10 Lessons Learned from Future of Web Design

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This post, my 55th on Learning jQuery, is a departure from the usual jQuery tutorials and announcements. It’s about my experience speaking at the Future of Web Design (FOWD) conference in New York City this week. I’m writing it mostly for myself, to set down in writing my thoughts about what went right and what went wrong for me at the conference, and to learn from it. I’m also writing this with the hope that someone else might be able to learn from my experience, as well. While I’ll try not to make it too terribly self-indulgent, there will be some “self-disclosure” that might make you feel uncomfortable, so if you’re looking for something less personal here, please stop reading this and head over to the category archives, where you’ll find some good tips on using jQuery.

As Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

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Roseland Ballroom: Future of Web Design

As a last-minute substitute, I led a 3 1/2 hour workshop on Monday for roughly 35 people and gave a 30 minute presentation on Tuesday for 300 or more. As far as I could tell, the workshop went well and the presentation…not so much. If I had to do it all over again, I’d try to follow these 10 pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t assume that speaking in front of twenty to forty people is similar to speaking in front of three or four hundred.

    I’ve had seven years’ experience teaching, so I know what it’s like to conduct a class. That experience didn’t translate at all to the presentation in the concert hall. My teaching style was very casual, and my strengths lay more in discussion and drawing out my students than in straight lecture.

  2. Figure out how to deal with the particular challenges of a large venue ahead of time.

    Roseland Interior: Future of Web Design

    For Tuesday’s presentation, I spoke from a raised stage through a microphone to an audience I couldn’t see (except for those in the front couple rows). The sound, the lighting, and the relationship between speaker and audience were all things I could have anticipated but didn’t. Instead, I was disoriented by hearing my own voice coming from somewhere else in the room and looking out into a sea of darkness.

  3. When speaking to a large audience, don’t just look at the first couple rows, even if they’re the only ones you can see.

    When I was a kid, I learned that you should look over the heads of where you think the back row is. This will give the illusion that you are looking right at the audience. But then I forgot this trick, only recalling it after my presentation.

  4. If you have very little time to prepare, don’t try to create something brand new. Instead, raid your portfolio or even your work in progress.

    This was something I actually did right. One of the more effective parts of my workshop was when I showed four sites that I recently worked on and described what I did with the JavaScript to solve a few problems.

  5. It’s not a sin to establish your credentials, especially if nobody knows who you are.

    Even though I incorporated my credentials (including co-authoring two books and being a member of the jQuery project team) into Monday’s workshop slides, my modesty overcame me on Tuesday and I avoided saying anything positive about myself. That was really dumb. As Ryan Singer of 37Signals pointed out to me afterwards, people want to know that they are listening to an expert, or at least someone who knows what he or she is talking about. It’s the presenter’s responsibility to assure them that they are.

  6. If you take daily medication (like, oh, I don’t know, an anti-depressant or ADD medication maybe), set an alarm to remind you to take that medication on the day of your presentation.

    Do not leave this to chance or to your flaky memory, unless you don’t mind feeling like your brain has been dropped into a vat of molasses and then squeezed. When you step outside your daily routine to travel and attend a conference, it will be difficult to remember such things as what pills you need to take. So, write a note to yourself on a sticky pad and post it on the bathroom mirror, or set an alarm in your calendar app and have it set to remind you repeatedly.

  7. Know your audience well and tailor your presentation to the majority of people who will be listening to it.

    It’s not a bad idea to start your presentation with a joke. But if it’s an inside joke that nobody in the audience is aware of, you’re better off leaving it out. I started my presentation with a picture of the jQuery rock star; after all, the conference was in a rock venue. Come to think of it, though, it wasn’t even much of a joke. Oh well.

    If you’re speaking at a design conference such as FOWD, it’s important to speak with pictures, not just words, and especially not with a whole lot of code. Tina Roth Eisenberg (aka Swiss Miss) noted, “This could have been such a powerful presentation, would Karl just have used a few visual examples. When speaking at a design conference where 75% of attendees are designers, make sure to use visuals.” I think this was my presentation’s single greatest flaw, and it was based on a misunderstanding of who the audience would be. Before FOWD, I had presented at a couple developer-heavy barcamps, two jQuery conferences, and the Ajax Experience. All of those audiences were much different from the one at FOWD. Failing to understand that ahead of time was a serious shortcoming on my part. Next time I’ll know better.

  8. Don’t expect to have internet access for your presentation—or your hotel or anywhere during your travel.

    Don’t even expect to have decent internet access at your hotel if you pay through the nose for it. Fortunately, this is another thing I did right. The day before I left for New York City, I pulled down my remote databases onto my computer and set up virtual hosts for the sites I’d be demoing. If I hadn’t done that, I would have been in a world of hurt.

  9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

    I’m a pretty sensitive guy, not the kind of person who can just let criticism roll off my shoulders (hence, the anti-depressants). So, it helps to remind myself that it’s just one conference, one presentation, one group of people. It also helps to talk about it with people, like my wife, who aren’t in the web design/development industry.

  10. Get to know your hosts

    I met quite a few really cool people at the conference, but I most appreciated getting to know the folks from Carsonified, the organization that put on the conference. Not only are they incredibly talented, but they’re also gracious and kind and remarkably down to earth. My discussions with them were one of the highlights of the conference for me.

I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to speak at FOWD—mostly because of what I learned, albeit much of it the hard way. If you’ve presented at a conference before, what are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from your experience? If you attended FOWD, what lessons did I miss that you think I should learn?


I’ve uploaded all my slides from the workshop and presentation, along with some interactive examples and links to things I mentioned, to training.learningjquery.com.

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  1. Rey Bango

    Karl, I want to personally thank you for stepping in for me. You were a HUGE help during a very difficult time and I’m sorry you had to go through such a tough experience.

  2. Hi Karl,

    great post! Brave of you to be so honest… but don’t be too hard on yourself. I heard a load of good things said about you at FOWD.

    Meeting a cool guy like you was defintely one of my hightlights!

    Hope to speak with you again soon.

    Mike :)

  3. Full marks for sharing your “worst of times”, it has happened to us all. One thing that happened to me: I rehearsed a talk for someone and was told it went too fast. I vastly over-corrected for the ‘live’ talk and went too slow, and in the end I feel it might have insulted my audience.

    Establishing a good speed is critical.

    Too much code eh? I would have enjoyed it.

  4. I’m really impressed and touched by your honesty here Karl. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying, and benefiting hugely from your posts here, it’s really nice to read this personal side.

    Thanks :)

  5. Rey: You are most welcome. Sure, it was tough, but I’m very glad I did it. It was an honor to be there, so thanks for making that a possibility for me.

    Mike: hey, man, it was really great to meet you! I appreciate your kind words and am glad to know that you heard good things about me.

    David and Dave: thanks for your comments. I might have taken a bit of a risk with some of the details, but I felt like throwing caution to the wind for a change (if that’s how the expression goes; I can never get those sayings right).

  6. Hey Karl,

    I can only echo what Mike said in his comment. We all heard a lot of good stuff about you at FOWD last week.

    Thanks for parachuting in like you did, we really appreciated it. It was great to meet you and do keep in touch.


  7. Hi Karl,

    Much to my disappointment I wasn’t able to make it to FOWD, so no comment on your presentation – but this is a terrific post! I’ve been reading over some public speaking books and articles recently, and most are full of smug, obvious tips. I’m not sure if it is your writing style, honesty or content – but this seems much more relevant and useful. Thank you!

  8. Karl,

    I was at FOWD and as one of the 25% minority (Developer rather than Designer), I was especially interested in your talk as one that extended on an area I was familiar with and practiced in. I learned so much from the day as a whole and was exposed to areas of the Design element that I was completely new to, but it was great to hear from you on the power of these libraries.

    I was impressed that despite being so involved with jQuery you spared us a marketing speech and instead gave an honest appraisal of the benefits of each library. The content of the talk was informative and really useful in a relatively short time slot, so for all your concerns over what you would do differently, I wanted to reassure you that what you did was still extremely well received by those of us with a more technical rather than artistic slant.

    Thanks for sharing in such depth how it was for you to speak at this conference, it’s nice to be able to see how it is for the other side of the event as we, the audience, sit and wait expectantly before you speak.

    I’ll certainly be looking out for any future appearances you may be doing and maybe that time I won’t let my own hesitance in starting conversations with new people prevent me from speaking to you as it did at FOWD when I spotted you after your talk!


  9. Greg Pabst

    Hey Karl,

    I agree with everyone else, don’t be too hard on yourself. I found both the workshop and your conference presentation very helpful and informative. It’s been quite awhile since I worked much with JavaScript. I have heard of jQuery and knew basically what its uses were but had never used it first hand. After your presentations I am very excited to get started playing around with it. I had no idea the benefits it has and how much easier it makes it to program with JavaScript.

  10. Thanks, guys, for the perspective. Maybe I should have put an eleventh lesson up there: Don’t let a couple random Twitter posts shape your view of how things went. ;) And, Dave, definitely say hello next time. It would be great to meet you!

  11. Hey Karl,

    First of all, like everybody above me has said, I truly enjoyed your presentation. I wasn’t even aware that you were put in as a last minute substitute, so I commend you for ability to fill in like that. Also, I definitely agree with the point about establishing your credentials. I didn’t know that you were the co-author of two industry-recognized jQuery books!

    Also, I wish I could have attended your workshop (as a 15 year old student, I didn’t have the extra cash to spare). Taking a skim through the slides, it looks like it was very interesting.

    By the way, you sat next to me during the afternoon session. I thought it was so cool that one of the speakers was sitting next me!

    Anyways, thanks for your insight at FOWD.

  12. What a great and honest blog post. I found your lecture very interesting, it gave me a better perspective on all the different libraries. Based on your presentation, I had no idea your involvement with Jquery, I second the comment with establishing your credentials. I really like JQuery so far, it makes a lot of sense to me, as a designer, learning front-end web development. Your lecture really reinforced my interest to increase my knowledge of JQuery.

  13. Thank u r information

  14. jen


    Just want you to know that your workshop was extremely helpful to me, and I appreciated the lack of veneer to you, both in the workshop and the conference. Sure, visuals would have helped you make more of your points in the conference — but I knew, and anyone who reads emails or looks at the fowd web site knew, that you were stepping in and probably not as experienced at speaking in such situations.

    Out of all the presenters I experienced, yours was the most useful, the one I am currently implementing — the only one that I could take away and immediately put into place.

    Sure, I’m still scared of the javascript and jquery stuff — but in 3 months, I’m going to be just fine.

    You were really great… seriously. And you’ll be phenomenal next time. Just never lose the human element. Designers “look” intimidating but are _mostly_ full of crap. :) Oh, and the ones with less than a decade of experience tend to be a bit arrogant and rude because they often lack empathy. A vital characteristic as a communications designer.

    Many thanks! You rock!

  15. The fact is, you’re a teacher! That’s what you did, you taught, and you did it very well. So, maybe it wasn’t a fireworks show, but believe me you got through to anyone that was there to learn. The workshop was great. The way you broke down each framework was extremely informative and you showed me just how natural it will be to pick up jQuery as a front end designer and coder.

    The only thing I would have liked to see differently during your presentation was for you to highlight jQuery more. I know you had to discuss them all, but your so passionate and well-versed in jQuery that it would have been cool. Oh, and I definitely got your playfulness in the beginning, cause I too wanna be a jQuery Rockstar!

  16. Good post and great presentation.

  17. Re: #6 –
    Don’t set you reminder alarm to go off during your presentation… Doh!

  18. I came all the way from India for the conference and your workshop alone made it worth the while. Really glad to have spent those couple of hours there in the cosy classroom and I only wished that the workshop was longer. You’ve got me truly interested in jQuery.

    I’m not going to lie, yes, you seemed a bit uncomfortable on stage the next day, but for me, the whole setting at Roseland was slightly disappointing. You’re already conscious of the shortcomings and I wish you all the best for the next time.

    As a paying audience at the conference, I’m happy to have had you on the stage as well as at the workshop.

  19. I really like some of the things you’ve done with the articles you’ve published, the design of the site and the coding of the site. Is there anywhere I can look to find out how you did the date published?



  20. Hi Joseph,

    Glad you like the site. Here is how I did the post dates.

    First, in WordPress, I do this to produce the HTML:

    <div class="postdate">
      <div class="month m-<?php the_time('m') ?>"><?php the_time('M') ?></div>
      <div class="day d-<?php the_time('d') ?>"><?php the_time('d') ?></div> 
      <div class="year y-<?php the_time('Y') ?>"><?php the_time('Y') ?></div> 

    Second, I used a single image sprite for all the months, days, and years.

    Third, I positioned them and set their background-image-position in a special dates.css stylesheet.

  21. nik

    i attended that conference and enjoyed that you showed code on the screen. i was able to take better notes!

  22. Karl,

    Thanks so much for the step-by-step instructions!

    Looking forward to future posts,

    Joseph McLaughlin

  23. Nicely done. Thanks for the thoughts…

  24. Karl,

    I have to agree with Jen (comment #16). I find the tips and online examples very useful – I have been implementing jquery on a weekly basis and there are certainly more possibilities with it that I haven’t even begun to explore. Thanks sharing the info!


  25. Glad to know these lessons :)

  26. Lee Mager

    Thanks for the 10 Lessons. They are applicable far outside Web Design. I just returned from a Rotary Conference where several of the speakers could have benefited from reading your 10 lessons before making their presentations. In fact, so could I.

  27. Thanks for sharing this info post.

  28. First post i came across on speaking in this kind of context, some great notes here…

2 Pings

  1. […] 10 Lessons Learned from Future of Web Design (Karl Swedberg) […]

  2. […] I did a  blog search on FOWD and found that Karl wrote up his own post about the speech he gave at FOWD and how he’d do it differently. You just have to admire his […]

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