Key takeaways from SXSW: a festival of weird and innovation

May 10, 2019, 9:39 AM

This Spring Nitor’s Digital Engineers visited Austin’s South by Southwest. This is a summary of the ideas and best events we attended.


The topics and style of each keynote varied tremendously at South by Southwest. Most of the events we attended were part of the Design and Intelligent Future tracks.


Lara Kearney, Gerry Griffin, Al Worden and Bobak Ferdowsi at SXSW.

“Get out of your comfort zone!”

...said Astronaut Al Worden, 87, when asked what future generations should learn from Nasa’s Apollo program. Al Worden was the Command module Pilot in Apollo 15 and one of the few people who have orbited the Moon.

Worden was part of the panel that included fellow Apollo veteran Gerry Griffin, NASA Johnson Space Centers’ Lara Kearney and Bobak Ferdowsi from the Jet Propulsion Lab. Their talk was surprisingly fun as they highlighted the more adventurous part of creativity and innovation. It encouraged us to test our limits and not be afraid of discomfort – Al Worden sure wasn’t while travelling to the moon in claustrophobia inducing capsule with less computing power than the phones we carry with us.


Actor dressed as a nun with a hell hound promoting a new tv series.

This is America: we have to talk about consumerism

Amazon was a divisive topic at SXSW: its business is changing the landscape of cities and how people use retail. In America, it’s sometimes seen as busting particularly small businesses. But perhaps there is still room for other players: according to TechCrunch, Amazon still counts for only about 5% of all US retail economy.

While Amazon dominates e-commerce, high-frequency daily retail is still in the hands of current players. Who are not spring chickens by the way: the average age of grocery companies in America is over 60 years. With them looking into new ways of operating, the customer experience could become the key business driver. According to Kerry Liu trust is everything: “Customers give you their most important details. In return, they want you to deliver on your promise.”


Keynote on Black Mirror.

Entertainment is changing (or are we?)

“25–35 year olds watch 70 minutes of video between 7–19” says Quibi’s Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman.

Streamable content is perhaps the biggest thing in entertainment business at the moment. Many of the entertainment-related keynotes tapped into our current fascination of video content. For example, Quibi that is launching next year, promises curated, quality “video-snacks” that are made to transition seamlessly from landscape to portrait.

On the other hand, the more screen based our lives become, the more impactful visceral tactful experiences become. This might apply to any real live event such as the Super Bowl (that started as a football game and became 20 000 different interactions) but also to narrative added reality projects such as the Last goodbye virtual reality experience by the Shoah foundation and Gabo Arora.

Screen-addiction received criticism in its tendency to distract. It was argued that in the future, the number one quality of the most successful people will be the ability to be present. Content-wise this apprehension is also apparent. Thoughtful entertainment always comments on the current events, for example, the Chinese government’s social credit system by 2020 is straight out of Black Mirror.

We should – by default – design inclusive products

Universal design as a term stems from architecture. It means a way of designing a building that is naturally accessible for most people as opposed to buildings that are designed for the standard able-bodied person and features, like a wheelchair ramp are special additions. Universal design can of course be applied to our software products as well.

“Whatever product you’re creating some of your users will have accessibility needs. Product that is good to use for an amputee is also good for a parent holding an infant” argued Emma Schwartz at the Design for inclusivity panel.

Inclusion and accessibility were popular topics both in the Design as well as the Social and Global impact tracks. Often, it was argued from a economic perspective: while bearing more users in mind, we increase our market share. The other times from a systems-point of view: Don’t create a UI gesture just for your product - make sure it’s universal.


Moritz Simon Geist performing at SXSW.

Don’t just study your field, learn universally

As the saying goes: “Copying from one is plagiarism. Copying from a hundred is research.” More passions can make you a more empathic designer. At some point we seem to forget this: children don’t think in different disciplines but adults often feel stuck in their domain.

This got me seemingly so worked up that one evening, when riding home in an Uber I started discussing the idea with the driver. He told me he’d given up playing the piano (which he used to do professionally) and started taking pilot classes. I yelped “No! You have to do both: we don’t have enough piano-playing pilots and that is what makes you special.”

A modern professional doesn’t have to heed to one discipline or even profession in their lifetime. Continuous learning will help you create better, more universal products. So, embrace the weird and discomfort!



Annina Kivikari is a Designer with skills ranging from digital design and moving image to marketing. She is also part of Nitor's award-winning Kulttuuritoimitus.


Otto Manninen, one of the driving forces of Nitor’s Kulttuuritoimitus, works as a principal consultant with focus in technology, design and marketing.