Looking Back: Beyond Tellerrand Düsseldorf 2017

If you were to ask me what it is like to attend a Beyond Tellerrand event, my initial answer might be:“Welcoming and inspiring!” followed by a very long monologue about why I think it is one of the best conferences in the whole Web Industry. That monologue would most likely contain words like “the atmosphere”, “such diversity” and “bloody brilliant organization by Marc”.

After going to BTConf 2016 in Düsseldorf I was very eager to go again this year. It was the best experience out of all the conferences I attended so far, which, of course, set some high expectations for the 2017 edition. I was looking forward to meeting friends, new people and those I've only known via Twitter or through their blogs. Hugs to you wonderful human beings!

The speaker line-up looked promising to say the least, as well as the events around the conference itself. Arriving on Sunday afternoon, I made it to the hotel, dropped my bags and headed off to Sipgate, where the Conference warm-up took place.

Warming Up - Chillin' 'n' Grillin' at Sipgate

Free drinks, free food (vegan, vegetarian, grilled goodies like pulled pork, chicken and beef) sponsored by Sipgate, and free talks. We were sitting in front of the office chatting until 10PM. If you were especially curious what it's like to work for Sipgate, you could even join a short tour around the office.

The first nicety I want to mention here, which is just one of many tiny details that together make this conference so worthwhile: you could get your badges at the warm-up venue, reducing the time to wait at the conference venue the next morning.

Day One

Wake up. Realize you're in a hotel. Realize that it's time for BTConf to take off! Shower, breakfast, off to the venue it is then.

Day One - The Exhibition

Arriving at the Capitol Theater right on time and meeting my friends Jan and Mario, we joined the rest of the crowd and entered the venue. The foyer, which Marc calls "The Exhibition", and rightly so, was packed with people. You might find stands by sponsors, or one corner being taken by the Microsoft Edge team, where all talks could be watched on a TV screen. Eva-Lotta Lamm, who made sketchnotes of each and every talk, had a standing table where you could buy posters she made (she would draw a little something on each poster on request - what a feat), and next to one of the two bars stood a table with books on it.

This table, a new part of the Exhibition suggested by Frederic Hemberger, was the "Book Exchange". You could bring old books you don't need any more and put them on the table for others to take. For free. Also for free: there was a whole table filled with candy sponsored by Mozilla.

All of this surrounding the counter in the center where volunteers hustled their asses off in order to answer questions, give everyone their badges, goody bags and any information they needed. While I'm at it: big shouts to the volunteer crew, whom I partially got to know, and "Oh Boy" they were doing quite a job there and doing it very, very well.

Cheers to my friends at etherTec Systems, who took care of the conference Wi-Fi! Considering the amount of data going through the connection they had set up.

Day One - The Auditorium

On entering the auditorium you were greeted with music played by Tobi Lessnow. Tobi is a musician, who is producing live during the event, and, just as last year, he was HOT. Dancing behind his decks, headbanging, booty-shaking - he really hooks you up. Last year a sideshow act next to the stage, this year he was on the stage doing his thing.

At the front of the stage stood an old TV screen showing a live C64 demo coded by Björn Odendahl, who also created the shirt design of the 2016 edition.

Take a Seat - It's About to go Down

Music off, lights out, show on. The opening titles by Sebastian Lange are something to watch and right after there is Marc Thiele entering the stage. Smiling, greeting everyone and introducing the first speaker of the day: Christian Heilmann.

A short note on the pace at Beyond Tellerrand: talks are seperated by 15 or 30 minute breaks and there's a lunch-break for 2 hours. Before and after each talk, Marc takes the stage for a few words on what's next, who's next, or what to watch out for in the foyer.

Breaking Out of the Tetris Mindset

Although being heavily jet-lagged coming in from Seattle the day before the conference, Christian opened it with a wonderful talk. He told us how all the different building blocks of the web combined to make it what it is: a diverse medium built by diverse people. A medium which, after more than 20 years of ongoing development, still has fundamental problems. And yet, both ends of the spectrum of developers working with and on the web contribute to make things better.

"If Tetris has taught me anything, it's that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear"

In the end it all comes down to a single phrase written into the W3C HTML Design Principles specification:

"In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity."

See the transcript of his talk on his own blog or at the end of the wrap up post for this edition of BTConf (all videos, transcripts available can be found there, so I'll spare you of posting links to each talk or speaker from now on).

Cultivating Community

After this great opener, Sharon Steed entered the stage in order to talk about how we communicate. On one hand, how we, as people in general or as a community (be it inside a company or as web developers or designers or social-media peer-group) communicate; and on the other hand, how this communication can be improved, how it can be used to make us better contributers on our teams.

"The foundation of all great communities is empathy!"

Sharon, an empathy consultant, has a speech impediment: she stutters. The points she drove home were how and why empathy is such an important subject, how good communication makes a community inclusive and what it means to be a positive communicator. All very important points and I hope that everyone in the audience listened closely.

Design Systems

As I've seen Jina giving this kind of talk twice already, it wasn't particularly exciting for me personally, but I heard a lot of "Uuuhs" and "Aaaahs" during the session. Jina worked for some of the largest companies in the industry, such as Apple or GitHub, and sure is knowledgeable when it comes to this subject.

First, she took a look back at how Design Systems have existed for a long time already. She told us how pattern libraries, style guides and toolkits evolve and become more and more a deliverable when working on the web.

Pointing out where challenges lie and showing how to work around those were the main takeaways for me. I've already found out the hard way how maintenance can become quite a challenge when a design becomes a grown-up system living next to the website it should mirror.

Comedy and Microservices

Phil Hawksworth. Well, Phil. I really like him. I met him for the first time two years ago while sitting on a beer-bike in Freiburg after the Smashing Conference. (The ride we had that time will luckily never be told in public.) After finding out he will present at BTConf I sent him a note via Twitter.

Phil talked about Microservices and how web developers can use tested working solutions to existing problems to reduce the workload it would take to build all by themselves.

Feeling this syndrome of "not in-house" myself from time to time, this talk really helped me understand when it makes sense to diverge from the standard track and go for prebuilt solutions. The best example I can think of (and Phil also mentioned it in his presentation) is IFTTT.

"There is great power in avoiding responsibility."

"If This, Then That" is a conglomerate of microservices, where one can create recipes or use existing ones. A recipe can look like:"If I post something on my blog, send a message on Twitter, post something on Facebook and forward the whole thing to Medium." Since I last looked around there, it sure got more capable than that.

He also talked about static site generators and how they are the perfect example where Microservices help out in making a static site more dynamic.

One of the main points that stuck with me was:

"Complexity can be a barrier while simplicity can be an enabler."

Keeping it simple and avoiding complexity, can make your, and the life of your co-workers, that much easier.

Hacking the Visual Norm

Data Visualization is really not my cup of tea. I always imagined it to be about endless meetings, where people show pie-charts and bars get thrown around and how on the x-axis there's humor and on the y-axis there's the time the meeting will take - and we all know what the graph on that chart will look like.

And here's Nadieh Bremer showing how Data Visualization with d3.js is something unimaginably creative and awe-inspiring. You really should go to Visual Cinnamon, Nadieh's homepage, and see for yourself as I'm completely unable to explain the concepts she presented in my own words.

From my perspective, she turned one of the driest subjects every company has to deal with into art.

Peace, Hellfire and Outer Space

Talking about art, meet Seb Lester (creator of typefaces, artist, calligrapher), showing the audience how the typefaces he created have been (mis)used around the world - and beyond.

NASA chose his typeface Neo Sans for one of its projects; the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for all their branding; and then he finds it used on a menu in an Indian snack bar.

Yet, while everyone and their mother used his letters, noone knew the person behind them. Seb showed us a picture of his desk at home, followed by a short video of him doing a calligraphy. This video (fancy a compilation?), among others, propelled him first into the world of social-media and later on international TV.

I love fonts and typesetting, although I'm not very good at it. I tried some calligraphy but failed miserably - to be honest, I'm hardly able to recreate my signature since my last name changed after getting married! Meh. However, I almost shed a tear over how beautiful his calligraphies are.

Some found the talk to be cheesy, or thought it to be mostly about himself, marketing his own brand. I found it inspring and also very interesting, as you got to see a different angle on your own work. You may create the most beautiful of fonts, which will be used in space and during the Olympics - and then it's the menu of that snack bar around the corner.

The Final Talk of Day One

Award-winning illustrator Yoku Shimizu, who created the design for the BTConf T-Shirts for this year, took the stage and brought a witty and inspirational presentation with her. As she learned speaking English in New York, she also brought a lot of four-letter words with her, which, mind you, did not have a negative impact on the quality of her speaking.

Yet, no matter how well she spoke, the slides were what really mattered to me here. Wonderful illustrations, so unique and yet still identifiable as hers. True pieces of art for each and every image.

I really laughed when she stated (this is not a quote but how I kept it in mind):

"I once did a cover of a Batman Comic. audience cheering and clapping I know, I know. Thanks. It's not my favorite type of work, looking back, but it's always great for street credibility when teaching young students how illustration works."

A client project from her early work as an illustrator showed us how creating illustrations for a newspaper, on demand, the night before the paper goes into print, can be a challenge of epic proportions. As Yuko pointed out, it was either working night shifts and taking in whatever feedback was thrown at her from clients, or you're out of business because the will tell everyone in their network about how you failed to meet their requests. Talking about demanding clients is something not everyone does on stage from what I know.

Hotel? What Hotel?

Right after the conference, we went to eat and decided, as Jan and Mario hadn't been there before, to head to the old city centre of Düsseldorf.

"The longest bar in the world" consists of over 300 bars, restaurants, discotheques, breweries and pubs all on a spot of half a square kilometer. If you can name the drink, you can get it. While nothing for the faint-hearted, it sure is a sight you'll remember.

We didn't take it to the end of the night, though, as we knew we'd have to get up in the morning for day two of BTConf.

Day 2

Wake up. Realize you‘re still in the same hotel. Realize that it‘s time for the second day of BTConf to take off! Shower, breakfast, off to the venue it is again.

Blow Away Them Hangovers

While my peers and I decided to take it easy on the first night, a few other attendees (and speakers?!) didn‘t look all too flashy or awake on the morning of day two.

But five minutes into Espen Brunborg's talk, everyone was on the edge of their seats. This has to be the funniest, freshest and most interesting talk I‘ve seen in a long, long time. From how Espen presented, to what he talked about and what the key take-aways were, this talk had it all.

I even caught him referencing “Planet of the Apes” which reminded me of someone else occassionally doing so. Twitter Banter. Love it.

Apart from all the laughs and jokes, the presentation drove home the point which Christian Heilmann had made clear on day one: it‘s not how you got the one holy truth or how others “just don't get it”. It is about how both ends of the spectrum are right in what they do and how, together, joining forces, great things could be made.

I witnessed Jeremy Keith not saying “progressive enhancement” in a talk

Along came Jeremy. He replaced Ellen de Vries, who couldn‘t make it, and I must say it‘s not too shabby a replacement to have Jeremy Keith present as a surprise. Jeremy ran the Indie Web Camp together with Joschi Kuphal on the weekend before the conference and originally planned to only attend the conference.

Well, so much for best-laid plans: there he is on stage talking about how we developers can evaluate technology. How well does it work? How well does it fail? Both important questions to ask before setting out to use a brand-new tool or technology. How well does it suit my needs? How well does it serve the user?

He came to quote Postel‘s law (or the robustness principle) which is a general guideline when it comes to designing software:

“Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others“

Being the great storyteller that he is, it was a joy to listen and learn from Jeremy‘s seemingly endless fountain of knowledge. Although he did not say “progressive enhancement” in his talk, he talked about the idea behind it, saying that evaluating technology by looking at its robustness and how it serves the user first should be the way to go.

Performance and Accessibility

The talk I looked forward to the most followed up now: Patty Toland of the Filament Group talking about Performance. The Filament Group, who won the Agency of the year award at the 2015 Net Awards; which created loadCSS, a script I incorporate in all websites I build since I got a hold of it; which shows and tells everyone how performance should be a first class citizen when it comes to evaluating technology for building sites and apps for the web.

Patty didn‘t disappoint. Although it was a pretty fast-paced talk with slides changing in seconds, I was able to follow it quite nicely as I knew some of the facts being presented from reading the Filament blog and Scott Jehl's book Responsible Responsive Web Design, published by A Book Apart (book recommendation: check). Luckily, one can access all slides via the wrap-up article I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Showing how bad performance can impact the life of many users, how bad performance is an accessibility concern, how page weight can cost people a lot of money which they may not have – all of this while backing it up with statistics, case-studies and more. Lovely.

One thing that stuck in my brain is the fact that 3G takes up close to 40% of the network speeds accessing the web on a daily basis. 2G is just as common when taking in global statistics, and around 20% of people in North America own only a smartphone or some other kind of mobile device – no desktop or laptop or broadband internet in sight. Think about this the next time someone states:“Yeah but we all got fiber, now. Why should I care?”

I hope more people care about the low-end of devices and networks, now that they‘ve seen Patty on stage.

Tell a Story with JavaScript

Sarah Drasner, who I had the pleasure to meet once before, told the audience how animating SVG with JavaScript can be part of the user-journey, and how it can make an interface not only usable but also enlightening.

Her presentation contained some nice animations she had created. To see how gradually revealing information can make it more digestable was an eye-opener.

Being on the bleeding edge when it comes to JavaScript, she also talked about her experiences with React and Vue, two competing frameworks being used by many developers around the globe. As I‘ve only dipped my toe into the waters of developing with Vue, it's been great to see her talking about it.

Luckily, after the conference was over, I sat across her at the dinner table and we had the chance to briefly but excitedly talk about how we both love Vue. This resulted in Jeremy stating:“You talk about this as if you have found Christ.” Well, not so much, but it is pretty awesome.

Are Machines Creative?

Quasimondo, also known under his real name Mario Klingemann, works in the field of deep learning and machine-learning, a universe completely foreign to me. I know what people in this section of the industry do, but how leaves me with a group of questionmarks hovering over my head.

So it was impressing to see what Mario had to show. He asked the question of whether a machine can be creative and answered it with another one:

“Can humans be creative?”

Showing the capabilities of his machines by endlessly zooming into pieces they‘ve created themselves or how a computer tried to recreate human faces (talking about five-year-olds portrait painting here) sure was an experience.

I couldn't figure what to make out of this talk: mind-blown. Little did I know what computers are already capable of. A lot of us must have heard the news that a computer beat a human-being at chess, Go, Space Invaders or whatever but a computer rendering art or recreating it? I felt that‘s a totally different thing.

And one thing only a few among the attendees realized: Mario‘s slides all had computer generated art as a background. You couldn‘t tell until the second half of his talk – it looked just like an old oil painting with a few cracks here and there in the paint. Stunning.

All Good Things Come to an End

So, the final talk had to come and it came with something very special to me (and possibly to a lot of people in the audience). “I‘m a fan of David Bowie!” is something millions around the world can say and here I am saying it too. Not the first time, but still.

On stage stood Jonathan Barnbrook, who worked with David Bowie for the last fifteen years and through four LPs released to the public. With wit and insight, and without taking himself and his work too seriously, Jonathan said that it‘s important to not take too much pride in your workings.

You might work for one of the most stellar figures in popular culture and do your best, and still someone might not “get it”.

Showing the artwork for the LPs and other pieces he created (working for Adbusters, for example) made clear how great design is not cramped with a lot of things to make a point. “Good design is as little design as possible.” is one of the ten principles of design by Dieter Rams, and here you got someone who clearly understood what this meant.

Somehow not everyone sees or feels the same, and when Jonathan presented the artwork for “Blackstar”, David Bowie's final LP, social media fired back:

“This Jonathan Barnbrook must be the laziest designer in the world!”

and

“I bet he charged millions for this crappy black star on a white background. This is ridiculous!”

were only two of some comments he showed in his slides.

The End

The 2017 edition of the Beyond Tellerrand event in Düsseldorf was just as good as the one the year before. Thank you so much to Marc Thiele, who never grows tired of sweating the many details I cannot mention here because it would blow this already lengthy blogpost completely out of proportion. If I needed to describe Marc with a single word it would be "caring". Thanks again for caring and taking the time to talk to anyone having questions before, during and after the conference. While it might be his job to do so, you can see that he does it with excellence and with a passion. If it wasn't for that passion, I suppose the conference would be just another event, just another option among many.

Closing this post I will say one thing: I'll keep returning for as long as there's a BTConf, that's for sure. With so much value for money and such a familiar and inviting atmosphere, how could I not?