We Analyzed Every SXSW Design Session Proposal. Here’s What We Found.

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South by Southwest is the granddaddy of all conferences. With over 300,000 people descending on Austin, Texas every year and talks from design superstars like Bruce Mau and Elon Musk, it’s an incredible way to see what ideas are important within the design community. After attending the event for the first time this past year, we left with one goal: to one day get up on stage and spread our own ideas.

Just a few weeks ago we took our first steps toward this goal and submitted a proposal for next year’s conference. With 25 different tracks at the conference, the selection committee relies on a period of public voting to help figure out which proposals should be chosen. This is great for helping to ensure that everyone is interested in the ideas that get selected but a little nerve-wracking for those of us that submitted proposals.

As soon as they opened up the PanelPicker for public voting, I was furiously paging my way through the proposals. How did our idea stack up against the others? Was there anyone else giving a similar talk? Is our idea good enough to get selected?!

With over 200 ideas in the design track alone, it immediately became too overwhelming to parse. So we were left with a dilemma: do we just go with our gut or should we try to analyze this a little more methodically?

In case you missed the title of the article, we opted for the time-consuming process of going through every proposal one by one.

Our Methodology

All of us in the design community are probably intuitively aware that our industry is kind of a mess. We lack a formal taxonomy for organizing not just the types of design but also the elements involved in understanding design. With this challenge in mind, we came up with our own framework to help us organize design. You can think about this framework like how in the game of basketball there’s offense and defense. This organized & accepted framework allows players to communicate and focus on ways to improve.

Our framework has four parts:

  • The Organization (what type of environment do you need to produce great designs)
  • The People (what mindsets do you need develop to become a great designer)
  • The Process (what steps should you take to get from concept to reality)
  • The Experience (what principles does your design need to have in order to be outstanding)

*For the sake of keeping this article short, you can read more about our framework here.

With a framework in hand, we then went through and categorized every proposal. In addition, we also recorded the overall topic or theme of the talk. Afterward, we organized, combined, and reorganized these topics. Here’s what we learned.

What aspects of design are we devoting our energies to?

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As seen from the graphic above, our community is focusing most of our attention towards ‘The Process’. With methodologies like Design Thinking and Design Sprints picking up steam in recent years we’re all looking to figure out ways to teach others this mysterious skill that for years has largely just been based on our intuition about what we should do next.

On the flip side, we seem to be neglecting ways in which we can develop the correct mindsets to become better designers; as well as what aspects of our organizations need to change to create a better environment for design. At first thought this might not seem so bad, but as we start to compare it to other professions obvious downsides emerge.

Think about the sports industry. Athletes spend hours every day working on their bodies and coaches, GMs, and organizations place top priority on recruiting and cultivating the perfect culture for success. When was the last time in the office you spend working on your design body?  I think we should take a page out of their playbook and focus more of our energies in these areas of design.

What topics are #trending?

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Overall there were three trending messages.

  1. Morality is more important than ever. Taking up 3 of the top 4 spots and with 23.5% of all of the talks related to this topic, this trend was by far the most noticeable and arguably the most important. Design is and will always be reactive to our society’s climate and right now that climate is globally warming. With real issues like our addiction to our devices and the Russians using Facebook to attack the American election, designers are more focused than ever on the intended and unintended impacts our designs have.  It’s no longer just a question of whether or not our design helped our intended audience overcome their problems. We now must ponder not only whether our design was good, but also whether it is moral.  And it doesn’t stop there. We have to push ourselves to predict what unintended consequences might come from a world full of our new designs.
  2. Design is no longer just visual. This trend has certainly been building for a while now, but it’s especially noticeable in these sessions. 22.6% of the proposals focus on how to expand design to areas outside of the more traditional visual related fields. We’re seeing a focus on bringing the power of design to communities, organizations, and even our own lives. It’s only a matter of time before everyone accepts that the word design doesn’t just mean ‘making things pretty’.
  3. We’re obsessed with the future. Over the last 10 years, we saw a quick and dramatic shift in the roles of designers. It feels like the entire UX design profession popped up overnight. This dramatic reveal left some traditional designers scratching their heads while those who happened to stumble into the profession became leaders. With 17.5% of all of the talks exploring designers’ roles with emerging technology, it’s clear no one wants to get left behind. (In my opinion, getting too caught up in this might be dangerous. We need to remember to focus on the people we’re designing for as opposed to just the shiny new technologies ahead.)

What topics were missing?

Overall there were three topics surprisingly absent.

  1. No love for agile and lean in the design world.  While entrepreneurs and developers seem fixated on first producing a minimum viable product and then quickly iterating on it, it seems like with just 0.5% of the talks on this topic designers aren’t enjoying designing the bare minimum.
  2. Have we given up the great ‘designers must code’ battle?  With more and more emerging technologies it appears like our attention on learning to code is fading. Only 0.9% of talks were devoted to our relationship with developers and code.
  3. Got any Feedback? Anyone? Not gonna lie the lack of talks centering on feedback seems the most alarming to me. As designers, it’s something that happens so often that I think we take it for granted. Case in point, there were three times the amount of talks devoted to emojis than there were to feedback (only 0.5%).

And finally back to why we started this…

So how does our proposal stack up?

Whenever you come up with an idea to a problem you’re passionate about it’s natural to assume that no one else has even remotely thought about the concept. That you’re some lone ranger that’s gonna swoop in with a theory out of left field to save the day. And while we still believe that our proposal is that theory, we’ve learned that there are others with similar ideas out there. In fact, there were 7 other talks that focus on the intersection between stories and design. For us, we take this as a positive sign that we’re on to something. We believe storytelling is not just a tool for the marketing gurus but a skill that every designer must master. If you’re interested in learning more or helping us achieve our goal of talking at SXSW feel free to check out and vote for our proposal here! (Voting ends August 30th.)

Published by David Adkin

Past Master of Architecture. Present Designer, Innovator, and Doggo Lover.

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