Lessons learnt at SXSW 08

Paul Boag

Marcus shares his impressions of SXSW and the lessons we can all learn.

Looking back at my
notes, I didn’t realise how much I actually took! So, I have decided to focus
things a bit and look at talks given by people from three big interactive
agencies. These presentations were fascinating to me as they gave me an insight
into how these companies run their businesses, their projects and make
decisions about their futures.


This was a great start
to the conference, really got me in the mood. What I expected was a Zeldman criticism of the corporate world’s misunderstanding /undervaluing/general
disdain of all things ‘web’. I think this was what he was trying to do but what
we got was a run down of how Happy Cog works or more particularly how it runs
it projects – great for me!

It was quite
reassuring in that they do pretty much exactly what Headscape does:

  • Stakeholder interviews – though there was
    a wonderful description of when you really know that you’re about to get to the
    bottom of an issue with a client – that ‘close the door’ moment
  • User testing/requirements
  • IA
  • Design – they still do multiple concepts (which
    we very rarely do now) though try to avoid ‘Frankensteining’ the design
  • Build

The big thing, for
them, missing from this list is content and copywriting. They employ a
specialist copywriter who has a wide-ranging remit from kicking off the content
process to completely writing a site’s content. However, usually they
concentrate on editing ‘raw’ content into one styled voice.

Zeldman says that the
content is the most important aspect of any site. He has a point – we
don’t go to websites to enjoy the design or appreciate the usability of the

This is, I expect, the
next big thing for Headscape.

Ten things we’ve learned at 37

Jason Fried telling
everyone 10 things they’ve learned at 37 Signals. I found his delivery a little
grating, which is why I probably don’t have too detailed notes on this talk.
But, again, this was interesting stuff from my point of view, learning about how
a small company operates particularly because we are about to go down the
product road.

The general theme of
his biggest messages were:

  • Keep it simple – otherwise you won’t ever
    release your product.
  • Don’t plan – plans tend to have a habit
    of becoming ‘sacred’. That is, people tend to stick to a particular goal
    religiously, rather than adapting to what is the best way.
  • Don’t expect your next thing to be way better
    than the last. If you’ve had a hit it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re next
    offering is going to be as well.
  • Don’t talk to each other! I really wasn’t sure
    about this, but JF basically felt interrupting people through talking was the
    key productivity killer. Methods of communication that can be ignored –
    IM, email, Basecamp etc – are fine.

10 Tips to Managing a Creative

This was the best talk
of the lot for me. With most of the ‘famous’ agencies, I feel that what we do
is not too far away from what they offer. However, these guys felt like they
were in a higher league.

The talk was given by
Bryan Mason (CEO) and Sarah B. Nelson (Design Strategist) of Adaptive Path.

They had looked at
(and interviewed) a number of other organisations that they felt there was some
similarity with a design agency. These included:

  • Theatres
  • Restaurants
  • Orchestras

They are all highly
creative places (probably more so than the design agency), they have absolute
deadlines (again, probably more so than the design agency) that mean highly
regimented processes are required while keeping creative staff focused.

These are the tips
that they have learned:

  • Cross-train the entire team – not easy, but it does build
    understanding and therefore empathy towards other people’s jobs and the effort
    required to deliver them.
  • Rotate creative leadership – makes people value others’ decisions
    because they know that they will get their turn.
  • Actively turn the corner – meaning make a specific decision to go
    from ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’ and make sure that everyone knows which phase
    they’re in. The thinking phase being the point where there are no bad ideas or
    questions with people moving into their specific roles (see point 4) for the
    doing phase. They described this process as divergence to convergence.
  • Know your roles – once the corner is turned everyone
    needs to know what is expected of them and when.
  • Practice, practice, practice – they mean ‘practice as a group’ i.e. keep
    familiarising (and improving) processes. This ensures quality under pressure.
    Look to bring new people in at quiet times or on internal work.
  • Make you mission explicit – to the entire team so everyone knows
    where the team is supposed to be going and what they stand for (i.e. what it
    means to be a ‘Headscaper’ instead of just a ‘designer’ or ‘developer’). Cut
    out stuff that isn’t part of the mission – be ruthless.
  • Kill your darlings – but do it respectfully e.g. for the
    young chef – "we won’t use that recipe, it’s not for us. You put it on
    your menu when you get your first restaurant!" AP hiring decisions are made
    without discussion – thumbs up, they’re in, thumbs down, they’re out.
    They only discuss if it’s neither.
  • Leadership is a service – leaders should talk to everyone about
    their involvement. For example, a creative director should provide space not
    enforce their vision.
  • Generate projects around the groups’ interest – in other words, only take on work that
    you want! Easy said. However, maybe a watered down version would be to dish
    work out based on personal preferences rather than just who’s available. BM
    said "any time that AP has taken on work for the money or the kudos of a
    particular client, it has bombed. If there’s no interest internally in a pitch
    – drop it".
  • Remember your audience – what you’re doing isn’t for you, don’t forget that and don’t
    forget who your specific audience is. They used the kitchen analogy where the
    restaurant manager’s audience is their existing customers. He needs to make
    sure that the guy who loves liver and onions gets the same every time. The chef
    doesn’t care about this. His audience is the new customer.
  • Celebrate failure – creativity
    doesn’t always work. Carry out project post mortems but call them ‘after
    parties’! Discuss what worked, what didn’t and what was learned. Don’t
    apportion blame. You want your creative team to take risks and to feel that
    they can take risks. If you have a blame culture then safe and boring (and
    eventually stagnation) is where you’ll end up.