Digital thinkers in Amsterdam by awwwards pt. II

by Despoina
Digital-thinkers conference part-

It is February 15th early in the morning, and I am ready for the second day of the Digital thinkers conference by awwwards. The first day was beyond exceptional and has left me craving for more inspiration, for new interactions with my fellow UXers, and excited for insights in what the future holds for UX design. Okay and UI design, if you insist.

On my way to the De la Mar theatre, besides googleMaps – I never trust my own instincts when it comes to directions- I am checking the awwwards app specifically created for this conference. I wanted to get a preview of who will be talking to us today but I do not seem to recognise any of the names I see on the list. I am not worried about that though, I know that this day too will be an exceptional source of creativity.

The creative side of my brain woke up

Geoffrey Lillemon, opened the second day of the conference, and from the way he was dressed to the way he talked and presented himself and his work, he caught my full attention. It was definitely the perfect way to wake me up and entice the creative side of my brain. His talk, was the ideal way to set the tone, and introduce the audience to the second day of the conference.

His slides were bizarre at first sight. They were not what you would call ‘pixel perfect conference slides’ with Unsplash pictures and the latest design trend that you see almost everywhere. Instead, they were slides filled with bright fluorescent colours, weird 3D typography and monstrous creatures. It all tied up perfectly with the narrative of how the underground, goth & punk background of Lillemon formed the way he approaches technology, Visual Reality and Artificial Intelligence.

He talked to us about brining art, beauty & absurdity to technology in order to give it a soul. A soul that technology longs for.

So in that sense, it is not surprising that the company he founded along with Anita Fontaine is called Department of new realities. A department that functions within the mothership of W+K Amsterdam, in which Lillemon and Fontaine commit to help us, the ordinary humans, escape to new artificial and digital realities.

With these new imaginary digital worlds accessible at any moment in time, we could be even ‘Setting ourselves up for a SPA vacation after we die‘ !!!!! This is by far the coolest sentence I have ever heard in my life!

Lillemon had some excellent examples of his work to share with us. The Necessary explosion iOS app (video link), which was inspired by the lava lamps of the 70’s – I also had one of these when I was a student- the Augmented Reality Moncler book (video link) which brings the clothes of the designer to life right in your coffee table 😍 and my personal favourite: their beyond exceptional Narnia-like paradise built for Corona called Paraíso Secreto (video link)

What I still remember from this talk is that Lillemon, besides being extremely and uniquely creative, does not fixate on the technology or the type of device he will design for but on the idea and on the unique experience that his product will bring to people.

Absolutely refreshing, and a viewpoint that is common throughout this conference

Sofia Stanković and Teodora Stojković aka TeYosh studio definitely fit in the category of creative talks. On top of the innovative work they displayed, they talked about how they push boundaries with their projects and about how they bring humans back to the centre of their designs.

‘We feel safer with a smartphone in our pockets, rather than with a person by our side’

said Sofia who was wearing an attention spam scarf around her neck filled with the brand’s messages imprinted on it, such as ‘It won’t happen if you look at your phone’ & ‘Smartphones don’t go well with dinner’

They discussed about how we gradually lose trust to ourselves and our cognitive abilities and how the human behaviour has changed or got limited due to the interfaces we use on a daily basis. This inspired them to create the ‘Dictionary of online behaviour’, which includes words that describe how people behave in relation to technology. In this dictionary you will find words such as:

‘Halfseen’ a message you see but do not interact further with, so that the person on the other end does not perceive you as rude for not replying, and

‘Forcie’ a selfie you are forced to take because of someone else’s enthusiasm.

Not only did we change our behaviour due to technology but

‘We live in the era of attention economy’

as Teodora said talking about how all these digital products around us battle for our attention leading us to major attention spans. Click bait titles that grab our attention, constant notifications in social media apps, illusions of Instagram stardom and more….

The fact that technology is changing humans and their behaviour is proven and undeniable. Now even more with new technologies such as VR, AR and AI. So, we should keep talking about our responsibility as designers to design creatively, for humans and not for clicks. I was impressed by the message of these girls and I am definitely ordering my ‘Attention spam’ stickers to spread the message!

Talking about designing for humans with technology as the mean and not as the main purpose, Philippe Schuette from Random Studio definitely pushed the creative boundaries with the interactive look-book he created for Fred Perry & Raf Simons. Using a Google street view-like interface, something we all use and are familiar with, he let us navigate through the SS19 clothing collection of the aforementioned designers.

This video is taken from the Random Studio website

I love the way you can virtually walk by these ‘real life’ moments as if the google car just happened to pass by and has captured a casual moment of someone’s life, in this case also showing you an urban, casual clothing line.

I recommend you to try the full experience yourself on the Fred Perry x Raf Simons map website!

This is how I could improve as a designer

If there is one thing that we UXers love, that is our process. In addition to that, we love tweaking that process ever so often in order to get better results, a more efficient end product. The practical speakers of this day sure gave a lot of direction on how to tweak our process and get the most out of it.

Ida Aalen the Norwegian CPO and co-founder of Confrere , was the first speaker on the practical side of things, and seemed definitely passionate about the two subjects of her talk:

  • Design Reviews following the example of code reviews, and
  • User tests used as design reviews

I recognised the frustrations she described in her presentation and she suggested that these could be solved with a more collaborative review process between designers, and other members of the project. She called this a design review, but one that is inspired by code reviews.

With a design review, the designer while remaining the author of their work, will gather feedback from teammates and integrate what is relevant and useful for the end product in the design. She even gave us some tips on how to make the best out of such a design review by providing the following guidelines:

  • Critique the work and not the person 
  • Remain affable and curious
  • Differentiate between suggestions, requirements and points for clarification
  • Move more complex points to a face to face discussion and 
  • Do not forget to praise the good parts!

What complements these design reviews is of course user testing. Why should you invest in user tests?

  • Because 1 in 2 issues found in user testing are ignored in expert reviews
  • Because 1 in 3 usability issues pointed out in staff meetings are false alarms.

My major take out of this talk was; Do not be afraid to ask for feedback during your design process, there might be things worth integrating in your design, communicate well with your team by including them soon enough, and always talk to your users

Claudio Guglieri, also on the practical category of talks, went back to basics. He talked about some fundamental aspects of design, and about human – device interaction. From to text, to audio and media content , to touch points and visual cues. How do our users interact with all these elements in our app? As designers we often forget about simplicity.

We focus so much on the tool, that in the end we let it define what we do.

Guglieri invited us to take a step back from trends and design tools and think of the basics. How much text can a user read on the app before they get tired and which font is actually good to use for lengthy paragraphs? It can be a font that is not currently fancy or trendy and that is OK. How much cognitive load do our users spend in order to interact with our app? Do we really have to design that call to action in 45px or can we bend the rules, and when is it OK to do so? The key insights I got from this talk was to:

  • Focus on the purpose of the design,
  • Break the rules but know when to break them,
  • Design for inaccuracy and
  • Focus on the content.

Martijn Van Der Does, walked on the conference stage dressed in black. The screen behind him read only one thing through out the duration of his talk; Wonderland , the name of his creative studio. He was not afraid to share the fact that he learned a lot form trial and error in order to be able to talk to us today about his agency’s well refined process. From discovery to ideation, to design and finally iteration. 

And while on one hand you have a very well defined and pragmatic process, Van Der Does emphasised on the importance of creating solutions that add value to people, that come from a place of empathy and from understanding your users. 

And then of course……

Its doesn’t mean shit, if nothing gets built

this is one of the principles of innovation by David Vogel, the executive director at AKQA experience design. He talk to us about… the future. Actually, designing for the future. We all want to create the next big thing. A disruptive product that will be met with enthusiasm by the users and conquer the market, but how? How can you invent the future, ideally without falling a thousand times?

First step, ‘do not innovate for innovation’s sake’ . Thats is a phrase that I circled around many times in my notebook. Innovation just for innovation’s sake as Vogel puts it will not contribute to business results but instead it will maybe just please the CEOs for a while. Is that really worthwhile? Of course not.

Next step, do not ask people about what the SAY they want. Ask them about what they know, feel, dream, and are ambitious about. His slide read:

People will not tell you what they dream of, but this is actually the most interesting insight. 

Naturally, I agree. You have to know what people really want to do, before we think about the how.

Ideate with your client, prototype and test. Push beyond the safe ground. Be ambitious in order to come to an interesting result rather than start with an interesting idea and end up with something ‘vanilla’. He mentioned as another principle of innovation.

That was exciting to hear, I felt encouraged and motivated. However, I have this problem constantly. How do I end up with an interesting result instead of something vanilla when my solutions are being repeatedly shut down due to budget and internal technological limitations ?

Well, if you want to build something innovative, you need to make room for it. The entire team has to commit to the goal. One way to do this is via MVPs, or MLPs 😉 . That means identifying that one issue to solve but that fits the broad idea of the solution.

At the same time, we all know that you cannot ask for the business to be patient and wait for the product to slowly transform to the end result. Vogel suggests to create a ‘couple of speedboats’. Design and prototype the next step of your product already and show what it could look like in order to get everyone on board. Gather feedback and get validation of the big picture. If that happens, technical and budget limitations will be no more!

Is it good?

Andre Jay Meissner, talked about design ethics and it was without a doubt the perfect epilogue for this conference. We need to be aware that what we design has an impact not only on our business results but to our society, to our profession, and to ourselves and others. How much do we think about ethics when we design a product? Working for a big business, I often hear how we want people to engage -even- more with our products and apps. One of the ways to achieve this is by getting insights on our users’ behaviour in order to give them tailored content. But how do we get these insights? How do we gather customer data, what do we do with it, where are they stored and who has access to them ? Giving you users control of their own data is important.

Meissner invited us to think about what do we enable the business, the user and the future to do with the products and solutions we design. It is definitely good to ask ourselves; Are we doing the right thing with what we design?


To be able to participate in the awards conference was definitely a dream come true. Not only did I get to see people that I have been following digitally for years, but I got to expand my horizons by having the opportunity to follow such exceptional talks. To be able to gather priceless insights concerning UX and in turn feel inspired, understood, supported, and confident that I am on the right path.

Thanks to conferences like this one, I am sure that by being curious and willing to continuously learn I cannily improve and be better in my craft. Now, I can only look forward for the next conference of Awwwards in Europe, which I will absolutely attend!

You can read the first part of my impressions of this conference here.

Sources & videos:

* Geoffrey Lillemon | Awwwards Conf Amsterdam: Redefining reality

** TeYosh | Awwwards Conf Amsterdam: How UX / UI Design is changing the way we communicate

*** Ida Aalen | Awwwards Conf Amsterdam: What Designers Can Learn from (Code) Review

**** David Vogel| Awwwards Conf Amsterdam: How To Design For What’s Next

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