UCD13 review: Collision of academia and industry means the focus is moved away from agency pomp

From day-long conferences to breakfast talks, evening workshops, week-long festivals of entrepreneurship and 24-hour ‘hackathons’, we're lucky to have access to them all throughout the year in London. So why bother writing about another?

Jonty Sharples

Because UCD13, which took place last weekend, is different. It doesn’t fit into the usual mould. It’s the Goldilocks of conferences; not too big, not too small. It’s just the right size, with just the right catering. It’s even an appropriate distance from a pub.

There's something comforting about knowing you're in the company of research associates, with tens of years of experience, as well as established industry folk. It's also reassuring to know you're not just getting the homogenised, ‘Flat White’ version of events, as seen from UX, design, and advertising shops across London and the south.

There seem to be very few conferences nowadays where academics still converse and cavort with industry folk, and UCD is all the better for taking this unusual approach. In my decade of agency experience I can’t recall an event hosting such a diverse array of content from such accomplished speakers, or at least not one with feet so firmly grounded both in academia and industry.

We agency folk work in a certain way for a certain number of years – every now and then a seismic shift will occur and there will be the usual exodus as teams restructure in order to embrace whatever new and 'proven' practice has become the zeitgeist. UCD13’s collision of academia and industry means the focus is moved away from agency pomp, instead inspiring real discussion points about the future of design.

Businesses are finding that our past reliance on the outdated Waterfall process results in unnerving fallouts when responsibilities are divided. At Albion we think and act in fully collaborative teams, rather than look for the lone visionary or silo – the Jobs, Ives, Zuckerbergs, and Musks of this world – and focus instead on building the team that will build the best solution together. That’s the essence of UCD of the future, and happily UCD13 had plenty of people challenging conventions.

Canny curation clearly plays a big part, and given that UCD13 is only in its third year, the session quantity, diversity of content, and breadth of speaking talent was truly inspiring. The event had its arms around the subject pretty well, with talks on topics ranging from “Data Driven Personalisation” to “Scaling the UCD Process to a Growing Project” to (the more snappy) “Design is the Easy Part”.

At the risk of being accused of nepotism, Julian Hirst's talk, 'Music Lessons for Designers', was a real highlight. I'm not suggesting for a minute that the future of engaging an audience is to have the session accompanied by a double bass and a plethora of guitars, but this certainly worked very well on a flagging, post-sticky toffee pudding crowd.

I’ll absolutely be marking the calendar for next year, and I suggest you steel yourself for another diverse, considered, and well-rounded event.

Jonty Sharples is design director at creative agency Albion

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