Dogma Free Design at SXSW 2006

By Russell Wilson

Published: May 8, 2006

South by Southwest (SXSW) began as a music festival in 1987 and has grown to include festivals and conferences for the film industry and interactive media. It is a colorful event, held each year in Austin, Texas, and drawing an eclectic crowd. (Need I mention the roller-derby girls handing out flyers outside the main entrance?)

Dogma Free Design

Panelists: Kelly Goto, Joel Grossman, Dirk Knemeyer, and Luke Wroblewski

“The discussion … began with early schools of design including the Bauhaus Curriculum, the evolution of product development and its drivers, and the recent involvement of designers in the product development process.”

One of the sessions I attended at SXSW this year was “Dogma Free Design.” I expected a relaxed, informal atmosphere with world-class presenters who were interested in discussing what design really is and was happy with what I heard.

Dirk Knemeyer got everyone’s attention by holding up a large sheet of paper with examples of current dogma such as:

  • 99% of Flash is bad.
  • Learn Ajax or you’re dead.

I’m not sure whether people in the audience believed at that point that these were the subjects of the coming discussion or objects of ridicule. I heard several chuckles, but I also observed many gestures of agreement. Then Dirk tore the paper up, and the message was clear: dogma cannot contain design.

Dirk energized the stage for the rest of the discussion, which began with early schools of design including the Bauhaus Curriculum, the evolution of product development and its drivers, and the recent involvement of designers in the product development process.

One thing I found particularly interesting was a comparison of Apple® and Google™, which have very different design philosophies, but share similar financial growth rates. The design philosophy at Apple is artistic, whereas that at Google is scientific. This observation made it clear that different design philosophies can work.

“Customers or clients who hire designers often want or need a way to justify the cost of design and typically quantify their justification in terms of some metric or other.”

Joel Grossman won over the audience with his example of a nightmare ROI (return-on-investment) spreadsheet. Customers or clients who hire designers often want or need a way to justify the cost of design and typically quantify their justification in terms of some metric or other. While it’s easy to understand the drivers behind this trend, many problems can arise when using ROI to justify design, such as the metrics actually driving the design or the metrics simply being inappropriate. I would have liked to have heard some alternatives, because while we all understand this problem, we don’t necessarily have a good solution.

My only suggestions for improving the session are that the organizers could have more clearly set expectations by providing an improved description of the panel and allowed more time for further interaction with the audience. This might have resulted in more take-home ideas, but with that said, I found the panel discussion very valuable and look forward to any future sessions with these panelists.

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