As Creative Director at Beaconfire RED, I get to work on all sorts of projects: websites, apps, and email campaigns, to name just a few. And I get to do that with all sorts of people: coders, designers, project managers, UX specialists, digital marketers, analytics geeks. I’m obviously partial to the aesthetics of visual design, but in recent years I have really started to explore all aspects of storytelling and the development of empathy in the products we create for our socially conscious clients.

One of our many perks here is the opportunity for professional development. Every staff member has a yearly personal training budget for attending conferences/trainings and I used mine last week to go to An Event Apart Chicago. Why? Because this conference has birthed some of the biggest innovations in our industry—content strategy and responsive design, just to name a few—and I wanted to be in the room where it happens.

My brain is still rattling, it was that good.

Not only did I get the chance to hear from some of the most innovative leaders in the web industry, I couldn’t help but sense a theme throughout the whole two-day conference: Humans matter. That may be an odd observation to make about a tech conference (and maybe I’m a bit pre-conditioned since that lines up with my own humanistic approach) but session after session highlighted the end user and our responsibility to improve engagement, empathy, and connection. Whether the speaker was talking about breathing personality into a site through a unique brand voice, or how research can reveal surprising user behavior, or better ways to work with cross-functional teams, or even how to design for users with disabilities, the notion of real people took center stage. The full 12-speaker lineup is here but I wanted to call out a few of the sessions that really resonated with me.

Jeffrey Zeldman’s From Research to Redesign: An Unexpected Journey set the tone on day one by focusing on the importance of understanding and making allies with the people for whom we are designing digital experiences. Either through market research, stakeholder interviews, or just good old listening, he shared some of his own experiences and left us with a few calls to (future) action: Pose questions, build trust, and never ask permission to do your job.

Cameron Moll’s Designing for Product Unity posed a really straightforward but often forgotten question when designing modern digital experiences: “Do they have to get out of bed to retrieve a larger screen?” He reminded us that unity isn’t the same as uniformity and that products need to reflect the people using it rather than the team building it. And lastly, he stated that “relationships are the currency of product design” (Hallelujah!) and encouraged us to invest as heavily in those as we do in our tech budgets.

I’ll admit that I was nervous about Jen SimmonsDesigning with Grid session since code gives me the willies, but I was blown away. She shared how new layout techniques with CSS Grid can create amazingly flexible and stunning design outcomes in a way that didn’t freak me out. She encouraged everyone to find joy, fun, and excitement in playing on the web rather than being a slave to “how things should be.” Plus, she used to be a theatrical designer (like me) so I may have a little girl crush now.

The Joy of Optimizing Images was a really engaging deep dive from Una Kravets, filled with great tips and solutions to a problem we have ignored for too long. It was great to have someone really focus on how a few small image production steps can make a huge difference for end users. We have forgotten that, even now, not everyone has fast internet connections, and that we need to design for THEM. She called this “irresponsible imaging”—a phrase I intend to somehow work into every meeting for the next month.

Brad Frost’s (of Atomic Design fame) session, Let’s Work Together, addressed a topic near and dear to us at Beaconfire RED: collaboration. Exploring the range between “complete chaos” and “stiffing rigidity,” he dug into a set of principles, structures, and guidelines that can bring teams together to achieve their best work. Even talking about how company values and culture can help (or hurt) our ability to create efficient (and effective) products. Oh! And he gave the best definition of a design system I’ve heard yet: The story of how your organization designs and builds products.

It’s hard to squeeze two full days of ideas and insights into a short synopsis like this, but my Event Apart takeaway was this: The web’s pendulum is swinging more and more towards humans rather than away from it. It will be up to us to define what that means for our work and ultimately, our world.

At Beaconfire RED, we craft purposeful, human-centric digital experiences with thoughtful design and content strategy. Learn more about our UX & Visual Design services.