Missing Class at SXSW

SXSW 2007Here’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.

Resident Skeptic

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.

License to Ill-Prepare

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.

  1. Thanks for the frank confession, Khoi. I came to the session because I’ve been reading Subtraction, and I had one of my best conversations at SXSW after the session with a couple people I was sitting next to. All three of us were disappointed with the same weaknesses you mention here– but also mindful of the difficulty of representing the Times. One exchange went along the lines of,
    “It’s too bad the guy from the Times didn’t have anything to add”,

    “Yeah, but what if he _had_ really engaged Chris? Can you imagine if even one conservative blogger were in the audience listening to Khoi describe the Times as an ‘Upper Class’ publication?!”

    So yeah, my section of the audience was frustrated by the panel’s lack of coherence or controversy, but aware of the difficulty such a conversation would have entailed. I was surprised and really pleased to see you mirroring our sentiments so closely and so honestly. Thank you.

  2. Mad props to you, Khoi, for your transparency and upfront-ness (is that a word?).

    I didn’t attend the panel, myself. But, I do remember talking to you at breakfast that morning and you admitting that you were a bit uncomfortable with the topic. At the time you said it, I thought to myself, “that’s good, because a panel full of people who agree 100% is worthless.” Later that day, I remember saying to my girlfriend, “You know, I was just thinking — Khoi may be uncomfortable with the fact that The TImes is clearly going to comes across as a ‘high-class’ site, which could make both him and the company look pretentious.”

    I point this out, just because I imagine most people probably had the same thought process themselves. If you were noticeably uncomfortable, I’ll bet most people figured out why. Don’t sweat it, man.

    I say that, of course, as a person who got some negative feedback on my panel, as well, and have been sweating it ever since. Do as I say, not as I do. 🙂

    (Not sure if I told you in person or not, but the Grids session was Hel-fucking-amazing. Loved every minute of it, and wished there was more. Well done, my friend.)

  3. I was at the High and Low Class Web Design panel and picked up on exactly what you are talking about. I did find the panel valuable overall, but I could sense some awkwardness in the comments made between you and Chris. I agree with you mostly, that focusing on the user’s goals and wants is more useful than focusing on what class they’re supposedly in, especially since no one fits perfectly into any single class anyway. I feel like the question of whether designers should design within class guidelines was decided early on in the panel discussion and didn’t leave much more to be said for the rest of the hour. I thought several of the audience’s questions were pretty worthwhile, though.

  4. I think you were in a very difficult position on that panel Khoi. As Jeff said, representing The Times on a panel about design class (and the underlining elitism that was being suggested throughout), is going to be tough at the best of times.

    True, that discomfort was noticable, but I really wouldn’t let that bother you. If anything, maybe Chris, having written those excellent articles, was a little too biased and opinionated to effectively moderate the panel.

    Negative feedback is always difficult to take on the chin from other people, but worse from yourself.

    For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the panel and didn’t think you were grumpy at all! 😉

  5. I have been on panels and I have made presentations. For what it’s worth, I never get nervous about panels, I figure I’ll just ad-lib based on the questions tossed at me. I get VERY nervous about presentations and write them out completely and then rehearse and revise them many, many times. I have talked to lots of people who feel the same way. As a crutch, I tend to team up with someone who I know will prepare obsessively and then deliver, like Jason or Brendan.

    Is it any wonder that presentations tend to be more coherent, focused and entertaining than panels? Perhaps if panels started with each participant doing a short pre-prepared bit on a highly specific topic, and then went into a more free-wheeling give and take, things would be better. As further evidence, doesn’t it seem that generally, the very best stuff comes out of the Q+A sections that follow prepared presentations?

  6. Khoi, so interesting to read your comments after the fact. I was among the audience members who thought you might be sitting in a strange position on the panel, so please don’t be overly concerned about it. It was certainly an interesting group of panelists, and while the dynamic was unusual at times, sometimes that’s what makes things interesting. The panel was certainly one that made you think about the premise, and while I don’t necessarily agree with Fahey either, I enjoyed the panel.

  7. I’ve dissected the panel ad nauseum already at my own site, but my short answer is pretty much in line with most of what I’ve read elsewhere, including Khoi’s own thoughts here:

    — The topic was and is inherently difficult to talk about honestly and openly. All of us on the panel were timid about talking 100% freely.

    — I didn’t prepare the panel in advance on the questions I would ask — Should I have? I still don’t know.

    — I couldn’t decide between steering things towards a “behind the scenes at the panelists’ companies” conversation, or a “what do you think in general about the topic” conversation.

    — More questions were asked than were actually answered.

    — But despite all that, or maybe because of it, people left the room with new ideas in their heads.

    Regarding your own preparation, Khoi, well, isn’t that at least in some part my responsibility as a moderator? We all like to think that panel discussions should simply flow naturally from the hearts and minds of the panelists, but when the subject is one that is especially touchy and complex, a little more preparation, both as individuals and as a group, is probably a good idea.

    That said, forming defensable opinions in advance about such a complex issue is extremely hard. I should know: part of the reason for convening the panel in the first place, and selecting a skeptic like you to participate in the discussion, was to publicly open a can of worms and to make people ask themselves tough questions that I myself can’t quite answer.

    Searching around the web, too, it’s hard to find anyone else talking about class’s impact on design of any sort whatsoever, web or non-web. There is hardly any body of knowledge or opinion to start from. It was uncharted territory for every one of us.

    Like you, Khoi, I am very very far from being an expert on this topic. I never thought I’d be talking in public about this either, associating myself with something not particularly dear to my heart and soul as a designer.

    I thank you deeply for getting up there despite your discomfort and for helping to perhaps germinate some kind of starting point for further thought and discussion by those who attended. It’s hard to read even the most critical external reviews (in this thread and elsewhere) and not see that at least we got people thinking and talking about something interesting and, I think, important.

  8. I’m a young designer with a background in cultural studies – an academic field which is bigger in the UK and Australia than in the US, which sadly rejected a lot of its Marxian critical thought as too risky, even Communist.

    I’d like to point out the contradiction between thinking class is ‘too simplistic’ and feeling so conflicted about it you can barely talk about it articulately. Paging Dr Freud!

    I can see parallels between your visual sense and the clean minimalism of modernist architecture; but where Mies was about the ideal and the structure and the potential, leaving him open to accusations of elitism, you have a particular interest in whether it actually does benefit the user – an empirical and ethical regard – that doesn’t suffer from the same problems.

  9. By “simplistic,” my intention was to say that it’s a framework that too easily generalized very complex concepts, and that the concepts that matter to us most as a designer are the ones that are more directly applicable to a user’s goals.

    Class is not simple, to be sure. In fact, it’s too complex for Web design, because as soon as we start talking about it, we start talking about things not having to do with Web design at all.

  10. Khoi, I find your honesty really refreshing, as well as brave. I’ve often though that panels suffer from stilted opinions precisely because of the ad-libbed nature of the commentary. And you’re right: The moderator is everything. I’ve seen only a handful of decent ones, and many more who were just piloting rudderless ships.

    In any case, I really wish I’d been able to be down in Austin for the grid presentation, among other things. Sounds like it was good one. I hope you’ll post on that soon.

  11. Your transparency on this is to be respected. As is the debate you’re effectively hosting on the matter.

    I’m the Editorial Development Director of a big UK publishing company. Which makes much of it’s money from selling magazines to a very mass market audience. This makes it inevitable that a great number of our readers have not had much of a formal education.

    It seems that education is the most accurate factor in how we measure the difference between different types of people.

    As designers, we can then take that understanding and leverage it into how much white space, how much color and how many words and pictures that we put on the page.

    Surely a web site is the perfect place to prove that there there really is no such thing as high class or low class design.

    All we have is stuff that’s appropriate, and other stuff which just isn’t, given the people we want to talk to.

    Thanks again for allowing the debate to roll on. I appreciate it.

  12. I must admit, as a lurker in the design ‘blogosphere’ (someone should come up with a new name, because man, is that obnoxious or what), this discussion alone has gotten me interested enough to consider attending SXSW ’08.

    Khoi, I genuinely enjoy your designs, writing, and attitude (lack thereof).

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