SXSW Is a Cultural Moment Disguised as a Tech Conference●
We saddled up and headed to the Lone Star State for four days of insight, innovation, and Tex-Mex.
Austin, Texas—a flourishing hotbed at the crossroads of culture and technology, known to many as the Live Music Capital of the World or, more recently, Silicon Hills. Not surprisingly, Austin is also home to SXSW, an annual festival and the foremost celebration of all things cultural and innovative in the world.
As a team whose aim is to explore culture and technology through design, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend and see for ourselves what all the buzz was about. So, we headed southeast for a four-day trip to Texas’ capital city.
We came back with stomachs full of barbecue and heads full of discoveries, the latter of which we’re excited to share.
Humans are not either thinking machines or feeling machines but rather feeling machines that think.
Humanity Is the Greatest Competitive Advantage
If this year’s South By is any indication, there’s a fine line between us and AI, but the line still exists. António Damásio explained this distinction perfectly: “Humans are not either thinking machines or feeling machines but rather feeling machines that think.”
We always try to speak to consumers like humans, treat them like humans, and design experiences that humans would enjoy. Listen to people, engage with them on a deeper level, and we win over their adoration.
One of the most beloved products in history, Macintosh specs were intended for people, not programmers. We could all learn from Apple.
People Crave Meaning Over Marketing
But humanity is just a byproduct of value. One panelist urged us to consider the value that is exchanged in our current ecosystem. Consumers today are smart, recognizing deceit at a moment’s notice. They don’t take too kindly to being sold to. If an experience feels too dishonest or inauthentic, they’re onto the next.
According to design thinker John Maeda, there’s a difference between experiences that are useful and those that are cool. We’re fans of the former. Function is crucial, and making an impact is the objective.
The bottom line for experiences goes beyond KPIs and ROI. Awareness is a welcome sentiment, but to us, it’s more about provoking action.
Diversity Is More Than a Passing Trend
Inclusion was a hot topic at this year’s SXSW and for good reason. Up until recently, industries like design and tech have notoriously long neglected women, especially those of color. But diversity has, in some ways, been reduced to yet another industry buzzword that lacks substance. SXSW aims to change all that.
From top to bottom, SXSW’s slate of panels included topics like “Achieving Gender Equity in Design Leadership” and “Women are Building the Brands We’ve Always Wanted,” and there was even a pop-up from the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion. Still, equality isn’t the end goal; it’s justice. We should empower those who have an unequal footing and continue to shed light on important conversations like these.
But empowerment is just the first step. While it sounds good on paper, advertising luminary Cindy Gallop thinks hiring, promoting, funding, and enriching women are infinitely more powerful. Speaking on the “Inside Big Tech's New 'Human' Aesthetic” panel, Carly Leahy proudly declared, “Women are stepping up and creating resources.” It's time for men to step aside.
Inspired Creative Begins and Ends with Curiosity
The work we do on a daily basis is rooted in a worldly awareness. Agencies like Giant Spoon encourage their employees to travel the globe, scan the field, and harvest these cultural truths. The world today shuns curiosity, but we must persevere, because the second we stop asking questions about society is the second we fail as a business.
One conversation we sat in on involved the legendary sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield. He recalled the inspiration behind his iconic Air Max design. A risky move in 1987, he chose to display the airbag within the midsole after observing the exposed interior of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, generating millions in revenue and a shoe line that remains strong today.
Like Tinker, our best work is born when we look at the context beyond our industry. We can’t contribute to culture without first understanding it.
The Future Is Now
When Tinker Hatfield imagined the then-fictional, self-lacing Nike Air Mags for Michael J. Fox’s character Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future II, he was thinking 30 years into the future. 30 years later, as technological innovations like Tinker’s Hyperadapt have flooded the market, that future is now a reality.
Our world is constantly evolving.
Our world is constantly evolving. Agnes Pyrchla claimed we’re one costly mistake away from the dystopian world of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. While that may be true, we also have the capacity and resources to improve things beyond imagination.
The power’s in our hands. But looking back at this weekend’s discussions and happenings in Austin, our hands are considerably full.