16 Conference Talks From 2017 Every Designer and Developer Needs to Watch

16 Conference Talks From 2017 Every Designer and Developer Needs to Watch

conference talks

It’s impossible to attend as many conferences as you’d like. Fortunately, a lot of great talks from design and development events around the world are recorded, but how can you discover them, and — as there are so many — how do you decide which ones to watch?

Fear not, we have compiled some of our favorite talks of 2017 in this list. There are practical talks, and there are inspiring talks. There are funny talks, and there are moving talks. Of course, we’d recommend many more presentations, but we have concentrated on talks that are available to watch online, for free, and they’re in no particular order.

All these talks have deserved to be seen by a wider audience, whether you watch them once, at 1.5x speed, or two to three times to make notes.

Enjoy the show!

Ready for the best conference talks of 2018?

Join us at Shopify Unite! Our third annual partner and developer conference is bigger and better than ever, and will take place over three days, from May 7 to 9 in Toronto, Canada.

Buy tickets

1. Mina Markham: A Design System for All Americans

Wherever Mina Markham, now a senior engineer at Slack, took her talk this year (Generate New York, Web Directions Summit, beyond tellerrand, etc), it was always a standout presentation.

Mina tells the story of how she built Pantsuit, the UI pattern library that powered many of the applications for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. Not only does she cover a lot of very practical advice — after all, it’s been the year of design systems and pattern libraries, she also shares her experience of being an African American woman who tried to help get the first woman to be elected President of the USA.

The resulting talk is passionate, inspirational, and emotional. One of the definite highlights of 2017.

Also read Mina’s accompanying Medium post about Pantsuit.

2. Denys Mishunov: Debugger; for Developers

Front end developer Denys Mishunov gave a very thought-provoking talk this year, which — as Christopher Murphy, author of Tiny Books, points out — was also an important one in an industry that has only recently begun to address underlying mental health issues.

“Mishunov’s talk applied the idea of ‘debugging’ to ourselves and, though it was targeted at developers, truly applied to everyone: designers, developers, user researchers, project managers,” Christopher says. “Mishunov covered some very important issues that often aren’t mentioned: perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and burnout.”

“I’d strongly recommend setting aside 40 minutes and watching his talk. It was inspiring, but — just as importantly — a wake up call to a number of issues we face in our day-to-day work.”

3. Patrick Hamann: CSS and the First Meaningful Paint

Shaun Bent, a front end architect, currently working on design systems at Spotify, has been following Patrick Hamann’s work on web performance for years. He recommends this talk to anyone who cares deeply about performance, but struggles to get buy-in and make it something their organization values.

“He truly understands the value of performance,” Shaun says. “It’s genuinely inspiring to see him making performance a serious consideration at large organizations — not an easy task to do.”

“Promoting the use of meaningful performance metrics, beautifully articulating browser rendering, looking to the future of performance with HTTP2, or driving performance culture at large organizations, the First Meaningful Paint is Patrick’s culmination of years of real world performance research and experience at the Guardian, the Financial Times, and now Fastly.”

4. Sharon Steed: Cultivating Community

Consultant Sharon Steed gave an absolutely captivating talk this year (at beyond tellerrand in Germany, Pixel Pioneers in the UK, and Design & Content in Canada) about building powerful relationships by communicating with empathy .

Sharon has stuttered for almost her whole life and uses her speech impediment to teach both what empathy is and how to be empathetic. In the talk, she explains how we can communicate and collaborate better, and create a better and more inclusive team environment.

For example, if we communicate with other people (who aren’t necessarily in the same job, role, or industry), listening to and speaking in their language can make a huge difference. Exceptional.

Also, read Sharon’s article Empowering Vulnerabilities and the transcript of her talk.

5. Tony Chu: Design in a World Where Machines are Learning

We have cars that drive themselves, phones that understand speech, and algorithms that identify objects in photos. Machine learning is on the rise, and designers need to understand the basic principles behind this technology.

In this talk from Interaction17, Tony Chu, a principal designer at Noodle.ai, explains how statistics and data science form the foundation of machine learning.

Designer and consultant Bertrand Lirette recalls the talk: “There was a great moment, when Tony made people realize the danger of analyzing the data and drawing the wrong conclusions. Sometimes, the data you’re missing is critical to the success of a project. Be careful not to make the data say something it isn’t saying.”

6. Nicholas Felton: Art v.s. Product

Information designer Nicholas Felton is famous for his personal annual reports that condensed the events of a year into a mix of maps, graphs, and statistics.

A decade of data collection and visualization has given him a unique point of view, which fueled the development of several digital products. In this talk, delivered at Design Matters in Copenhagen, Nicholas, who was also one of the lead designers of Facebook's timeline, reflects on what has worked and what has not, and explores the contradictions of wanting to create art and non-commercial products, but also wanting to create commercial products.

7. Mariko Kosaka and Suz Hinton: Can You Read Me? Creative JavaScript to Make Computer Science Fun

Jason Lengstorf, senior software developer at IBM, recommends this presentation that Mariko Kosaka and Suz Hinton, developers at Google and Microsoft respectively, gave at Web Rebels in Oslo, Norway. He calls it “one of the most inspiring talks I've seen in a long time” and says he left “pumped to build something just for fun.”

“The talk was ostensibly about code,” he remembers. “But what it really covered was something that I think is sorely absent in most conversations about code: play. They made a game out of a coding project and built things that existed solely for their own sake. Listening to their story, it's impossible not to get excited about the possibilities for play in technology — and to remember that many of us are here because we enjoy coding.”

You might also like: 15 YouTube Channels Every Web Designer And Developer Should Subscribe To.

8. Brad Frost: Let’s Work Together!

We rarely, if ever, work alone in our industry, so for Christopher Murphy, Brad Frost’s talk ‘Let’s Work Together!’, delivered at SmashingConf Barcelona, was the perfect opportunity to learn some useful lessons about how to work effectively as a part of a team.

Christopher explains: “Frost provided a helpful and practical overview of the systems we can adopt to ensure our workflows are fit for purpose and our communication is clear. As he noted, there is no single, ‘right’ system and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that will suit everyone. He did, however, share principles that we can learn to help teams make great work together.”

9. Mark Robbins: Email Code Can Be Cool, Honest

CSS hacker Mark Robbins is trying to change the way we think about HTML email. Its code has often been thought of as outdated, complicated, and unpredictable — but in recent years there have actually been huge innovations. Email can now be fully interactive experiences.

To prove his point Mark has built his presentation in Apple Mail, and showcases various techniques and use-cases from simple image galleries and CSS Grid layouts, to functional shopping carts and quizzes. He even recreated first-person shooter game Wolfenstein 3D, with added Donald Trump character — in pure CSS in an email. As you do.

“Don’t get hung up on making the email look exactly the same everywhere,” Mark advises. “Make it look as good as possible for the modern email clients, and let it fallback to an acceptable standard for the old school email clients.”

10. Chris Gannon: Interactive Web Animation

There are four people you immediately think of when it comes to web animation: Val Head, Sarah Drasner, Rachel Nabors, and Chris Gannon.

Chris, a freelance interactive designer and SVG specialist, is one of the most prolific animators on CodePen, but his speaking engagements are rare. This talk, delivered at Generate London in September, showcases his stunning, ground-breaking, and very funny work. Probably the only time you’ll ever hear a sentence like ‘This is a Lego head that runs along with a banana, but you can change it to a microphone or into a pencil.’

“When Chris starts talking, you're just captivated from the start,” enthuses data visualization designer Nadieh Bremer. “You instantly know he's talking about his passion and the sheer number of wonderful SVG-based animating and sometimes even interactive examples that he shows will make your mind overflow with new inspiration."

For more on Chris’ work, read his post on how he created 10 of his best web animations.

11. Peter Gasston: Growing Up, Getting Serious

This talk, by veteran web developer Peter Gasston, starts with an innocent question — what is a browser? — but shocks the audience by claiming we are the last generation to know the answer.

Web designer and developer Cristiano Rastelli, who saw the presentation at State of the Browser, says Peter has a distinctive way of telling stories and can explain very complex concepts in plain language.

“Our definition of the browser is challenged by the predominance of Facebook, the advent of AMP pages and Progressive Web Applications, and the flood of notifications and instant messages everywhere,” Cristiano recalls of the talk. “What happens when a camera becomes the interface or when there are no interfaces at all? What happens to the notion of the web itself?”

“Peter’s answer shows how the web is more alive than ever. We have to think beyond the browser. We have to look at what happens in other parts of the world, in other countries, societies, cultures, and we will see hints and glints of what the future of the web will be: ‘the future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed.’”

12. Mario Klingemann: Machimaginarium – A Journey into Artificial Creativity

In this fascinating talk, Mario Klingemann, an artist who works with algorithms and data, presents some of the latest research into deep learning, in particular in the field of image analysis and generative art.


The organizer of the beyond tellerrand conference in Germany, Marc Thiele, says it was a highlight of 2017 conference talks.

“I’ve known Mario for so many years, and yet he always surprises and amazes me with his talks. He is one of the few people who bridge the gap between technology and design. But that’s not all. He also manages to present a very complex and technical topic in a way that is understandable and entertaining.”

13. Jenn Schiffer: Abstract Art In A Time Of Minification

Web developer and pixel artist Jenn Schiffer gave an outstanding talk at ffconf in Brighton, UK, last month. She argued that accountability in tech is severely lacking, and — in order to be a good engineer — you have to be a good member of society because, after all, software is for people.

fffconf’s organizer Remy Sharp wrote in his wrap-up post: “Jenn's talk articulated a lot of what I care and love about the web. Raising a lot of questions that burn at the back of my mind, like: which companies do you trust? What about ephemerality (being ‘short-lived’). What legacy do we, developers, leave behind?”

Jenn stressed that new developers learn from more senior ones, who have a responsibility to act as role models, be empathetic, and consider ethics. Thoroughly thought-provoking.

14. Robin Christopherson: Out With Accessibility – In With Inclusive Design

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at UK tech charity AbilityNet, gave a talk about considering accessibility in a mobile-first world, at beyond tellerrand in Berlin, this past November.


“Robin’s talks are always a huge highlight for me,” says conference organizer Marc Thiele. “Not only is he funny and charming, but hearing his stories and experiences as a blind person in technology is always — this might sound silly — eye opening for me. I often feel equally stupid and ashamed when listening to him. It’s always worth sitting in Robin’s talks.”

Also make sure to check out Robin’s slides and transcript.

15. Lin Clark: The Parallel Future of the Browser

Lin Clark is best known for her code cartoons, which explain programming concepts with stick figures. She’s also a senior engineer on Firefox’s developer tools, and in this talk she explains how the browser works today, using her trademark cartoons, of course.

“Lin Clark's announcement of Firefox Quantum was possibly the closest thing to an animated explanation of how browsers and computer processing work that we will ever have,” remembers Rachel Nabors, author of Animation at Work, who saw Lin’s keynote at JS Kongress in Munich.

“A must for anyone who wants to know more about what's under the hood — which should be everyone.”

To find out more about Quantum, read Lin’s articles on the Mozilla Hacks blog. And for another take on the browser, watch Rachel’s keynote on the history of web development, and Ashley Williams’s philosophical approach to the web platform, also at JS Kongress.

16. Aoi Yamaguchi: Sho Ha Hito Nari: Brushes, Strokes, and a Reflection of Self

conference talks: aoi yamaguchi

Performance artist Aoi Yamaguchi learned to master Japanese calligraphy from the age of six. At TYPO Berlin she explored the art as well as the spiritual journey of the calligrapher.

“This talk amazed me,” Marc Thiele remembers. “Aoi told the story of her journey of becoming a master in calligraphy. I’d never thought that it‘s not just about the words and the beauty of the characters. The visual representation also expresses a constant search for her own self through brush strokes. When she was telling her mother that she was ready to write ‘life’, her mother asked her if she really was. One of those talks that give you a view into foreign cultures. Wonderful.”

Note: Only attendees can currently watch the video but it will become available to watch for free in March 2018.

Bonus: Unite 2017 Talks

All the talks from Shopify’s second annual partner and developer conference, Unite, are free to watch on YouTube. The 40 videos cover everything from design system Shopify Polaris, and the latest in theme development, to designing the best support solution.

Watch Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke’s keynote presentation, Take the Path That Leads to More Entrepreneurs.

Unite returns on May 7 to 9, 2018, this time in Toronto.

Buy your tickets to Unite 2018

Join us in the heart of Toronto, Canada, from May 7 to 9 for Shopify’s third annual partner and developer conference.

Buy tickets

About the Author

Oliver is an independent editor, content consultant, and founder of Pixel Pioneers. Formerly the editor of net magazine, he has been involved with the web design and development industry for more than a decade, and helps businesses across the world create content that connects with their customers. He curates and chairs Generate, and is passionate about user experience, accessibility, and designing for social good.

Grow your business with the Shopify Partner Program

Learn more