Another year, another Southby | March 15, 2007

So SXSWi 2007 is officially over, and I’m sat in the departure lounge of LAX waiting for my connecting flight to San Francisco and collecting my thoughts. I’ve had an excellent time again this year, catching up with old friends and making new ones.

I always feel a little sad once the conference is over as there never seems to be enough time. The event almost doubled in size this year, which only helped exacerbate the problem. There were lots of snatched conversations on the run between sessions or parties, and quite a few people I never got chance to see. Hopefully I’ll get chance to catch up with some of them at one of the many conferences I’ll be attending over the next couple of months.

I find the sessions at SXSW usually take a back seat to the socialising. This is in part because the choice is overwhelming, but also because I’m not sure the quality is as high as it could be. The sessions with one or two speakers are usually the best, as they tend to have a much more structured narrative and have been prepared and practised in advance. I’m always a little disappointed by the panel sessions as they often end up being unstructured conversations with little or no resolution at the end. I sometimes wonder if the majority of panel discussions are there purely so the speakers can get a free ticket.

In 2005, the unofficial theme of the event was web standards. Last year it felt that DOM scripting was the hot topic. This year there was a definite move away from the technical and towards user experience design. Like usual I managed to miss out on some of the surprise hits of the conference, but luckily mp3s of the sessions have already started to appear. Of the sessions that I did see, the ones I enjoyed most were Peter Merholtz on the end of product design and Dan Saffer on what Las Vegas can teach interaction designers.

The Brits had an even bigger showing this year, and the quality of their presentations was very high. My favourite was the session with Brendan Dawes and Jim Coudal on the subject of creativity and short attention spans. The panel that Jeremy and myself gave seemed to go down well, as did the typography session with Mark Boulton and Richard Rutter. Jeremy did a second session on Ajax accessibility and universal design with Derek Featherstone that was also well received, as well as making a guest apperence on the microformats panel with fellow Brits, Glenn Jones and Francis Berriman.

Andy Clarke managed to pack out the room and had people sitting in the aisles–a testament to his abilities as a speaker. His talk was predictably funny and the slides were well designed, but I couldn’t help feel that the concept could have been fleshed out a bit more. As with our talk the previous year, the audience threw themselves into the theme and ask lots of funny questions about getaways, patsies and dealing with moles inside the organisation.

On the social side of things, I think the best event was the Avalonstar bowling extravaganza. Not being a bowler, I almost didn’t go. I’m glad I did. Our team scraped through to the second round, and was then paired up with one of the stronger teams. We thought we’d be out for sure, but ended up putting on a really strong show, bowling a respectable 786. This was actually one of the higher scores in the second round and we would have gone through on points. However it was actually a knock-out round and when the average score was take, we lost by a paltry 2 points. Despite being robbed entry into the final, we had a great time, and will no doubt field a team next year.

Due to the number of Brits over this year, Clearleft, @media America and Boagworld decided to throw a party, entitled The Great British Booze-up. This turned out to be a fantastic idea as the party rocked. The venue was great, the food was amazing, and the free bar lasted most f the event. One of the most successful aspects of the party was the music volume. Unlike most events where you had to scream to be heard, people could actually talk to each other, promoting a very social event. The event was busy but not packed, and all the right people were there. Even the Yahoo! crowed showed up despite hosting their own party at the same time. The event was a huge success and we all look forward to running the event again next year. This time with less light beer and more pork scratchings.

Anyway, that’s it for another year. I’m heading to San Francisco for a weeks holiday before the IA Summit and Web Design World.

Posted at March 15, 2007 10:45 PM


ralph said on March 16, 2007 12:25 AM

Of the big “official” evening parties, there was no question that the Booze-up was far and away the best, and the music volume had everything to do with that (okay, the food was pretty spiffy too). It was the only official party I went to where I didn’t feel like I was going to lose my voice, my hearing, and maybe my sanity. Thank you, Clearleft, @media America and Boagworld.

I was sorry I didn’t get to talk to you this year, Andy. The whole time sped by like a blur, and there was always another fascinating conversation just around the corner, but maybe the conference is just too big now to talk to everyone you want to. I did manage to talk to the other three-fourths of Clearleft who were there.

Jeff Croft said on March 16, 2007 12:35 AM

Was great seeing you again, Andy!

Having done a panel-style session (that got very mixed reviews — some loved it, and other definitely didn’t dig the panel style), I’m finding this panel vs. presentation discussion interesting. Myself, I much prefer the panel-style ones. I think it’s because I feel like I can get bullet points and concrete examples all over the Internet and in plenty of books. I can’t get the more informal, tell-me-whats-really-on-you-mind stuff from books, though, and I can get that from a good panel. I feel like the panels really give me an insight into the minds of the people I respect, whereas most of the presentation just rehash stuff I’ve read time and time again on blogs or in books. My favorite session this year, for example, was the panel that Liz Danzico moderated with Zeldman, Luke. W, and crew.

In any case, I just think it’s interesting how some people prefer one and some prefer the other. I’m thinking the descriptions and titles of the sessions maybe need to imply the structure of the session, so that those who don’t like panels can avoid them and not be disappointed when they get to a session.

I guess, for me, I don’t want to just get up there and regurgitate some facts about web standards, CSS, or what have you. If I had something really new and innovative to say, great — a presentation would be appropriate. But if I’m just going to say the same things everyone already knows — that seems pointless to me. I’d rather have a public discussion with lots of Q&A than that, myself.

It’s an interesting difference in the way people like to learn, I guess.

I thought the British Booze-Up was the best party of the year, so great job on that.

Hoping to see you again when I hit the UK next month!

Derik Lolli said on March 16, 2007 1:21 AM

I have to agree with you that the panels were somewhat disappointing this year. It felt like most of the design sessions had no outlined structure and rarely stuck to the topic. I won’t say this was the case with every session but felt like far too many of them. Most of the development centric panels seemed a lot more informative. Next year I may just skip the panel topics and go with speakers I’ve appreciated in the past. 2005 was a great year for panels. Of course I have few complaints about the parties.

Brian Artka said on March 16, 2007 1:59 PM

being my first SXSWi, I cant really comment on if the panels were bad or not. I enjoyed all of them, it was information overload. The thing I really liked about the panels I did get to see were the ones that continued on with a website for further information. For example, Jeff’s DesignWorkflows@Work and Greg Storey’s better writing panel (dont think the site is up yet, but they mentioned it).

My favorite, and most inspirational was Jason Santa Maria and Rob’s A field Guide to Design.

My favorite event was by far the AvalonStar Bowling. I’m from Milwaukee, so bowling has always been a passion of mine. Our team didnt make it to the finals, but the people I met that night are awesome. I cant wait till next year.

Unfortunately, I had to leave the conference Monday evening, so I was not able to make the great British Booze-Up, but you can count me in next year!


Rob Goodlatte said on March 18, 2007 8:44 AM


It was nice to see you again this SXSW. The panel you and Jeremy hosted echoed my exact sentiment on the term “Web 2.0”. The “bluffing” series of talks has been very high quality so far - Jeremy’s talk last year was awesome. Hopefully you guys will continue bluffing your way through Southby next year.

Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the Great British Booze-up as I’m not 21. Next year, however, I will be - that should be very interesting.

Charles Wyke-Smith said on April 17, 2007 12:26 AM

Couldn’t agree with you more about some of the panels. People come a long way to SXSW to learn something and too many of the sessions don’t deliver, although there are some spectacular unexpected diamonds such as the Building Kick-Ass Web Teams session, where you couldn’t take notes fast enough.

The quality of the attendees is enough to keep me coming back year after year, so you’re right, it’s the after-hours events where you can meet up with everyone that make it worthwhile. There’s nothing like hanging out with Tantek, Zeldman, Jeremy K and Molly H. (and OK, you too, baby : ) to realize that you are in a great and unique situation.

Somehow SXSW needs to drill down on exactly what panelists are presenting ahead of time to ensure more sessions like Richard Rutter’s informative and technically excellent Typography presentation, and the great ideas in Kathy’s keynote on the Suck Threshold to ensure a better quality across the board.

Just my 2 cents (or 2p, for those of you in Brighton)

Cheers, Charlie