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South by Southwest 2008

My fourth year at Austin’s juggernaut of an interactive conference was more of a mixed bag than years past, as both I and SXSW adapted to its growing pains.

This year’s conference was, I believe, about three times the size of my first (in 2005). Daytime sessions expanded to remote areas of Austin’s sprawling convention center, and overcrowded lunch and evening activities tested even Texas’s deft corralling hand. Those who knew the territory well enough could avoid the lines and crowds by creating their own smaller gatherings, but that intimacy often came at the expense of meeting new people. And that was probably my biggest disappointment: Despite the tremendous amount of new faces, I came home with a stack of business cards that was a mere fraction of the size I’m used to having to sift through.

This is not to say I didn’t have a great time. In particular, I had more fun presenting than I ever have before.

Battledecks II, a PowerPoint improv competition, was both less disastrous and more fun than I expected. I was honored to tie with Ted Rheingold for a distant second place to Anil Dash’s rock-solid victory, even if it was only because judge Jonathan Grubb gave me extra points to appease a crowd hungry for higher scores.

Everyone’s a Design Critic, a critique-focused presentation I gave with Stan, was even more fun. Despite an early time slot on the first morning of Daylight Savings Time, there was great energy in the room, and the audience was willing to share in the rapport Stan and I already have with each other, which kept the whole thing loose and engaging. Deann, our volunteer from the audience, contributed a pitch-perfect impersonation of a difficult client, and the Q&A afterward brought about a great conversation about dealing with notorious design critique issues.

I also enjoyed many of the panels and presentations I saw, especially:

  • High-Tech Craft: Why Sewing and Knitting Still Matter: This opened my eyes to a whole world of DIYers infusing fashion with technology, and was an inspiring reminder that applied technology needn’t be limited to what sits on your desktop or in your pocket.
  • A General Theory of Creative Relativity: Using his studio’s various communal experiments as a point of reference, Jim Coudal took a very interesting stab at a pseudo-scientific analysis of how creativity works.
  • Frank Warren Keynote: After so much dehumanizing discussion of “users,” it was really nice to spend some time talking about people, and the stories of Frank’s experiences with PostSecret were genuinely moving.

All in all, it was another completely worthwhile and rewarding SXSW, and I’m looking forward to using what I learned from this year’s growth to enjoy next year even more.