An Uptown Studios View on the Web Conference of the Year by Jaime Fernandez

What is Smashing Conference?

Every year web developers and other tech professionals gather at the Fort Mason Center on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, CA. It’s a beautiful setting that looks bigger from the outside but when you finally enter the space is rather small, and after grabbing your official badge you can peruse the vendor tables (omg FREE buttons?!), and partake in the endless supply of coffee. I’m not sure if they make it a point to keep everyone heavily caffeinated or if it’s simply the lifeblood of developers, either way, the coffee appears to be endless.

As this was my second year at the Smashing Conference, I am now an expert. “Where are the bathrooms, you say? They’re right there of course.” Right when you enter the overall branding is revealed: kitschy posters and call-outs on giant TV screens encouraging all the introverted programmers to “PLEASE TALK TO EACH OTHER.” It seems to work, as everyone is friendly, open, and eager to share.

After some initial mingling, they shuffle you into an auditorium reminiscent of an old-school movie theater and it’s time for some development industry rockstars to share some ideas. This year they had a larger projector screen, a cute, cozy set for the Q and A’s afterward, and utilized Google Docs for questions during the sessions rather than Twitter (brilliant, actually). Whenever there is an acute silence that falls over the theater you can hear the seagulls from the wharf cawing and screaming (they’re also pissed about the implementation of AI in everyday life).

The conference itself is a two-day event, however there are countless additional workshops and learning opportunities offered. This particular conference is the offspring of Smashing Magazine, which has been around since 2006. In 2012, Smashing Magazine teamed up with Mark Thiele, a giant of the web development industry, and Smashing Conference was born. Since 2012 the conference has gone through lots of iterations and expansions, but the general philosophy has remained the same: “The design community is full of talented and hard-working folks who come up with brilliant ideas every day. We provide a platform to share and discuss the work and knowledge of the best designers and developers out there, chase down the latest developments in the industry, and stay on top of new techniques, methods, workflows, and tricks.”

Uptown Studios’ 3 Main Conference Takeaways

With this sentiment in mind, we spent two days listening to those at the top of their field offer tangible information, all of which felt new. The most essential thing about any conference is the ability to get a sneak peak at what’s to come in the industry, and then apply that knowledge to your own agency work. Last year Smashing Conference offered a wide variety of topics and speakers: from UX Writing, to design principles, to successful management of teams and so on. This year, the focus seemed to be strictly on innovative development tools. For those in attendance that were not actual developers (like, for example, myself) the talks that were primarily based on coding principles may have flown over my head (like the AI-hating seagulls). Despite this, through my general knowledge (I always say “I’m not a developer, but I know enough”), as well as overall context, here are some of my takeaways from Smashing Conference 2023:

1. There are lots of things you can do just with CSS instead of JavaScript

The very first talk of the conference came from Una Kravits, a Developer Advocate at Google Chrome. Her talk was titled, “The Best Javascript is No Javascript” and it was one that every other speaker seemed to refer back to at some point or another. The idea here is that over only the past few months there are powerful new CSS capabilities within (mostly) Google Chrome, but soon in every browser, that will allow developers to utilize CSS instead of JavaScript. This will save time, reduce script payload, and generally make things faster and easier for developers. With experimental UI components, new selectors and, of course, container queries (the hottest thing around) Una Kravits took the audience on a journey through what can be done with only CSS, and everyone seemed to agree it was very, very cool.

Find more from Una Kravits here:

2. Creating “whimsy” in your design through animation is overlooked. And it shouldn’t be.

Josh W. Comeau, an independent software developer (amongst other things), did a talk titled “The Whimsy Potential of JavaScript Frameworks.” While the information presented was primarily about using JavaScript frameworks (such as React) to create cute, fun animations (adorable), he also talked about the importance of doing this early on in a design process and including it in costs upfront. Often in design, whimsical animations, interactive and informal digital implementations and really anything “kinda cute” is not considered important. He argued that, especially in extremely competitive industries, having a grasp on this kind of design work is the difference between landing a contract and not landing it. Adding seemingly unimportant details, such as a little heart following your mouse arrow, or flow-ey magical page transitions, can elevate a project to the next level and should be more often considered.

Find more from Josh W. Comeau here:

3. Cool view transitions are an easy and new way to enhance any digital project.

Adam Argyle, a self-proclaimed “punk engineer” (and notably someone who has spoken at every conference I’ve ever attended) gave an enlightening talk on the cool ways to create view transitions (note: not page transitions, VIEW transitions). With a unique API, he shows the audience how to seamlessly navigate between two states of a document, including full-page transitions. Cool and creative view transitions are, apparently, incredibly easy to implement with a bit of creative coding and are a cost-effective way to elevate digital products. He also used interesting view transitions in all of the slides for his talk, showing how they could be applied in many different digital scenarios.

Find more from Adam Argyle here:

While I was slightly disappointed at the lack of variety at the conference this year (can we maybe just have one talk about UX?) it was clear that there’s no shortage of innovation and excitement within the industry. The absence of any talks regarding AI was refreshing, choosing to instead focus on more tangible developer tools that can be applied to projects right now. Overall, year two at Smashing Conference was a delightful and inspiring two days on the Wharf, listening to talks about container queries above seagull screaming.

Jaime Fernandez
By Jaime Fernandez