Over the years our design team has prioritized continuing education in design whether it be through conferences (both attending and speaking), classes and workshops, or meetups. But, throw in a pandemic, team member life changes, and a design team that’s doubled in size, and that additional learning was put on the back burner for the last few years. Our team set a goal this year to get back into our continued education – which we were really missing! We blocked off workdays and set time to go into the office to watch virtual conferences, researched and bought tickets to local conferences that would be easy to attend, and kept each other encouraged and informed about different talks we enjoyed via Slack. This summer alone we attended Figma’s annual Config conference (virtually) and the motion and animation conference Dash Bash. Here are our takeaways from each:
NMC has been extremely invested in learning how AI tools will affect and improve our workflow, so I was really excited to see AI was a major focus at Config conference this year. I typically find that many design-related AI tools are very app or ecommerce focused and not really applicable to much of our current workflow at NMC creating custom websites with custom content. However, the AI talk from Noah Levin, VP of Product Design at Figma, and the recently acquired Diagram team really opened up my perspective and left me feeling inspired about how AI can benefit our workflow.
Levin discussed how our current way of designing is very much based on the atomic level (based on language from Brad Frost, author of Atomic Design). We are very focused on small rigid elements like buttons and moving things around a few pixels. Levin suggests AI will shift our thought process from atoms to patterns, where we can think more about flows and allow our design system to manage the monotonous work. “We’ll spend less time wrestling with rectangles and more time applying and curating strategy and taste to our design work” Levin notes. As our projects at NMC continue to grow in size and complexity, and our clients continue to become more design aware, this notion of AI aiding the design process sounds extremely appealing and will be a huge time saver in freeing up our time for more high-level thinking and designing.
Levin and the Diagram team walked through several instances of things they are working on that will aid in managing the monotonous design work. Some of the future features and plugins that excited me include:
- Summarizing information from a big conversation that had many inputs.
- Plugins that tap into your design system and surface content that matches your style. I find this useful as many of our clients want to see realistic images in their designs - not placeholders of landscapes or animals that many current plugins surface.
- Designers will be able to prompt something and Figma can surface plugin recommendations. This excites me as I currently find the vast plugin library to be a bit overwhelming and feel like I am missing out on many helpful tools for our workflow!
- Help with common actions – like automatically creating simple hover states for buttons
- Magic renaming of layers in the design file
- Helping surface relevant design files and tutorials.
The talk overall left me feeling optimistic about how AI will affect and improve our workflow. As Levin mentioned, we currently have a ceiling (the limits of how good you can be at design), and floor (minimum skill required to participate in design), and “AI will help raise the ceiling and lower the floor” for all participating.
Our team has been integrating animation into our projects more frequently, which led me to my first motion design conference, the Dash Bash! The Dash Bash is a conference put on by a Raleigh based animation studio, Dash, with speakers from all over the animation industry ranging from cel animators, 3D animators, and even a stop motion animator.
An overarching theme of almost all of the talks over the two day conference was the importance of mentorship and community. Here at NMC, growing from a team of two designers to four has created a shift in our team workflow and prompted many more moments of guidance and collaboration. One of the speakers, Loe Lee, an illustrator and muralist, highlighted the power of reaching out when you're in a creative slump or need guidance. Though most of the speakers at Dash Bash were freelancers, the takeaway is the same for agencies and studio teams alike: mentorship and community are invaluable to both personal and team growth.
One of the standout sessions for me was Macaela VanderMost from Newflangled Studios. She spoke about inclusivity, personal growth, and Newfangleds “north star” strategy. The north star she described has four points, with each point representing one of your key values and principles. Within these points, "The top and the bottom points are the push and pull" (ex. business vs. creativity) and "The left and the right are what grounds us in our values." Macaele encouraged me to spend time exploring and aim to develop and find my our own north star.
Since our switch to Figma in 2021, we’ve enjoyed exploring new features and refining our team’s collaborative workflow. At Config, we were thrilled to hear about so many exciting developments that are coming to Figma and other tools that we use every day. From Google’s exceptionally adaptable variable fonts to Figma’s new Dev Mode, the features introduced at Config will help our team work together more smoothly and efficiently than ever before.
As I watched various conference sessions, one of my biggest takeaways was that design is no longer about just being creative. Creativity, of course, is still a major prerequisite and an essential quality for a successful design career, but an important part of the job is also learning how to leverage the tools and features that are available through technology. And those are things that are constantly changing – especially now, in the age of AI and other automated processes.
We heard from industry-leaders like IKEA, Stripe, Meta, and The New York Times about how they have carefully curated their design toolboxes to include systems and components that boost team efficiency and ensure consistency across huge projects. For example: a custom plug-in that IKEA built to populate design mockups with real product information and images.
While our work at NMC is done at a much different scale, the core lessons were still very applicable to our day-to-day workflow. Since attending Config, we’ve already grown our own design toolbox by researching and implementing features that elevate our work and streamline our design process. We’re excited to see what’s next for design technology!
After attending these conferences and already seeing some improvement to our workflows, we are excited to continue making conferences and workshops a priority for our team! What design related event should our team look into next?