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New Adventures 2020 Writeup

Last week I went to New Adventures conference. It was my first New Adventures, and my first time in Nottingham, and both were fantastic.

I had heard a lot about NA Conf and had always been curious - it has a reputation for thinking more widely than your typical common or garden design conference. You don’t get practical talks at New Adventures, people said. There’s very little code on show. At New Adventures, they tackle the meatier issues affecting our industry; worthy topics like Ethics and Diversity.

It sounded exciting, but to be honest, it also sounded a little intimidating. When early-bird tickets were released I returned to the website several times to hover my cursor indecisively over the Buy Now button. I hesitated so long the early-bird tickets sold out, at which point I immediately bought one at full price in sudden fear of missing out.

It’s a decision I’m very glad I made.

The conference

The energy was amazing. From the moment I arrived for Cennydd’s workshop on Wednesday the people I met were particularly passionate and invested, not just about the topics being discussed, but about the conference itself, and about Simon and Geri. Anyone who had been before was keen to talk about how great it always was.

I was also surprised by the number of people I met who had travelled (often a long way) to be there. Typically at conferences, I find that most of the people I speak to are relatively local. Here though, I spoke to people from all over the country, Europe, and even several from the US. This speaks to the quality and reputation of New Adventures, but perhaps also indicates that maybe there’s an appetite for more of this kind of thing?

After attending, I understand the hype. This was one of the most carefully curated conferences I’ve been to; every talk contributing to a wider conversation. That of recognising the flaws in our current practices, and of taking responsibility.

Diversity and inclusion were concepts that came up repeatedly. The ground-breaking concept of designing with people from under-represented groups, rather than doing our best to empathise and producing something for them, and then expecting them to be grateful.

At times the talks covered ground that was difficult to hear. They pointed accusatory fingers at us in the tech sector for not preventing, or even creating, some pretty appalling situations.


The talks

Problems to be solved

Cennydd Bowles’s Building Better Worlds talk (and the workshop the day before) painted a bleak - although apparently not as bleak as earlier versions of the talk - picture of the state of the world, and challenged us to look at the damage caused by our current user-centred methods, and search for more ethical, sustainable models to take us into the future.

Liz Jackson and Laura Kalbag’s talks were equally sobering. Liz highlighted some of the ways design for disabled people patronises and silences those people, while recreating the very disabilities they claim to ease. Laura pointed out the many ways in which we’ve allowed corporations to erode our privacy and the amount of information we’ve allowed them to obtain about us.

Both situations exist because we’ve allowed them to develop and continue through complacency and outdated practices. Luckily, Liz and Laura had some strikingly straightforward suggestions for us as to how to improve things in the future.

For Liz, it’s as simple as involving disabled people in the design process. Not by empathising (spits) with them, but by designing with them, and remembering that “Not all things need saving, sometimes they just need to exist.”

Laura gave some practical advice:

In both cases, the solutions are not complex. The difficulty is in recognising the problem and making the choice to fix things.

Looking at things a different way

Akil Benjamin, Florence Okoye and Tatiana Mac challenged us to change the way we think when approaching design. They highlighted some of the inherent problems and biases in our current methods and showed ways in which we can work round them.

Akil spoke about making radical decisions. His talk was full of useful advice on taking stock, considering how our work might impact people, and generally being more aware of the consequences of our actions. At the same time, he said, this shouldn’t stop us stepping away from making the same choices again and again, and doing something radical.

Florence won me over instantly by talking about the CD-ROM version of The Way Things Work. The second it appeared on screen my brain started playing me sound bites I’d forgotten I knew.

This wasn’t just for nostalgia reasons though, as Florence compared the clear simple explanations given by The Way Things Work to the lack of clarity we experience in many aspects of the world today. How we work, she says, is crucial to understanding why we make what we make, and how to do it better.

In the rest of her talk, Florence outlined a basic process for simplifying complex design problems and creating a design framework to promote advocacy, not just inclusion. It was a lot to take in in a relatively short talk, but I’d love to sit in on one of Florence’s workshops and see it all in more detail.

I have been back through the slides for Florence’s talk since the conference, and she’s written some brilliant notes to go alongside them. I recommend having a look.

I had heard a lot of hype from people before and during the conference about hearing Tatiana speak, but although I have been following her on Twitter for a while, I’ve never seen one of her talks.

It was a revelation. Using the history of binary mathematics as backdrop, Tatiana talked us through different times, places, people and situations, ultimately reminding us that life is a spectrum, and that binary thinking doesn’t lead us anywhere good. It’s a message that, these days, feels very relevant.

It was a fantastic talk, and I can only imagine the amount of work that went into writing it. Trying to sum it up in words seems fruitless - it was something to be experienced, and if and when a video version is released, I’ll be directing everybody I can to watch it.

Preserving knowledge

Natalie Kane is Curator of Digital Design and the V&A, London. In one of my favourite talks of the day, she discussed the difficulties of cataloguing and archiving the things we use every day for future generations. When even things as commonplace as an iPhone or Amazon Echo are built using proprietary software, and museums aren’t allowed access, how can we preserve the artefacts of our current technological world?

This isn’t something I can honestly say I had even considered before, but now I’m fascinated by it. The idea of the iPhone 6 that can never be switched on because it will immediately download an update and brick itself really appealed to my sense of the absurd.


The hot take

It was a challenging day of talks. It’s taken me until now to properly digest some of what I heard. But it was worth hearing.

We need people like Cennydd, Liz and Laura; who aren’t willing to accept the status-quo. Who will rail against the accepted conventions and stop us burying our heads in the sand when faced with difficult questions.

People like Akil, Florence and Tatiana, who challenge the very way we think and talk about design, and reframe the entire practice along more responsible, less harmful lines.

People like Natalie, and her team at the V&A, who are working to understand and preserve our experiences of digital design, so that they are available to learn from in the future.

We also need people like Simon and Geri, who recognise the vital need to have these kinds of conversations, and who put in the enormous effort to organise New Adventures.

As I prepare to post this, I’ve just filled in the feedback form for New Adventures 2020. The questions give a small insight into the amount of thought, effort and financial risk that goes into a conference like this. I’m really glad I had the chance to experience it.

If there’s a New Adventures 2021 - and I really hope there will be - I can tell you that there will be absolutely no hesitation over buying a ticket next time.

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