Looking back at the Future of Web Design 2009

I’ve had a few days to reflect on my experiences at this years Future of Web Design conference here in London. This is the third or fourth year I’ve attended but unless some things change very drastically I won’t be dishing out upwards of £220 to go again.

Historically, I’ve always felt that the conference never gave any answers to the question its name poses. But, as I’ve blogged before, it didn’t really matter because there were often very useful and insightful presentations from very talented practitioners and speakers. That was enough to keep me going back wanting more year after year.

This time round, however, I didn’t feel that I got anything of true substance out of the conference. With a few notable exceptions the presentations lacked any depth or insight and on a couple of occasions the future of web design turned into a history lesson with a couple of (well known and respected) speakers delivering retrospectives on their work from the last decade. Not good enough. We attend these conferences to hear some gems of insight into what these guys and girls, who are supposedly at the top of their game, think the future will hold or at least what direction it’s heading. I’m not talking about crystal ball gazing, but a few ideas about emerging trends would slake the audience’s thirst which is derived from the very title of the conference.

In a whole eight hours of presentations not one person mentioned ideas around designing sites and services from APIs and open data. Nothing about designing for UGC. Nothing about service or utility design. Nothing about designing apps for the Air of Silverlight platform. These challenges are the future of web design. This is what’s happening out there in the wild but it seems that the very conference whose job it is to address these issues is failing. There was one presentation about designing on projects using agile methodologies which didn’t get nearly enough stage time and was levered into a dead space early on in the conference. Too many of the presentations seemed very lightweight with little substance or evidence.

Having said all that, there were a couple of notable exceptions – presentations which exhibited a great deal of preparation on the part of the speaker. Mark Boulton‘s talk on web typography was knowledgeable, insightful and he showed feeling, passion and opinion towards his subject matter. Molly Holzschlag, similarly, displayed great passion about web standards, but did drift towards web development. And Robin Christopherson gave a superb demonstration of the frustrations of browsing the web with a screen reader.

But these were scant compensation for the failings of the rest of the conference. And judging by my Twitter search stream at the time (#FOWD) and retweets of my own comments, there were genuine pockets of disappointment around the room throughout the day.

How to mend this broken conference? Well, better briefing of the speakers would help. Allowing them to present a re-hashed agency creds. presentation is lamentable. And, if you get a print designer to talk to a room full of digital folk they better have something really interesting to say and not just hide behind some nicely designed slides.

If this conference is to work long-term then I feel they should get the direction right or change the name. The web is a tremendously exciting place to be working at the moment with an incredibly exciting future. We have the conference to celebrate this. What we seem to be lacking are the speakers.

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2 Responses to Looking back at the Future of Web Design 2009

  1. MattConn says:

    Bravo.

    This mirrors my thoughts on FOWD ’09 exactly. I too thought that there were a couple of good talks, as you pointed out, Mark Boulton and Molly Holzschlag most notably, but even these didn’t really hit the mark. Molly Holzschlag inparticular is a fantastic presenter but it was all a little developer focused for me, take it to d-construct!

    But the thing that really annoyed me more than anything was the Microsoft ‘Watchmen’ presentation. Now that was really scraping the barrel. I’m not against Microsoft as much as some people but what exactly did they accomplish with their Surface demonstration? Is this all Microsoft have to say on the the future of the web? Lazy lazy lazy.

    And how many more times do we have to sit through a presentation based on the transition from print to web and how web designers can learn from the former? Yes, we get it. In fact we got it three years ago.

    Here’s hoping @Media has something more to offer.

  2. @MattConn Thanks. Didn’t want to muddy the waters of the post with a comment about the Watchmen presentation. But you’re right. It was badly conceived, badly executed and dull as err… Microsoft!

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