Impressions from a SXSW Newb

Posted 4 years ago by Trevor Connolly 1 Comment

Every spring, over 50,000 people attend the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, which covers music, film, and interactive conferences. This past week, I along with five members of the Tekzenit team trekked down from Dallas to Austin in a minivan to learn, engage, and interact with SXSW. It was all of our first time to attend the interactive conference and our expectations were also met with a few surprises. We learned quite a bit in a few days, not only about our areas of expertise, but other parts of the interactive world. For example, we learned how to apply outside topics to our creative work, as well as navigating the conference itself. Collectively, we put together our impressions of how to make the most out of a week at SXSW.

1. Plan your schedule as soon as you register
Some of us dove right into scheduling courses, events, workshops and discussions weeks ahead of time and added them to our personal schedule, while others didn’t. Both schedulers and non-schedulers had no difficulty finding classes. However, those who scheduled ahead of time were able to hit the ground running each day, while those who didn’t just usually tagged along. It’s very important that you fill your schedule with several courses you want in each time slot to maximize your learning experience.

2. Scope out the venue locations
Trust me, nothing can derail your first day or two by not knowing where certain buildings are. If you can, it’s helpful to be in Austin a day early to scope out exactly where each building is. If you don’t have time to go earlier, then drop pins on your map to easily navigate your way around. It’ll save you boatloads of time, not to mention frustration and missed classes.

3. Don’t be afraid to go it alone
When you’re in a large group of co-workers, it’s easy to concede to events just to stay together. That’s a mistake. Instead, do yourself a favor — break away from your co-workers and take advantage of all the widespread learning opportunities that interest you. If there are two or more events you and your co-workers want to see that are the scheduled at the same time, simply divide and conquer. Later, you and your co-workers can catch up to share what you learned with each other.

4. The Presenter is more important than the event title
Each day of SXSW, there are hundreds of potential events to attend. Some have really interesting and topical titles, such as The Power of Design in the Connected World, or Always Be Innovating: Thinking like a Startup. A word of caution: the titles can be misleading. An event with a cool title given by a non-authority figure can be a waste of time. The far better indicator of an event is to go by the presenter. Look at the presenter’s bio to get a better understanding of their expertise in the topic and the depth that will be presented. For example, I went to a workshop called Prototyping with Keynote, taught by the guy who created Keynote ’09. It was incredibly informative, but if some random designer from Kansas taught it, it most likely wouldn’t have been as thorough. With hundreds of event options each day and only five or six time slots, you want to make sure each event lives up to your expectations. By looking past the event title and doing your homework about the presenter, you have a better chance of getting more bang for your buck.

5. …But not every presenter is a genius
Our first presentation was from Adobe, and it was great. It highlighted some of their projects that ultimately failed and how they integrated their favorite features of those failures into new software currently being developed. They also showed how they brainstormed creatively and tried to capture their innovation, which is impossible. It was humble, informative, and exciting to see what the future might have in store. Our next presentation was rather dull. It had recycled design information and very little game-changing perspective. At SXSW, for every super workshop or speech, there’s unfortunately an uninspiring one. That’s why it’s important to do your research to ensure you have the best experience.

6. Workshops are worth it
There’s a good mix between single-speaker events, panels, multi-speaker events and workshops. Speaker events are nice; they present new information and talk about important things. If you take good notes, you can bring home a lot of great information, but to really learn something new — take the workshops. While they’re longer than speaker events and require some additional skills, workshops are the best way to learn. You’ll also get some great networking out of them.

7. Go outside your comfort zone
Some of my favorite events were not necessarily built for a designer. There was one about Gamification, another about Personal Brand, and one that focused on Content. None were particularly about design, however, they were eye opening. In each one, I got inside the mind of other creative thinkers to see the potential problems they solved and how they connected with their audience. As a designer, I was able to relate all of that back to my design strategy. The gamification presentation gave me really cool visual representations of what motivates people. The personal brand speaker convinced me I’d rather hire unproven creatives instead of experienced ones because the younger, hungrier creatives want to prove themselves. They also usually have fresher and more innovative ideas. The panel on content gave me better understanding of how to tell a more compelling story, present my work to clients better, and improve in my role — all by attending events outside my comfort zone.

8. Go to the Trade Show, the Start Ups Showcase, and the Meet Ups
Inspiration comes from all places. With all of SXSW’s classes, speakers, and workshops, you can’t help but be inspired by others. Walking around the trade show floor and talking to people pumping their products was both fun and informative. It got me wondering how I could use their products or at least their ideas in my own work. Likewise, with the Meet Ups and Start Ups showcases, as I listened to people sell their product and answer questions, it got my collaborative juices flowing.

9. Find a free lunch
The best part about SxSW is the SWAG. However, there is also a lot of free food involved, too, if you look in the right spots. Find the free food, go there between events, and keep going to class all day. Taking lunch takes time out of the busy schedule, and while there is a free period in the middle of the day, usually you can use that time to plan your next events, catch up on work, and maybe even get to that far away venue. In order to maximize your SxSW experience, take the free lunch.

10. See at least one celebrity speaker
Even if it’s only someone who’s a celebrity in your industry (shout out to Joel Buekelman!) if they’re speaking at SXSW because they’re successful and intelligent, and can probably give you some indirect insight. It can’t hurt to hear advice from someone successful.

11. Be kind to your body
While SXSW provides a stellar party scene for film, music, and interactive sessions, be mindful of your sleep. SXSW events start relatively early at 9:30am. If you have to get breakfast, drive into downtown, or walk to a venue, you’ll need to wake up earlier. The event is long (nearly a week) and there’s a ton of walking, so it very easy to get worn out by Day Three if you spent all night out on Day One. When you’re tired, you’re not very attentive, so you could miss some good lessons. Do yourself a favor, rest early and often. Maybe even take a nap during lunch break and take advantage of Austin’s plethora of Pedi cabs to keep you and your body fresh.

12. Take good notes to bring it all home
The amount of information you consume at SXSW is overwhelming. Our classroom days are long behind us and most of us in the industry don’t sit in workshops or listen to guest speakers as much as you will at SXSW. That’s why it’s a good idea to take comprehensive notes, so you can bring the ideas you gathered back to work. Plus, some people retain information better if they take notes by hand as opposed to on a laptop or tablet. In fact, some of us took a pretty cool “sketchnoting” workshop that seemed to be particularly effective. If you want to make sure you capitalize on your SXSW experience, make sure to take good notes to bring home with you.

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One Response

  1. These are great points! I’ve only been to SXSWi once but I’d do it again. I’ve never tried sketchnoting but I love Mike Rohde’s notes… sketches—uh, sketchnotes. :)

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