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A New Chapter

Last Wednesday, I stood on the stage at An Event Apart for the first time in almost fifteen months, in front of an audience for the first time in just over a year, and delivered the most important talk of my life.  It wasn’t about CSS, or coding, or even standards.  It was about design and empathy and user experience and my own personal experience and what it taught me.  It was a talk about designing for users who are in the midst of crisis, no matter what kind of content you have, no matter whether you think your users will ever be in crisis when they come to your site.  It was the opening of a new chapter in my career.

To say this is a radical departure is an understatement.  But after the turns my life has taken, it was almost impossible that this would have been anything less.

I don’t know if the audience sensed my anxiety and fear in the moments before I spoke.  I wasn’t afraid of speaking in front of the audience, nor of their reaction to my points.  I was afraid of making my points badly, so that the message was lost in hesitation and stumbling.  I was afraid of fumbling and failing, not because of how I would look in public, but because it would mean doing a disservice to the message I was trying to convey.  And I was a little bit afraid of letting down the team at AEA, who have stood by me and done so much for me.

In the past, I haven’t really rehearsed my talks.  They were all technical, covering territory I knew very well.  The cliché is “Don’t prepare a talk, prepare yourself.”  In other words, know your subject so well that you can just talk about it for an hour.  That’s how I approached all my presentations.  I had high points to hit, slides (or demos) in a certain order, but no actual script.  I didn’t need one.  CSS was so familiar to me, I could mostly improvise what I said.

But this new talk is entirely about territory new to me.  In some cases, it involves things that are new to everyone—ideas I’ve come up with, and techniques I’ve devised, that I’ve never seen before, and nobody I’ve talked to has seen before.  It took no particular act of genius to do this; I just tried to simulate certain frames of mind with software.  The only insight there was to realize that it should be tried at all.

Beyond the topic area, everything about this talk is unusual for me.  I wrote it out as if composing an article, and read the text aloud several times to figure out what had to change.  Once the text was set, I rehearsed more than a dozen times, which partly explains the complete blogging silence of the past month.  I memorized the opening and closing sections of the talk verbatim, going over them in my head before bed, sitting on the plane to Florida, pacing in my hotel room.  On Sunday afternoon before the show opened, I went into the ballroom and essentially gave the talk to myself and the techs putting the lighting and AV together, getting reacquainted with being on stage and throwing my thoughts into the world.

And then, Wednesday morning, after Jeffrey introduced me, I stood center stage, looked out into the audience that held hundreds of my colleagues as well as my sister and parents, paused for a moment… and started talking.

Several people told me they were holding their breath in that pause, wondering if I’d be able to start.  That wasn’t my concern.  My concern was that I would lock up a few minutes in—that I’d stumble, lose my place, and go tharn.  Once I got through the opening and the first screenshots came up, I knew that danger was past.  Whatever else, I’d be able to carry it to the end.  And I did.

As I said before, that talk marked the opening of a new chapter for me.  I’m not abandoning CSS by any stretch, and in fact I’m moving forward on that front as well, but a goodly portion of my energies will be devoted to this new topic.  I think it’s not just important, but vital, and very much overlooked.  I have research to do, ideas to test and further develop, and a lot of thinking ahead of me.  I have this talk to give at An Event Apart throughout 2015.  There will probably be articles, and possibly a book.  Perhaps even more.  I don’t know yet.

What I know is that I’m on a new path now, one I wish I hadn’t come to by this route, but one that I’m determined to follow.  I hope to take what I’ve suffered and forge it into positive, lasting change—not just for me, but for the profession and medium I still love after all these years.

AEA Orlando: Special Edition

Yesterday, the team at An Event Apart unveiled a special addition to our schedule: a Special Edition event, to be held at The Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World this coming October 27-29, 2014.  That’s right: we’ll be there during both the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom.  If you’ve never been to the Halloween Party, you should make it a point to go.  It’s really great.  The Imagineers go all-out to add fun Halloween touches all over the park, perfectly pitched to be spooky while still being, well, not so scary.  And as for the Food & Wine Festival, yum!  It’s actually where I discovered the one form of alcohol I can stand, and there are some great food stalls scattered all around the World Showcase.

But of course, you’ll really want to be there for An Event Apart!  We’re adding a lot of new and interesting enhancements to this show.  In addition to the brand-new Gold Pass, which includes (among other things) a backstage tour of Walt Disney World, AEA Orlando: Special Edition will feature three full days of talks, eighteen speakers in all.  I’m incredibly pleased and excited to say that I’ll be among them, delivering a talk on design.  Yes.

As regular readers know, I’ve had to withdraw from almost all travel and speaking this year, including for An Event Apart, and it’s been tough to be away.  I love what Jeffrey and I have created.  I love being there to hang out with other members of the tribe.  I love being able to learn from the best and share a piece of what I know.  It was absolutely the right decision to stay home with my family in this time, but still.  I miss being there, and I can’t wait to return.

And when I do, I’ll be presenting not about CSS, but about design and how to do it better.  Specifically, the talk is called “Designing for Crisis”, which draws on my experiences of the past seven months to illustrate how design can let people down when they most need its help, show examples of design that does help people in crisis, and explore ways to approach design in order to not let those people down.  Because if you’re helping people in crisis, you’ll be helping those who aren’t in crisis as well.

It’s a big departure for me.  For many a year now, I’ve been the guy who geeks out onstage over trippy selectors and obscure browser bugs.  You know, a CSS nerd.  But as I considered whether I had anything to say in Orlando (and at Rustbelt Refresh, which invited me to speak around the same time), I slowly realized that this talk was in my head and that I was incredibly passionate about getting it out.  I could see the narrative, the lessons I could underscore with it, and the advice I would give to designers.  I haven’t been this consumed by a talk in quite a while.

I hope you’ll be there to see and hear it, but even if that doesn’t sound entirely like your cup of tea, there are seventeen other amazing speakers filling up all three days—Karen McGrane, Mike Monteiro, Jenn Lukas, Luke Wroblewski, Jaimee Newberry, Scott Berkun, and so many more.  We have the complete schedule up now, so go, bathe in the awesome and make your plans to join us!

(P.S.  If it will take you a while to get approval, better start the ball rolling now.  We’ve already had a number of registrations in the 30 hours since we made the surprise announcement, and this event being as new and different as it is, we honestly don’t know long tickets will last.)

An Event Apart 2014 Schedules, Round One

I’ve recently had the odd experience of seeing from the outside something that I usually get to see from the inside: the schedules and workshops for the first three An Event Aparts of 2014 have been announced.  Those shows are:

All the shows feature a great mix of veterans and new faces, all coming together to bring our usual blend of looking to the future while staying firmly grounded in the details of the here-and-now.  The shows include workshops from Luke Wroblewski (in Atlanta or Boston) or Josh Clark (in Seattle) about mobile and touch design.

Ordinarily, at this point I’d say “hope to see you there!” but I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to hold up my side of that.  The same family crisis that forced me to withdraw from the last four AEAs of 2013 has also kept me off the roster for at least the first three shows of 2014, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to travel even to visit.  I’ll continue to be a part of the show, but behind the scenes, at least for now.

And that crisis is why I got to experience the announcements from the outside.  While I was in Philadelphia, I was basically on extended medical leave from AEA, with the team picking up every scrap of my duties they could.  They pretty much soaked up 99%+ of what I do daily, sparing me the worry of day-to-day operations and leaving me free to focus everything I could on my daughter and family during a very difficult period.  I am forever indebted.  I can’t ever thank them enough for what they did for me.  I am beyond fortunate to have had such a strong team of friends and colleagues at my back.

I will say that it was a good thing for me to experience the process from the audience, as it were, gaining a new perspective on what we do and how we do it.  I certainly don’t recommend a major crisis as the best way to gain that perspective, but I have a newfound appreciation for the value of stepping outside of the process as completely as possible.  You might be very surprised by how things look from out there.

But back to the point: the complete agendas are up for the first three AEAs of 2014, so go check them out!  And if you’re at all interested, I wouldn’t wait to register any longer than absolutely necessary.  Every show for the past two or three years has sold out weeks or months in advance, and cancellation rates are low enough that it’s pretty rare for people on the waiting list to get in.  I hope you’ll be there!

On Stage and Off

We now (sort of) interrupt the stream of Rebecca updates for a professional update.

Given the situation with Rebecca, I’ve obviously had to make some serious adjustments to my speaking and travel schedule.  I had to cancel my appearance at the CSS Dev Conference later this month, which is a bit of a shame since I was looking forward to taking the hotel elevator at night, soaking up the CSS genius from all the other speakers, and connecting with some college friends I haven’t seen in almost 20 years.  I also had to withdraw from the CERN Line-Mode Browser Dev Days, which was a real letdown for me as an amateur web historian as well as a high-energy physics fanboy.

I also had to drop myself from the remaining An Event Aparts of 2013, as well as first few of 2014.  The reason for the extended withdrawal from the AEA stage is that in the event the cancer treatments fail and the cancer returns, the odds are very high that it will do so in the first year after diagnosis.  That first year is also the period in which Rebecca will be getting some fairly strong chemotherapy, and is likely to be in and out of the hospital on a semi-random basis.  It would be unfair to pretty much everyone I can think of for me to commit to a bunch of speaking and then cancel some of it at the last minute.  I’m sorry to be absent at my own show, but life can be like that sometimes.  Like now.

I am, on some level, sorry that I had to cancel so many events.  Not that I feel like I made any choices for which I have to apologize, of course.  I’m just sad about the way life turned, and wistful for the missed connections-that-would-have-been.

This doesn’t quite mean that I’ll be total hermit, though: I have two talks happening this month, one in Philadelphia and the other in Cleveland.

The first is an evening talk at Drexel University in Philadelphia on Wednesday, 23 October.  This will be a modified version of the talk I gave at AEA earlier in 2013, tuned for the web design students who will be in the audience but of interest to anyone (who hasn’t already heard it).  It’s now called “<strong> Layout Systems”, and we’ll be kicking things off at 7:00pm, with a completely open-topic Q&A immediately after the presentation.  The event is free and open to the general public, so if you feel like dropping by the Drexel campus that night, I’d love to say hi!

A few days after that, I’ll be speaking at the CWRU ACM chapter’s Link-State 2013 conference, October 26-27.  My topic will be CSS fonts and the crazy, crazy things you can (or can’t) do with them in current browsers.  The prices are pretty great—free for CWRU students, $10 for everyone else—so if you feel like dropping by the CWRU campus the weekend before Halloween, I’d love to say hi!

Basically, I’d love to say hi.

Next up should be an update on the writing side of my professional life, including what’s next (and what’s already available!) for CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition.

Another Year Apart

Just some quick updates regarding An Event Apart as we transition from our just-finished 2012 schedule to the upcoming 2013 schedule.

If you’re interested in joining us in 2013, you can check out the event nearest you…or maybe the event being held where you’ve always wanted to go!  If you have your eye on Atlanta, bear in mind that the Early Bird rate (which saves you $100) ends on Christmas Eve, so don’t wait too much longer.  And if you were waiting for a detailed schedule in either San Diego or Boston before deciding to register, well, your wait is over.  More schedules will be released as the shows get closer.

I don’t talk very much about An Event Apart, and I probably talk about it far less than I should.  I blame that on the show itself, partly.  Our last show of 2012, held at the opulent Palace Hotel in San Francisco, is now three weeks behind us and I’m still struck a little bit speechless by another year of fantastic attendees and speakers.  The fundamental nature of what we’ve created together really is overwhelming to me, in the best possible way.  Thank you, one and all, for making that possible.

To celebrate the year just past as well as the year to come, we’ve once again made a donation to CFY (formerly Computers For Youth) to help advance their efforts to bring digital literacy and access to impoverished elementary school students.  They’ve already seen great improvements in schools where they operate, and we’re thrilled to support their work.  If you’d like to support them as well, please do, or take a moment in all the end-of-year rush and lend some aid to the charity that speaks most clearly to you.

An Event Apart 2013

It’s a little bit hard to comprehend just how incredible a year we’ve had at An Event Apart.  Our colleagues in the audience as well as on stage have been consistently sharp, engaging, and all-around amazing, and I don’t think Jeffrey and I could thank everyone enough even if we were given three lifetimes to tackle the project.  With all seven shows this year selling out (some months in advance), we’ve taken the next step and have scheduled eight shows next year, a figure that occasionally causes me to go a little short of breath at the sheer wonder of it all.  I think back on the hundred-odd people who filled the room at our very first event, tucked away in the upper back corner of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute back in 2005, and can scarcely believe how far we’ve come.

If you’re inclined to join us in 2013, and I really hope you are, here are the cities and dates:

Back to San Diego—hooray!  I looove to visit San Diego.

As was the case this year, all eight of 2013’s shows will feature a mix of new and familiar speakers presenting all-new talks shedding light on old problems and new ideas.  Thus not every show’s lineup is yet complete:  while we already have some speakers confirmed and announced for every event, we’re leaving the later shows in the year open so we can add fresh speakers and timely content.

Since all eight shows went on sale last month we’ve already had a bunch of people register, so you should definitely get those approval processes moving now if you want to avoid being shut out.  We had lengthy waiting lists at every 2012 show, and there were very few cancellations.  It never feels good to turn people away, but the venues’ capacities are what they are!

Being a part of An event Apart has been an amazing experience for me and for so many people, and our overriding goal is to make 2013 even better.  I hope you’ll join us!

A Year Apart

It’s well past time for me to spend a few minutes reflecting on An Event Apart in 2010.  In two words: absocrazifreakiperfluously staggerblasticating[I totally stole those. —Ed.]  From the first show to the last, 2010 was an incredible year for An Event Apart, easily our best yet on every front.  Jeffrey and I stand in humbled awe of the amazing speakers and wonderful attendees who joined us this year.  I’ve said before that AEA attendees are “as much colleagues as anything else” and that continues to be so.  While I love our speakers, I love the attendees even more.  What I look forward to most at every show is time spent talking with my fellow craftspeople in the hallway, at lunch, and at the social events.

It seems like a lot of people feel the same way, because every single one of our 2010 shows sold out in advance.  We’re understandably proud of this, and also very, very grateful for your faith and trust in what we do, and hope to continue earning both into the future.  (In honor of your support, AEA recently made a donation to Computers For Youth in support of the next generation.)

So in 2011, we’re building on what we learned in 2010.  We’re going from five to six shows, including a long-delayed return to Atlanta (site of our sophmore effort), and each sporting an optional A Day Apart featuring in-depth coverage of topics like mobile web design, HTML5/CSS3, and content strategy.  If you’re interested, check out our Events page for the show nearest, or of most interest, to you.

Again, our deepest thanks to all our attendees and supporters.  We couldn’t do what we do without you, and we’re looking forward to the challenge of clearing the bar you’ve set for us!

Events Sold Out and Coming Up

Just before noon (Eastern U.S. time) today, An Event Apart Minneapolis sold its last available seat.  That’s three events so far in 2010 and three sell-outs.  If you were hoping to join us in Minneapolis but hadn’t registered yet, we’re sorry we won’t see you there!  You can contact our Event Manager to get put on the waiting list, or you can join us for one of the remaining two shows of the year: Washington DC and San Diego.

There are strong reasons to prefer either one.  In Washington DC, we’ll have our second-ever A Day Apart, a full day of in-depth learning with Jeremy Keith and Ethan Marcotte taking on the topics of HTML5 and CSS3, respectively.  We ran A Day Apart in Seattle earlier this year as something of an experiment, and it was such a huge hit that we immediately decided to add it to a future show.  We settled on Washington DC for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that the hotel had the space available to add a third day.  So far as we know it’s the last time we’ll do A Day Apart in 2010, so if you’re interested, it’s the place to be.

San Diego, on the other hand… well, it’s San Diego!  In November!  It’s also the last chance to see our 2010 lineup of speakers, who’ve been consistently hitting it out of the park with insightful thinking and bold challenges to the status quo.  We may never again see this particular combination of pure smarts and talent, so if you can’t make it to DC (or you’d rather just hit the beach in advance of Thanksgiving) then come on down.

From mobile design to advanced CSS to the latest in HTML5 to smart content to wonderful design, the sessions at AEA this year have been outstanding.  The audience feedback has been really incredible, almost overwhelming.  If you haven’t seen this year’s lineup, you should really consider checking it out.  We’d love to see you there!

(P.S. Want to hear more about An Event Apart’s origin story, growth, vision, and future?  Tune in to The Big Web Show this Thursday at 1pm Eastern U.S.!  I’ll be a guest along with Andy McMillan—he of the fabulous Build Conference of Belfast—talking about web conferences and more.  And if you miss the live show, don’t worry; there will be a lovingly edited version up shortly after we’re done taping.)

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