This year I was fortunate enough to attend South by Southwest, the influential interactive, film, music, and creative arts festival in Austin, Texas. The conference had been on my career bucket list for years and the experience completely lived up to my expectations.


Getting ready for SXSW

I arrived in Austin bleary but wide-eyed a day before the festival kicked off. After settling into my Airbnb on the north side of town, I walked to the metro station to head downtown to pick up my conference badge. I started chatting to a local SXSW volunteer on the platform until we both overheard an announcement about a major delay on the train line. The volunteer needed to begin his shift and offered to give me a lift downtown.

Climbing into the volunteer’s gigantic full-sized pickup truck, I thought of the old clichè “everything is bigger in Texas”. We chatted about the similarities between Texas and Queensland on the drive downtown.

On arrival, I collected my conference badge and bag of free stuff and wandered around the Texas capital for the day.


Day One

On the first day of SXSW, I attended design panels Shadow Side of User Centered Design, Spatial Interfaces, Design for Humanity’s Best Self, and Beyond Design Process: Deciphering the Intangibles.

Many of the panels I attended during the festival focussed on design ethics, processes, and the principles of good product design.


Day Two

By the second day, I began to understand how the conference worked and how to navigate the city. In the morning I attended Navigating Modern Tech Ethics, a panel featuring product designers from Facebook. The session gave attendees an insight into how Facebook product designers see their role as ‘digital urban planning’.

How Bots and Conversational UI are Killing Design was the next panel, featuring designers from Slack, Facebook Messenger, and Hipmunk.

I found the afternoon panel Design Technologists: Dev Design Hybrid fascinating as it highlighted how hybrid designer / developers can bridge the gap between the two disciplines. The panelists detailed techniques they’ve used to mitigate design issues on the front-end and theorised where the design technologist’s role is best placed in a product team.


Day Three

On day three, I attended separate interview sessions featuring the almighty Elon Musk and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Elon Musk spoke in detail about the creation of SpaceX and Tesla and the future of commercial space travel. Arnold Schwarzenegger focussed on political issues in the US like gerrymandering, climate change, and health care reform.

My afternoon was consumed with a panel featuring Tim Ferriss and Dr. Roland Griffiths titled The Future and Science of Psychedelics. The pair talked at length about clinical testing psychedelic drugs to help treat victims of depression, anxiety, and extreme trauma.


Day Four

As it was the second last day of the conference, I tried to squeeze in more than the previous three days. I attended sessions on how animation in UX is used to influence users and manage cognitive load as well as a panel on the impact company culture has on product deliverables. I checked out the emerging technology trade show featuring robots, AI, VR, and AR and participated in a workshop on empathy mapping.


Day Five

The SXSW film festival was well underway by day five so I checked out panels on animation, filmmaking, and storytelling.

The session hosted by DreamWorks Animation titled Technology’s Impact on Digital Storytelling was inspirational, as creatives and technologists discussed their processes making feature animations as well as the future of VR and interactivity in the filmmaking medium.

I capped the day off with an authentic Texas open pit BBQ dinner and tickets to a live recording of the Doug Loves Movies podcast.


Final thoughts

Although I packed my days with as many activities as possible, I can’t help but feel I might’ve missed out on some amazing sessions as there was so much happening at South by Southwest.

Attending the conference solo meant I was able to fully immerse myself in it, learn as much as I could, and meet interesting people working in creative industries around the globe.