A retrospective on collaborative lessons and adventures at my first design conference.
The month is November, 2019. Chargebee Design is completely abuzz. The countdown has begun to our most awaited design event of the year. We’re wrapping up design sprints, prepping creatives, merch, workshop creatives, and handouts.
After much brainstorming, writing, helter-skelter ideas, late nights, many rounds of coffee, experiments with sensors, carpentry, and Dyson vacuum cleaners, the first bunch of us sets off on the 13th of November.
Destination? Bangalore. Event? DesignUp 2019.
For the uninitiated, Design Up is an India-born conference bringing together the best names in global design. For Chargebee, Design Up 2019 was special. As partners, we had space amidst Adobe, Vivid Books, and Cure Fit to give people an idea of what our work brings to the world of design.
Chargebee’s workshop — ‘Elevating Design as a Business Practice’ would underscore the importance of designers engaging with their organisation’s business. What’s more, there were talks and sessions planned by folks from The Modernist Studio, Duolingo, Trello, Google, Dunzo, 3M, and more. I looked forward to seeing how I’d fit into the colourful Indian design community.
In other perks, my commute to the venue — The Lalit Ashok — was delightful. On my walk, I passed creepers enveloping stone walls, quaint overbridges, and period bungalows in one of Bangalore’s most verdant areas.
‘Mastering’ Open-Source Humanitarian Design 🌍 👐
DesignUp’s pre-conference masterclasses were a big draw. Many from Chargebee design arrived a day early to attend them. Focus areas ranged from ‘Trusting Invisibility: Ethics and AI’ to ‘Voice Interfaces’. We were excited to spend a day exploring and absorbing new ideas.
My masterclass, “Creating Impact with Open Source Humanitarian Tech” did not disappoint. The goal was to use to open-source tech and design to solve problems that occur in crises. For the class, the Kerala Floods of 2019 was the crisis in focus. The facilitators encouraged us to form teams based on skills we could share, and skills we wanted to learn. It was heartening to see designers excited to work with a UX Writer and learn some of my skills while sharing theirs to tackle our assignment.
First, a researcher who had interviewed survivors of the floods set the context. She described the on-ground situation and shared stories of survivors. We then began to collaborate, frame problems, identify solutions, and present them. Teams worked around TenFour, an app created by non-profit tech company Ushahidi.
The class drove home the potential of open source humanitarian tech in disaster response and emergency situations, and how designers could collaborate to make this technology a reality.
Using problem finding, user journeys, rapid prototyping, and low tech solutions, my team and I helped a fictional railway station master (Nirmala) ensure her coworkers’ safety in a flood situation.
Meanwhile, the Chargebee stall was coming together slowly but surely. All the elements envisioned by different members of the team amalgamated into a quirky corner of curiosity and fun — things we value as a team.
Building Empathy, Openness, and Creativity 💁
Day 1 of DesignUp began with (literally) a bang. The drum jam led by Roberto Narain, made walking in to the event feel like walking in to a music festival.
The conference promised to go beyond UI/UX. Talks addressed design in tech, collaborating in a digital first world, and assimilating diversity along the way.
Jon Kolko, Partner at Modernist Studio, set the tone with the keynote address. His focus was on Instilling a Creative Culture and the environment design leaders need to create for their teams. He spoke of the dangerous paths of self-doubt we often go down that hamper our innate curiosity and confidence. Kolko’s most important points were to-
- Acknowledge Feelings
Being worried and shy is common during reviews and criticism. Acknowledging that they can affect confidence is important. Instilling a culture of empathetic group critique in teams is essential.
- Remove ambiguity
Jon advocated for multiple iterations, and for any lack of clarity, doubts, or constraints to be brought to the entire team when presenting them.
- Let designers run wild to be creative.
A design lead has to shield designers from setbacks that may hamper their flow. But they also have to remind them about rules and constraints.
- Drive a vision
With the right vision rooted in being ‘human’, your team can begin solving problems and being creative.
The announcement of the DesignUp Tribe, a subscription-based membership to DesignUp piqued my interest. I’d never thought of a conference being subscription-based before, but it made perfect sense. Being able to predict attendance, interest, and revenue are so essential for any event, and ‘Tribe’ would make it possible for DesignUp.
The most impactful talk I attended on the Day 1 was by Devika Krishnan. Devika works with Dastkar Ranthambore, and the Committed to Kashmir project amongst others. As a supporter of local artisans, I found her journey championing indigenous art inspiring. Her innovations with ‘upcycling’ and local materials stood out. ‘Design for Sustainable Futures & Social Commerce’ proved the viability of creative projects in collaboration with underserved communities. But the idea that stood out the most to me was this:
Empathy is the product — Devika Krishnan
Day 1 ended on an urgent yet high note in a talk delivered by Scott Sorokin — the Global head of Digital at Infosys. Sorokin stressed the importance of designers moving beyond aesthetic processes. We have to now collaborate with tech teams, data scientists, and beyond to have depth and value. The messages that stuck with me after his talk especially in the context of the times we live in were-
“If you are not confused, you are not paying attention” — Tom Peters
and of course:
Sorokin’s one liners reminded us that tech stacks are an increasingly important part of a brand kit. Audiences today know what good is and expect the brands they interact with to be good. He urged designers to bridge talent gaps and go beyond being vendors to become “trusted advisors” to their business and clients.
Applying Findings and Documenting Processes📚 🖥
Andy Budd inaugurated Day 2 with a talk on ‘The Accidental Design Leader’. He pushed for ways that design leadership could balance various members of their teams such as planners (operations), pioneers (new areas), settlers and town planners (who make things a reality).
The maxim that struck me as succinctly wise from his talk was
“Hire slowly, avoid amazing assholes”
This directly addressed issues that I have seen in many teams I’ve interacted with and worked in over the years. No one should be hired only because they are a superstar in one specific area. Can’t stress the importance of this one enough.
Post lunch, topped by some decadent baked gulab jamun (my vote for best dessert of #DUp2019), I had work to do. I was coordinating Chargebee’s workshop on ‘Elevating Design as a Business Practice’. The workshop enabled designers to understand the larger business implications of their work. It also hinted at how to ask the right questions to be an essential part of business decisions. This theme popped up across various talks in the conference, including Scott Sorokin’s. It was good to see designers put on their business-thinking hats to find and solve problems.
The Powers of Documenting Design
I was keen to watch Hardik Pandya (not the Indian cricketer) talk about the power of design documentation. At Chargebee Design, improving design documentation has been a recent focus area. Pandya’s talk was full of substance and candour. His ideas about taking designs to every stakeholder for feedback “resolve locally before presenting collectively” really hit home. I found myself coming up with many ideas to implement at work.
Meanwhile, at the Experience Centre…
The experience centre at Design Up was one of the most fascinating areas of the conference. Every entrant into the hall could view and be a part of Adobe’s larger than life exhibit. Titled ‘Walk’, it used machine learning in real-time to track and display visitors walking past the installation. The creator, Takuma Nakata’s idea of using the crowd as a medium to “paint the screen” set the tone for the immersive, thought-provoking times at the Experience Centre.
WALK — @takuma.nakata
See Instagram ‘WALK’ highlights from Takuma Nakata (@takuma.nakata)
The Chargebee stall’s theme revolved around a core idea that we took to the conference: ‘Design Means Business’. The team answered questions on our design practice, subscription management businesses, and more. Also on display was our installation — ‘It’s good to see you’.
The all-seeing, motion-sensing ‘eyes’ became a permanent crowd puller, engaging young and old alike. The metaphor of eyes helping us see — both literally and figuratively struck a chord too. It was great to see folks having fun at our stall.
Takeaways, learnings, and beyond.
Why do we go to design conferences? To be inspired, to make sure we’re on top of the game or understand what we need to focus on to get there. To meet potential collaborators and beyond.
The sheer number of participants at DesignUp 2019 was overwhelming. I’m told attendance has doubled since 2018. The volume of speakers and the focus areas, from empathy and inclusivity to creativity were well-planned and thoughtful.
It was also fascinating to use a tool like Pigeonhole to ask questions during sessions. The ability to ask and upvote questions seemed like a great way to scale post-session interactions.
Stu Smith’s talk ‘Facing the challenges of remote work’ delivered creative strategies to establish trust and communication in remote work. This is an area I have been following and navigating with varying degrees of success over the past 3–5 years. His points painted an interesting image of how remote work could evolve over the next decade.
Our DesignUp kit came with a reusable steel water bottle. This contributed to a major reduction in the use of disposable plastic water bottles. It was a pleasant change from most conferences where convenience trumps eco-friendliness. It was a great example of a design-led sustainable solution.
DesignUp 2019 was, for me, a fun, well-organized conference. The conference changed my perceptions of what makes an Indian designer. It also showed me how India’s design community is coming into its own, forming approaches to solving global problems with unique local flavours.
As always, thanks to Rohit Nair for helping me put this piece together.