My SXSW panel, High Class and Low Class Web Design, is over now, and I can now share a little bit of about how I and a few others think it went.

Some bloggers who attended the panel have already published their own notes and reviews, too, so if you want to skip what I think and just read some outside opinions, please do so.

And if you attended the panel yourself, I’d love to hear your thoughts, both about the panel and the subject itself, in the comment area.

“So What?”

The panel dynamic was fun and vibrant, which is how I expected it to be. Khoi was our resident skeptic, Liz the realist. Brant offered the most interesting and colorful “behind the scenes” stories from his experience with the WWE, exactly as I had hoped he would. The audience QA was great, too, and the panel, I think, was thrown some good questions and answered with some good ideas, or at least the beginning of some good ideas. Notably the general observation that technology could potentially serve as a very powerful social class flattening agent, and in many ways it is in fact already doing so. User-generated content, blogs, etc, are putting the tools of design into everyone’s hands, dismantling the top-down model of publishing and, by extension, design itself.

But during the Q&A, and in speaking with several friends who had watched the whole thing, it became apparent that there was a whole world of areas of discussion around class that we hadn’t touched on.

  • How can we have a discussion about class and design without talking about how, in turn, design impacts the real-world class system in which we live. Peter Merholz said, in the first Q&A question, “So what?”, meaning “what do we do next?” in the context of using design to impact the class system overall. Several other people came to the same conclusion. I agree completely, and think in retrospect that maybe the panel should have been pointing in that direction from the get go.
  • The panelists were not, I think, fully open and honest about their biases (both deliberate and unconscious) about class in the work that they do. All four of us have stories about projects we’ve worked on where class was a point of contention, but we didn’t really discuss those things. In all honesty there were things we didn’t dare talk about for fear of, quite frankly, getting fired or otherwise hurting ourselves professionally. This is a shame, but what were we to do about it? We though afterwards that a panel full of people who have recently left their jobs might be a more appropriate group, people who can be a little more honest, perhaps.
  • The question of designing for oneself versus designing for the audience resonated well with the audience, it seems, but the connection between that and class was tenuous.
  • Class as a brand attribute came up — that some decisions might be best for the user and appropriate for the business’s bottom line, but that they might not be appropriate to the brand. That was a great point, something that many businesses probably discuss openly. I’m sure many brand manuals include the word class (“high class”, “classy”) among their core brand attributes.

I never dreamed that my first SXSW panel, and my first major conference speaking gig, would be on this of all topics. I think and write about a lot of different stuff, but the sociopolitics of class is really not my area of expertise or historical interest. Even in college philosophy studies I was more into existential and scientific philosophical discussions than I was in social and identity politics. While there is/was no animosity on my part towards the subject, the whole art-school Marxist lens just didn’t match how I wanted to think about art and culture.

Nonetheless, I do strongly believe that class is an important subject. After this panel I’ve only come to appreciate just how much more there is to explore on this topic.

Behind the Scenes

In the interest of sharing, I want to provide a few perhaps informative notes about the panel’s preparation and logistics:

  • I left my house on Friday morning, 36 hours before the panel start time, with 1.5 pages of written notes and 6 unformatted powerpoint slides. I had a lot of work still to do!
  • I had a great, and entirely unplanned and unexpected, opportunity to spend my 3 hour flight from New York to Austin sitting next to fellow panelist Liz Danzico. She was also working on notes and slides for her own panel, so we typed intensely side by side on our respective work. Liz observed that it was a kind of Extreme Paneling, and I agree. It was extremely helpful.
  • I then literally stayed up all night working on the panel, taking an hour break for a nap around 6 or 7am. I skipped all of Friday’s parties and all of Saturday’s panels to work on my slides. By panel time, I had six pages of talking points/notes and 72 pretty good looking slides.

When we walked from the green room, where panelists meet up before showtime, on to the stage, I was shocked at the size of the crowd. They booked us in the biggest conference room, and the attendance was enormous. A full house.

So after only minor technical setup issues, we began the panel pretty much right on time. Here’s how I think it went.

  • I told my fellow panelists that my opening remarks would last around 10 minutes, but I secretly feared it would be more like 20 or 25 given the extraordinary amount of notes I had written down in preparation. In the end, however, it turned out to be only 15 — I was brisk, confident, and didn’t sweat it when I forgot to say something I meant to say. I kept moving forward, because I felt sure that the panel discussion was the real meat of the panel’s value.
  • The panel discussion seemed to go as expected, but more quickly than I had thought. I did not have enough follow-up questions to work with, and I had not exposed the panel to my questions early enough to give them some time to formulate deeper answers or opinions in advance. I wanted to surprise them with a few of the questions, of course, but I think it was a little too ad hoc in the end.
  • When the 45 minute mark — audience Q&A — rolled around, I literally had run out of questions or talking points for the panel. Perfect timing, although a little too close for comfort.
  • Audience Q&A was great — people lined up at the microphone immediately, about ten people lined up. Three got cut off in the end when time ran out.
  • Afterwards, another dozen or so people came up to chat. That was great. And nobody punched me.

In short, while I felt confident as a speaker and panelist, I didn’t prepare myself enough or do as good a job as I would have liked as a moderator. People I spoke to afterwards said the same thing — that the opening presentation flowed nicely, but that the discussion itself got a little rambling. Being a good moderator is an art in and of itself — I definitely want to try it again with lessons learned from this experience.


11 responses to “SXSW 2007: Class Dismissed, or How My Panel Went”

  1. jealous that I’m not there.

    congrats on the panel 🙂

  2. I wondered why you weren’t in the office 😉

    Congrats on the panel. It gets easier the more you do it. I remember one of my first public presentations at Seybold, and I was a wreck! Granted, I haven’t done one in ages, so I’d probably get jittery again.

    Class is a funny thing, and I like that you mentioned the discussion of class you *didn’t* have out of fear. People, especially in situations like ours, tend to forget that we’re but a tiny insignificant spec of the population, and really, we’re all just making stuff for ourselves. Do you think anyone *cares* about “Web 2.0” other than people in our field?

    To paraphrase a friend of mine, “We’re just not that important”.

  3. Hey, thanks so much for the link. Of course, I made the classic blogger error: I was too snarky, forgetting that the people I was writing about could pretty easily find my notes. 🙂

    I did really enjoy the panel; it provided lots of great food for thought and made me think about design in a new way.

  4. I really enjoyed the panel, but maybe more for what it made me think than what I learned from anybody involved. It’s a great and massive topic that begs for a larger sustained discussion.

    Most importantly in the discussion, I think it’s important to note that this goes way beyond web design and even design in general. The subjectivity of art and how it combines with the hard realities of commerce leaves lots of shades of grey to talk about.

  5. Chris…gratz on the panel.

    I think “Extreme Paneling” would make an awesome name for a band. I’m stealing it forthwith…

  6. Very nice post

  7. great panel

  8. excellent thx for sharing

  9. Do you get paid to attend panels, or pay to attend them

  10. Congrats on the panel. It gets easier the more you do it. I remember one of my first public presentations at Seybold, and I was a wreck! Granted, I haven’t done one in ages, so I’d probably get jittery again.