#btconf Berlin, Germany 01 - 02 Sep 2022

Espen Brunborg

Espen is a Norwegian designer and one half of Brunborg & Brunborg, a tiny agency based in Dundee, Scotland. After graduating as a graphic designer he started his career as a magazine designer in Edinburgh in 2006. Two short years later, he was fired from his second ever job as a designer, setting in motion a chain of events that, amongst other things, lead to him co-founding digital agency Primate, heading up the design team at Oslo-based marketing agency Hyper, designing digital products for Hava Media, and being invited to speak at events around the world.

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Dragon Slayer

You wake up, severely underdressed, in a slow moving wooden cart alongside what appears to be a small group of prisoners. One of them looks like a developer of some kind, another one a beaten up Project Manager. Surrounded by tall pine trees, feeling the cold, wet air biting into your skin, you try to gather your thoughts. You can’t remember how you got here, but you instinctively know what lies ahead: Your career as a designer.

In the distance, high above snow covered mountains you see a faint shadow moving across the sky.

Was that a … dragon?



[Audience applause]

Espen Brunborg: Thank you. As everyone else who has been on stage, it’s been months, years since I’ve been up here. The last BT was Dusseldorf in 2017. The last time I was on stage was, I think, four years ago now, so I’m nervous. But you guys are here, and we know how much this means to Marc.

You know the upcoming documentary. I got emotional seeing the trailer, so I’m going to do my best, but I will need you guys to do your best as well.

To kick off, I’m going to show a GIF on screen, and you guys need to match the energy of that GIF. Okay?

Here we go.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: All right. No, no. I’m kidding. That’s just the German version of the GIF.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: But this should have sound. This is actually just a sound check. Can we see?

[Party horns]

Espen: There we go.

[Party horns]

Espen: The real GIF doesn’t have sound, so you guys really need to give it. Okay?

One, two, three... here we go.

Come on!

[Audience cheers]

Espen: Good.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: [Laughter] Right. I’m going to talk about design, but I think not everyone here is a designer, and I think a bunch of the stuff I’m going to say is relevant to developers or even project managers or - I don’t know - UXers or whatever. We’re going to go through a bunch of stuff here. Because I’m a designer, I’ll be focusing on that.

This is the sort of landscape that we’re in. There’s a lot of stuff happening. Everyone is a UX designer. There’s a bunch of bros trying to build a new Web with blockchain and the rest of it.

This is pretty much the same every time I’m here. There’s this ever-changing landscape, and it’s changed again.

Then we have this thing -- AI -- which popped onto my radar earlier on this year and, recently, I got access to one of these engines. I was like, “Holy shit. This is really, really good,” and people are writing articles. This is going to take over art or our illustrator is now threatened. I don’t really know.

I asked Midjourney to draw me a picture of a scared Viking in front of this German army. He gave me this. I think it’s pretty accurate, apart from this guy. I’m not sure who that is.

I also made it draw some baby sharks. My son loves baby shark. He’s still got nightmares though, so you know we’ve got a while to go, I think, with the AI.

Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff happening out there, and certainly, I am getting old. I need to work on staying employable and staying up with the current situation. I need to keep slogging away, keep making that logo bigger without losing the will to live.

That’s what this talk is about. How to become better designers and also, I’m going to show you eight secret powerups in true clickbait-y style.

Now, first thing is first. Who am I and why am I here?

My name is Espen. That’s fairly obvious. I’m a scared, exposed, and naked-feeling Viking. I hail from Norway, but I live in Scotland just now in Dundee. Before that, I was in Edenborough. I co-ran a company there for a few years.

We moved to Norway for a bit. I headed up a design department for a company called Hyper, and I’ve been working with a company called Hey -- Hava doing Web products and Chrome extensions and whatnot.

Recently, I founded Brunborg & Brunborg -- Can you see this URL down here? -- with my wife. That’s us. We’re a tiny, tiny studio, and we do all sorts of stuff on the Web. We try and help people basically communicate better using the Internet.

This is the other half of the company, Lulu. She’s my wife. She’s very private, and I didn’t draw this, by the way. She did, so you know. In fact, she did all the illustrations for this talk.

She’s a scientist, so if she can do this, imagine what you all can do. It’s really good, good. I’m super, super thankful, so thank you, Lulu.

Why am I here on stage? I’m not like really good at, say, data vis or illustration. I’m not Vic Lee. I’m not even a really, really good designer. Somehow, I’m up here.

Maybe it started over a decade ago. I got fired as a designer. [Laughter] And you know I had to find a new job, and I found one, and it happened to be a digital design. Then I met some people there, and we ended up starting a company together. Then I started writing about design because we needed to bring in some business.

I got into Smashing Magazine, which led to Smashing Conf, which led to BT Conf, and here I am.

I guess you could say life is like -- I don’t know. Life is like an open-world RPG. You start out naked in a cart. Soon enough, you’re going to kill a dragon.

[Intense music plays]

Espen: Okay. Are you guys ready? I spent a lot of time on this, by the way, so it maybe, maybe just get the mood up a little bit here. We’re going to kill some dragons. In fact--

[Audience applause]

Espen: Thank you. It’s a bit loud. Hang on. I’ll just change the mood.

[Peaceful music plays]

Espen: So, we’re going to talk about dragons. Has anyone played Skyrim, the intros from Skyrim?

All right. This is not nerdy enough for me. I expected all of you to have played Skyrim, but I guess you all know about Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games and this sort of stuff, so we’re going to look at design but through the lens of magical fantasy worlds.

We’re going to level up in the process.

[Music stops]

Espen: The first thing we do is we need to create a character. This is me. There are a lot of things you can’t really choose, like where you were born or how you grew up or the institutions around you, so I think we need to acknowledge that we’re not all playing at the same difficulty level. But what we can change or what we can choose is our class, like who do we want to be going into this dangerous world.

Me personally, I’m a designer. That’s a warrior class here. I’ve called designers warriors because we’re just damage-dealers, right? We just hack and slash at this dragon. You can’t really take it down without us. You can’t really make a website without a designer.

As a result, we have massive egos. We’re up there, and we think, “We made this website.” In fact, obviously, we didn’t. And we’re talking about white space all the time. We’re a bit arrogant.

We want everything delivered to us before we actually do anything, so that makes us a bit difficult to work with.

People actually making websites -- I think a lot of you guys are in the audience today -- are the wizards, the developers. You’ll know that they are a bit mysterious, introvert beings.

They speak this language no one else really understands. Sometimes, they’re a bit annoying to talk to. They have to consider everything before they can make an answer.

They’re a little bit inflexible. I’ve come across this quite a lot in my career.

We have paladins, the project managers of our world. They soak up some damage. They’re tanking for us. They can boost our morale with battle cries, and they can heal us, and they can speak directly to the king. They have a direct line to the quest givers.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: And they crack the whip. They can say, “Sorry, there’s no more budget, but come on. We need to slay this dragon by Monday.”

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Then we have the UX people, the alchemists. This is an interesting class because they don’t actually deal much damage, but they know so much. They have all this research, you know, mixing all these potions, so they’ll tell us how the dragons really work.

As a result of all this knowledge, they are very important. You can’t really take down big dragons without these guys. They’re also, I think, now maybe one of the most popular classes - for a good reason, maybe.

We have hunters, the salespeople. [Loud exhale]

[Audience laughs]

Espen: No, I’m joking. You know they’re useful. They need to find the dragons, right? They roam the land. They bring in these massive beasts. They’re a bit like Hawkeye. You know once we’re in battle, they get in the way and they run out of ammo really quickly. But we need them, right?

They’re eager to saying sorry. They say yes to the client, and then they say, “Sorry. It’s due soon.” But you know we need them. We need them to find the dragons.

But there’s one class that it’s been years since I’ve seen someone from this class on stage on a conference like this. Does anybody want to guess who this is?

A bard, yes! It’s the bard, the writer, the content people.

Now, personally, these are like the most powerful of all classes, right? If it weren’t for these guys, no one would hear the tails of the dragon slaying.

What’s so crazy is that, nowadays, bards can do it on their own. All the tech is out there. All the platforms are out there. If you know how to do content well, you don’t really need designers or developers or anything. They can convince us that the dragons aren’t really that big a deal.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Does this look familiar to anybody? They can make us believe that the dragons are just going to go away. There’s no problem.

If you combine the bards with the conjurers, the illustrators, you get a really, really powerful combination. With words on one hand and images on the other, we can attract clicks.

I’m talking about this stuff. This is a YouTube image thumbnail and a YouTube title from a channel called Veritasium. Now, this is a very popular science channel, and the guy did a very, very interesting video on clickbait, how it works, and how, essentially, half his job these days is working on this stuff, just the combination of these two things.

This particular combination was attractive, garnering 1.5 million views on YouTube, which to me would have been amazing. But of course, to him, it’s way below par, so he tried to change things up.

He took his time and, after three days, he landed on this, which completely, radically changed the trajectory. Right now, this video sits on 73 million views, and it’s the most popular video on this channel.

What’s interesting to me is that this is YouTube we’re talking about. There are no font choices. There are no colors. There’s no interface. There’s no snazzy animations. It’s literally just these two things, which brings me to the first power-up.


Espen: The first piece of knowledge is that design is just words and images - if we include images, we include illustration, and interface elements. It’s visual stuff, and it’s words, and that’s design. That’s the most powerful combination.

All right. That’s enough waffling. Let’s get on with this. Should we kill a dragon or two? Let’s do it.

[Splashing water, high wind]

Espen: Okay. Wait. Sorry.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Eh... We can’t run naked into battle, as they say. We need some equipment.

There’s this phrase called the set and the setting. I’m sure most of you are familiar with that. Basically, the idea that we don’t know every situation that we’re going to end up in.

Like in this case, the battlefield, we’re going to fight this big, massive dragon. We don’t know how it’s going to react. We don’t know the landscape. We don’t know the king and the queen and the quest givers.

We can’t control these things, but we can control what we wear, right? We can control what we bring to the setting. We can control our own set.

So, obviously, we need to bring some weapons. This is my weapon of choice: a spoon. It is dull, but it’s magic.

I use this all the time to convince clients that my decisions were correct in terms of my design choices. I sit people down, and I feed them (one spoonful at a time) my thought process, my ideas, my research.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: I’m not joking. Honestly, you know, and when I’m lucky, when I manage to nail this, I leave the people in this meeting with the idea that my decisions were inevitable. This is -- you know that really, really good solution is thought up, and I think spoon feeding is really good for that.

I also, of course, love the double-edged sword of Feeg’Mah, which has grown in popularity in recent years. You’ll notice that this has two ends, right, sharp on both ends because it’s dangerous. It has so much power that we have to be wary of how we use it.

In Figma, you can create super, super high-fi sketches and prototypes that look and feel exactly like websites. I’ve had clients just click on the screen and expecting this thing to work properly, whereas, in fact, it’s just a sketch.

So, Figma isn’t really the end thing. We use it, and we set these expectations that we now have to meet. But we can’t meet them in Figma. We can extra some code from Figma, but you know it’s not the same thing.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: This brings me to power-up number two.


Espen: You can’t make websites in Figma. You can make pictures of websites, but you can’t really make websites.

Anyway, I need to move on. I’ve got three and a half hours left.

In battle, we also bring trinkets. Here’s one of my favorites. It’s the fanny pack of junior spellcasting.

Now, I need to speak to developers. I need to speak their language. I don’t need to do all the codes, but I need to be able to ask them questions, and we need to be on the same page. So, this is super useful. I didn’t bring it today, but you know, wear this fanny pack and you’ll do good.

We have the tights of humility. They just basically teach you not to be an arrogant shit and listen to other people. That means your users, sure, but also your clients, your colleagues. Think less about your portfolio and more about where the project is going.

We have the tunic of value. Now, we’ve all probably been asked at some point, “How long is that going to take?” or “How much is that going to cost?” or “How much is a bloody website?”

The thing is clients don’t know. We know, so it’s up to us to wear the right equipment and figure out the worth of stuff. Unless you know how long something is going to take, well, it’s going to be hard to charge what you’re worth, really.

Then we have the shoulder pads of shrugging, which I use all the time. Basically, sometimes you’re in a situation where it’s not going to end as well as you hoped. Let’s put it that way. Sometimes it’s going to turn out ugly. Sometimes there’s feedback that necessitates some change that’s bad for the users.

Sometimes you will leave the room feeling super, super sad and crushed because your vision isn’t going to come to fruition. That’s when you need these guys. They make you go, “Meh,” and then you can go home, and you can detach your emotional status from the success of the project and, trust me, it’s super, super useful.

Finally, the cloak of hiding. I have been in many a meeting where I’m super proud of something, and then it kind of gets a so-so response or I get told it’s not good enough, or whatever. It’s really easy to get super emotional and fight back. God knows I’ve had my awkward meetings or awkward periods afterward when I realize what I’ve done in that meeting.

But with the cloak of hiding, we can just pull back, cover up, and breathe. Sleep, maybe. Take some time. Then we can come at it again when we’re ready to respond to feedback like a pro.

Now, this is a fully dressed warrior. I think we’re ready.

Okay, so now... Sorry. Now I think we’re actually going to do it. Let’s see.

[Splashing water, high winds]

Espen: No. Sorry. We’re not ready yet. We need some quests. We can’t just go around killing dragons. We need someone to give us a quest, to have a reason for killing a dragon. And if you’re disappointed that it’s been 20 minutes and we still haven’t killed a dragon, well, that’s real life. Most of our jobs is the other stuff around designer development, particularly finding someone to pay for the job.

The quest givers, of the kings, queens, or princesses, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. But what defines them all is that they need a project done and they’re willing to pay for it. If they’re not willing to pay, it’s not really a quest-giver. It’s a trap.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: We can tell it’s a trap because they’ll say things like, “This is a recon quest. We’ll pay you if you find a dragon.”

Don’t do this. This is a non-starter. Recon, research, and figuring out things, and preparing for a job takes time, and time is valuable, so we need to get paid for this stuff.

Other traps include this. “I’m not sure if this is the dragon I want,” type quest. Obviously, not great, but we see this a lot.

Pitch work is essentially this. We do free work. Then they go, “Nah, we prefer the other one. Thank you, though.”

Then there’s this one, the opportunity quest. This maybe is some sort of fancy dragon, golden or something. “The whole realm is going to hear about this amazing job you did. That’s why we’re not paying you.”

If you think this dragon looks a bit stupid, it’s because this is a very stupid quest.

Right. We’re going out to kill some dragons. Normally, we do it in one of three ways. We’re either a freelancer, like a lone ranger; we’re in a small studio or agency, startup, as a war band; or we join a big army. Now, of course, if you want to fight the real big dragons, you’ll be in this end, and the smaller dragons, you’ll probably be in this end.

Also, the level of freedom you have is kind of inverse to that. If you’re a lone ranger, you have a lot of freedom. You wear all the hats in the world, and you have to do everything yourself. Over there, you might be a bit more restricted and follow orders and so on.

I’ve got a really nice graphic about this, actually. We’ve got a tiny dragon and a big dragon on one scale, and then the other is basically freedom and restriction. Down here, you’re wearing pajamas when you’re working, and up there it’s a suit maybe.

If you’re starting out, for example, as a freelancer, level one, I think you’ll be up there.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: You’re a bit like Gollum because technically you’re free, but you’re forever chasing that precious, precious invoice. You know you need to find those jobs, and you do what it takes.

Maybe you started your own company, like a small team of merry hobbits. You’re quite free. You’re still fighting the small dragons, and you’re completely oblivious to the danger that lies ahead.

If you manage to level up enough, and you’re still a freelancer and you’re still alive, you’re going to end up down here.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: You’re like, you know. You could just YOLO it into battle. You’re super powerful. You’re going to become a king in the end - spoiler alert. But you know that’s hard. It takes a little work to get there.

It’s easier maybe to join an army. There’s more money, I think. There’s more stability. Yes, there’s a bit of restriction. Sure. Maybe there are some ethical implications. Maybe you take a job at Facebook. I don’t know, but you’re up here. You’re in. You’re in the arm.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: I mean I’m not judging. If you work for Facebook (or any of these guys), the world is infused with big tech. We can’t escape it, so who am I to judge, right?

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Right. We’ve covered equipment and quests and different ways of killing dragons. I think we’re going to actually--

Twenty-nine minutes. Look at that.

We’re going to actually kill a dragon. Right. You guys ready?! For reals, I promise.

[Audience cheers]

Espen: Okay. Thank you. [Laughter]

[Horse trotting, splashing water]

Male: They said -- some guy warned me not to go into a place because there was a dragon.

[Splashing water]

Male: Oh, my God! Holy shit! There’s a--!

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Yeah. Sometimes fighting dragons is hard. I think a lot of us work too hard. We work ourselves to death, and this is the last dig at Zuckerberg, by the way.

Just, you know, if you’re going to work yourself to death, don’t do it for the bad guys. At least be more like -- I don’t know. Vic Lee, he’s here working himself to death for himself.

Right. How do we avoid dying? How do you escape the dragon’s claws? How fast do you have to be to outrun a dragon?

It’s quite easy. You just have to be faster than the person next to you.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Right? When I first started a job in the design industry as a magazine designer, I was fresh out of uni, and I thought, “I’m at the bottom. This is going to take -- it’s going to take years before I get anywhere.”

Then I realized this mediocrity is everywhere. Right? Now it feels funny talking about this. The world is kind of literally going to shit and you’ve got this guy. He’s in parliament in the UK. He’s going to stay in the next government that starts on Monday, and he’s sleeping on the job.

This was all over the press, and he’s still there sleeping on his job, which sucks because I want a nice country to live in. But it’s good, in a way, because this means opportunity is everywhere.

We kind of just have to be better than this. We have to be better than the people with the shit attitude.

There’s actually some proverbs about this from the ancient elves, which I’ll come to later. But first, I’ll just jump to the next power-up--


Espen: --which is this. Despite what you might think or hear or people tell you, you don’t have to be the best. You just have to be better than average, and average is a big, vague thing. Right?

I’m not saying you should be lazy. I’m saying you should work hard. I’m saying you should show up and do your job. But you don’t have to be at the top. It takes so much work to get here, late nights, no family, and all this stuff. Then just a little bit below that, it’s much, much easier, but it’s still comfortable.

These elvish proverbs I was talking about, the first one is this. You have to give a shit. It’s as simple as that, really.

How do you do that? You show up, you’re proactive, you do your job. And a thing that’s followed me all my career is you have to do what needs doing. That means you never ever say, “That’s not my job.”

Don’t be this guy. Your whole team is going down. The dragon is there breathing fire on everybody. And someone is asking you to cast a tiny healing spell. Just do it. Just try, even if it’s not your job.

As a designer, you might be asked to tweak some CSS or write some content for this bloody button or something like that. Just try. You can say, “That’s not really what I’m best at, but I’ll give it a go.” I promise you’ll get better, and I’ll make you a much better designer.

The other thing is keep it simple, the second elvish proverb. There’s one more of these, by the way. I’ll show you later on.

You’ve got to keep it simple. The best way to kill a dragon -- and if you haven’t got the metaphor yet, obviously, when I say kill a dragon, I mean make a website. You know.

The best way to kill a dragon is, for example, this. Kill it while it’s sleeping. If you get this opportunity, just go for it. Stab it. You don’t have to be fancy. You don’t have to invent new techniques or new weapons or new approaches. Just do what’s simple.

Also, don’t do this.

Have you guys played Zelda, Breath of the Wild? Anybody?

How many of you have had a fucking stack of stuff at the end? When you killed that boss, it was way too easy, and you could have used all that stuff way earlier in the game. You’re like, “Ugh! I cooked all those fucking durian fruits,” or whatever it was, “for no reason.”

Don’t do this. If you have a good idea, share it. If you have a new approach or something you want to try out, do it.

If you want to try writing something maybe different to the copy you have, do that. Don’t wait. Don’t pack it away for a rainy day.

Finally, don’t worry if it looks ugly. A kill is a kill.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: If it works, if your users are happy, if the numbers are up, your client is happy, it’s fine. Don’t work for your portfolio. Work for your clients.

Most of my projects are ugly. That’s why I call myself just above average but less than great designer is because I don’t really have a great portfolio. It’s fine. Good design isn’t always beautiful.

To sum up then, the Web design basics, good typography and an uncomplicated interface. It sounds easy.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: [Laughter] Right? It sounds easy, but it isn’t always. Let’s be honest. A single-column text perfectly displayed across every bloody screen size at every breakpoint for every module or component in every context, it isn’t easy but it’s enough.

There you have it. That’s how to kill a dragon. Just do the basics well.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: [Laughter] Sorry. That’s a bit anticlimactic, really. The big takeaway here is do the basics well. Of course, that’s part of it.

But you know the magic, what I’m really here to talk about, is what happens afterwards because, after we kill a dragon, if we’re lucky, we get to level up.

[Orchestra music]

Espen: Yeah. Feel this mood?

[Climatic music]

Espen: All right. This is the fun part. We get to level up. We get to invest our skill points.

We kill the dragon. We’ve got money. We brought the head of the dragon to the king. He paid us, and we’ve got some loot, some new gear, some equipment, whatever, and we get these beautiful, shiny orbs of wisdom, right? Skill points that we get to invest how we want to, really.

Most people invest their skill points like this, in a T shape. Raise your hand if you’re familiar with the T shape.

A few? Yeah.

Basically, you want to have a little bit of knowledge in a bunch of different topics. And then the one thing that you’re going to sell yourself as or the one thing you like or that you’re really good at, you just invest heavily in that.

Like I played Skyrim and I was an archer. I put all my points into archery, and I completed the game. I could kill the monsters from afar, and it was great. But I think, in the real world, it doesn’t really work like that.

In the real world, we need something more rounded. We need this, the magical shape of the potato.

[Audience laughs]

[Level up]

Espen: Seriously. Potatoes are the best vegetables. Potatoes are humble. They can thrive anywhere. Did you know the potato is from South America or the Americas and, in Europe, we just took it and it worked. Like, “Oh, my God! It grows everywhere! It’s fantastic!”

And it’s super versatile, so maybe it’s a stretch, but this is connected design because -- I don’t know about Germany. Maybe you have the same thing here. Maybe in the UK as well, but certainly in Norway -- a potato is someone who is useful in many, many different situations.

It’s a bit like Jack-of-all-trades. That’s like a bad reputation. “Oh, you’re a potato. Okay. You can’t be that good.” Oh, you are really good. You’re not the sexiest, but you know you’re loved by many.

This quote, by the way, you know who said this? This guy. He’s in parliament, so you know.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Potatoes are good.

This guy is a potato. I chose him because he’s super big and famous, so even if you’re nerds, you’ll get this reference.

I could have chosen some German guys, but I mean this guy is better. He’s super, super good, and people think of him as hyper-focused. He’s like a playmaker and goal-scorer. That’s what he does, so he can’t be a potato.

But actually, to do what he does, it takes a broad set of skills, right? You need to be good at shooting and have some power. You need to be fast. You need to have vision, creativity, all these things. Being the best footballer in the world means you have to broaden a little bit beyond just kicking the ball really hard.

If you go into battle and you’re going to take down a dragon, you definitely want Jaqueline on your team. You don’t want Big Arm Guy who has got five hit points and he’s really good at just one thing.

Right? So, we want skills, and we want a broader set of skills. What skills are the best Web design skills?

We can start here. This, by the way, is my rendition of the designer skill tree. I’ve spent hours on this, so you know, big it up.

Visual design is a very obvious skill to start with because it’s what people think of as design: styling. But you know it’s not just that. Visual design is maybe typography and colors and making buttons really nice and polished and -- I don’t know -- just making it look pretty, I guess. Surely, that’s the most important part of being a designer, like the visual stuff.

[Level up]

Espen: No. Power-up number six: The most overrated part of design is design because people don’t care about visual design.

I didn’t really used to say visual design before. I started in the Web industry. I don’t know if it’s just something we’ve started doing over the last decade, but visual design, polish, I think we care - designers.

We care about this stuff and we go on Dribbble, or we go to these award sites, and it strikes me there are so many of them that are completely inaccessible. They take forever to load. But they’re so snazzy, like super tasty, and they move. They have hover states that are fantastic.

All this stuff, I think it brings a lot of value to storytelling and to design, but it certainly isn’t the most important thing. People want to just watch Netflix or they want to read the article or check out something in a shop. They don’t care about the snazzy details as much as we think they do.

I saw this. In preparation for this talk, I saw this just on LinkedIn, which is the social media of choice, by the way. [Laughter] This guy apparently works for Netflix, so he must have something nice to say.

He says, “Product Design is 80% understanding the problem and 20% designing artifacts,” a.k.a. visual design.

The value is in understanding your users and doing research, reframing the problems, and having some good ideas. Right? All this other stuff is around just doing the artifacts.

I have this example here obviously from COVID times in the UK. The health system was seriously crashing because everyone was sick and the doctors were sick, and the nurses were sick. Emergency rooms were filling up, and we didn’t have enough ventilators. People were dying.

It was really, really important that we just collectively did something. If you think about it, this really does what the previous slide was talking about in that it understands the context of COVID. Then we have this understanding of the user being like, “Yeah, we know it really sucks to stay at home.”

But then we reframe the problem, and we say, “You save lives if you stay at home.” Then we’ve ideated a really cool solution for distribution, which is just stick this in the window of every single house in the UK.

Now, this is obviously not done by a designer, so I’m using this as a proof that visual design is not as important. Although not everybody agrees.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Right.

The next skill in the skill tree is UX. I’m not really going to talk much about UX. I’m not an expert at UX, and I think all of us know what it is. I think most of us know the value of UX, and I think everybody has heard a million times not to reinvent the wheel, and we just look at patterns and follow conventions and stuff.

I used to slate all that way of thinking. I’ve come a bit full circle. I think creativity should happen outside of changing how the Internet works and more about words and images and get back to the basics. But anyway, I’ll skip this one for now because it’s fairly obvious.

What’s not always as obvious is this thing: creativity. I think we all have a feeling that we need to be creative and creativity is really good. But do we actually put it into our processes? I’m not sure.

What is creativity? I figure because we’re a room full of nerds, we can figure it out here on this blackboard.

By the way, this blackboard is drawn by AI. I don’t know, man. It works. It’s fine.

If design is image and text put together, then I would say that good design is image and text to the power of creativity. Right? We infuse some sort of magic sauce that just elevates the two parts, and we get even better stuff.

Then if we iterate, we get great design. You know it’s a summation of image and text to the power of creativity where N is the number of iterations we do.

I don’t know math, so I have to memorize this stuff. I think I pulled it off. Don’t kill me if I didn’t.

What I’m saying is creativity is this. Right? It’s a very banal example but figuring out that this image goes with that text and that lifts both of them up and makes them more powerful and communicates stronger and generate more clicks than if they were just on their own, that’s creativity at its most basic level.

This... [loud exhale] not so much. This is maybe a bit old now. I don’t know. I saw this tweet, and I thought it was funny. But you know there’s certainly been--

The last time I was on stage, I think the hero image was a big background image and text in the middle - something like that. Now it’s text on the side but with this illustration (done by the same person, apparently).

It’s nice and it’s cuddly and some of the copy is decent, but it’s not super creative. There’s no wonder or jokes or any reason to think.

I put this -- just for fun, I put this into AI as well. Biophilic design, whatever that is.

I’m not saying this is super creative, by the way. I’m just saying it’s just one, this one extra iteration, and you get something completely different. I think it looks really cool. It’s weird and strange.

This is Slack’s tagline, “Where work happens.” It’s some sort of abstract party, I guess, with a suite, maybe. I don’t know.

I think it looks interesting, and I think just stepping one step further into your process makes you think. Right? I’ve certainly done enough experiment with AI to think, “Oh, hang on. Maybe this guy can be my little pal in the corner. I can just throw some shit in this direction and get some input back.”

That’s creative. It’s important.

Here’s one that I think is completely underrated. I was not really taught it at school other than the fact that, every now and then, you needed to stand up in front of the class and show your ideas.

In my career, I have to present my ideas all the time, but it’s not really developed as a skill. You just kind of have to do it.

Everyone is a bit nervous. I’m certainly nervous. But it’s super-powerful.

If you know how to present and have just people skills, in general, I think you can avoid situations like this where you send your idea off, and you get some feedback. You’re stuck in this loop.

Finally, you get approval. Oh, no. The brief changed.

This happens, right? Sometimes it’s completely unavoidable for whatever reason. It could be budget or someone changing their mind or whatever. But if you’re good at presenting, if you have the spoon, you spoon-feed, you get people onboard with why you’ve done what you’ve done, and you can sell your arguments, it’s much less likely.

Basically, this is maybe me as a level one designer. “Please, can we have some more space over here? It looks better for some reason.”

And this maybe is me now. I could be a big more confident. I can step into a room and maybe say the same thing but hold some sort of different weight. Have a different presence because I’ve spent some time developing my presentation skills.

I can tell you, coming back to a meeting after standing here and talking to a couple of hundred people, it makes it way easier, and you have this different kind of confidence with you. I recommend not necessarily this, but just think about how you present yourself.

I think applies to developers as much as designers because--

[Level up]

Espen: --people-skills are not soft skills. They’re super crucial. I mean I’m here not because I’m the best designer in the world or because I’m saving the world or inspiring a young generation of designers to be more green.

I just talked my way here, I think. Take what you want from that.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: Right. Okay. We need to get moving. My timer says five minutes. That can’t be right. I’ve got an hour left. Okay.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: No.

Writing is super, super important. The second most important thing, in my opinion, when it comes to design is writing or certainly when it comes to Web design.

You can also see now my skill hexagon is growing and the shape is changing. It’s going more like in a potato direction. Righting is super crucial because, as the elvish people said in the ancient times, “Beware the authority of the written word.”

I had a guest lecturer in uni who said this, and I was like, “Yeah, okay. That makes sense.”

But then we’ve grown up in this world now. Just look at the last five years, and you realize, “Jesus Christ, how true is this?” Look.

Just consider a certain person (who shall not be named) and how he managed to subvert American democracy by tweeting. It’s crazy. It’s just words, but it’s so, so powerful.

Sorry to all bards. I don’t mean to compare you to this guy. I’m just saying words are very important and we can use them for good. We can inspire. As designers, we should certainly consider them when we design.

I have one more example of really good copyright is this.

[“That’s Amore,” by Dean Martin]

Espen: Sing it with me now.

Singer: When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.

[Singing continues]

Espen: This is in New York Times, an article about some science project. It’s amazing. I just think words are so important. In fact, I would say--

[Music and singing stops]


Espen: --content is design. I said here is the eighth power-up. It isn’t. It’s the seventh.

Anyway, content is design and it helps us communicate like this guy, Alan Trotter.

If you saw my latest talk, you’ve seen this before. He hasn’t changed his website, thankfully. He’s a writer, so his website is just words and content is doing all the work here.

It’s a click-and-point adventure game style type thing. And you have to dig to find his book, and you have to dig to find his email address and stuff, but it sparks so much curiosity, and it really highlights who he is. And in that context, it works really well.

So, I stole that, and I designed my own website a couple of years ago when I went freelance. And I said some stuff about myself. And I wanted to talk about my experience, so this is what I used to do. Before that, I did this. Before that, I did that. And before that, I did that.

I’m not going to read it all out, but I go on about my childhood and my parents, where they met, and where I was born. And then there’s a little bit about Norway.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: And you know. There is an opportunity to engage with your audience because they don’t need to read this. But if they, maybe they think, “Oh, this guy has stuff to say.” [Laughter] “Don’t invite him to a meeting.”

No. Honestly, I did this, and I had -- I don’t know. Ten people said, “Oh, you have a cool website.”

This one guy said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” No one commented on the logo or the colors or the layout. The only sort of really positive things were, “Hey, that “before that” thing you did is amazing,” so I kept that. I’m going to have that on all my websites from now on.

Anyway, that’s a bit of writing for you. Super important.

Can anybody guess what the last skill is for a Web designer?


[Audience laughs]

Espen: I never improvise. No, it’s code. Of course, it bloody is. I mean we make websites, right? They need to go on the Internet somewhere in a format that isn’t a Figma file.


Espen: So, the last power-up is this. It’s basically like code makes you a better designer. It’s super-obvious, but it’s so overlooked that I feel like it’s a secret.

In Dusseldorf this year, we had this spoken from stage, and it’s really true. We don’t really know this material that we’re working with, I feel. As a designer, I think we have a responsibility to do so, and we become better if we do so.

Why is it that we don’t know the material that we use to produce websites? Look at print. They bloody love paper.

I used to be a magazine designer, and we’d get magazines, even shitty, old customer magazines back from print, and we would go [sniff], “Ah, ah, yeah. Look at that. Feel that paper! It’s amazing!”

[Audience applause]

Espen: There’s stylishly clad paper merchants driving around the UK showcasing these things like the new paper collection from GF Smith, and we love it, or magazine designers would love it.

Then it’s really expensive, too, because you need special inks. Three hundred and fifty quid just to see the ink.

[Audience laughs]

Espen: You can print metallic colors, 150 quid. You can buy the whole studio package. You can bring it with you, 850 quid.

Print designers are like, “Yeah!”

[Audience laughs]

Espen: You know? Meanwhile, Web designers were like, “Nah, I’m not so sure about Visual Studio code. It looks a bit complicated.”

We send our Figma files off to a different room or a different floor or a different country, and then we get upset. “Ugh! Man, they just don’t get it. I have to tell them what to do.”

Of course. They’re developers. You’re the designer. Speak their language or do it yourself.

Poor developers get asked, “Can I do this in CSS?” And they go, “Oh, yeah. Technically, you can. But is it a good idea?”

How can we ask sensible questions if we don’t speak the same language?

Here’s a list of things you can’t do in Figma: CSS grid, animation, blah-blah-blah. This list is endless. There’s so much we can’t do.

Clamp. I fucking love Clamp. I didn’t know Clamp existed. How can I design with Clamp in mind if I don’t know Clamp exists?

My time is up, by the way. I’m 25 seconds over, so I’m going to take it really slow now. We’ve got all the time in the world.

No, sorry. This is a website we did for a podcast called Web Materials. We did the whole thing in the browser. We designed it there. We built it there. We used only CSS defaults. All the colors, all the fonts, everything is just what you find directly there without installing anything, and it was amazing. Such a good experience.

This is a website I did a couple of years ago in Norway where I did these animations in CSS. It’s just like moving some stuff around, and I don’t see how I could have even tried to do this had I not known a little bit of CSS because you’ve got to explain that to someone then.

If you can’t do it, you’ve got to either learn Aftereffects and animate it and then show someone and say, “Do this,” or you have to sit next to a developer and say, “Oh, can you make the wheels spin faster?”

It’s just, you know, this is design, so why don’t we use the language more?

This is our current website, which of course, has “Before this,” “Before that,” et cetera. It also has these shapes.

It’s got some generative design - whatever that is. We’re making random layouts and animation and stuff.

It’s not mind-blowing. I’m not trying to sell you on this. I’m just saying I’m working in a different way because I know a fraction of what code can do. Imagine if I knew more, right?

Code is important. UX is important. Writing is important. Presenting is important. Code is important. Sorry, I said that twice. It’s doubly important.

The last thing I’m going to show you is this. It’s a website I did also a couple of years ago, I think. It’s the only project I’ve done everything on.

Again, I’m not saying you need to be the best at everything. But if you don’t have a writer, and if you don’t have an animator, and if you don’t have a UX person, who is going to do it if you don’t even try and do it? Right?

There are animations here. I worked really hard on the storytelling here. I tried to be creative with my copy, and we tried to make illustrations that really highlight what this product is.

I don’t think I would have been able to think up this sort of experience had I not known just a little bit of all these different topics.

So, to sum up, this is the skill tree, as far as I’m concerned. Yours will look different. I mean you can put any word in the middle there and the other things around will change it.

But the main thing is that you’ve got to expand. Dip your toe into different disciplines. And then you unlock the magic circle.

[“Titles,” by Vangelis]

Espen: You know this is what it’s all about because, if you invest in code, you think, “Oh, I can go deeper.” There’s more stuff here.

All of these expand into subskills, or whatever you want to call them. Then you look at those, and they combine.

It’s like, “Well, hang on. I can do UX design. Oh, yeah, I can.”

There are all these different paths now to learn all these things, right? Do you feel it?!

And it keeps on going. Everything connects to everything else, et cetera.

Design isn’t one thing. It’s a network of things. It’s a network of skills.

They all interconnect into this thing here. The magic shape of the dragon-slaying of multitasking, crazy, ninja, potato thing.

If you remember one thing for dinner, go out and have potatoes.

Thank you.

[Audience applause and cheers]