2012

Shane Mielke says: "This presentation at SXSW really opened my eyes to a different way of thinking not just in regards to career but goals in general. The world and especially our industry are changing so fast that setting rigid long term goals as was done by our parents is not possible anymore. You need to of course have long term goals but also be nimble and open to pivoting to “where the growth” is at is essential in today’s fast paced world."

20. We Used to Build Forts

Speaker: Travis Schmeisser
Event: New Adventures in Web Design

"As much as I like technical talks, there's always a need to hear from those in our community about the community itself," says Dan Rose. "At naconf, Travis Schmeisser discussed the side of web design we've been neglecting, even though it was seemingly more evident in the early days of the web: creativity. It's good to be reminded of where we, as the makers of the web, came from once and a while."

Bonus 1. Ben Chestnut

Speaker: Ben Chestnut
Event: CreativeMornings Atlanta

Technically, the talk of Ben Chestnut, CEO and co-founder of MailChimp, took place last year, on 9 December, but the video was only uploaded on 22 December, and a lot of people may have missed it. Also, it was by far Dan Rose's favourite. He says: "If you need a change of pace from the analytical and theoretical design talks out there, this is it. Ben Chestnut, CEO & co-founder of Mailchimp, is as intelligent as he is entertaining, and this talk is proof. He talks about his own experiences and the creative culture surrounding the company we adore so much."

Bonus 2. Making Things Better

Speaker: Linda Sandvik
Event: From the Front 2012

Gavin Elliott recommends: "If you ever needed the kick up the butt to try new things, @hyper_linda takes you through her journey and makes you feel jealous of everything she has achieved in her humorous and thoroughly engaging talk."

Bonus 3. John Cleese on Creativity

Speaker: John Cleese
Event: Video Arts

"This presentation obviously did not happen in 2012 but it was uploaded to YouTube and came to my attention in 2012," explains Shane Mielke. "It was easily the most interesting, funny, inspirational and paradigm shifting presentations of the year. Cleese talks about how everyone is creative, why some people are more creative than others and how creativity requires being in an open, playful and curious mode instead of a closed and rigid mode under a strict deadline."

Many thanks to all our contributors for selecting their very favourite talks of 2012 for this article: Laura Kalbag, Craig Lockwood, Gavin Elliot, Sarah Parmenter, Dan Rose, Carl Smith, Shane Mielke, Dan Mall and Anna Debenham.

We hope you've been inspired to check some of the talks out. Let us know what you think of our selection in the comments, and which talks were your own favourites this year.

Cover photo: Rick Nunn.

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