SXSW a unique experience

For me SXSW is a unique experience. Nothing is quite like it. In this post I ask why it is so special and look at how you can recreate the experience.

This is my fourth year at SXSW Interactive and it is without a doubt unlike any other conference. There is something special about it and I want to take a few moments to look at why it is unique and how you can recreate its benefits, even if you cannot attend in person.

Will you learn stuff? Probably not.

Like most web conferences SXSW is not primarily about learning stuff. If like us you read a lot online and follow many of the figures who speak at SXSW, then most of what you hear will not be new.

If all you want to do is learn, then there are quicker and cheaper ways of doing so.

Why go then?

If you are not necessarily going to learn a lot at SXSW, then why go?

Setting aside the warm weather, great steak and outrageous parties, there are still a lot of good reasons to attend.

An insight into how others work

There are lots of opportunities to see how others work. Whether it is in a panel or a conversation you have in a bar, there are endless insights into other people’s working practices.

This is incredibly important. There are not many other opportunities to see the wireframes of great designers or how top name agencies deal with difficult clients. Getting to peak behind the scenes of other people’s practices is extremely enlightening.

Time to dream

When was the last time you just sat and thought about your business and how it could be improved? When was the last time you chatted with somebody else about how you could do your job better?

SXSW provides a unique opportunity to step out of day to day work and consider more strategic issues that are often overlooked. Its hard to dream dreams when overwhelmed by demanding clients and pressing deadlines.

Your clients might not like you going away for 5 days but in the long run they will thank you.

Because SXSW lasts longer than most conferences it gives you time to think and dream about your own business and websites. Combined with stimulating speakers this extra time is invaluable.

Time to talk and share

Of course this extra time is also valuable for meeting people too. It can be hard to make new friends over a 1 or 2 day conference but SXSW provides more opportunity.

These new acquaintances maybe valuable business partners or just somebody to bounce ideas around with. Whatever the case, meeting people is what makes SXSW so special.

Paul and Andy Budd talking

Being reassured

SXSW is also a great opportunity to be reassured about your own abilities. Sometimes the most satisfying talks are those that tell you what you already know. These prove to you that you are doing a good job.

Even better are the talks where other web designers admit their mistakes. I have also had many conversations in bars where I was relieved to discover others face the same challenges in their business that I do.

An opportunity to go deeper

Another great aspect about the sheer size and duration of SXSW is the ability to delve deeper into some issues. For example where other conferences have one talk on usability SXSW has many, all of which examine in detail one particular aspect of the subject.

SXSW has mainstream talks but it also has niche subjects too like designing for the middle east or the challenges of being black and a web designer.

You just don’t get this breadth and depth in other web conferences.

Be inspired

Finally, and most importantly, SXSW inspires you. Whether it is a talk that rekindles your love for a subject or a passionate conversation over steak, you will go away excited.

It is easy to become demoralised and overwhelmed by daily grind. SXSW renews your enthusiasm for the career you have chosen.

But I cannot go to Austin!

You might be reading this and feeling completely demoralised. For you, there maybe no chance of ever attending SXSW. If that is the case do not despair. Although SXSW is ‘awesome’ (as the american’s would say), there are other ways of capturing its benefits.

Why not try some of the following…

  • Attend meetups – Many of things I have listed above can be achieved just as well by attending local meetups. You will meet great people, get to exchange war stories and be reassured that you are doing things the right way.
  • Go on a retreat – Every once in a while go away for a weekend. Turn off your mobile phone and go somewhere with no web access. Spend the weekend reading books, watching videos and listening to podcasts on web design. Give yourself time to dream and think strategically without the distraction of everyday work.
  • Find a sounding board – At Headscape we are lucky to know the guys over at Clearleft. We often chat about how we run our companies, sharing experiences and techniques. Find somebody you can share with and exchange ideas.
  • Go to workshops – Although conferences are great, consider attending the occasional workshop. These provide lots of opportunity for discussion, but also delve deeper into issues than a conference could.

Moving on from milk

This years SXSW has also encouraged us make some changes to Boagworld.

Since the beginning of the show we have tried to make it accessible to all, even to those just starting out. We have kept things simple and focused on the basics like accessibility, usability and good design.

We feel that it is time to move on from this baby food to something a bit more substantial. We want to start pushing you and challenging you to move on to ‘solid food’.

We are going to do this by delving deeper into subjects than we have done before. We are also going to share some of the processes we use at Headscape that allow us to work on large complex projects.

By doing so we hope to inspire and encourage you to stretch yourself and take your websites to the next level.

What about you?

So what about you? Would you like to attend SXSW? Have you been and what did you get out of it? If you cannot attend a massive conference like SXSW, what methods do you use to keep motivated and informed? We would love to hear in the comments.

  • seb

    I was un able to attend SXSW. I am gutted i was not there.

    How would you suggest going about finding local meet ups?

  • I would really like to attend SXSW in the future, especially after following the conference through Twitter and Boagworld.

    Recently, I have been attending smaller one-day conferences. They provide a good break for a day. One of the things I like most about conferences is having the chance to dream and be inspired by others. I have also found that I come away feeling more confident of my abilities and my own growth after hearing from others or meeting others.

    I have made it a goal to meet at least one new person each time I attend a conference or one-day event. I have even pursued people after the conference that I did not meet at the conference but started following on Twitter.

    Another practice I have been following is to get in touch with speakers before a conference and try to arrange having a meal with them. This is a great opportunity to get to know the person. I recently did this with Jared Spool. He was in town speaking at a conference that I could not attend but took the chance to invite him to lunch while he was in town. I had a great time talking with him.

    One of the things I appreciate about the Web community is most everyone is very approachable and I usually find that we are not very different. Again, this feeds into my confidence as a designer and Web professional. And it is always great to learn from someone who has already been further down the road. Don’t be afraid to email people also. I find that most will respond quickly. Be sure to appreciate them for an article or talk that they have given that has helped or inspired you.

  • Some panels are crap. As often seen in horse racing, even the losers have flashy names and colorful silks. However, with so many choices, I feel like you will learn something, even if it’s just a small tidbit of useful information.

    I’m glad to see a post like this emphasizing the positives about SXSW. After reading so many negative tweets and blog posts I actually felt compelled to blog about the benefits of attending.

  • Very cool Paul can’t wait to hear what you have coming. Glad you are making the changes you are. Wish you the best.

    You are right on about SXSW, it’s all about networking and the like. Really enjoyed my first year going.

  • Blake
  • I absolutely learned so much at my first sxsw. You make some very valid points and I shared many of the same experiences.

    Thanks for the post!