More Lessons from SXSW

If you have read more than 1 or 2 posts on than you will know that SXSWi 2005 was a big hit for this web design studio…

The biggest lessons learned in Austin are just now starting to hit home as new projects roll in. Since the experience of good and bad design is essential to this business, I wanted to share some brief design lessons that I learned on web design from SXSW panels this year.

Panel: Does design matter?

Important question #1 posed in the panel: why do sites with ugly/bad design enjoy great success?

This is a great question! Many times I've assumed that spectacular, cutting-edge design would automatically boost a site's success and therefore the business behind it. Not so fast, Mister!

The key answer that was aired in the panel was that the target audience is the key to a good use of design. The design should match that particular group or person that is being targeted by the site or print material. The example used in the panel was that of a bland consumer design on a cereal box – it works perfectly for what it is intended for! So even a very simple and seemingly boring design can be very successful if used in the right way.

Important question #2 posed in the panel: What can we do for current sites with bad/ugly design?

Answers include:

  • Turn bad design into a comfortable experience for the customer by keeping a tight and simple approach to design
  • Redesign with new typefaces and make the overall design appropriate for the audience
  • Try to change bad design into a more successful one

My take on these answers is usually something like: “a better looking and working web site equals better success for the business.” Just like with the cereal box idea, though, the design has to be appropriate for the goals and audience of the site.

Panel: How to inform design?

Surprisingly, this was a great session on how to improve your site by learning from usability, statistics, and other web-based metrics.

Good ideas I gleaned from this panel include:

  • Research much and early, as the cost of change goes up as the project progresses
  • Match user needs and business needs : "use your own site"

This is a very superficial touch on the material covered in this great panel. But these two really made be think about how I approach the analysis and brainstorming stage of a project. The goal is: “work very hard at this part of the project and it will pay off later!.” Secondly, the “use your own site” idea is also great and makes sense. The key here for me is to remember that I am not a typical web site visitor; I have to not make the assumptions that the true site visitors will know what to do and when to do it. I know these things by default because I designed it that way!

Both panels opened my eyes to techniques and ideas I hadn't considered before, and also helped reinforce practices simpledream was already doing on most projects. If you were at either of these panels, let me know if I missed anything important!

Design for the Rest of Us

Two things that I get asked a lot are: “What makes good design?” and “How do I learn good design?”

I spend a lot of my own time thinking about these questions, both personally and professionally. While going through some notes from this year’s SXSW festival (Austin, TX last March) I realized that I had a few good answers tucked away from the “Hi-Fi Design with CSS” panel. If you want to see the full slide shows from the panel (and ignore the rest of my post!) go to:

» Doug Bowman’s presentation
» Dave Shea’s presentation
» Dan Cederholm’s presentation

From Dave Shea’s panel session, I learned about important design concepts to master if you want to learn and practice good design:

Color theory

  • Typography
  • Form and shape
  • Spacing
  • Texture
  • Dimension

But, how to grasp these concepts? Some very good practical tips from Dave Shea:

  • Know your tools
  • Find imagery sources
  • Practice
  • Study inspiring design
  • Keep your eyes open
  • Study typography

From Doug Bowman, more great advice: Spend time looking for beautiful examples of design in nature.

I hope that I can improve my existing design skills and learn more as the year goes on. As far as inspiration, look no farther than the Garden.