SXSWi: South By So Sweaty

Created On: April 4, 2019

Written by Anthony Reynolds, Interactive Designer at Decode Digital

Having grown up in Austin, I have been going to SXSW Music since I was 16. For my entire professional career, I’ve been yearning to attend the Interactive conference. This year, I was able to attend the Design Conference Track and gain ahead-of-the-curve design insight from a slew of influential speakers.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is a huge event that takes place in Austin, Texas, every spring. To call it solely a conference or music festival is a bit of an understatement. What originally started as a music conference to showcase lesser-known musicians and bands has evolved into a comprehensive conference with a focus on Music, Film, and Interactive Media.

This was my first time at SXSWi. Of all the speakers I saw, these were the most memorable.


Do Good Data Science: Scoping Projects for Impact

The first session I attended was with Jake Porway from DataKind. He spoke about using data and AI for its social impact. While utilizing data was a common theme at SXSWi this year, Porway wanted to spread the gospel that we can use data to drive better decisions. He gave some examples of how data was used to impact communities. My favorite example he shared was from Peru, where locals developed a drone and AI system to monitor traffic, crops, and weather. There is no large corporate tech giant overseeing this; rather, the community came together to develop this system themselves.


The Business Value of Design

The most popular session I went to was The Business Value of Design. Shoulder to shoulder in a conference room at capacity in the JW Marriott, Ben Sheppard of McKinsey & Company spoke about what design actions are worth to businesses. M&C is a consultancy which helps companies determine overall market value based on their design choices. Whether that is product design, marketing, or advertising: Sheppard shared some case studies showing that companies with a conscious design standard produce long term profit. Key takeaways were:

  1. Design is more than a feeling
  2. Design is more than a department
  3. Design is more than a phase
  4. Design is more than a product


Design in Tech

Shortly after Sheppard’s presentation, John Maeda came to the stage to share Design in Tech 2019, a report on design and technology which Maeda compiles every year. I highly recommend listening to his presentation; there are some core concepts that resonated with me. He talked about how design itself is maturing, and there are three types: Classical Design, Design Thinking, and Computation Design. Maeda also spoke about how design confuses designers and non-designers. As a whole, design is not what leads a project, but is best utilized as a “best supporting actor.” The idea behind this is that design does not drive innovation and is better used to solve problems rather than recognizing them.


Variable Fonts: The New Frontier

My favorite session—and the one I anticipated the most—was Variable Fonts: The New Frontier. Yves Peters, a renowned typographer and designer, spoke about the new Wild West of the type world. Right off the bat, Peters asserted that we are experiencing the next typographic revolution. Variable fonts have been sweeping the world and internet over the past few years; we’ve even seen some integration into our daily media consumption. Essentially, this concept removes the idea of regular, bold, extra bold, italic and oblique; instead, variable fonts replace multiple font files with one master font file at a fraction of the size. From there, you can either use Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or CSS to determine that font’s variables, which are usually weight, width, and slant. These fonts even have breakpoints similar to website screen breakpoints to allow for consistency. The idea behind v-fonts is to allow for an almost infinite number of possibilities between thin and light to bold and wide. Using a v-font on your website reduces its overall load, and it can adapt without being told to be responsive.

While these are still very new, you can test drive them at and Axis-Praxis. Currently, the only browser with v-font sliders in the development tools is Mozilla Firefox. If you are curious and would like to experiment, you can usually obtain v-fonts for pennies ($15-30) if not a free beta version. Hopefully we see an expanded use into After Effects and InDesign to allow for even more efficient typography.


SXSW Survival Tips

If you are planning on attending SXSW next year or in the near future, there are a few pointers I’d like to share before you embark on your journey.

  1. Use the Metro Rail. This was a no brainer for me, but the traffic during SXSW is just absolutely insane and Uber was constantly in surge pricing.
  2. Wear walking shoes. Walking down the street at South By, you’re met with displays and experiences and innovation on every side. My feet were already swollen, but you WILL underestimate how much you will be walking.
  3. Allocate time for exploring. You will regret walking right past the Game of Thrones event because you didn’t know it was there. I was pulled into The Experience by Dell with the promise of free beer and food from the bouncer. I stumbled into a tech hideout with Dell showing off all their new media technology. High-end Alienware laptops, an HTC Vive VR Demo, new sound systems, and live podcasts were elegantly displayed.
  4. Arrive at least 30 minutes early. I almost missed a few sessions because I was not paying attention to where I was or what time it was. You can obtain express passes but they do not guarantee entry.
  5. Don’t get ripped off by pedicabs. Those guys on bikes that tote you around? They will rip you off if you aren’t savvy to pricing. I asked one for a 5 block ride and he told me $20. This is $5 tops. Use your common sense and pay time rather than distance. The good pedicabbers will ask you to “pay what you think is fair,” and be fair.

All in all, I had a great time visiting my hometown for SXSW Interactive. Each panel I attended provided new outlooks and resources that can be used within our design team and can apply to Decode’s offerings as a whole. I couldn’t have asked for a better first time SXSW interactive experience.