17 November 2016

I went to some web conference in Berlin and it was great

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It was sometime in fall between projects when I thought: ”Right, I have to go to a conference this year, alone or with company”. I hadn’t visited one for a while and felt like I was missing out. 

I usually look for event content that doesn’t seem to fit either development or design, i.e. just "web design". I also want the conference to last a couple days since I’m probably flying over. I was worried that it'd be too late for 2016.

Then I found Beyond Tellerrand.

”1, 2, 3, we are back in town”

I first learned about Beyond Tellerrand when browsing web conferences on Smashing Magazine’s exhaustive list of events. Beyond Tellerrand has now been organized 11 times and got started in Düsseldorf in 2011 by Marc Thiele. Working as a freelance web designer himself, he wanted to create an event that combined many different topics to form a solid web conference for many types of people working in the web industry.

Crowded event venue.

This year it had already been organized in Düsseldorf in May, as has been customary for the past two years. This November's event was held in Admiralspalast in Berlin. It’s an old theatre right in the heart of Berlin in Mitte. The conference floor consisted of the actual theatre room with bleachers you could hang under, and a hallway with free coffee to fill our new mugs from the goodie bag. There was also a bar you could get drinks from relatively cheap. I tried a couple bottles of Berliner myself.

The space in Admiralspalast is pretty tight though so between talks in the hallway the air got thick and the chatter loud - a small cost for not being in a soulless conference building I say! I found the venue lovely with its old building, new interior charm. The stage was especially nicely decorated and well lit.

DJ Baldower mixing music with samples from talks during breaks.

Entering the theatre room before the first talk, I was surprised to find an actual DJ playing what sounded like an original Beyond Tellerrand theme song. Between talks he also sampled recordings of the speakers' talks to make more original music in realtime. He was also super goofy dancing behind his desk every now and then. Mega fun. I think everyone loved the DJ.

Developers and designers gathering

Enough about the venue though, because a conference is only as good as its content. I don’t know how it was back in 2011, but this November in Berlin, Thiele’s vision came through. As someone with background in development and currently working as a designer, I feel like I’m right in Beyond Tellerrand’s target audience. Mind you, you don’t have to be a developer to attend, there were few talks with code in them. In fact it might even be slightly better for designers not (yet) too familiar with web development realities. This event challenges both designers and devs, and brings teams together.

I'm also one who believes that in the web industry, you or your team can't distance yourself too far from web technology as it is the medium. It's complex technology and it requires expertise for sure, but then it also gives you a lot for free. I usually look for talks that embrace the technicality and study its complex world from multiple points of view.

Frank Rausch demonstrating micro typography in banking.

Take Frank Rausch’s talk ”Typography is code” for example. After nerding out on micro typography and its useful applications, he walked through the Wikipedia reader app Viki. It might look thoroughly original, but is actually largely designed around how Wikipedia’s repeating text formatting patterns can be used. You couldn't just do anything you wanted for the content. It’s an example of code logic driving visual design - and vice versa - that’s hard to beat.

Or what about Charlotte Jackson's "From pages to patterns"? To me this talk, if any, is the one that really brings designers and developers around the same table. Pattern design is all the rage now. It’s where you design web sites using reusable components rather than trying to design separate pages first. It requires a lot of developer/designer team work and it's nice to hear how other people actually use the methodology. Her talk was spot on suitable to the spirit of the conference.

Charlotte Jackson giving her talk about pattern design.

The examples I picked underline what kind of a conference Beyond Tellerrand seems to be year after year. Little of it goes too far into the deep end of a particular expertise. Harry Roberts talking about CSS refactoring might be one that doesn't concern absolutely everyone and that's fine. Have a free ice cream and coffee or chat with strangers. That's what I imagine some pure developer types did while Mike Kus presented his visual design process. Or stick around and listen. We are all working towards the same goal and could use some understanding beyond our own expertise.

Creating discussion

A good selection of talks should also include high level subjects. Yes, this is in the dreaded hot air risk zone. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Your mileage may vary of course, but quality high level talks both challenge your thinking and fire you up. They don’t necessarily teach you anything directly useful, but rather give you a much needed kick in the butt. Not to mention that they shift the mood between more day to day work subjects.

Sacha Judd had a fun, yet serious take on diversity and self-learning.

Mike Monteiro gave a fiery talk about designing for ordinary people, what it takes and what’s our responsibility as creators. Sacha Judd made a good argument for self-learning and diversity in tech through One Direction fan fiction. These kinds of talks are a rollercoaster of laughter and frustration. But in the end they discuss important current issues of our industry. It also shows good taste and responsibility from the organizer to have these talks in.

Both conference days closed on an artistic note. I'd hazard a guess that many of us working in the web industry have an artistic hobby. To hear from (now) fearless artists freely expressing themselves is very supportive. I'm certainly guilty of not doing enough photography in my spare time, because it sometimes seems like a waste of time and I think I’m no good at it.

”We have created a class system in three hours” Monteiro joked during his talk about the cute tables on stage. They were free for everyone to use.
”We have created a class system in three hours” Monteiro joked during his talk about the cute tables on stage. They were free for everyone to use.

 

As I said the conference felt right for me content-wise, but it also had a really nice laid back atmosphere to it. The DJ, the lighting, the venue, the friendly organizers, they all worked together to form a nice little event for web people. It felt as if we were all there to listen to and meet people wiser than ourselves. There were very few empty words and the enthusiasm was real rather than forced. You looked forward to each talk with genuine interest. I would definitely go to another Beyond Tellerrand.

Otso looking at things

This brings me to the optional workshop day. I went for the P98a letterpress printing workshop that introduced me and seven other people to the world of letterpress. It’s an old technique that dates all the way back to Gutenberg in the 15th century. We were surprised to learn that letterpress printing is currently very popular in the US. This is, because the prints you get from it have an obvious look of physical craftsmanship. There’s microscopic warmth to the final result which is probably why wedding invitations are still a common practical use for letterpress.

Workshop attendees making their own letterpress posters.
We were a small group at P98a including the main organizer Marc Thiele himself.

 

Now, I’ll freely admit that I’m most likely never going to use letterpress in my line of work. I think the workshop had more to do with exposing yourself to nice things for inspiration. The P98a gallery is a beautiful space in Berlin Tiergarten ran by famous German type designer Erik Spiekermann and his friends. It shows. The walls are full of neatly organized tools, spacers, letterpress furniture, posters, books and - above all - the beautiful type. Everything is just so and yet it all looks so functional.

P98a is a nice thing.

Pictures around the P98a space.

While I might not have practical use for my new letterpress skills, there is however a shared reality between letterpress printing and what we still do everyday: typography is hard. Looking back at it as a web designer, setting type by hand is both challenging and cheating. It’s challenging, because you have to think about spacing between letters where as web browsers do it automatically. It’s cheating, because you can do careful setting (not unlike digital print design by the way) that’s either not possible or feasible in web typography. Even so, the relationship between content and fonts, whitespace, rhythm and layout are still more than valid challenges for web designers.

I came out of the workshop with the eagerness of a small dog. I just wanted to drink coffee and set type. How this applies to my day to day work I don’t know yet, but I’m keen to find out.

On the value of traveling alone

As it happened nobody joined me on this conference trip. That was a great cause of stress. I had never traveled alone in my life and spending three days at a conference seemed like a massive risk to a somewhat neurotic Finnish extrovert (curious combination I know). While the flights and accommodation worked out fine, I did feel somewhat alone on the first day. Then I met a Belgium designer/teacher with whom I talked quite a bit. I mentioned going to events alone and he pointed out that he finds you get more out of the talks that way. In hindsight, I agree. You spend less time planning lunch and evening activities with colleagues. It’s just you and the speakers.

What I also found very valuable was having to meet new people. I was essentially forced to do so to stay sane. Besides, were there a tight group of colleagues with me, I don’t think I would’ve even wanted to ”abandon” their company in fear of being rude. This isn’t to say that meeting people is impossible with a group of friends, but it is much more likely to happen when you’re on your own.

Empty vs. crowded bleachers.

My nightmare scenario of hanging out alone in Berlin not only didn’t realize, the complete opposite happened. I ended up spending the second evening with a group of amazing and friendly people. Shout out to Heydon Pickering for being so friendly and taking me along. He is a funny man by the way.

Closing thoughts

I had quite an experience at Beyond Tellerrand Berlin 2016. Everything was new to me: the city, traveling alone, the conference, the people. It all connected creating a powerful experience that left me exhausted, but happy.

I stayed in Berlin for a few days after the conference. I had heard some mixed feelings about the city, but I thought it was really interesting with its dark, sad history, good people and graffiti festooned walls. Sure there are more decorative cities to see and I got the feeling that maybe Berlin isn't perfect for tourists staying a full week just exploring the usual venues. But then again, like conferences, cities are not the sum of their decorations and surface deep activities.