Build Conf 2011

Build Conference Logo

Early November I had the priviledge to attend Build Conf in Belfast, Ireland. Build is an amazing conference, organized by a fine young man. The conference touched on design, development, and typography (three of my favorite things) with a star-studded list of attendees.

Oh, and Wilson Miner gave the best presentation I’ve ever seen.

First Night: Movies

I arrived in Dublin on Monday at 8AM (1AM to my jet lagged body) and caught a bus to Belfast. The bus ride offered a fantastic view of the Irish countryside. On the evening of the first night, Build packed into a theatre and watched a selection of movies.

Watching the films. Watching the films. Credit to fillyc.

Making Faces: Metal Type in the 21st Century

The first movie chronicled Jim Rimmer of P22 Type Foundry as he crafted his own type by hand. As a type nut, I found the entire documentary fascinating. Jim Rimmer drew his own letters, traced them, transferred them to metal, and ran them through a machine which transferred the letter to metal at a smaller size. His hand drawn letters eventually came down to 16pt size on 18pt leading.

Linotype: The Film

Next we saw a film about the Linotype machine, in which some of the very few people who know how to operate a Linotype machine were interviewed. The Linotype revolutionized the printing industry, and was used from the 1890s through the 1960s.


Urbanized, the third in Gary Hustwit’s trilogy on design (after Helvetica and Objectified) drew attention to urban design. It featured cities in USA, Brazil, Germany, Columbia, South Africa, India, and China. Cities weren’t something I thought of as being “designed”, but this movie changed the way I look at the world. Traffic patterns, bicycle lanes, highways, residential areas, sprawl: everything about a city is designed.

Urbanized From Urbanized

Workshop Day

I attended Jeremy Keith’s workshop on Responsive Enhancement. Jeremy is a brilliant and original thinker. The workshop was so good, it will get its own blog post.

Workshop Day Workshop participants doing fancy workshop things

An Evening with Erik Spiekermann

Erik Spikermann is a world renowned typographer and designer. I saw him speak once before at Brand New Conference 2010 and he was every bit as entertaining and edgy then as at Build. He designed Meta and a handful of corporate typefaces. He is German and hilarious. One thing that really stuck out was hearing him talk about always using the best tools for the job, and then showing the edenspiekermann site technology stack, which included Ruby, Rails, and Padrino. Though edenspiekermann is known for their design and branding, it is nice to see that they place importance on engineering. Oh, and he gave us this gem:

We need topics and we need deadlines, otherwise we’d be artists, and then we’d sleep late and grow beards. And there’s a difference between growing a beard and having a beard!

Practical Day

Practical day served as an opportunity to collaborate with attendees, though I spent it as an opportunity to relax. Being an INFP, nonstop socializing can become pretty tiresome. Putting a rest/leisure day in the middle of a conference is nothing short of brilliant.

Conference Day

The walk to conference day at Build Conf 2011 Walking to the conference day at Build Conf

Build Conf offers a much more intimate atmosphere than most other conferences I attend. At other conferences, people are split between conference tracks, and there are too many attendees to count. At build, all attendees fit into the same room, and the speakers present one at a time. Here are notes on my three favorites:

Josh Brewer, design lead at Twitter, spoke about people, content, and devices, and the changing face of web design. He drove home the point that We’re not in Kansas anymore, and we must embrace responsive design and the shift from desktop to mobile. Josh also talked about designer as avant-gardist, and shared this Dieter Rams quote:

I think that good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times. They should — and must — question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.

Josh left us with a bit of practical advice, which I think more people need to hear:

Start designing from your content.
Stop designing from some imaginary page.

Craig Mod spoke about the future of the book. He published a blog post, Post-Artifact Books and Publishing, and then released the same blog post as a single on the Amazon Kindle book store. He was amazed to find that people bought the single, even though it was available free of charge on his blog, and they could easily Instapaper it. Why? Craig believed that buying through a store offered a sense of curation, of boundaries and edges, though he saw it as a place to sell HTML. There is a revolution in the publishing industry right now, one that will be interesting to watch.

Wilson Miner presenting at Build 2011. Photo credit to fillyc.

Wilson Miner gave one hell of a presentation. His presentation made the whole trip worthwhile. It had a different feel than the others; it was full of beautiful imagery and video, and music played in the background to support his most moving words. He started by speaking about the recent passing of his father, which hit close to home. He spoke of the things left behind by his father, and how he now had to deal with them. He then went on to talk about Marshall McLuhan and media over the past century, the key point being:

We shape our tools.
Our tools shape us.

Man shaped the car, the car shaped man. Man shaped the television, the television shaped man. All of this leading up to the screen, the mobile device. Man shaped the screen, now the screen is shaping us.

All the gaps in our lives are filling with screens.

How much time passes between you waking up and viewing a screen? For me, it’s often less than a minute. The screen will reshape the human environment to as great a magnitude as did the car.

Wilson called to us to shape the future:

We are the designers. We are the creators and builders. What do we want that future environment to feel like?

He encouraged us to continue to learn and grow with this quote from Alistair Smith:

At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world which no longer exists.

And he closed with a powerful line that drew the whole presentation together, and summarized what Build meant to me:

When we’re gone, the only thing that’s left of us is what we’ve made. So go out and build.