Collateral Damages at SXSW

Sketch of a Conference Schedule BookletThere are a lot of interesting ideas that I heard at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival that I’m still turning over in my head even now, a week after the conference ended. But silly as it may seem, the one thing I really can’t stop thinking about is how bad the conference schedule, map and badges were this year.

I don’t mean to impugn the hard work that went into designing and producing those printed collateral items, or to underestimate the crazy logistics and coordination that must have been necessary to get them written, designed, printed and into conference-goers’ hands on time. Nevertheless, I found them basically unusable. They were awkwardly sized and awkwardly conceived; once you decoded the hard-to-read sessions schedule, for instance, you’d have to refer to a map that failed to carry over any recognizable color-coding — and was printed upside-down. I’m sure my blood pressure went up a bit every time I had to refer to them.


Print Can Save Digital (Conferences)

What was so frustrating about this, I think, is that of all the challenges that SXSW faces — ever growing crowds, spatially remote session rooms, panels of uneven quality — the matter of getting its printed materials right seems so doable and within reach. What’s more, having better schedules, maps and badges would help resolve or at least mitigate many of those other challenges. Conference attendees would be able see what’s happening more readily, get to their sessions more quickly, identify people more easily, and generally make better use of the whole event.

After thinking about this fundamental problem for the past week or so, I sat down and sketched out some of the ideas that I had for correcting the flaws that I saw.

Sketches for Improved SXSW Badges, Schedules and Maps

The key ideas are: Make the schedule small enough to fit into the pouch in which the conference badges are carried. Divide the session schedule for each day into two halves, and print them on back-to-back and perforated pages, so that as the days pass users can tear them off (or, if they know they’ll only be at the conference for one or two days, they can discard the others). Print a Tiny URL alias on each session in the schedule, so that users can quickly find out more information online. Make the names on the badges much larger and more legible, so that people can more easily identify one another. Color code the session schedule so that the location of each session visually corresponds with the maps. And print the maps as part of the same saddle-stitched schedule book, and so that they fold out in such a way that they appear in the same orientation as users read the schedules.

To be fair, it’s been so long that I’ve been a print designer that I’m surely overlooking many practical details of implementing these design ideas; I’ve conveniently neglected to figure out what goes on the back of the fold-out maps, for instance. And the very real paper, binding and finishing costs associated with these changes are open questions that I’m completely unqualified to answer. But surely there are some ideas here that can be put to good use — next year’s SXSW print collateral really has nowhere to go but up.

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  1. I think all of those suggestions are brilliant. Another change I would suggest is to make the titles on the small calendar match the alphabetical listing in the big one. also make it easier to search by people actually presenting.

    Also if they could make improvements on both the titles and the descriptions of the panels that would be GREAT.

    I especially like your badge idea, of making the persons name the biggest and most important aspect of the badge.

  2. I felt the same way about the event calendar on SXSW.com: it was unusable. Sched.org did slightly better job, but their design still left a lot to be desired.

    I’m surprised that SXSW doesn’t reach out to attendees — the best and brightest in the design/development community — and crowdsource the whole shebang.

  3. Nice sketches, Khoi. And some nice ideas. Here’s the thing about my scheduling experience: I didn’t really think much about the printed calendar because I didn’t even notice it in the huge pile of paper material supplied by the conference.

    Though it could certainly stand some improvement, I really liked using the my.sxsw calendar. A couple of days before the conference I sifted through the first two days’ worth of events on my notebook, checking off all those I thought I might be interested in, even if they conflicted. Then I linked my Google calendar up to my.sxsw and set it as a bookmark on my iphone home screen.

    Not a revolutionary concept, by far, but what I loved about it was that I made my decisions in two passes. The first pass cleared out all the clutter, but I didn’t have to commit to anything. The second pass allowed me to make the decision from the filtered sked on the fly, with relevant metadata present.

    It didn’t even occur to me that there *was* a printed schedule until I heard folks complaining about it — I didn’t feel like I’d missed anything.

  4. Ian: I certainly think it’s a fair point that, especially for this audience, the value of the printed schedule is somewhat questionable. And I also found the my.sxsw.com app to be really helpful. But — how did you find your way from room to room without the map?

    From what I observed, enough people continued to turn to the map (even those who were like me also using my.sxsw.com) that I think it’s still important to get that right.

  5. Fully agree with you on the badge designЁаfar too much space devoted to branding and hologram, and, as a result, too many awkward ‘lean over to check the badge’ when what I was hoping for was a quick glance to catch the person’s name.

    The problem and solutions have sadly been around for quite a whileЁ link summarises some discussions and thoughts.

  6. tinyURL? No way. Don’t dilute the SXSW brand. A project this massive could just coordinate with the web team to produce URLs like:

    sxsw.com/XJ7W
    or
    sxsw.com/session_name

  7. I’m still waiting for e-ink badges with some Bluetooth in them so they can ad-hoc connect to an iPhone (OS 3.0) and send themselves over by pressing a button.

    THE FUTURE IS HERE!

  8. You are fortunate to have a short first and last name for the benefit of your sketch. If you’re called Jason Santa Maria it’s a different story. But yes, names should be larger than the typical badge, and that simply means badges should be larger. Organizers shouldn’t fear giant badges.

  9. It’s interesting that Jason Santa Maria should come up since he wrote an article about conference badge design here and he deals with the issue of his name length quite well I feel.

    Also in the comments he remarks that he would like to see a change in the SXSW materials- perhaps a superstar collaboration is on the cards…

  10. I may have beeen one of the dozen or so people at SXSWi that did not bring either a laptop or some kind of smartphone, so I brought a couple of printouts of the calendar that I exported from my.sxsw to Outlook. Cheesy, I know, but I hate carrying a laptop and I find that I remember more by using handwritten notes. Since the big book of sessions was next to impossible to navigate, I relied on my printouts and the map in the pocket guide to get around. I probably missed some good sessions, but I felt that simplified what was an overwhelming experience for me last year.

    Maybe on the other side of the foldout could be the sessions that each individual has chosen on my.sxsw? Not sure how the printing for something like that would work, but it’s probably possible.

  11. Like Lacey I was one of those people without an iPhone, or a laptop in fact I don’t even own a laptop (gasp!). Therefore I was left to the same tactics of printing out my Google Calendars and trying to go home at night at make solid decisions on what panels I wanted to see and map out my entire day.

    The maps NEVER worked for me mostly because the way the rooms were labeled in the “pocket handbook” didn’t match up with what the actual convention center labeled their rooms. So I basically navigated around with the help of all of the SXSW volunteers stopping to ask them each and every time I saw them (at least on the first day.)

  12. Nice suggestions Khoi!

    I did bring my iphone, but it didn’t matter much the networks was basically useless. :D

    I like the shortened url idea a lot, along the same vein it’d be nice to see a hash tag preset up for each session next year.

  13. @Khoi: I didn’t mean to suggest that a printed schedule isn’t useful(and improvable!) — just that I didn’t know it existed and didn’t miss it!

    As far as navigating, I used the signage in the venues.

    It’s clear that finding creative ways for attendees to filter/focus their schedule — whether in print or digital form, is essential.

  14. The biggest complaint I’ve heard about the pocket guide has always been that the descriptions are too brief — the abbreviated versions of panel titles are often vague or unclear, making snap-judgment panel choosing difficult. I love the idea of a booklet with removable pages, provided the full panel name is listed.

  15. I agree with WD on having the webteam design short-urls to forward to relevant pages. But I’d go further and suggest some sort of 2D-code (QRcode, shotcode, whatever) to provide a camera-readable link to each session.

  16. The tiny booklet with schedule and map and relevant info (that would fit into the badge holder) is such a great idea… in fact, that’s exactly what Microsoft did for last year’s Professional Developer’s Conference – about 10,000 attendees were all given little pocket guides that slipped neatly into the badge holder, containing session information, schedules, maps, contact info, and such.