Font Awesome

Font Awesome Takes the Stage: A Recap of Config 2023

by Matt Johnson

This last June Dave and I joined Jory and Noah on a trip to San Francisco to attend Config 2023. Of course, we were there to provide moral support for their big talk, “We Drew 30,000 icons in Figma and So Can You.” Ah, who am I kidding? We were there to heckle them. Which we did. Here’s a recap of our conference experience. 

In light of the last few years, when so many of us have learnt how to live among COVID, attending a large event felt a bit overwhelming. Especially since it was held at the Moscone Center in SoMa, San Fran’s largest convention center.  

In one of the first talks I attended, Figma’s CEO mentioned a key fact that stood out to me. The first Figma conference was held in 2020 — pre COVID — and 800 attended. Config 2023 hosted eight thousand people. Yowza. That’s a big attendance jump!

Photo of Moscone, all decked out in Figma Config branding

A pro event — with a few (understandable) hiccups

Given the exponential growth over a few years, there were bound to be growing pains. Awkward ad-ons at the end of main stage talks. Some foot traffic congestion on the first day, and a few other small details. BUT considering the massive growth of Figma, they did a pretty darn good job putting on a pro event. So many of the details were top-notch. The sound system, lighting, and stage design were Hollywood worthy, and the guest accommodations like coffee and beverage stations, and the happy hour after the first day’s events were all great. 

Photo of the crowd lining up to pick up their badges in the Moscone Center lobby. Config graphics decorate the wall to the right.

Obviously that massive growth speaks to Figma’s growing popularity as a tool of choice for countless designers. And when there’s that much growth in the software world, the big dogs take notice. In this case Adobe was paying attention and acquired Figma for a whopping 20 billion last September. Unsurprisingly, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority and the US’ DOJ are preparing investigations into the deal significantly affects competition for interactive product design and whiteboarding software. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.  

Design-first approaches to product development in trying times 

With COVID time caution still on our collective minds, Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky’s talk was timely. When COVID touched down, Airbnb’s business took a major hit when travel was all but halted. But Chesky had a hunch about how to weather the storm. A big part of overcoming their big dip was to double down on design. 

Airbnb’s approach to becoming a design-first company during COVID times highlighted the importance of integrating design across all departments. It was refreshing to hear his take on the issue. This is because it underscored the significance of breaking down silos and promoting collaboration among various disciplines — which is an approach we really value at Font Awesome.

(Who here — whether copywriter or designer — has worked with product managers that put design and or copy at the tail end of a project? ✋🏻As if we’re merely service providers. Psht!)

Dylan Field and Brian Chesky sitting in facing chairs and chatting on stage

A design-first approach allows for a holistic and cohesive product development process, ensuring design is not an afterthought but a driving force behind the product’s success. By involving designers (and writers) in the decision-making process and giving them agency over scope and control, companies can create products that align with user needs and preferences. This approach fosters innovation, improves user experiences, and enhances overall product quality. 

But in my opinion, the most impactful talk of the day was given by Haraldur Thorleifsson – the founder and CEO of design firm Ueno.  

Resilience despite disability

Haraldur, who goes by Halli, battles muscular dystrophy, and he recounted the setbacks he experienced since childhood. Even now as an adult he wrestles with that internal voice that tells him he’s incapable in his disability. He will remain that lonely little kid that longs for a normal life playing with other kids. 

Despite his disability, Halli has achieved remarkable success in his career. He started a digital agency that attracted major clients like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Airbnb. His agency was eventually acquired by Twitter, which further solidified his accomplishments.

But Halli’s journey took a turn when he found himself logged out of his work machine. He was unable to get a response from Twitter HR about his own employment status. In a desperate attempt to find answers, he tweeted about the confusion and tagged Elon Musk himself to get answers. In a classic example of foot-in-mouth disease, Musk doubted Halli’s credentials and mocked him on Twitter, questioning his disability and work performance. He later apologized and said he hoped Halli would stay on staff (doh!). 

Halli was likely under an NDA obligation to not speak of the acquisition during his talk. But in a quietly savage way, Halli let the situation speak for itself by saying, “A couple years back, Ueno was acquired by Twitter. And that all went great. And there’s nothing to report.” The crowd went nuts laughing and cheering. Epic mic drop achieved.

Halli, dressed in black sitting in a wheelchair, on stage at Config. Behind him on a big screen is a photo of himself as a child.

Although Halli has faced serious life challenges, he remains resilient and pursues his passions. Though, at times, rebirth stories can glorify suffering — so long as the result is a complete personal transformation to overcome the odds — Halli’s talk was equal parts inspirational, realistic, and sobering at the same time. He told the truth about both his successes and sufferings, not playing them up or down.

And Halli isn’t slowing down anytime soon. In addition to his digital agency, he has also opened a restaurant / bar / movie theater named after his mother, and founded a project called Ramp Up Iceland, aimed at building accessibility ramps across the country. Halli’s determination to create a more inclusive and accessible world is commendable. His efforts to support artists through an artist residency and studio in Reykjavik further demonstrate his commitment to empowering others. 

The rest of the first day was full of great talks. However, aside from the main sessions, we Font Awesome-ers were collectively on the edge of our proverbial seats in anticipation of Noah and Jory’s talk. 

They built 30,000 icons in Figma and so can you

After months of anticipation and planning, Jory and Noah’s talk was upon us. Both Dave and I arrived early and sat up front so we could heckle them provide moral support. As an aside, I had big plans for my perfectly timed taunting and Noah and Jory were on board with the idea.

Jory on stage speaking at Config. He's gesturing toward himself, and behind him on the big screen are the words 'Maths for Pictographs.'
Big words, or tiny Jory?

This is a funny aside. When I was a touring musician, one of the bands we toured with was Expert Hecklers. Our music was serious and artistic, while our tour mates were wacky cut-ups. Usually they would appear in the middle of our set at awkward times. In between brief segues our guitarist would say something simple on the stage or introduce a song. The drummer from our tour mate’s band would shout, “Prove it!” Whatever was said on stage wasn’t really relevant. “Prove it!” was the perfect heckle.

So in the spirit of nonsensical drunk guy-like humor I heckled Jory with a perfectly timed “prove it!” But you’ll have to listen to the podcast to get the full effect.

Noah on stage speaking at Config. He's got an ear-mounted mic and is holding a slide clicker. Blurred in the foreground are Jory's arm and his yellow Font Awesome water bottle.
“Hey kid, ya like icons?”

Jory and Noah’s talk went over great. The room wasn’t completely full, but the audience was engaged, and the presentation was fantastic. It was charming, relatable, and most of all — funny and on brand for Font Awesome. 

What it takes to deliver an fa-awesome presentation 

After Noah and Jory rocked the stage at the Config Conference, we couldn’t wait to kick back and talk about the rollercoaster ride that led up to their presentation.

As the unsung hero of their talk, ongoing support was crucial. They were supported from the very beginning by the brilliant designer advocate, Miggi, who was their own cheerleader. To keep refining, they learned a lot from Miggi who served as their guiding light throughout the process. At critical milestones, they would meet up to showcase their work and get the all-important feedback.

Jory, Miggi, and Noah all strike a pose at Config.
Miggi also helped Jory and Noah not embarrass themselves with their conference fits

A whole team of pros helped them out when they reached San Francisco for the big day. Tech rehearsals, sound checks, hair and makeup — and yes, Jory’s penciled-in beauty mark was stunning! I think all of this support made them ready for an outstanding presentation. 

It’s safe to say that the entire Config2023 event was chock full of great content and well worth your time. But make sure you check out our most recent podcast to hear more from the event.