The White Agency's Davy Rennie is at SXSW and keeps a diary of the first three days

D.Rennie .jpgDavy Rennie (left), experience design director, The White Agency Sydney is covering SXSW exclusively for Campaign Brief.

On day one, I look at the future of design and disruption, fueled by the famously shit American coffee and the incredibly epic combo of breakfast and Mexican.

Designing for the future of our industry

The first event, first queue, first conversation. And it's all about the challenges design leaders face in the market when looking for talent and there is a global cloud following the industry. The Instant Designer.
I'd heard that some of the best insights you gain at SXSW occur within the conversations you have in the queues to events. And straight off the bat, that was spot on. My new American friend says 'hello' and we are off and running, straight into an Adobe session.

Soon enough, our table erupts with a discussion about the current state of play in Experience Design. The sentiment in more or less unanimous: today's design industry is a cluster of jargon and convoluted professional acronyms that sound cool, but often hold no true value or meaning. UX, UI, CX, XD... the list seemingly grows by the day. Sadly, however, the quality does not.

I've met people from around the world and all walks of life that share my belief that the instant designers that are currently being churned out of instant design schools are killing the industry, and our reputations. We need to return to the basic principle: good designers- be they print, graphic, or digital- make great experience design professionals. It's really that simple.

Instant design schools are, problematically, creating an expensive talent 'bubble' that is heaving under the immense strain of those in search of real talent. Truly talented designers have become such a rare commodity in today's design industry, in fact, that people within the industry are beginning to refer to these elusive creatures as none other than 'unicorns' (and you know exactly how I feel about those guys).

Day one could stop now, and I would sleep that little bit better knowing that I'm not the only angry design professional, with a particular irk towards these instant design schools.

Ultimately, joining the Adobe XD workshop has been a fascinating experience. An unbelievable two finger salute to the likes of Sketch and inVision, using a blend of familiarity and innovation with an epic dose of customer-centric design.

Humans, Machines and the Future of Industrial Design

Industrial design is an enigma in the corporate world. What it is, and what it can do to assist businesses in the private sector, largely remains a mystery (to myself included).

I want to know what fundamental principles are being programmed into machines to make them become more creative and illogical, so I can adopt these principles and transmit them to my team.

First things first: Humans are complex beasts of emotion.

We are:
*   Bloodyminded and hard-headed;
*   Simultaneously logical and illogical;
*   Driven by emotion;
*   Empathetic.

Machines are tools; unemotional and logical in design and execution. So are humans (some more than others *raises own hand*), but the emotional nuances and illogical features inherent in our design arguably make us better, or at least more creative. Innovation, it would seem, is difficult (if not impossible) to manufacture without this human element.

When it comes to the design of devices that are exclusively tasked with interacting with humans on a day-to-day (if not minute-to-minute) basis there appears to have been a distinct shift towards humanising the machine within the last few years.

We can see this with contemporary devices like Siri, Cortona and Alexa, all of which are designed to connect with people, not only with the artifice of a human voice but an endearing touch of emotive illogic.

Engineering a human touch is one thing, but is it possible to transform machines into creative entities? Looking at the fundamental features that incredible designers hold may be at least part of the answer:


*   Trust their gut and rarely question their creative instinct;
*   Simplify complex challenges and ideas;
*   Always consider context; the right product in the wrong room isn't the right product
*   Focus on one detail, making it the hero;
*   Cut the fat; they intuitively discern when something doesn't add value to the product;
*   Embrace serendipity:

Evidently, these features are a mixture of both logic and emotion. When it comes to machines, we need to insert a glitch; something that encourages illogical thought. However, codifying this is difficult, and may continue to be the difference between us and machines for the foreseeable future.

When someone loves something, they want to connect, touch, feel, and experience that something on a human level. Great designers use their emotion to capture and deliver  this sense of humanity through a product and/or service.

What I do know and hear on repeat in Austin is that empathy rules the world and human communication will always trump artificial intelligence, at least until machines can react emphatically. The presenters concede that whilst computers are capable of learning, they cannot (yet) learn to feel. They can only mimic feeling, and that's as far as it goes at the moment. So designers, hold onto your humanity and you'll be ok.

For now.

Working with Giants

We often talk change, disruption and agility, but we know from experience that big businesses frequently fall back on the old, worn processes that they know and trust; a knee-jerk safety mechanism which harms, and inevitably destroys, companies in the long run.

The panel is a mixture of federal, start-up and big businesses. Despite the diversity, however, we all agree that there are only a handful of businesses globally that have managed to successfully embrace tomorrow today, whilst the others compete over their crumbs.

So, how might we make it easier to remain innovative as a big business today?

Partnering with a startup to tackle particularly challenging obstacles may be one step in the right direction.

Traditionally-speaking, big businesses generally do one of two things to start ups:

    • They invest, wait for a speedy return, and then cut and run when that doesn't happen.
    • They actually put some skin in the game. They try to teach big business acumen so startups become more viable and secure, reaping the rewards of startup innovation with the financial know how of big business.

If you haven't guessed, the companies who adopt the latter approach generally succeed with startups, and see real results.

Whilst I might work for a typical agency that acts as a vendor to big business, I see real opportunity in engaging with startups as "partners." Here's why:

They change you for the better
They execute differently, they think differently, and they are agile. They create friction, which eventually bleeds into mainstream culture; challenging the norm, and pushing internal teams to their limits.

They enable you to get out of your own way
They help your business and your people get out of their comfort zones and their own way.

Every company inevitably drinks their own Kool-aid, and rightly so, but they often struggle as a result to acknowledge and address the challenges that continue to stand in their way.

Since startups primarily focus on challenges, rather than solutions, they generally breathe new life into big businesses by shifting the internal needle away from formulaic paradigms and solutions, to unconstrained thought and innovative problem-solving.

They have the best talent
Startups are undeniably cool. There is usually an office pet, a ping-pong table, free food and beanbags. Understandably, they are attracting some the best talent in the world.

If you are a big business, you are probably great at compliance, safety and financial security. You focus on that, and let your startup partner help solve the challenges.

Easier to scale
The talent war is real. There simply aren't that many great professionals in the market, despite what the instant designer might say.

If someone quits at a startup, they have another one ready to roll, someone fit for purpose. If someone quits big business, there is a deep, dark process to backfilling that role putting your programs at risk.

Do it right and it will work
When it comes to selecting a partner, judicious judgment must be exercised. Picking the newest or flashiest startup may seem appealing, but if it's specialities are incongruent with the demands of your business, the partnership is likely to fail.

Alternatively, if you base your selection upon what you think will complement your team and your company, the partnership will likely succeed.

Challenges, not solutions
Challenges are your key to success, not solutions. Solve challenges. Make money. Be nice. These are the simple rules of healthy partnerships.

If you use all of this to engage with your partners, startups or otherwise you are really pointing yourself in the direction of success.   

SXSW 1 (1).jpgDay Two - Where design and tech meet and what it means for your business

As an agency, we are defining the role that technology and design play in our structure. Is tech first in? Or is it a practice of a foundational department? Should we be more creative when it comes to technology?

Kicking off the presentation is John Maeda, Global Head of Computational Design + Inclusion at Automattic, whose work explores how business, design and technology merge. An incredibly smart and well-versed bloke introduced his Design in Tech trend for 2017, and it's a cracker.SXSW 2 (1).jpgHe launches into an exploration of businesses that have embraced design, are continuing to show gains in productivity and successful customer outcomes, and even echoes a sentiment that was shared on my panel last week; that the phrase 'Design Thinking' makes people nervous, whilst 'Design Making' does not. I personally agree with the latter, it initiates a solution, being a tangible outcome for our business partners - they want to see an outcome.

One of the key themes we see across industries at the moment is the importance of inclusion; be that race, gender or sexual orientation. Design and inclusion are inseparable. Inclusive design creates scale for digital products by increasing the size of the products total potential market and as a result, driving product success.

I think that the biggest threat to the design industry is overcharging for things that aren't as complex as they seem, and being slow to get them out. Products need to be released quickly to keep up with technology. To do this you have to get the user in the room on day one, not wait for testing. Too much time goes into upfront research that acts as nothing more than a justification of the hypothesis. Instead, getting users into a room to design together will expedite and reduce the cost of product launches, I feel there is way more to chat about on this, but I'll post about that later.

SXSW 3 (1).jpgASXSW 4 (1).jpg major player in the industry is China, due to the speed at which they manage to get products to the market and we have to look at them for their progressive use of digital.  Chinese design trends are leading the world, but are frequently overlooked. They use and reuse optimisations as a base layer and are constantly improving from that. The pace at how China revolutionised the smartphone market is proof of that.

Voice and chat in China also continue to be an enormous tool, and it is clear we are lagging behind massively in Australia. This has to change, and quickly, small bot projects are spinning up left, right and centre, but their roles aren't defined yet. We need to alter that, and strategically plan the role of Voice and Chat to increase its potential and success.

SXSW 5 (1).jpgOne of the major challenges for agencies is scale and growth, and more specifically commoditising repeatable assets so you can deliver at pace and for less. This means creating products, that can be customised for specific partner requirements but also allow plenty of room for personalised changes to satisfy all needs. One problem we share together is design agency toolkits and programmes. Agencies must unify their approach to tools so they can scale at pace.

The state of Design in Tech is extremely encouraging for the Australian market, we continue to lead in many spaces such as FinTech, but we must look at news ways in which consumers are engaging and attract the right talent and pace to do so, meaning we need more hybrid designer/engineers who can MAKE and not just Think.

"Design isn't just beautiful it's a tool for business and it's about market relevance and meaningful results" - John Maeda

Human Centred Design for Future needs

Another design discussion, this time it's a panel with 3 super design geeks. Buzzed, Meetup and Shutterstock introduce us to HCD for future needs. It's so packed here it obvious how important this is for designers and business folk alike. One thing that strikes me instantly, the panel are Product Managers, where are the designer at?

We all know I bang this drum hard, but focusing on humans is the single most important thing for any business, my business included

SXSW 6 (1).jpgWhat is Human-Centred design?

They agree that it is designing with the human smack bang in the middle, human's needs first, business challenge second. One will solve the other. Solve a problem, test it simply, did it work and solve the problem? Yay or nay.

It sounds simple, but it's not. Mixing business needs is intrinsic with successful delivery, but can you reframe the business need to align with customer outcomes. The most successful companies like Airbnb and Pinterest balance business goals with user needs.

User needs don't always drive business goals but do drive engagement and trust.

There it is, EMPATHY. That has to be the word of #SXSW2017.

Stop being so me, myself and I.

Changing the way you measure success can tie business needs, try and measure common metrics, ie. What experience is the business trying to provide for their customer and did they like it. Measure experience metrics, not just business outcomes.

Designers, need to get out of their own head. Just because they know what good design is meant to be, doesn't mean the user will like it. I am guilty of this, I don't know enough about my customers to be certain my design and my teams are right until we focus on challenges of real people.

Ask questions. Use simple mechanisms to ask questions like a happy/sad emoji response to a simple question. People are more likely to say how they emotionally feel when they are engaged. Measuring Human Emotion in real time can change the way you measure success.

"At Buzzfeed, we use emojis to start a conversation with consumers in real time, short questions, real insights." - Chris Tindal

Mobile accelerated HUMAN-CENTRED DESIGN.

Simple things like where your navigation is has to be designed in context. Think what someone will be doing when they use your product. For example, what are the users doing with their other hand when they are using their phones (Minds out of the gutter please).

You can do this by asking people, simple scenarios can give you real insights into what people will do. Don't just guess. Don't just translate data. Don't fake it. Speak to real users, find out what they want, what they don't and test quickly. And that doesn't just mean test the product. Test your hypothesis. Test your personas. Test everything.

SXSW 8 (1).jpgMillennials rule the future

People are fundamentally and frustratingly individual, give them the ability to shape their own experience. It's hard to force someone to change their behavior or follow a new channel, focus on what your users are familiar with, and make it amazing with iterative improvements rather than massive changes. Speaking to focus groups can only give you insight into certain types of people, people who go to focus groups(get a job). Instead of focus groups, you need to see what real users are doing, in the real world.

New generations are more and more impatient with products that don't seem personalised, or aren't simple (bloody impatient millennials). But they are right, products shouldn't be impersonal, they shouldn't be hard. Our technological advances allow for highly personalised environments, use it, invest in it, keep improving it.

If you have a product that isn't dripping solutions to specify human challenges, there is a very high chance that your product will fail. Just because you think as a professional you are correct, until you find out what a customer's' challenges are you will fail. Everyone on the panel agrees, they have all failed, and still do, but they have all removed their egos, and now make their life easier by using humans.

Snapchat is one of the fastest moving products in the millennial market, it was designed with HCD, and continues to be improved with that, and we all know how well they are going.


As we wrap up, there's a big buzzword, Northstar. Businesses need to set a Northstar for direction, based on what the customer's needs and problems are. Use your Northstar to define your WHY. Start with the WHY! Simon Sinek said it a long time ago, but it is true. Why is your purpose, it's your reason for doing business. It is your Northstar.

Giving design a seat at the lean table

The last one for the day, it's all about Lean Design. Here's hoping after two strong sessions, we get the trifecta.

Our panel is going to introduce Lean, and what it can do for today's agencies and businesses. We discuss a business world that is full of extreme uncertainty, and to stay on top of this we need to constantly build, measure and learn.

Lean + Design

We all know most designers who are passionate about creating meaningful products that solve a challenge or problem by thinking holistically, creatively and analytically. This can complement the principles of lean, one of them, in particular, make design and lean a match made in heaven.

The principles of lean
⁃        Get out, speak to people, customers and stakeholders;
⁃        Prototype early and often;
⁃        Iteration;
⁃        Managing uncertainty (Design is great at identify and solving this)

The panel present 5 steps to use lean:

1. Hybrid teams
Mix the competencies of teams, designers who focus on more than just the aesthetics and can be technological or strategic. I fully agree with this, designers need to be more to demand the high salaries and design managers need to have mixed skills to manage them.

2. Define your Horizons
Use horizons to define the program's purpose. I 100% agree on the horizons, I don't agree with the fixed titles they use,
1. BAU
2. R&D
I fully believe businesses of different maturities can define different purposes for each horizon, so I wouldn't get too caught up on that.

3. Borrow from designer's toolkit
Visualise the ideas, don't just talk about it. Use visuals to define and share purpose. It gives your team a Northstar. Go back to it. Remember your WHY. Tick.

4. Look for opportunities to diverge
Explore multiple options, do it at pace but be prepared to take a step back. "Let design happen" give it time to happen, it will shortcut the program. Big tick.

5. Don't mix empathy and experimentation
Just because you are speaking with someone doesn't mean you are being empathetic, actually use their needs to deliver products. There we go again, empathy, otherwise know as HCD buzzword off the year.

I like the idea of Lean being used for HCD projects, it is essential for successful product designs. But we have to get better at it, it's still young, it still has many many pitfalls that need to be addressed, the major one being diverse team members.

Designers are notoriously ambiguous creatures, when we look at the principles of lean and mix that with the ambiguity of designers during the process. There is a powder keg of emotion. But at The White Agency we have recognised this before, that's why we use a Hybrid approach where we can use the rigor of waterfall cost and scope control with the rapid, affordable output of lean.

Subpar session to finish and I duck out early for a look at the IBM Experience. And shit. Best. Thing. So. Far.

It's incredible, it's a mash of AI, Beer, Healthcare, Education, Personalisation, Machine Learning and FREE stuff. I start off with the beer matching tool, and it's epic, it uses three questions defined from a previous survey of beer drinkers, that defines three beers that I might like and it has a range of the chance I will like that, but it's hidden. I rate all three beers, a bit harshly as I clear my 'International flight induced cold' from my throat, but the winner is the correct pick. Well done Watson, well done indeed.

Next Watson profiles me, and we have a jolly old chat, it's still a bit mechanical, but the questions are good and he profiles me fairly-correctly (easy going, fun, handsome, not opinionated) and gives me a unique t-shirt, that was already printed, odd.

The best of SXSW & Austin:
⁃        IBM Experience
⁃        John Maeda(Legend)
⁃        the SXSW App and bot are awesome
⁃        Bahn Mi Tacos

The worst of SXSW & Austin:
⁃        Some design content is epic, some is a bit same, I want to know what's next
⁃        Weather - I'm now wearing my badly fitting IBM t-shirt like a right idiot

Welcome to 'Unfiltered SXSW: Day Three.

Wow, Sunday is weird. It's cold, it's dry and it is super quiet. I think a few people may be suffering from the sniffles after the torrential rain of yesterday. 4 seasons in 3 days.

Self-Driving Cars - first session from NVIDIA

So what is the current state of play in this industry?

We quickly move from talking traditional cars to computer games, and how the machines they use to power these crazy games are now powering cars. One single computer can now do over 43 trillion actions per second or the same work of 150 MacBook Pros.

We know that AI and Bots are the future in most sectors, and this still holds true in the automotive industry. AI and deep learning will write the code for the future, no more coding, all will be based on machine learning and reacting to this data. This creates a real-time iteration model, expediting Tesla's view that "the first day you own the car is the worst it will ever be."

People do not have the capacity to absorb and process all of this data, but machines do. They can be programmed to recognise the patterns and predict the future. We just have to go along for the ride and accept AI, and its ingenious ability to augment our designs using data. Whether you like it or not, Al simply designs better, more efficient, and smarter products that are beyond the scope of human capability.

Whilst unflattering to our ego, it is likely that we have been building things like cars, bridges and buildings wrong (or at least inferiorly) this whole time. When you see the different structures AI delivers, they are different, they are strange, but they are arguably safer and more efficient.

This makes me think if you could start again, would cities and spaces look like they do today, or would they be simpler, like Canberra (the place, not the people).

"If you think about it, you are like a machine. You are seeing Pixels. You just see the edges and the colours that fill them in."

The Wall of Same

Stepping into the trade show hall, we are immediately hit with a mass of energy, with people and product as far as the eye can see.

First stall and it's a good'un: AR for marketing- a cool product in and of itself, but the ability to design and build yourself, minus the developer, clever.

Unfortunately, however, that's where it stopped being interesting. The next two hours were filled with a confusing mixture of anticipation and bewilderment.

We see product after product that promises better ROI, AR/VR, health etc., but it was hard to find a single USP anywhere. There were literally zero, which was hugely disappointing.

Disappointing. Back to back session tomorrow on the future of UX should help the tech hangover.

The best of SXSW & Austin:
·       The future of automotive is crazier than we could ever imagine
·       NatGeo Further House is epic

The worst of SXSW & Austin:
·       Wouldn't mind some food that isn't Tex-Mex fusion
·       Trade show is poor

Leave a comment

About Campaign Brief Asia

A blog for advertising creatives in Asia. To pass on news or advertise on the CB Asia blog, or to subscribe to Campaign Brief Asia or Campaign Brief Australia/NZ magazines, or The Work 09 Annual, email: Kim or Michael

Latest jobs

Retrieving latest jobs

House rules for commenting

Here are the ground rules for posting comments on stories: This site is a moderated blog. Comments that are seen to be more abusive than witty and/or constructive will not be posted. Obviously, we do not allow 'hate speech' or comments that are seen as a personal attack, defamatory, degrading or prejudicial to an individual or company. Overly abusive language also adds nothing to any discussion and will not be published. On occasions we will be asking people to contribute work, opinions and views on various topics - you are free to disagree, so long as you observe the above rules and remain constructive.