Clarity Conference 2019

A recap of the 2019 quintessential conference about design systems.

By Dan MallAugust 26 2019 at 5:20 PM

The latest installment of Clarity Conference was held from August 19 – 21, 2019, and it certainly did not disappoint. Lots have been said in the moment—including our own live feed—but here are some additional thoughts after a few days of reflection.

Ethan Marcotte at Clarity Conference 2019
Ethan Marcotte at Clarity Conference 2019

Ethan Marcotte talked about a framework from Ursula Franklin’s The Real World of Technology for how technologies evolve. Those stages are:

  1. Advocacy
  2. Adoption
  3. Institutionalization

This wasn’t exactly Ethan’s point for bringing it up—he was more emphasizing that mature technologies almost never achieve their promised liberation—but design systems are somewhere between the “adoption” and “institutionalization” stages. Adoption includes establishing standardization and infrastructure, and tooling is a major part of that. The biggest takeaway of Clarity for me is that tooling and process aren’t mature enough, because they seldom match how people work and want to work. We have great foundations in tools like Pattern Lab, Storybook, and Fractal that give designers and developers workshop environments to prototype in. But that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps that should have been evident by the many attendees and sponsor booths representing companies like Abstract, Adobe, Diez, Figma, Interplay, InVision, Modulz, Webflow, Zeroheight, and more that have invested in better tooling for this community.

Harry Roberts at Clarity Conference 2019
Harry Roberts at Clarity Conference 2019
Rune Madsen & Martin Bravo at Clarity Conference 2019
Rune Madsen & Martin Bravo at Clarity Conference 2019
Dan Eden at Clarity Conference 2019
Dan Eden at Clarity Conference 2019

Harry Roberts showed us that performance is a crucial part of delivering great experiences, and techniques like prefetching and prerendering pages often fly under our radar. Rune Madsen & Martin Bravo emphasized the value in not only creating libraries and systems but also building custom tools to help the people charged with maintaining and extending those systems. Dan Eden asked us to consider reframing the way we think about handoff and what relation products have to a larger system that powers them.

Mina Markham at Clarity Conference 2019
Mina Markham at Clarity Conference 2019
Tatiana Mac at Clarity Conference 2019
Tatiana Mac at Clarity Conference 2019
Anil Dash at Clarity Conference 2019
Anil Dash at Clarity Conference 2019

But tooling and process go far beyond the instruments and methods we use to generate pictures and code. Mina Markham talked about the difference between accessibility and inclusive design, in that the latter focuses on including the audience in the process of creation, not just the output. Tatiana Mac taught us that the seemingly invisible institutional systems like slavery and colonialism that underlie the way we do our work are toxic foundations and have major impact on our output. Anil Dash reminded us that the clearest way to understand a company’s values is to scrutinize where it spends money.

What I loved most about this year’s Clarity is that many talks made an actionable tie from the skills we practice every day to how we can solve seemingly insurmountable, monolithic, industry-wide issues like the lack of representation and pay gaps.

Tatiana shared a simple but powerful example of a faces plugin that treated male as a default. That kind of supposed innocent oversight can lead to an oppressive overlooking of an entire spectrum of gender. A small shift in our baseline thinking can create more inclusive communities, workplaces, products, and systems.

Ethan shared a story about writing HTML and CSS for a drop cap, something many have written about before. However, Ethan’s perspective was a unique one: the decisions for markup and styles that he made determined who has access to that content, as those using screen readers may not have heard that content accurately.

If we can expand our mindsets to care about people in a way we’re not typically accustomed to, we make our work more broadly applicable. This same kind of decision-making is what improves not only the nuances of our products but also improves the state of our world.

Perhaps Anil said it best when summarizing his talk and this year’s Clarity Conference:

You have all the power in the world to create the solutions to the problems we all care about.

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