Fri 16 Mar
Here’s where I come clean a bit and stop vaguely assigning blame to this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival panel participants as a faceless group. The truth is that I’m guilty of exactly what I outlined in my previous entry — the unconscientious lack of preparation and conversational inexactness that can torpedo a panel discussion. And worse.
On Saturday afternoon, almost immediately after doing a two-person, twenty-five minute lecture with Mark Boulton called “Grids Are Good,” I joined my former colleague and business partner Chris Fahey on his panel, “High Class and Low Class Web Design.”
It goes without saying that the concept of class is a touchy topic. In a series of blog posts last year, Chris wrote at length about why we, as designers, don’t talk about class, and why we may be operating within the constraints of class-mindedness without realizing it or acknowledging it. These were complex, ambitious and thoughtful articles, and if you work in Web design and have interest in this subject, you’d do well to read them for yourself.
The problem is that I didn’t buy most of what those articles said. While I think Chris outlined some fascinating arguments, by and large, I didn’t find anything particularly useful about introducing class concepts into the conversation about how we do our work, as I find the realities of day to day product development so much more complicated than the class framework allows for.
True, class is a complicated subject that incites a lot of impassioned and uncomfortable positions, but I don’t find it a particularly complex framework for understanding our professional practice. If anything, I find it too simplistic, focusing mostly on the vagueness of what group a person can be assigned to (primarily through economically-linked lenses) and not what a person wants, the latter being my central professional preoccupation.
But this isn’t my attempt at refuting Chris’ argument. In fact, Chris invited me to join his panel, he said, specifically because of my skepticism.
Rather, what I’m confessing here is that, though invited for exactly that dissenting position, I was nevertheless unwilling to honestly discuss the subject matter. To be speak frankly now, with hindsight, I found it uncomfortable, especially as I would be, by default, representing The New York Times by my mere presence. I was acutely — perhaps overly — conscious of the fact that my words might be misconstrued as classist dogma that could be attributed back to my employer.
If I’d been a conscientious participant, I would have prepared a more honest, more thorough articulation of my position. And that’s exactly my point: I didn’t prepare for that panel at all, or hardly at all, at least not like I should have. There was no thoughtful outline of my thoughts, to say nothing of something concrete and constructive to present to the audience. Instead, I left it all to the dynamics of the format, assuming that the conversation as a whole would cover for my negligence.
By contrast, I prepared extensively for our “Grids Are Good” talk. True, it was a modified version of a workshop that I gave a few weeks ago in London for Carson System’s Future of Web Apps conference. But that reuse doesn’t negate the hours and hours of preparatory work that I invested in those thoughts. The point I’m trying to make is not so much that I knew everything that I wanted to say before Mark and I gave that talk. Rather, it’s the fact that I understood thoroughly the ideas I intended to represent during that session. Exactly the opposite was true during “High Class and Low Class Web Design.”
For that, I really do owe everyone, including Chris and all the attendees, an apology. I simply blew it on that panel, out of discomfort, dissension and a lack of conscientious planning — and the somewhat poor feedback from attendees confirms this.
One thing I said during my appearance on the panel is that it’s very, very difficult — if not impossible — to do good design work without a sense of respect for the audience, the client, or the opportunity. That should apply to anything one does, really, including making a contribution to a substantive discussion, as in panel appearances.
There’s a great discussion to be had about class and Web design, to be sure, something that will yield some meaningful dialogue on why the idea of class should — or shouldn’t — matter in the practice of design for the World Wide Web. I hope it happens one day, and when it does, I’ll try and stay out of the way.