SXSW 2011 Wrap-Up

SXSW Interactive 2011 is finally over and I’m once again sifting through a stack of biz cards, stickers and miscellaneous scraps of paper with email addresses and twitter handles scribbled on them.  Once again I’m weighing the cost of entrance, the interruption of several days of work and the physical toll of all-day conferences followed by all-night schmoozing. My overall gut reaction is that SXSW 2011 felt like a much better organized experience than last year’s conference. Perhaps it’s because the organizers managed to keep related panels and speakers closer to one another to minimize the amount of walking one had to do. Perhaps it’s because I was more diligent in planning my days. Either way, this year was MUCH more “worth it” than last.

One caveat here is that I’m not going to mention the panels that I missed because there were easily twice the number of folks wishing to hear them than could fit into the tiny rooms in which they were held. SXSW conference organizers need to do a better job of anticipating what we attendees want to know. Too many interesting topics overflowed while other, less exciting ones looked silly in those cavernous halls only a quarter-full.


The conference officially kicked off for me on Friday night with the dual-boot event at the Austin Music Hall featuring Dorkbot and Ignite SXSW – 2021 Vision of the Future. I’m a fan of the hit-or-miss, Pecha Kucha-style micro-presentation format and Ignite Austin has consistently done a great job of sifting through and finding interesting topics & presenters. For me, the most notable speakers on this night were Nick Pinkston (2021: Hardware is the New Software) and Brandon Wiley (The State of Free Speech Online in 2021). Pinkston’s 2021 was wrought with open source hardware and digital manufacturing where “makers” build physical hardware as agile as software. Wiley’s 2021 still had us raging against totalitarian regimes, but this time with such high-tech tools of democratic communication as laser modems and non-networked WiFi sync stations for “bike-net” couriers. I feel better already.

As for the official SXSW panels and speakers I heard:

Khoi Vinh‘s “Ordering Disorder: Grid Design for the New World” was a nice refresher course on the importance of grids and proportion in web design. As the former Design Director for he knows a thing or two about grid layouts. The presentation mostly contained content and visuals from his excellent New Riders book Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design, which is in my Nook eBook wishlist.

It’s Nature’s Way: Innovative Tech Design Through Biomimicry” was an informative panel discussion on the ongoing pursuit of studying patterns in nature and how we can design better products and systems based on millions of years of evolutionary “design.”

Drawing Back the Curtains on CSS Implementation painted a frustratingly hopeful vision of the current and near-future state of CSS browser implementation from some of the top folks literally wrestling with submissions and standards—namely Opera’s Molly Holzschlag, W3C/Mozilla’s Elika Etemad, Microsoft’s Sylvain Galineau and Google’s Tab Atkins.

Keynote interview with The Guild creator and star, Felicia Day, provided some valuable insight and advice for anyone who is thinking of producing content and one day turning pro. Her no-compromise approach has yielded innovative content, satisfied sponsors, obsessed fans and ultimately the freedom that every creative individual desires.

Joshua Porter‘s “Metrics-Driven Design” didn’t have a sexy title, but delivered intelligent, usable action items that designers can use to deal with research-driven cultures’ (both marketing- and engineering-based) demands for quantifying and qualifying otherwise aesthetic design choices. Did Google really bucket test their blue link color 41 times before settling on #2200c1? You bet your hex values they did. Did it really make that big of a difference? Bing’s UX Manager Paul Ray allegedly claimed their blue (#0044cc) was worth some $80 Million per year in additional clicks. Some of that better have trickled down to the design department. His preso has been uploaded to Slideshare here.

I DON’T think I’ll be standing in such a ridiculously long line for another “Interactive Opening Party presented by frog design.”

The panel “No Excuse: Web Designers Who Can’t Code” promised to be a heated and insightful debate, but instead dragged on and never fully hit its stride primarily due, in my opinion, to the panel moderator—Rdio’s Wilson Miner—and his “I really need some coffee or a bloody mary to get through this day” demeanor. Not to mention his Ira Glass homage which sort of fell flat. Additionally, the panelists’ intros went on a bit longer than necessary. None of this contributed to the panel’s promising title. Oh, well.

Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel” was as much a discussion on the state of publishing as the state of website design. Zeldman asked “How many of you work in publishing?” then “How many of you make websites?” followed by the remark “You’re all publishers.” It seemed an apt bend to the conversation given that seated to his left was publication design veteran Roger Black who currently has his hands full with the HTML5 publishing platform Treesaver among other things. Also on the panel were the well-known designer/author Dan Mall as well as TypeKit’s Mandy Brown, whose A Working Library is as desirable a reading list as you’re likely to come across.

Carlo Longino‘s “User Experience and Cross Platform App Development” was one of those presentations that I wish I had the Slideshare link to. The info was fast and relevant and I wish I’d taken more notes!

whurley‘s blandly titled “Designing for iPhone” presentation was an entertaining and informative Q&A from the get-go. What more apt format would fit a solo presentation given by one of the more successful iOS app developers around? “Design for the intended device” was more or less the takeaway. People pay a lot for a particular device and app developers should give them an appropriate experience. I was hoping for an HTML5 “write once, run anywhere” answer to be perfectly honest.

The debate-style panel “Real Tech Rockstars: Engineers or Designers?” was often in danger of becoming an infomercial for the Mint app. But moderator and Fortune senior writer, Jessi Hempel, managed to keep Mint founder and developer, Aaron Patzer, and former Mint lead designer, Jason Putorti, on point as they argued the virtues of user-centered design versus problem-based development. The outcome was—no big surprise here—that there needs to be a good balance of the two with an eye on the prize of developing a useful and usable product that customers love. Amen, brothers and sisters.

And, finally, there was the conference-closing “Steve Krug Explains It All for You” where the title pretty much said it all. Mr. Krug is one of the most respected usability nerds and has been championing the cause with such must-read books as Don’t Make Me Think and the more recent Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems. No matter what it is you “make” you can always learn something from hearing Krug speak about the cyclical process of usability testing.


One of the greatest benefits of SXSW Interactive is the access it provides to all of the folks who make the tools and cull the information I rely on on a daily basis to get my work done. Where/when else would I be able to—on the same day—pick Paul Irish‘s brain about Chrome’s dev tools, ask Barry Abrahamson why you can’t preview pages with alternate templates in WordPress, find out why Outlook 2010 email images are frequently blocked from Matthew Brindley of Litmus and thank Chris Coiyer and Dan Oliver for all of that useful info that’s helped me out of numerous jams?

Maybe I’ll be back next year.

  • allyson

    So happy that Ignite was one of your Highlights! Thank you so much for coming, we look forward to seeing you next time.

    Keep an eye out for updates here :