‘Tis the season for SXSW.
I will be there this year to read from my forthcoming book The NEW Web Typography. I’ll be talking about how “good” typography is NOT what a lot of designers think it is. If you can attend, I’ll be giving out tickets to receive a copy of the book when it comes out in June, and signing copies of some of my current books.
I’ll also be there to support my wife, Tara, who will be leading an amazing meet-up on how to raise digital native children. This session is not to be missed by any parent with kids under 22.
SXSW is not for the feint of heart, and despite the fact that it gets bigger every year, it just seams to keep getting bigger. This event is not like any other conference I go to. Even Comicon seems a little tame in comparison.
So, how do you survive and thrive at SXSW in 2016? I’ve updated my list of 20 tips to give you a head start.
- Get the apps — Although they have their quirks, the mobile SXSW apps can prove indispensable for keeping track of your schedule and helping to track old friends and make new ones.
- Check off everything you want to see — Whether you are using one of the apps on a screen or those massively convenient bundles of pressed wood pulp, check off everysession that piques your fancy. Some people try to carefully schedule a single session for every time slot during the day, agonizing over their choices. Don’t do that. Don’t even look at the times. Just look for titles that interest you and put them on your list. Then you can choose the best sessions that interest you as the conference unfolds. You may choose one because of the topic or because it happens to be close by and you are tired, but it’s best to have options.
- Get there early — One fact of life about SXSW is that you will spend a lot of time waiting in line. Whether it’s for registration, a keynote speech or that session you just can’t miss—the earlier you arrive, the less time you spend waiting in line. Plus, for really popular events, getting there late (or even on-time) may mean that the venue is full and you are left out in the cold. That’s not a problem, of course, if you followed my advice in #2, because you have back-up options. Just head to the next session on your list.
- See it with a friend — While you are standing in line, it’s nice to have a friend to talk to and share a conversation or debate about the session afterward. If it’s a choice between a session you are mildly interested in by yourself or one your buddy is interested in but you are not, choose the one with your friend.
- Talk to the people standing/sitting next to you — Whether you have a friend along or not, take the time to interface with the people around you before the speaker starts speaking (it’s rude to do it after they start speaking). If the people around you don’t seem into communicating, don’t push it—some people are just anti-social or maybe they don’t like you. However, I’ve made more than a few friends in lines at SXSW.
- See President Obama speak — Love him or hate him, he is the President of the United States, and the most technically Savvy one to date. He’s also a big GEEK, possibly the first since Teddy Roosevelt. Obama is giving the Friday Keynote at 2:30p. The bad news is that he you have to enter a raffle for tickets. If you did an won, you better be there by 12:30p to get in!
- Buy a book at the SXSW bookstore and get it signed — There is something about owning a signed edition that adds an extra sparkle to any book. If you see a session, and the speaker has written a book, then that book is likely on sale at the SXSW bookstore and it’s likely that the author will be doing a signing during the conference. Having the book can also come in handy if you are standing in line for a session with no friends and no one wants to talk.
- Take sketchnotes in a Moleskin — Mike Rohde introduced me to the concept of sketch notes (a form of visual note taking) at SXSW last year, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Even when I am armed with an iPad or other electronic note taking device, I find that nothing can replace the versatility of paper and pen for quick note taking, and you won’t believe the speed of its instant-on feature. Although any smallish notebook will do, the reason you will see more Moleskin notebooks than others is their high quality at a reasonable price.
- Leave a session if you aren’t getting anything out of it — Some people think that it’s rude to walk out on a speaker. That’s because it is rude to walk out on a speaker. Trust me, short of actual booing, there is nothing more disheartening to a speaker than seeing a bunch of people walk out on them. That said, you paid a lot of money to be at SXSW and you don’t have time to listen to someone you are not interested in hearing. The session as described in the program guide may not be what you were expecting or the speaker may just not work for you. Whatever your reason, if you want to leave try to be considerate. If you are not sure about a session going in, sit towards the back, but regardless of where you are sitting, leave as quietly as you can.
- Ask questions, but don’t hog the mic — Don’t be afraid. Get up there and ask what’s on your mind. Speakers love good questions. Some will even take questions through Twitter, although I always find the live questions to be more interesting. But please ask an actual question; don’t stand up to give your own speech. No one is there to hear how clever or smart you are. People who try to upstage the speaker end up looking like an ass. Also, only ask one question and at most one follow up. Other people deserve a chance to ask stuff too.
- Try new things — SXSW is where a lot of new concepts are tested, ideas are launched, and cutting edges are sliced. A couple of years ago, it was Twitter that hit the big time at SXSW. Last year, Foursquare and Gowalla went head to head — the rumor was that anyone checking in at the SXSW Gowalla party using Foursquare instantly lost all mayorships. Try out different products and apps, even if they take the place of some beloved product or app you are already using. You should also go to a session dealing with a topic you know nothing about or…
- See someone speak whom you completely disagree with — You came to SXSW to get new ideas, right? There’s no place better to do that than while listening to someone whom you don’t agree with. You probably won’t end up agreeing with them any more than you did going in (although you just might), but it forces you to reconsider your own assumptions, usually leading to some new insights and ways of thinking. Finding someone you disagree with may not be as easy as it sounds, since the crowd at SXSW tends to be birds of a feather. However, the good people who choose the speakers like to toss a few bombs throwers like Andrew Keene into the mix to keep things lively.
- Recharge your devices wherever you get the opportunity — There’s something about being in the Austin Convention Center that seems to suck the life out of batteries faster than Charlie Sheen can suck down a speed ball. But there are lots of recharge stations around the conference center. If you are just chilling before your next session, seek these out and grab some juice.
- Get all of the free drinks and snacks you can — SXSW is full of places to get free snack bars or drinks from event sponsors like Monster Energy Drinks, Pepsi and McDonalds. In fact there are people just walking around the conference center handing the stuff out. When offered, take it. Even if you are not thirsty or hungry right now, take stuff every chance you get and save it for later. Even if you don’t like the thing, take it and give it to a friend. I’ve survived for an entire day at SXSW on nothing but a diet of free meals and snacks, allowing me to save my money to do more important things like…
- Have a drink at the Red Eyed Fly — the Red Eyed Fly (or REF) defines the term “hole in the wall,” but the beer is cold and they serve a straight shot of whisky. It’s a few blocks from the main strip, yet still convenient to the conference so a lot of speakers and conference regulars end up hanging out there.
- Change your plans as often as possible — If there is one thing I’ve learned about SXSW it’s that no matter how well you plan, your plans will change. You may discover a new session, run into an old friend or make a new one, so don’t be afraid to turn on a dime. Some of the most useful sessions I attended were on the spur of the moment and some of the best parties I went to I didn’t know about until I got there.
- Don’t plan on getting anything else done — Some people come with grandiose plans of staying in touch with the office, calling into meetings or getting other work done. Forget about it. Either focus on the conference and get the most out of it or go home.
- Don’t publicly tweet things at one in the morning that might be easily misunderstood by your significant other — One night, a friend who saw I was at SXSW tweeted me that I should meet another friend of his while there. I absentmindedly tweeted back “I’ll try to hook up with her.” My wife — at home and up late checking her Twitter feed — was not amused.
- See Bruce Sterling speak — There’s a reason that Bruce has spoken at almost every SXSW: he’s both highly entertaining and highly enlightening. Even if you haven’t read any of his books, if you want a hopeful but pragmatic peek into our future, then he’s who you need to go see. Bruce is giving the closing keynote this year Tuesday at 5 PM. Alas, I’ll have to miss it due to client commitments, so if you make it, I would appreciate it if you would let me know what you think. I still highly recommend that you see it, but whatever you do, if you see him on the conference floor, don’t bug him. He gets a bit cranky.
- If you miss a keynote session you wanted to see, watch it on YouTube — Ok, this isn’t something you do at SXSW — although you can watch last year’s sessions if you want — but I like going back to re-watch to the sessions that I attended as well as the ones I wanted to make but couldn’t. The last 4 years of keynotes are available through YouTube.