Lessons Learned on the Streets of SXSW

On Sunday at South By Southwest I attended one of my favorite panels called “Deadlines, Clients, and Cashflow: The Business side of Web Design” given by James Archer. One of the points Archer made in his panel was that when running a business you should have an already established business model that you look up to and aspire to be like. I think many designers have these role models. They are people who have similar interests in the industry that inspire you to be better than what you currently are. They don’t have to be famous, just famous to you. At South By Southwest sometimes star struck web geeks get confused and treat their design role models more as heroes, reacting as if they are celebrities bombarding them and showering them with praise. Frankly I can’t blame them, because when I met mine this past week, I nearly felt my heart jump through my throat.

I found my design role model back in 2005 while searching the internet for a little bit of inspiration. When I found him, there was no doubt that I was in love with the work. I even sent him an e-mail on October 18, 2005 saying so. I became a big fan of his site, checking it all the time, always looking for hidden easter eggs and showing everyone I knew. I am in admiration of the clean sans-serif typography that gracefully dances across each innovative site. The subtle incorporation of sharp humor is the real kicker for me. I am a sucker for a site that makes me laugh and he had me with the loader. His sites are always pushing the boundaries of innovation while exhibiting classic visual simplicity. When someone asks me what my idea of a “BadAss” really is, I usually direct them to his site.

One night after getting a little side tracked we started our way to the Ze Frank Party. Along the way a group of other interactive designers spotted us and began a conversation. Karma rewarding me, I turned to my left to find my personal design role model walking down Congress Street next to me. I introduced myself and he introduced himself withholding his last name. Seeking confirmation upon my suspicion my eyes quickly sought his badge which disappointedly found his name deceptively covered with stickers. Sure, I’m a constructive e-creeper but I would even scare myself if I could pick an internet personality out of a lineup. My heart jumped just a bit.. “where are you from?” I interjected, and then it was confirmed. We all chatted for about 30-40 minutes as we walked to the party and stood in line. This is a group of guys (and one girl) who have won countless awards, been interviewed for Commarts and are considered by their peers to be leaders of the industry. The Lead leader, my design role model, never once revealing his full identity, boasting, or even letting on that he was the founding partner, joking that his project manager was real the boss. He was not even giving out businesses cards.

Now you can imagine how hard it was for me to let on that I knew who these guys were. That crucial decision to not be like “Oh my god, I am your biggest freaking fan”. It took a lot of self control. After all I nearly tackled both Craig Newmark and Jeffery Zeldman last year and this guy, in my eyes, is the Chuck Norris of web design. I mean he can roundhouse kick you through your monitor. It probably was not in my best interest to come off as being a creepy internet stalker. What I learned from this group of web professionals was bigger than anything muttered in a panel. Walking around SXSW you find people just oozing about how awesome they are. People parading around with entourages and plugging their studios when you thought you were going to actually learn something. Its one thing to network your small business, its another thing to shamelessly self promote your very established one during Q & A portion of a panel. Not only were these guys humble, but they were interested in what me and Jim do. That attitude taught me so much about how to conduct a successful web design business, much more than any panel I saw. To sum up the most important thing I learned at SXSW this year: Be a bad-ass, do it quietly, and then listen intently to those around you. Your work screams louder than you ever can.

[techtags: SXSW, SXSWi, SXSW interactive, design inspiration, design heroes]