Although most people are completely unaware that it encompasses anything other than music, South by Southwest is one of the world’s largest interactive conferences. 2006 was the biggest SXSW Interactive ever, or so assumes this second-timer, for whom the scope of “ever” begins in 2005. There were more panels, more parties, and most importantly, more people, many of whom were old friends, and many of whom are now new friends.
Things were looking a bit iffy early on, as I developed the worst canker sore of my life the night before I flew into Austin. It made most oral activities—such as talking and eating—intensely unpleasant affairs. So if you spoke to me in the first couple of days of the conference and I was preoccupied, quiet, or tripping awkwardly over certain consonants, please accept my apology. It wasn’t you; it wasn’t me; it was my mouth’s new tenant, the sibling my lonely tongue created for itself from a rich palette of pain.
When I was able to ignore the agony, and after it was no longer there to ignore, I quite enjoyed myself. On the academic side of things, I found the process-oriented panels to be the most interesting. “Holistic Web Design: Finding the Creative Balance in Multi-Disciplined Teams” deftly demonstrated that its team’s strength eclipsed the sum of its parts, and provided keen insight into a knockout redesign of Plazes, while “Design Eye for the List Guy” tread respectfully on the eggshells of a nuanced craigslist redesign.
With all this discussion of design, though, the panels that focused more specifically on graphic design unfortunately reflected the seemingly incessant growing pains of the aesthetic side of the web. “Traditional Design and New Technology” sparked a lively debate about the relevance of print conventions in interactive design, but was ultimately far too big a discussion for just one hour. And “How to Maintain a Design Playground” consisted of a nearly preparation-free click-through of its panelists’ dozens of visual experiments, with little discussion of their genesis or ultimate creative benefit.
However, as has been said time and time again, SXSW is about the people, and little complaint could be made about the conference’s social scene. Every meal consumed and party attended was an opportunity for quality time with some spectacular people from around the globe. With each hand shaken, my radar was expanded exponentially. And that brings me to the wonderful irony that sums up the entire experience: The sixty odd business cards I disseminated amongst comrades and colleagues were less interested in drumming up business than they were with staying in touch with the sort of people for whom design/development/etc is not merely a living. These are the people of SXSW.
Take a look at this photo set on Flickr to see SXSW through my eyes.