This past September, our humble little design team of two (Véronique Pelletier and Jennifer Lamb), headed on down to New York City overflowing with optimism for a field that we love, and excited to be surrounded by our peers. We wanted to attend the Digital Thinkers conference not only to be inspired but to hear about current design issues and how the bigger names of the industry are responding to them. In the city that never sleeps, leaders and changemakers from the world of design shared their thoughts and their work, showcasing examples that stimulated the senses, encouraged us to have faith in ourselves, and inspired us to push further.

Digital Thinkers is a yearly conference hosted by Awwwards, spanning 3 days of digital design inspiration. The first day focused on an all-day workshop day, while Thursday and Friday were designated conference days featuring some of the best talent in the digital design world. We heard 24 speakers over the course of those 2 days and we’re here to report on our thoughts on the conference.

‘Part therapy, part intervention’

Among the overarching themes of the conference was that designers are terribly insecure — we’re perfectionists, plagued by self-doubt, forever questioning our decisions. Imposter syndrome tends to run rampant in this business.

Stephen Gates presenting his talk at the Digital Thinkers conference in New York City
We disregard praise in favour of that one voice that points to a problem with our assumptions.

A few key speakers (Bless you Molly Nix, Steven Gates, & Chris Do) helped us see how common this struggle is in this line of work. And not only is it okay, but our natural proclivity to question assumptions is what helps us do better, and it’s what makes our work better, too.

“The difference you bring to a team makes it stronger, helps the team question things, think differently, and ultimately get better. Embrace your difference. Exist loudly.”

Stephen Gates, Head Design Evangelist at InVisionApp


Cognitive bias, pink elephants and sacred hamburgers

Stephen Gates, Head Design Evangelist at InVisionApp

Stephen’s presentation was a welcome intervention. He works to elevate the business impact of design, emphasizing how companies with high design maturity tend to ship products on average 5x cheaper, 6x faster, and with valuation about 26x higher. No messing around! And while insecurity is part and parcel of this line of work, we can learn to fix this — or at least deal with it — if we can all learn to appreciate the very real value that design adds to the bottom line.

Stephen Gates presenting at Digital Thinkers conference in NYC 2019
Companies with high design maturity perform better by orders of magnitude.

Companies face other issues with cognitive bias. It can impact our ability to collaborate effectively and, worst case, lead to toxic behaviour. So what can you do when this threatens to derail progress? Keep this in mind:

“It is not about who is right, but about what the customer wants. This is an incredibly politically disarming way of working with people.”

We’re excited to dive into his podcast series, which is chock full of insights, and which you can subscribe to here.

Belief Systems – How to unlock your true potential

Chris Do, Emmy award winning designer, founder at The Futur
Chris Do presenting at Digital Thinkers conference
Chris Do illustrating how our perceptions shape our experience.

Chris Do illustrated how we can become our own worst enemy when our expectations negatively impact our experience. His tips on quieting that critical inner voice asked that we:

  • Challenge our assumptions
  • Disrupt our behaviour patterns
  • Reframe our thinking

We especially enjoyed how he applied the KonMari method (popularized by Marie Kondo, in case you’ve been living under a rock) to reshaping our beliefs, instructing us to write down our beliefs (Gather), identify the thoughts that spark joy (Separate), and tidy up our minds (Thank our limiting beliefs…and send them on their way).

Chris Do as Marie Kondo
This could very well be the best thing ever.

If you’re interested, here’s a previous talk of his with more ‘word jitsu’:

Chris Do | Master Mind: Unlocking Your True Potential

Design Generalists: We’re not special, and that’s okay

Molly Nix, Design Lead at Airbnb
Molly Nix presenting at Digital Thinkers conference NYC 2019
Molly Nix emphasized the value of Design Generalists

Molly struggled with imposter syndrome for not quite fitting in to the more and more highly specialized design niches. She reminded us design generalists that we do have our strengths regardless of being a little…across the board. We tend to be:

  • Deeply strategic: We are the conduit between the business and the user
  • Evidence-driven: Balancing quantitative and qualitative techniques, and widening perspective
  • Storytellers: We use storytelling to illustrate problems to be solved
  • Systems thinkers: We understand hidden complexities and user context
  • Highly collaborative: We work with team members to collectively determine how things works
  • Extremely adaptive: We learn how to learn

Here’s more on that from Molly Nix.

Tools to help us do better

From accessibility tools to timely reminders for making sure we don’t burn out our talent — or the users — Digital Thinkers provided us with some insightful reminders to bring home to Plank with us.

Accessible Design is Good for all

Sabrina Hall, Interactive Art Director at Scholastic

We sometimes overlook the vast amount of users for whom accessibility is key — people with temporary disabilities or impairments resulting from accidents, setbacks, surgeries. As designers, we want to impress, to push the limits and pack on the visual spectacle, but it’s important that this doesn’t prevent those with disabilities from accessing that content.

Planning for accessibility requires collaboration, intelligent fallbacks, and strong communication between project teams. Things like contrast and keyboard accessibility play a big part but there’s a lot more to it. Sabrina introduced us to these useful tools that we’re now incorporating into our everyday workflow at Plank to help make sure we’re checking all our boxes…

This Cloudflare color tool allows you to test out your palette and suggests accessible alternatives in a visual way.

Lighthouse is built in to ChromeDevTools and helps audit your site for performance, accessibility, progressive web apps, and more.

Time = Money

Munawar Ahmed, Managing Director at Fjord

Munawar enlightened us on the current state of the old adage, Time is Money. The challenge is real: The time wasted in pointless meetings and constant interruptions leads to real losses, in real dollars. Perhaps more alarming, long-term multitasking can permanently change your brain chemistry — namely, in areas related to empathy and cognitive and emotional control.

Munawar Ahmed presenting at Digital Thinkers conference
Time is the one thing we don’t get back

At Munawar’s agency, she’s made it a point to change this with a bold new approach to time and project management. She combines meetings into 30 minute morning sessions, leaving the problem-solvers with an uninterrupted block of time in the afternoons to do what they do best — solve problems.

She also stressed the importance of bringing all parties on board at the beginning of each project.

“Every discipline was represented on day one of the project […] we all had shared ownership from the very beginning, and thereby shared respect. This part was key.”

Bringing Personality Back To The Web

Vitaly Friedman, Co-founder & Creative Lead at Smashing Magazine

Vitaly was funny and entertaining as conference host. As presenter, he had us crying with laughter as he showed us some of the most absurd examples of what-were-they—thinking user experiences from around the web.

All jokes aside, however, the current state of the internet is truly lamentable. With popups and banners and the ubiquitous GDPR cookie-consent, we’re constantly being bombarded with obstacles and interruptions. Users don’t bother to read the terms of service. And why would they? Who’s got the time!?

A slide illustrating the state of user behaviour in 2019
A mind-boggling array of things to be aware of and manage

But we have a job to do — with the help of copywriters and developers and stakeholders and everyone — in helping users process and manage what they’re signing on to. We can help by making things easy to find, the text legible (at the very least), and by structuring content so that it’s easy to understand.

Vitaly Friedman at Digital Thinkers conference
Please, save the children!

Work that seriously impressed

We were also treated to a host of awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping presentations — the ones that make you want to run back and redesign every project you’ve ever done, but, like, REALLY amazing this time!

When everyone’s a designer, it’s time to rethink your strategy

Jackie Black, Experience Designer, and George Kvasnikov, Design Lead at Fantasy

We were simply blown away by Fantasy’s work. This delightful hover animation on the Bell product navigation is a trip!

Animated Bell navigation shown on hover
Animated hover states on Bell’s product navigation

We love how Fantasy’s work for Marc Jacobs brings the runway experience to the web.

Also worth checking out is the work they did for the Royal Caribbean App.

A New Conversation on Brand Design: Connected Brands and the Power of Language

Jennifer Vano, Creative Director, Head of Verbal Design and Augustus Cook, Creative Director, Brand & Business Transformation at R/GA

Jennifer and Augustus emphasized the role of verbal design in A New Conversation on Brand Design.

“…to build a Connected Brand, something else must change: the perception and role of language.”

“When we ask ourselves new questions about words — not just “What line works here?” or “How can I wordsmith this?” but “How can this idea, represented by these words, inspire a whole world?” — how we think about, create and connect with brands is redefined.” And Evolved by Nature is a discovery so game-changing that a new definition of how we connect with this brand should inspire the world.

With their elegant application of verbal design, they turned this…

A description of the active purpose of the brand, Evolved by Nature

…into this…

The typography style guide for the brand, Evolved by Nature

…and thereby beautifully blended the concepts of science — represented by the straight geometry of the sans serif — and nature — represented by the organic curves of the serif — into the brand’s typography. ♥

Read more from Jennifer on how “Words are Missing from the Conversation about Brand Design.”

We would like to extend a huge thanks to Squarespace for hosting us at their headquarters on Thursday night, and for the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the presenters who were in attendance. And we love our tech kits (Thanks Squarespace!! <3 ).

The tech kit essentials given out at the Squarespace after party
Our tech essentials kit from Squarespace

We came back from New York feeling…well, not necessarily refreshed — we’re talking about the city that never sleeps, after all — but certainly very motivated. We also came back feeling reassured, more confident, and, without a doubt, completely inspired.

View of Manhattan
And thank you, Squarespace for these stunning views overlooking Manhattan

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