SXSW Interactive Festival

Intellectual Property, Résumé Building, Wearable Computers, and Other Tales From the …

Cathy Hetzel from Concero at the Interactive/ Enhanced Television panel
Cathy Hetzel from Concero at the "Interactive/ Enhanced Television" panel (Photo By John Anderson)

Design Track: Get Back to Basics, Back to the Topic

"Think design ... think design ... think design," says Janet Crotty-Fraser in her attempt to sum up a discussion on "Designing for the Future Web." Crotty-Fraser, an interactive design educator and consultant from San Francisco, admits it's pretty obvious advice to give ... a designer. But with no startling new technical innovations around to distract, this year's SXSW Interactive Festival panels devoted to the visual creative process stressed that now is the time for designers to find their roots. That may be difficult for some Web designers, since many of them got into the business the other way around -- finding some way to display their programming knowledge or written content attractively. Most don't even know what to call themselves (Am I a designer? Developer? Producer?), and few have any education in the graphic arts or communications. "You learn HTML, and three months later, you're a designer," notes Stewart Butterfield, a Vancouver usability consultant.

So the word from the enlisted SXSW experts is to eschew the lure of creating for the technology -- Flash, DHTML, JavaScript, XML, broadband -- and instead create for user experience based on solid design principles. And what are those principles? Although it may have been beyond the scope of a few hour-and-a-half discussions in dimly lit rooms to outline how to design effectively, a vast majority of the panelists did little to offer any direction beyond the advice to "get back to the basics." The lack of direction seemed to leave panelists with nothing to do but gripe about uncharted technology and wonder aloud what's going to happen with Web design.

"Where will all this lead?" was a common question, followed by the disappointing, "I don't have a clue." So much for the experts. The panel on designing for "Interactive/Enhanced Television" was a case in point. Attendees heard a lot about the lack of standards and the problems with creating content for interactive television, of which more than a dozen companies are pursuing, often with different technology. "You thought designing for three browsers sucked," notes moderator Mellie Price, a designer with Austin's Sapient. But the panel did little to offer strategies for how interested designers can educate themselves. Similarly, the panel "Phat Pipes: The Big World of Broadband Design" started off on a negative bent with more than one panelist decrying broadband as a curse that makes designers sloppy. "Broadband mostly consists of designers designing for other designers," says Lowell Goss, a creative director at Frog Design's Los Angeles office. That may be true, but the challenge then is to make broadband work for you and the user. After all, a moving image made possible with extra broadband can tell quite a story, so why not figure out how to make it communicate effectively without alienating users without broadband?

Another common problem continues to be the inaccurate panel descriptions provided by SXSW and the lack of leadership from moderators. For the design track, the panelists often seemed more interested in spelling out their latest pursuits instead of relating their experiences to design. For example, a lengthy look at sexual identity exploration in chat rooms didn't really add any insight into "Interface: Linking Web User to Web Content." It actually gets worse, as many other panel attendees reported hearing the dreaded opener, "I know the title of this panel is 'blank,' but we're going to talk about something different today." Spontaneity may be a tool for pushing the envelope and avoiding the same old discussions, but it also frustrates those who plan their festivals and want a return on the investment they sink in it.

Panels should take the cue from the popular Web site Demo Sessions, where participants get real-world examples from designers critiquing submitted sites. The discussions are lively and informative, and a little sprinkle of the nuts and bolts of Web design with examples might help pique the interest in more theoretical discussions like "Possibility and Constraint in Design." What was supposed to be a look into "doing more online with less" and "the challenge of building low-memory sites" turned into a philosophical exploration of constraints on the creative process. Tying together theory and strategy with a methodology for how to apply them would have added some inspiration for designers to act on more interesting topics, such as the "Interface" panel's concentration on product usability tests.

Laura Seargeant of Austin's Frog Design tried to titillate observers by pulling out a black lace bra and offering insight into how "users" developed the product. And she gave a good glimpse at how image collaging, Velcro modeling, Kansei engineering, and other techniques gauge experience and involve users in the creative process. "With design interfaces, emotional engagement is so key," she says. But the application to the Web didn't develop, beyond the simple recognition that a site is often an experience -- not just information, a message, or a store. SXSW organizers and panel moderators should take Seargeant's advice and work on ways to strengthen the "emotional engagement" and learning potential with the design of their product.

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