Notice: This is a discussion thread for comments about the article, Web Directions South, first published in Issue 234 of Desktop Magazine.

Guess what? It's cool to be a web designer again!

How do I know this? Well, I'm glad you asked as there are a few key signs.

For one, people you meet for the first time no longer snicker behind your back at parties when you tell them that you're a web designer (or is that just me?). Secondly, every second client wants their site to be “upgraded to Web 2.0” (whatever that means).

Yet the coolest thing about being a web designer (and possibly the biggest sign that the web industry is in a healthy state) is the fact that conferences for web professionals are popping up all over the place. In the USA, the main event is South by South West Interactive; in the UK it's @media; and in Australia the big annual web conference is Web Directions South (WDS).

Held in Sydney in September, Web Directions South runs over two days. Every year the conference features an impressive line-up of international speakers, as well as a selection of talented local presenters. There's also an optional two days of workshops—run by many of the same speakers—for those who want a more in-depth, hands-on educational experience.

Granted, the terms “web design” and “conference” have never traditionally appeared together in the same sentence. I mean, technology aside, what is there to discuss and learn that one can't pick up from a book or an evening of using “the Google”?

As it so happens, there's plenty.

With a focus on standards, accessibility and usability, one might be forgiven for thinking that the presentations at Web Directions South would be either too technical or too academic for someone who is purely practical and creatively inclined. Not so—the conference consisted of three streams: design, development and business, but there was much overlap. So if you were keen to join the geeks discussing Ajax, CSS or Agile web development, you had the option. Yet there was also plenty to keep right-brained folks happy—design-related topics ranged from user interface design and design ethnography to designing for the mobile web.

This year the highlight for me was UK-based designer Andy Clarke's keynote presentation, Think Like A Mountain. Taking inspiration from graphic novels, Clarke demonstrated the parallels between comic book art and web design. He highlighted features that have evolved from comics—such as grid layouts, monochrome colour schemes and techniques for indicating the progression between panels—and suggested ways in which they could be applied to the design of a web site, inspiring new layouts and providing insight into traditional web page design.

Conference organiser John Allsopp believes that conferences like his are important not only because of the educational value they offer, but for the networking opportunities—not least of which include having so many opportunities to pick the brains of and share a pint with the thinkers and the doers of the Web.

“When a keynote speaker talks about a bunch of ideas, the rest of us often think ‘I've been thinking about that, but they've crystallized it for me', or ‘I don't agree with that.' They're starting the conversations. So what we look to do with the conference is create a program of social and learning experiences that go very closely together.”

The social functions are certainly a large element of the experience: this year Adobe and Microsoft, the two major sponsors, put on generous bar tabs at the end of each day, creating an atmosphere that was refreshingly lacking in snobbery or cliquism. Attendees, speakers, sponsors and organisers all mingled, debated and traded war stories; no doubt many discussions that began in the conference halls evolved into business ideas and job offers later in the evening.

Several unofficial social functions also coincided with the conference – Port80, the social arm of the Australia Web Industry Association, ran a Sydney meetup on the eve of the first day (complete with trivia night); and on Saturday there was a Webjam – an evening where presenters deliver a three-minute presentation about something web-related, and audience members vote via SMS, Australian Idol-style. All of these events were free to attend.

Allsopp comments that he and his team try to “fold the virtual back into the real,” to enrich the conference-going experience. For example, photos taken at the conference by attendees and posted to Flickr are projected onto the big screen between sessions; attendees also gain access via the venue's free wireless network to Meetweaver, an online social networking application built specificially for the conference, where they can post photos, comments and messages to other attendees. And all sessions are recorded, to be made available as free podcasts. Most of the presentations from WDS '07 should be online by the time this magazine goes to print, for anyone to listen to (be sure to check out Mark Pesce's closing keynote presentation Mob Rules, which knocked the socks off of every person in the audience).

So if every presentation is available as a podcast (and most including slides) why would one bother attending at all?

“Apart from the numerous networking opportunities and terrific social functions, by attending the conference you will go away with your head much expanded with exciting ideas about where the Web is going in terms of design, development, business practices, use of technology, social practice and so on.” explains Allsopp. “You'll have your finger on the pulse.”

“The content is really important, but if it were just about the content, I don't know that it would be enough.” he continues. “That content starts conversations you can carry on outside, in the coffee break, at lunch, at the reception, and at the parties. Then it spills forward online, and people take it back to wherever they've come from, and share it with their colleagues.”

“I guess that's why it's important, to me. By accident, this conference has become the epicentre of a particular aspect of the web industry—people caring a lot about web standards, standards-based design, best practice, accessibility, usability. It's really a meeting of the tribes,” he laughs.

The next Web Directions South will run in September 2008. The sister conference, Web Directions North, runs in Vancouver, Canada in February, and includes an optional two days of skiing at Whistler.

Useful links:
WDS '07 podcasts: