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I’ll be honest—I expected to come home from this conference and write up a tidy blog post recapping the various speakers with a few bullet points each, maybe posting some neat CSS snippets, my iPad sketch notes, or linking to some resources. This conference ended up being so much more than just the intersection of tech and design, and though I did receive a wealth of design and technical knowledge, I want to focus and reflect on the people aspect that I took home with me.

Emcee Brad Frost stands on stage at Clarity 2019
Emcee Brad Frost on stage at Clarity 2019

So, what’s Clarity?

I’ll take the description straight from their website:

Clarity is a design systems conference focused on how we work together. We provide tools and standards to scale across an increasing number of devices, platforms, and products. But real success comes when people align around a shared vision and language. Diverse perspectives for design, development, and product unite so more people can be a part of the conversation. At Clarity, we elevate our skills through multi-faceted inclusion, empathy, technology, creativity, and collaboration.

My Clarity Experience

So the conference looks amazing, right? Hopefully you’ve spent some time on their website, or have at least read the description now. Design systems are the underlying foundation of the websites and applications we use every day—style guides, grid systems, components, documentation, voice and tone, strategy, etc. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

My goal in attending Clarity was to learn how to make the platforms we build for our clients here at We Write Code even better. As I will hopefully illustrate, success goes far beyond choosing the right button color or using the newest JavaScript framework.

Right away, there were a few things I noted and appreciated about this conference:

  • Fully ADA-compliant venue, with live captioning for each speaker
  • Reminders to leave gaps in your circles for others to join
  • Speakers from a variety of backgrounds
  • Scholarships for under-represented attendees

However, I made it nearly through the first day before I realized there was something even greater here to dig into. The last speaker of the day, Ethan Marcotte, had an incredibly beautiful and striking presentation on the power of our industry and our responsibility to do better. This is where I’m going to start.

The World-Wide Work

—Ethan Marcotte, @beep

As Ethan started off, he reminded us all that our actions determine who can or cannot use our designs, using the humble example of the accessibility of a drop cap. It’s all too easy to design something that excludes people, and design can also encode racist and classist biases. He showed several ugly examples of this manifesting both in history and in the present—a bridge built intentionally low to keep buses (poor people) from entering the area. Unethical use of user data. Workers in third-world countries manually entering “training data”, training algorithms to ultimately replace them. All for $9/day.

Ethan called upon us all to redefine our industry—it’s not a crazy idea that workers should have a say in what gets automated and what our talents are being used (exploited) for. He called for us to have hope, and to unionize.

"We need to unionize, my loves." Ethan Marcotte stands on stage at Clarity 2019.
Ethan Marcotte

This presentation received a standing ovation from around 700 audience members, a moment where I felt so incredibly proud to be part of a group of people who care so much—not only about the quality and craft of our work, but the impact we leave and how our designs can affect others. It was surreal, profound, and sparked something I will be thinking about for a long time. Thank you, Ethan.

System of Systems

—Tatiana Mac, @TatianaTMac

On day two, there was a similarly-themed presentation from Tatiana Mac on the underlying systems that drive our world today. She presented a story of they as a child, cutting back an overgrowth of English ivy again and again, only to realize the roots were under the house and would always keep growing back.

This analogy tied directly back to the tech industry—we are our own industry, but we also intersect so many other industries and amplify them. Right now, tech multiplies Building Hate at Scale™. Your intent does not erase your impact. Your privilege is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. We must lift the house.

Tatiana Mac on stage at Clarity 2019
Tatiana Mac

Designing for the Impossible

—Anil Dash, @anildash

In the very last session, Anil spoke about the struggles he went through, yet the determination he had, to build a company that was people-focused rather than profit-focused. Most of the tech industry acts as though goals like inclusion, ethics, and empathy are impossible—but they don’t have to be.

He reminded us that harassment and toxic communities online are not normal, not an “unintended consequence of a business model.” It’s not normal for people to shout expletives at each other when they get together!

How many of the things that you tap on or click on are made by someone you know or love? There’s no accountability for dark patterns because we have no idea who is making these apps. The web shouldn’t be something that happens to you, the web should be a place where everyone can create and contribute.

Anil Dash on stage at Clarity 2019
Anil Dash

Where do we go from here?

I’m here to say that I make things on the web—things you might even interact with from time to time—and I care about you.

I’m fully re-committed to building inclusive, accessible, friendly, beautiful, performant websites and applications. I’m only one person, but I now know for a fact there is an entire industry of people and leaders who feel the same way.

We can build a better web together, as long as we have hope.

A huge thank you to Jina for organizing this impactful, invigorating, and inspiring conference—along with all of the speakers, volunteers, and attendees.

Videos of select presentations will be on Jina’s YouTube channel soon, and I hope that everyone will take time to watch them as I have certainly paraphrased and not done them full justice here. Though I only covered three presentations today, the others also hold a treasure trove of information about implementation of design systems (business- and technical-wise), proper accessibility, methods to collaborate, and more.

One last note: I was so lucky to receive a scholarship to attend Clarity 2019, courtesy of Figma — their amazing design software could be another blog post in and of itself, so definitely check them out! 👏