SXSW Interactive 2007: Final Wrap-up

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(Read coverage of day one, day two and day three of the SXSW festival.)

And so the mother of all festivals comes to a close. Here are some highlights from the final day:

  • Web Typography Sucks

    British typophiles Mark Boulton and Richard Rutter teamed up to deliver my pick for the best panel of SXSW, capturing the status of typography on the Web along with a stack of tips that everyone who works on the Web can do to improve it. I was expecting the content to be relatively basic, but it was in fact thorough, practical and delivered with both passion and authority — a potent combination.

    Here are some of the main points:

    • Many pages fail to maintain a vertical rhythm. The analogy Richard used was that of music — music is divided into bars of equal length, and so text should also strive to achieve a similar cadence. He introduced a formula that can be followed to help in achieving correct line height in ems (see the presentation slides for details).
    • Mark talked about whitespace and the fact that it is not arbitrary. (Unfortunately he didn’t elaborate on how this translates to a fluid layout where the design is affected by the browser window size, but in general the guidelines seemed sound.) He gave an example of a grid layout that demonstrated a page divided into a grid of fixed sizes to illustrate this point.
    • The presenters discussed a huge bugbear of mine, the fact that entities are misused and abused on the Web. Mark bemoaned the trend for lists to be indented — a practice made popular with the advent of Microsoft Word (yes, I’m aware of the irony of me telling you this from within an indented list).

    The final point of this presentation was that the attention to detail paid by a publisher in the print world is worlds apart from that paid by web publishers. Whether we work as a copy writer, designer, developer or something else, we should all care about this stuff.

  • Design Aesthetic of the Indie Developer

    Apple engineer Michael Lopp pulled together Mint creator Shaun Inman, FeedDemon/TopStyle/HomeSite creator Nick Bradbury and John Gruber, all relatively successful independent software developers at one point, for a fireside chat about the design process and the issues faced when developing a product as a one-man band.

    There were some nuggets of gold that surfaced in the discussion, including:

    • Being prepared to fail (or at least scratch an itch or follow a tangent) might be necessary in order to produce a great product — Shaun’s ShortStat is one example that resulted in Mint.
    • If your product is good, you shouldn’t be intimidated by Google coming along and giving away for free something that competes with it. If users like what you’ve done — even if it’s because it looks nicer or is more intuitive to use — they’ll pay money for it.
    • Listen to the haters: those people that provide abrasive, insulting feedback are usually the ones that can deliver the sharpest insight into how to improve the product.

    All of the panelists acknowledged that when working from home one faces different issues from when working in an office, including the lack of a definitive “clock off” time and the potential requirement to have to respond to interruptions by children. But for each of the panelists, the reward in being able to spend more time with family and bring one’s vision to fruition is more than enough.

  • Can Social Networking Build Your Brand?

    This talk was given by Jason Schwartz, and despite my initial skepticism relayed considerable insight for marketers wanting to build an online presence. Jason based the talk around a marketing campaign that created fake user profiles on social networking sites, including Flickr, YouTube, and MySpace.

    He dissected the results and offered suggestions for where the campaign succeeded (traffic generation), where it failed (all of the accounts were deleted once it was discovered that they did not belong to a real person), what they could have done differently (partner as a branded profile rather than offering no disclosure) and the ethics of such a campaign (not many).

    Richard MacManus has a comprehensive write-up of the Hotel Campari “Red Passion” campaign for the Salma Hayek calendar, upon which Jason’s talk was based.

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned was the likelihood that this traffic was more to do with the nature of the actual product — a collection of sexy photos of a super model — than the building of a social network. What Jason did do well though was describe for the non-geeks in the audience (and there were plenty) how to utilise tools like and Technorati‘s related tags to locate potential sites to advertise on that are not the most obvious.

This brings to a close our coverage of the SXSW Interactive Festival 2007.

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We board the 16 hour flight home with our hearts buzzing with new ideas, our heads throbbing from lack of sleep, and our livers having taken an absolute pounding. If you’ve read this far, enjoyed what you’ve read, and work on the Web but have never been to SXSW, then I urge you — implore you — to try and make the pilgrimage at least one time in your life. Scrape, save, borrow, beg. Whatever it takes.

This is without a doubt the event that you should try and get to — not even for the panels (I enjoyed a great deal of what I saw, but some of it was definitely average) but for the networking opportunities. Nowhere else will you have so many opportunities to pick the brains of and share a pint with the thinkers and the doers of the Web. The relationships you build at events like these are not only rewarding, they can be invaluable.

Go on — you won’t be disappointed. I’ll see you there.

Matthew MagainMatthew Magain
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Matthew Magain is a UX designer with over 15 years of experience creating exceptional digital experiences for companies such as IBM, Australia Post, and He is currently the Chief Doodler at Sketch Group, Co-founder of UX Mastery, and recently co-authored Everyday UX, an inspiring collection of interviews with some of the best UX Designers in the world. Matthew is also the creator of Charlie Weatherburn and the Flying Machine.

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