SXSWi Trip Report

I've just finished a really great week at SXSW and I wanted to jot down some highlights before they get hazy. So, in no particular order:

Ze Frank and the IE9 Launch

First, we got lucky. Ze Frank did a soft launch of his new social giving/sharing platform star.me at the IE9 launch. We built an HTML5 game that lives inside of one of the stars that you give or receive. It’s gateway into the siteif you don't have an invite. The game is called Throwing Stars. Working on it with Ze was amazing. He's got a crazy spidey sense about how to create fun. He stayed hands off for the most part and gave us a lot of control over creative, but the direction he gave proved to be spot for giving the game a real visceral feeling. It's addictive.

ThinkJS

We had a "soft launch" of our own at SXSW. We've started to build patterns and a toolkit for creating canvas-based HTML5 games like Throwing Stars and Agent 008 Ball. We launched a boilerplate package that combines the tools and methodology that's been working best for us. Right now it's called " ThinkJS" and for the time being, it’s a very bash-oriented environment (great for mac, and just okay for windows). Do not fear. A Visual Studio version is coming soon. It includes our javascript port of Box2d (which is hopefully due for an update soon), EaselJS, our sound effects library and a number of environment utilities (including HTML5 Boilerplate, Google Closure, Coffee Script, a test environment and others). Kevin did a really fantastic job packaging this up. It's a great way to jumpstart a game or any other canvas based HTML5 app.

RunKeeper Launch

One more soft launch: Pixel Lab’s newest entry into the Windows Phone 7 marketplace came in the form of RunKeeper, a port of the super popular (and crazy awesome) exercise tracker that you likely know from the iPhone. We wrote the WP7 version of the app. Technically this launched a couple of weeks ago, but SXSW was the first time I had a chance to show it off in person. Folks from RunKeeper were in the MS lounge to give demos and answer questions. It's a great app. We're seeing a couple of crash reports in the Marketplace so a small update is imminent. Other than that, the feedback has been incredibly positive. Much of the thanks for that goes to the RunKeeper team we worked with. They were great and they have a tremendous knowledge of how to serve their user base.

How UI Design is Influenced By Print

One of my favorite sessions at the conference was delivered by Mike Kruzeniski (@mkruzeniski), creative director on the Windows Phone team at Microsoft. He perfectly characterized a phenomena that I've been very interested over the last year or so: the way that UI design seems to be taking cues from print design.

This isn’t completely new, of course, but there is something in the air. Spend half an hour on dribbbleand you’ll see what I mean. For years, UI design has been a close cousin and BFF to industrial design, paying attention to print and graphic design rarely and only when necessary. We see that in interfaces. UI is made to look like its physical counterpart (buttons that look like buttons, pages that look like pages, etc.).

The exception to this has been the web. Being primarily driven primarily by content and having a strong relationship to publishing, the web feels a lot more like print and graphic design.

The strange thing is that we’re all pretty used to this dichotomy. Even strange is how rarely they cross over. There are indeed “UI” (mostly video players) and “document” outside of the browser (mostly hyperlinks) but until recently these world have stayed pretty isolated.

Mike’s point is that they are and should be converging. It’s a nice love letter to the metro design language. That’s a convenient message, but I think it’s also true. The thing that everyone loves about first Zune and now WP7 is how lightweight the UI feels and how grounded it seems to be in classical design principles (grid, type hierarchy, etc.). This is the influence of print, baby!

Lightweight print-driven UI is a refreshing change from the relatively heavy UI concepts that seem to have driven the last 20 years of UI design. It's left me thinking a little, though. While the kinds of physical UIs that we're used to seem a little over the top sometimes, they do (when done well) have a certain warmth to them that seems hard to capture when you’re constrained to image and type. It’s hard to create that same bit of texture that you have when you’re emulating a physical object, even if it’s all illusion.

I've felt like the Metro suffers from this a little and can, at times, feel a little bit like it was designed by designers for designers. That’s also, possibly, an artifact of Metro having drawn on the swiss style designs of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s an era that produced incredible designs that are, at times, a little cold in their mathematic precision.

Learning and Becoming Willing To Really Stink at Something

Right before I came to the conference, I read this fantastic post from Nishant. That must have planted something in my brain because I'm seeing this idea everywhere here. Here's the idea: a lot of us have forgotten what it's like to learn something from scratch, to be truly bad at doing something and go through the expansive process of filling your brain with something new. Expertise is awesome and we need experts and it's good for your paycheck. But it's great for your brain and your happiness to do new stuff too.

Just a few examples of how this idea surfaced: Kevin told me about the madness of learning to type on a Dvorak keyboard (and how much he loved it), I heard an executive at IFC tell the story of how they learned to be a comedy channel; I watched Michael Cera play bass in his new band (takeaway: the band is okay, Michael is a decent bass player but it takes a lot of focus); I talked to a gig poster designer at FlatStock who went from pixel pushing as web designer to full time screen printing.

The Stakes are High (Too High)

This might be the only negative observation I have to bring back from the conference. I've felt for a while like there is something in the air in our industry. On the one hand, there's an incredible buzz and energy as we've seen the pace of technology innovation move from mach 3 to mach bazillion. On the other, it feels a little more competitive and just a tad grumpier. Both sides of that coin were intensified at the conference. It was bigger than ever and the content seemed to have an edge to it, like everyone was trying just a little harder to be right or get noticed. I guess it makes sense. The stakes are, indeed, high: we all know that there are millionaires to be made out there and everyone is vying for a piece of that.

A lot of people at the conference were throwing the "b" word around (bubble). It does feel a little that way. There's a lot of hype and not all of it seems justified. The buzzwords were in full bloom and, from what I could tell, there very few pure design or technical panels or sessions. It was all business and social media. I'm not sure what the next twitter or facebook will be, but the VCs are definitely betting that it will be built on top of either facebook or twitter.

As a respite from the tech craziness, I ended up spending a little time at the film part of the festival. I saw a few screenings and a couple of panels. I hate to say it, but I felt jealous of the mood there. The panels were incredibly collaborative and there was a genuine interest in the craft. Business was a supporting role in those conversations, but rarely the star.

Conan Documentary

That leads me what, oddly, might be the best thing I saw at SXSW this year: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop. It's a documentary about the comedy tour that Conan planned after he had left the Tonight Show and before he started his new gig on TBS. I walked out of the theatre in such a good mood. I loved it. To call what Conan went through a trial is, as he would tell you, an unfair exageration. We'd all love to have a problem like that. Never the less, he'd been treated unfairly and he had to deal with the very human feelings of being pushed around. The documentary shows a lot of insight into how he dealt with those feelings and its inspiring. Bigger than that, it was privilege to see the amount of intensity and energy that he puts into his craft. Amazing. Inspiring. I wish there could be a sequel. I ate it up. It’s also laugh until you cry hilarious.

Incidentally, Conan was on site for the premiere and I got close enough to give him a high five...and then wimped out. Ugh. A Conan high five is absolutely the newest entry on my bucket list. Must start planning soon. If you’re interested in collaborating, let me know. There’s got to be an app for that.