The presentation season kicked off for me with a week in New Zealand at the Webstock conference. I arrived early, which, as it turns out, wasn’t the best use of my time, as I spent two solid days of what should have been vacation stressing about slides.
Among the many highlights was the speaker dinner held the night before the conference where I met far too many bright people to list here. As I walked back to my hotel room along the waterfront with my head buzzing from the after effects of rapid content acquisition, I heard someone whistling.
No, not someone. Something.
Wellington is at the south end of the North Island, which somehow makes it incredibly windy. The wind varies from a gentle breeze to a hat-removing, lean-into-it, category 4 wind storm. My guess is that residents don’t notice the wind, but I wonder if they notice the whistling lampposts.
I’ve no idea whether this was intentional design or not, but when the wind hits them just right, I swear the cylindrical holes in the lampposts whistle. In unison. I walked by multiple times during my week in Wellington just to see how the lamp posts were singing that particular day because I wasn’t sure if it was a fluke. It wasn’t.
Whether someone intentionally designed these lampposts or it’s a happy coincidence is irrelevant. It’s a great example of one of the unspoken goals of going to any conference: you travel to discover the truly unexpected.
SXSW is Big
It’s big and becoming notorious for the fact that while everyone goes, many skip the panels because the panel structure provides less content and more rambling conversation where there is no guarantee that a rock star set of panelists are going to say anything useful.
Guess what? I can get the same thing with the same rock star panelists and a higher hit rate of usefulness in the unstructured environment of that random bar on 6th street at two in the morning.
My contribution to fixing the SXSW problem is the following. First, John Gruber and I are following the lead of Jim Coudal and Brenden Dawes, by spending an hour delivering content, not conversation. The topic is Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Great Design Hurts and, oddly, I think I’ll lead off with a compelling design story about Mentos. We’ll see how that works out.
Second, I also have the pleasure of moderating a panel titled Designing for Freedom and, as with each year, I have been honored with a rock star set of panelists, which includes:
- Gina Bianchini (CEO of Ning)
- Anil Dash (VP Evangelism at Six Apart)
- Braden Kowitz (User Experience Design Lead at Google)
- Brent Simmons (Creator of NetNewsWire)
As an aside, the panel is up against the keynote with Mark Zuckerberg, but my thought is this: “Think of how much time you’ve already wasted on Facebook, why waste more?”
Yes, it’s a panel and I just ripped panels, but my commitment is this: we’ll stay on topic, say something bright, and we’ll be available for yelling at a local bar shortly after the panel.
I knew Webstock was a hit when it was 2am and I was standing outside a bar yelling at some bright someone about some bright thing and having a ball.
Webstock is small. 500 or so, but I’ve never been to a conference where the audience had such a sense of community. Sure, it’s a function of the size of the design population of New Zealand, but that doesn’t explain why Webstock had such personality. I can firmly point my finger at the passion, expertise, and professionalism of the organizers, but I think I should also point at their humility and simple goal of “Let’s build the new, which encourages fertile chaos”.
For me, a conference finishes with a list. It’s a combination of names from business cards and names I simply remember. These aren’t necessarily folks that need an immediate follow-up; it’s the “remember this person” list and how I discover these people and why I need to remember them is a function of the creativity entropy of the event.
I don’t know if this entropy is definable, controllable thing. My guess is SXSW has it and will continue to have it as long as the population believes those bars remain an intellectually target rich environment. As for Webstock, it’s on the other side of the world, but they’ve defined an event you must experience simply because you want to find your own whistling lamppost.