To start with, South by Southwest, better known as SXSW is not about product design. Instead, it is a major gathering featuring festivals and conferences staged every March in Austin, Texas. People present the latest in interactive media, or short films, or new (or favorite) musical talents. In the years since its beginnings in 1987, it has grown to be a big revenue generator for its host city, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars per year for the week and a half or so it’s in town.
Though the conferences are not about product design, they are about products, whether they be new technology, or music, or films, and the presentation of these products. Many innovators are in attendance every year, showing off the newest of the new to a very eager audience. The 2016 SXSW was particular notable for being the first to host a president.
President Obama addressed a group during the first day, encouraging attendees to use their knowledge and skills to improve the world and help solve some of the more pressing problems our society faces today. Refugee support and increasing voter participation were among the topics touched upon, as was the difficulty of creating and implementing solutions to these problems.
Virtually anyone will acknowledge that there are many problems today’s technological and social prodigies can indeed help us solve, or at least mitigate — but what does this have to do with product design?
First, SXSW itself is a product, a creation of the SXSW company, which stages more than one of these conferences every year. Austin also hosts SXSW Eco, a conference on environmental concerns, and SXSWedu, which focuses on new ideas in education. In addition, there is SXSW V2V in Las Vegas, focused on some of the best startups the business world has to offer. Each one of these is a product, meticulously developed into a brand that grows in popularity from year to year, each one building off the success of the previous conferences.
But what can the most recent SXSW teach us, especially in light of President Obama’s call for SXSW attendees to use their innovation to solve pressing modern problems?
Innovation, Not Necessarily Reconstruction
The tendency in many creative minds is to sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. Another adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it” may be a better course of action. Change is important, and even necessary, but a large part of innovation is taking what exists and making it work better, or smarter, or harder. It’s the ethos behind recycling and there’s nothing wrong with doing that with ideas, as well. After all, without the creations of those who came before, we wouldn’t have the great things we have today.
Building something truly new and different, something that only its creator can truly understand is counterproductive. The simpler and broad-reaching solution, or a product, is one more people will benefit from, whatever it offers.
It Won’t Work If You Don’t Work Together
It’s kind of a cliché that big problems require big solutions, but it’s true. The same is true of major products and projects. Even if the initial idea is the brainchild of one specific person, they’re still going to probably need investors, and other creative souls to help them make their vision a reality. Fortunately, our digitally connected world is making true collaboration easier by the day.
The thing about teamwork is that a good team really does create a situation where the whole can really be greater than the sum of its parts. It may be your idea, but it could well end up being one of your teammates who has the idea to truly make it a reality. A great many people who may not otherwise see each other over the course of the year come together for a week or so mainly for the opportunity to gather in what’s new and bounce ideas off their fellow creators. It’s one of the reasons SXSW gets bigger and better every year.
Ideas Do Not (And Can Not) Exist in a Vacuum
Everyone who has a great idea to solve a problem has competitors, whether known or unknown. If there’s a problem that exists, there are more than likely dozens of people working on their own ways to solve it. Each one of these people or groups does not know what the others are doing, and this is often to their detriment. While in the realm of product development, there are often some ideas that are good to keep to oneself to thwart competition, it certainly can’t hurt to see where other similarly-minded people might lie.
Competition is good in some cases, but in others it can prevent real solutions from ever seeing the light of day. Having an awareness of the efforts of others is like having a map to your destination. If you can see not only where you’re going, but what pitfalls have befallen others, you have a much better chance of reaching your destination.
Laura O’Donnell writes smart content on behalf of the product design gurus at Pivot International. As an avid writer and learner, she loves to use her skills for engaging others in important topics in creative and effective ways. When she is not working, she loves meeting new people, traveling, and bringing her Pinterest dreams to life. Find her on LinkedIn.