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Siobhan Kennedy
Siobhan Kennedy

Design Director

Thoughts on the 2016 Design Thinkers Conference

I have a confession to make… the 2016 Design Thinkers Conference was filled with inspiring talks but the “Confessions” theme didn’t quite resonate with what I was hearing. I have an alternate theme to suggest.

Last week, our visual design team attended the 2016 Design Thinkers Conference at the Sony Centre in downtown Toronto. As always, there was a wide range of talks from which to choose. And as always, it was a challenge to select which ones to see. So many interesting people and perspectives!

The theme of this year’s conference was “Confessions.” Here’s a glimpse at the concept from an excerpt from the program book:

Every designer has secrets. Guilty pleasures that we’d never admit to others in the industry. Indulgences we allow ourselves that inspire and inform our work. …we share the common experiences that can inhibit or foster effective communications and identify strategies to achieve new heights of design greatness.

This theme was interesting and showed through in the conference signage and collateral but it didn’t always speak to the content of the talks (the ones I was able to attend anyway). I wanted to share another idea, one that seemed to have woven itself through the content of the conference: Adaptation.
I’ve selected 3 of my favourite talks to share both the interesting viewpoints heard and how this adaptation theme popped up.

First! A definition


  • To change your behaviour so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation.
  • To change (something) so that it functions better or is better suited for a purpose.
  • To change (a movie, book, play, etc.) so that it can be presented in another form.

Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary

Machines should adapt to us: A call for Inclusive Design

The first exploration of this adaption theme came from Albert Shum (CVP of Design & Content Publishing at Microsoft) who gave a talk titled Scaling Design: Catalysts for Change. In this talk, Mr. Shum gave some very good arguments for why designers should strive for Inclusive Design. One of the key arguments was that we are often adapting to machines and it should really be the other way around, machines should be adapting to us.

As he described it, Inclusive Design asks us to do the following:

  • recognize exclusion
  • learn from diversity
  • solve for one and extend to many

To further explain, he provided the example of someone with a disability, someone who has just one arm. Normally, when we design we aren’t thinking of such a specific type of user unless the product or service we’re designing is specifically for them. Instead we focus on understanding the majority of users and make sure our design aligns with their needs. An approach that makes good sense overall.

In the case of this specific disability, designing inclusively means we would extend our thinking to see if there are ways to include this particular edge case. If we were designing a park, how could someone with one arm participate and engage in the space? The answer is to consider creating a diversity of things so that there is more opportunity to address various needs. So instead of having only monkey bars and swings, the park should also have engaging apparatuses that are propelled by feet, for example.

With this in mind, when it comes to how we think of disability, he suggests that we should view it as a context of environment issue rather than a physical human problem.

When we cater to this edge case, we end up catering to other groups of people we may not have considered before. In his example he points to people who may have a temporary broken arm or a new parent who is holding a baby so only has the use of one arm. This ripple effect creates a more inclusive experience for more users than you might think.

I thought this was such a simple yet powerful idea. As designers, we often focus in on the limitations of technology, the perimeters of a budget and/or the push to address the most common needs. It’s incumbent on us to broaden our thinking so we can uncover how technology can adapt to all needs.

Adapting to user expectations

At Akendi, we’re accustomed to designing for users. It’s what we do in all our projects using our own Design Thinking™ process. Something I think we will be considering more and more as technology continues to evolve is the notion of “liquid expectations” as Tim Irvine  (Regional Design Director for North America at Fjord) discussed in his talk Designing for the Next Interface… The Human.

To explain he references the adage “I want what I want when I want it” which is the best way to put it really. People are less and less patient with technology, we have come to expect that our needs are met at this very instant or else we are completely let down. We are more easily frustrated when something doesn’t go 100% well and have multiple online platforms to vent these frustrations.

As designers we need to adapt to this shift in expectation. We need to get beyond meeting expectation and into the territory of exceeding expectations. This seems like a tall order doesn’t it? Well, the devil is in the details as they say, so be fastidious and follow this path:

• Design intelligently based on user research.
• Test and iterate until users are able to perform tasks seamlessly.
• Give very careful consideration to the tone of your design. Make sure there is a universal voice that speaks to the brand and to the client or customer so they feel comfortable and welcome in the space.
• Consider how the experience can be elevated without getting in the way of the core tasks people are trying to accomplish. An engaging visual design can create delight.
• Consider new languages (ie. language of touch, audio), interaction patterns (ie. gestural UI) and services (anticipatory services) which can help to create a more seamless experience.

Adaptation of a Classic

Rod McDonald (designer, educator, historian and writer) gave a passionate talk, titled “Positively Grotesque”. It was a walk through the history of the classic Grotesque typeface and an in-depth look at how he redesigned it to better suit our modern day needs.


Typography is communication tool where each minute stroke and curve affects its functionality and character. It was such a pleasure to get a glimpse at how this impressive typeface design was so carefully crafted to maintain its original integrity and personality while shifting its form to work harder and more effectively in both print and digital platforms.

His mission was much like an archaeologist brushing small fragments of dust and debris off of a precious unearthed treasure. A good reminder that we should not always throw it all out and start fresh. We need to assess what is working and what is not, and then adapt.

So there you have it, the adaptation theme served up 3 ways at the 2016 Design Thinkers conference! Our team is looking forward to next year’s conference which will be held in both Montreal (as part of the World Design Summit) and Vancouver. Hope to see you there!

Siobhan Kennedy
Siobhan Kennedy

Design Director

Siobhan is a passionate advocate for clean, effective designs that speak clearly and with gusto. Through the Akendi blog, Siobhan shares inspirations, tips, and resources for developing clean, harmonious design systems that are a joy to use.

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