ICONS: work on stuff that matters

This morning I attended ICONS, an event to kickstart the new term of Communication and Multimedia Design, which is a course given in Amsterdam. The event was for students, but they invited others to tag along. So I did. Three speakers shared their views on what I can only paraphrase as: to do something that matters.

Marrije Schaake (eend) explained how not to lose your job in digital to robots. Robots will find it most challenging to take over jobs that require creativity, humanity and leadership. So, a good way to keep your job is to focus on making digital products more human. One needs human skills for that. One needs empathy: the skill to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So that you can solve their problem. The good thing, Marrije told us, is that we can train our empathy skills: you can interview people to find out about their problems and study them in their natural habitat (like the practice of ethology). Find out what it is they want to do, what impediments they have and what they would not want to happen. This way, it gets easier to find real solutions to solve real problems. Problems that matter.

Johan Huijkman (Q42) talked about digital accessibility. He showed lots of examples of actual users that benefit from accessibility optimisations. And he explained that those users are everywhere and that they could be you (now or at an older age). He demonstrated how important it is to do the basics (according to Derek Featherstone, 80% of accessibility issues can be resolved by keyboard testing and proper markup), to work together, to test with real users and to keep things straightforward and usable (to avoid cognitive overload). By designing inclusively, we can make our digital products matter for people.

The multi-award-winning Astrid Poot (Familie van Fonk) taught us how to be successful, and showed the students that the common cliches about being successful as a digital creative person make no sense at all. You don’t need to be a man, overly rational, extremely confident, focused, disruptive or good looking to be extremely successful. Being professional is about other things, do something that matters. Why launch a new brand of tonic water if you can help children visit art museums or prepare for going to the hospital?

This idea of making stuff that matters is something I have been thinking about for a while. So many good designers and developers work on products that solve problems of big corporations, not of society. I don’t have much against big corporations, we probably need them, but using technology to improve people’s lives seems like the best way to spend our time. Whether that’s for a government or some big corporation, or with a trendy design or fancy framework, those questions are secondary, I think.

What a cool event, and what a great way for CMD students to start their year! I hope they were as inspired as I was, and employ the critical intuitions during their term.

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