My First SxSW

After 6 months of freelancing – which went by like that – I woke up, looked around me, and realised I didn’t have any colleagues and was missing the inspiration, exchange, critique and, yes, gossip, that goes along with having some. Before I knew it I’d booked tickets to the U.S. and registered for South by Southwest (SxSW) in Austin and the Information Architecture Summit in Memphis right afterwards. SxSW ended last week, and here are a few of my highlights.

People & Parties

I was going to start with all of the “content” – the talks we go to conferences to see – but then I remembered something I forget after every conference: the talks are nice, but what I still remember months later are the people I met and the talks we had, usually over a frosty beverage. And since SxSW has so many large, well-sponsored parties, the frosty beverages did flow.

  • In a shy moment when I couldn’t bring myself to talk to any strangers, Dave saved me.
  • I’m so glad I met my new conference buddy, Ola.
  • It was a pleasure to see and laugh so much with Henriette again!
  • Strange that I had to go to America to meet Donna, but we had a great time together.
  • Dan and I got on like a house on fire, and discovered we’re brothers. Donna’s brothers.

Presentations & Panels

Dan Willis gave a great talk, “Everything You Know About Web Design is Wrong”. Shortly summarised: much of the web is “print in disguise”, we haven’t developed a “grammar of the web” yet and are still copying from the medium we’re used to. Dan’s ideas for that grammar are: random voyeurism, self-aware (but uncontrollable) content, user-created context, ambient awareness and experiential content. To understand all of that watch the video below or give the podcast a listen.

Best sound-bites: “beautiful failures are winning awards…” and “embrace ignorance and don’t be distracted by failure.”

Paul Annett is not only visual designer at Clearleft, but also a magician. His card trick has over 11 million views on YouTube…

His talk “Ooooh that’s clever!” contained plenty of examples of “delighters” (one of my favourie words, introduced by the Matts at last year’s dConstruct), a discussion of the Kano customer satisfaction model and quite a great deal of charm.

Check Paul’s delicious for links to the examples he used, and listen to the podcast too!

The “Wireframes for the Wicked” panel with Donna Spencer, Nick Fink and Michael Angeles laid down a solid foundation for what wireframes are, what kinds there are and when best to use each. They kept the presentation (which was a little basic) short, and left plenty of time for good quality discussion afterwards. Can’t find the podcast for this one I’m afraid, but here’s the deck.

After the panel, Michael was nice enough to give me one of his sexy new grid sketchbooks and an interview, appearing here shortly!

Definitely the funniest thing I saw was “UR Blog Sux and Print is Dead”, a panel with the folks behind I Can Has Cheezeburger?, Stuff White People Like, Passive Aggressive Notes, and my personal favourite old-time internet famous chick, dooce. Not surprisingly their panel was a chaotic improv of one-liners and hilarious rants about death-threats, being internet famous and getting a book deal. Favourite sound-bite from Ben Huh, Mr. ICHC: “The base emotion of the internet is douchebag.” Definitely look for the podcast of this one once it goes online, and ROTFLYAO.

“Designing Change in America” was a panel with the guys who designed Obama’s campaign, Scott Thomas & John Slabyk, moderated by Alissa Walker. They demonstrated pretty clearly the power of good design, and demonstrated how much you can get done if you’re passionate and don’t have any bureaucracy in your way. Favourite sound-bites: “We were building an airplane while in flight…” and “Three words: respect the people you’re working with, include them on decisions and empower them.

And the crown jewel of the conference was Bruce Sterling’s keynote. If you ask me, Bruce is one of the smartest Americans alive, and in his usual style, the keynote was a sound-bite fest, simultaneously hilarious, insightful and moving: “the elderly are going to be the backbone of a non-commercial social web”, “Italy, Germany and Japan used to be our smoldering race-hate enemies, but today they may well be more civilised than us Americans”, and my favourite, “the cure for depression is action”. If there’s a talk that should be up as a podcast it’s this one, but we’re still waiting.

Not My Last

So all up I had a great – if totally tiring, occasionally overwhelming, and sometimes slightly stressful – time at my first SxSW. I’m so glad I came, it absolutely had the desired effect, and I look forward to eating the BBQ & nuclear tacos, drinking the sponsored beers and seeing all the great folks again next year!