5 Key Takeaways from the 2019 Awwwards Digital Thinkers Conference

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Written by Joe Pilcavage,
• 7 min read
ds team at awwwards

As a creative immersed in today’s experience-rich world, staying inspired is mission critical for our ability to deliver fresh thinking and keep growing professionally. With that said, we all know how easy it can be to get caught up in the vacuum of the daily grind and project work. Even with access to amazing inspiration like Muzli, Behance, or one of the millions of hashtags chock-full of design porn on Instagram, at the end of the day, nothing beats the inspiration that comes from the raw energy of interacting with others in the creative community directly – hearing their unique stories, words of wisdom, and sheer diversity of perspective.

We work incredibly hard to foster a culture of continuous learning here at DS; and we definitely spare no expense when it comes to nurturing our team’s creativity. As such, we decided to temporarily pump the breaks on our team’s daily work and head down to the 2019 Awwwards Digital Thinkers Conference this year in New York. For us, it wasn’t just a good excuse to get out of the office for two full days and get some quality time together as humans, but it was an awesome chance for us to recharge our creative batteries and hear from some of the best in the business. Having a chance to step back and cool off from the buzz of the atmosphere though, there were certainly a few bits that really struck a chord with us specifically, even a few days after the event wrapped.

Here were 5 of our team’s biggest takeaways from this year’s 2019 Digital Thinker’s Conference:

1.) Data doesn’t solve the problem for you.

So many organizations today live and die by their data. Big data, small data, all the data, but how we use that data is everything. As designers, having access to this data is insanely powerful because it can remove subjectivity from our decisions, validate our thinking, or even helps us challenge our assumptions throughout the design process – but like all things, with great power comes great responsibility. We shouldn’t ever just fixate on a single data point or statistic as the end-all, be-all reason for our solutions, but instead use it as one of many vectors to dig deeper and create experiences that drive the response we’re hoping for.

2.) Start phase 2 in phase 1, or you’ll never get there.

When it comes to throwing down ideas and business-building solutions, who doesn’t shoot for the moon? We certainly do. But all too often our grand visions, big aspiration, and award winning ideas end up on the cutting room floor simply because of timing, cost, or scope constraints on any given project. “Let’s save that for phase 2” has practically become a meme in its own right amongst the design community. But if we agree to invest an extra 5 or 10% to go above and beyond what’s expected and find a way to bring even one of those moonshot ideas to life, it will end up paying massive dividends in the long run. We’ll achieve more, be happier with our work, and demonstrate that we’re able to deliver a higher amount of value, so “Phase 2” becomes a reality, more often than not.

3.) Do stuff that makes you nervous.

Although everyone had amazing talks that dropped some serious knowledge, for us, a few really stood apart. Anton and Irene’s talk on finding a balance between client and personal work was one of those, and I have a feeling that we weren’t the only ones that felt that way. You couldn’t help but notice the sea of head nods from the crowd as they delivered point after point. The one that really got us though was “Do stuff that makes you nervous.” All too often, we fall into the trap of our comfort zones because we don’t want to put our client work at risk. We know what works, what we’ve built a muscle for being good at doing, and we can execute quickly and move on to our next exciting challenge. That may be good for business but it’s a death sentence for us as creatives because we start to plateau. We stop exploring, stop taking risks, and ultimately stop growing. When we push ourselves outside of that comfort zone, though, real growth happens – whether or not it’s personal projects or something for customers.

4.) Focus on who you are, not who everyone wants you to be.

For us, the speakers who had the most impact were the ones that had a good amount of charisma and a clear point of view. It was evident that they were comfortable in their own skin and they delivered their message with conviction. Head Design Evangelist at Invision, Stephen Gates, stole the show in this department. I think we all felt that he was the living embodiment of the very message he was hoping to communicate (eloquently summed up in his words, “Exist Loudly.”) In an industry where we’re often required to wear many hats and fight for the “yes”, it’s easy to lose our identity as individuals in the process. By leaning into our own talents, beliefs, and styles, we give ourselves the freedom (and really the permission) to start taking control of our own destiny while still contributing our expertise to the greater team. As designers, we may not be the best mathematicians, but we’re pretty sure that in that in this case, 1+1 can in fact equal 3.

5.) Accessibility will continue to rise as a focus of design.

When you compare the notes of everyone who attended the event, at least from our team, the one word you’ll see show up over and over again is “accessibility.” We all know that design goes far beyond our ability to express ourselves creatively through the Adobe suite, but finally leaders in business are waking up that, too. Design principles are being adopted as both a mindset and an approach across every discipline today as a means for organizations to better respond and adapt to the ever changing needs of their employees and customers. As the state of design continues to mature in these organizations, the need to address a much deeper level of sophistication around inclusion in the products, services, and experiences we create will continue to rise. That means data privacy and WCAG compliance won’t just be a consideration or a nice to have, but will be a concrete business requirement with every design-driven project.

With all of that said, there’s definitely another 50 key points or so we’d love to share on our experience, but in the interest of time, we’ll just leave you with a quick visual recap of the notes we took from our seats in the crowd.

Shoutout to everyone @Awwwards and all of the great speakers for making this event a great few days for the entire creative community. We can’t wait to see what’s in store next year. Maybe we can share some of the awesome things we’ve been up to 😉

Highlights of the event