Wednesday March 12, 2008

O Hai, I'm Back from SXSWi. And I Learned Something.

Another pilgrimage to Austin, Texas has passed and with it another great year at SXSWi. After last year’s sort of dismal vibe, I considered not going again. But as the time drew near, I found myself growing more optimistic about this conference. Hope floats. And so do cheesy lines from Sandra Bullock movies, apparently.

While there were a couple of panels that certainly didn’t live up to their potential, I was pleased overall with the quality of my experience. And it was nice to meet some new people/talk more with those I’ve meet briefly before (Mr. Hicks, Ms. Bolton, Mr. Askins, and on and on) even if the length of our introductions were a bit short due to timing, hurried schedules and the need to traverse long distances in short amounts of time (Ballroom B to Room 18, anyone? Wow.) There were so many people that I probably walked by many I might recognize without even realizing it, or only ever saw them from a distance. I can has next year?

Some of my highlights from this year were:

Design is in the Details.

I was looking forward to this panel by the eminent Naz Hamid. Though he essentially presented what he had written for A List Apart, it was a nice way to kick off my first full day. To sum up Naz’s main points:

  1. Experiment. Start 3 or 4 PSD files at the same time and switch between them constantly to get several distinct design directions.
  2. Make Choices. Decide what works, implement it and stick with it. Don’t waffle.
  3. Stay Consistent. Don’t give clients inconsistencies to pick at. Keep structures and patterns intact from start to finish.
  4. Completeness. Be 100% finished with whatever you present. Make it pixel-perfect.
  5. Step In, Step Out, Step Back: Balance. Don’t soldier through the pain. Step away from the work to gain perspective if you need to. Exercise. Do something else. Whatever clears your head.
  6. Be Your Own Critic. Check your ego at the door and be honest with yourself about what you’ve made. Strive to be objective about your work.
  7. Complexity in Simplicity: Less is More. “Less” means “essential.” This applies to both graphic design and technology (do you really need to use JavaScript there?).
  8. Obsession is Healthy. It pays to make it perfect. Work extra hours if you need to. Demand excellence from yourself.

Everyone’s a Design Critic.

I always like hearing Jason Santa Maria and Rob Weychert speak, especially when they do so together. There’s a really great mix of professionalism and humor in their personal styles, and it’s even more professional and humorous when they pair up. Some of my notes:

  • Present yourself as the authority on design up front in how you dress, speak & act (but don’t be a high-falootin’ jerk, a la “What art school did you go to?”).
  • Keep design critiques small. Mo’ people, mo’ problems.
  • Never reveal comps before the critique. People’s first gut reactions are usually pretty on-target, and you want to capture that firsthand.
  • Make the critique ‘formal.’ Have an agenda and planned presentation. Make it official, not informal.
  • Make sure your comps are pixel-perfect. People are naturally drawn to inconsistencies and incompleteness. We want to fix things. Errors in comps can derail a good conversation.
  • Use real content. Fake content makes the design less credible and more like a “shell” or collection of swappable pieces.
  • Before the comp ‘reveal,’ sum up how you got to this point: review research, dialogue, goals and steps it took to produce the design(s).
  • Present comps as solutions to pre-identified problems. Explain how each comp solves the client’s problems, as they explained them to you.
  • Lead conversations away from “solutioneering,” or finding solutions on the spot. You will be sorry if you commit to hasty fixes or comprimises.
  • Take constructive feedback, which is comments about how design did not solve a problem. DO NOT entertain solutions; that is for you to work on later. Gather problems.
  • If “I don’t like that blue” comments come up, help that person to articulate the design reason why not; e.g. to define the problem not solved with “that blue.” This helps educate clients in how to critique and helps them understand that personal opinions are not valid criticisms.
  • Discourage “frankencomping” (or Frankendog) by explaining that designs are “holistic solutions” that are not meant to have their parts interchanged.
  • Document feedback and send it to everyone in the meeting.
  • Wash, Rinse & Repeat.

Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Great Design Hurts.

I just cannot take notes when Michael Lopp speaks. He’s too engaging. Most of what he talked about was the grueling design process at Apple, where there are sometimes ten (or more) comps made for single pieces of an interface and everyone has an opinion on what is best. Greatest takeaway phrase of SXSWi 2008: “I want a pony.” This phrase embodies every cockamamie thing any client or stakeholder has ever asked for in a design critique. I plan on making hearty use of it.

I’d never seen John Gruber speak, but his part of the presentation was well-done, if not a tad… idealistic? Both he and Lopp advocated saying “No” more often — to weird design requests et all — but John went a but further into rebel designer territory by pointing out that more great designers are/were sort of [jerks]. Paul Rand and Stanley Kubrick were cited as examples. Maybe Steve Jobs was thrown in there, too — I don’t recall, but he fits the bill. I mean, I get it; innovation doesn’t come from playing nice with everyone. No one likes radical change, and that’s what innovation and great design are. I thought this was a nice motivational presentation, I just don’t think many people are in a position to pull off the jerk-designer role. Maybe that’s bad news for our industry; I don’t know. Overall, I really did enjoy this one. It was a refreshing kick in the pants, even if most of us can’t follow through. :)

Core Conversations.

I think this was a brand new format this year. A pre-selected person led a round table discussion about their selected topic. I attended one with Dan Saffer and one with Joshua Lane. I thought both conversations were excellent and they made me think of my job in a different way. The one bad thing about the format was that there were 4 groups in the room, and even taking into account the relative small size of the groups, hearing people talk over the noise was a big issue. Hopefully that’ll be remedied next year.


The conference seems to have grown quite a bit with every year. This time it seemed to have grown in a big way, with tons more people and many new rooms opened up to accommodate the panels. Still, SXSWi is like the biggest RSS feed in the world, all crammed into 5 days of topics. I look forward to next year!


Mat » 4939 days ago #

Thanks for the rundown Jared.

I had the opportunity to see Jason and Michael speak recently at Webstock and they were both excellent.

Kraemer » 4939 days ago #

Wow. Between this post and all the tweets, I feel like I was there.

I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment for using real data/copy when possible. Greek and meaningless dummy-data distract clients. The trade-off is the time required to create real data. If your comp includes tables (like for an application) try using a mock-data generator to create realistic looking data.

Great write-up. Thanks for sharing.

Mike Rohde » 4938 days ago #

Jared, love the notes! Great takeaways here.

Amazingly it seems I went to nearly all of the same panels as you have notes for, though I captured them in a slightly different way — sketches and notes combined into “sketchnotes” with a pen and Moleskine sketchbook:

SXSW Interactive 2008 Sketchnotes

Just a little different way of sharing the experience with those who didn’t attend SXSW and those who did, all at the same time. :-)

Thanks for sharing!

Jared » 4938 days ago #

I saw your sketchbook linked by a number of sites today, Mike. Great stuff! You should check out my colleague T Scott’s work, if you have not seen it. It seems that you two are kindred spirits. :)

(another) Jared » 4937 days ago #

Jared, great notes for those of us that weren’t able to make it down this year. I’ve previously seen Jason speak in Boston and enjoyed his knowledge and style. It appears that he and Rob had a great panel.

Josh » 4934 days ago #

Adding my thanks for the notes you’ve taken. It’s always nice when the design community can share with those less fortunate (and who’ve had to work). Keep on keepin’ on!

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