SxSW 2015 Wrap-up

The surreal event left a real impact on all four Sparkboxers who got a chance to go this year. Here's what they took from the SxSW experience.

This year Rob Tarr, Marshall Norman, Philip Zastrow, and Ryan Cromwell were able to head to SxSW—a gathering that isn’t for the faint of heart. SxSW is filled to the brim with an immense amount of information to absorb, amazing people to meet, and fantastic ideas to explore. It’s the type of environment that stirs the pot of idea makers and helps trigger so many great new innovations. Sparkboxers have certainly returned from the event with a few of their own ideas, including a few on how the team can get out of the norms to enhance its ability to innovate the web. SxSW is too large to experience it all, and the team members were each impacted by different experiences while they were there. Here’s what stood out.


One of the things that stuck in my head was the 3D-printed prosthetic hand from exiii. The fact that companies like this are able to use smart phones, arduinos, and 3D printing to drastically bring down the costs of prosthetics could be life changing for thousands of people.

I also got to attend a session with Ernest Cline (author of one of my favorite books - Ready Player One) and Jason Scott (Software Curator for It was great to hear how influenced the book and to hear about the vastness of data being stored on their servers. If you want to lose yourself in your childhood, I encourage you to check out the software library.


Heading into SxSW I knew to expect some interesting talks and to meet some interesting people. What I was not expecting was the awesomeness of the trade show. I was blown away by the passion and inventiveness of people from all over the world. It was great to speak with the creators of some very interesting contraptions. The one that sticks out in my head was a musical device called UDAR, by a Japanese cat named Udar.

I'm a sucker for surprises. The SxSW trade show was definitely a big one.


My time at SxSW changed my perspective and appreciation for the seemingly small conferences I typically attend. Many sessions I was unable to attend, and of the sessions I managed to get into, some wound up being standing room only. Others could have used one of the smaller rooms.

One session that obviously caught my eye was “Is Your Responsive Design Responsive Enough?” wherein the speakers, James Zetlen and Dane Downer, did a wonderful job inciting dialogue amongst the attendees on the performance woes many have experienced. The session ended with the coining of a new term while tossing out responsive, but it all still sounded like making good, fast, accessible websites—which is all that really matters no matter what you call it. A bit overzealous, though it produced a valuable conversation.

The other session I found quite intriguing was called “How to Be a More Inefficient Designer” presented by brothers Marke and Nathan Johnson of The Made Shop. It was a pleasure to see what The Made Shop is producing. But the thing that stuck with me was a quote from David Chang, “We do things here the long, hard, stupid way.” That spoke so well to the way we do things at Sparkbox. Although we often talk about workflows and our tools, when problem solving, we can’t learn what works best without iterative, spontaneous experimentations. This allows us to go deep in the areas that matter most to our clients and find ways to build a better web.


Facilitation has confounded me for years, despite my best attempts at learning and practice. To put a group of capable people in a position to accomplish great things is an art and science that SxSW seems to have mastered on a grand scale. Imagine a room filled with

SxSW melds all these pieces together to create an unimaginable atmosphere.

Having traveled to many, many conferences in the software space, I didn’t believe I could be impressed, but SxSW certainly opened my eyes again. The conference reinforced to me the importance of getting outside your comfort zone, breaking down echo chambers and allowing those around you to influence your thoughts and work, regardless of your agreement or comprehension. There was an ultrasonic levitation machine for crying out loud!

With so many formats, I hope to see many of the amazing people Sparkbox interacts with submitting sessions and workshops for SxSW 2016 so we can bring the passion of the MidWest to those around the world—and bring their passion back home too. And maybe even have a good meal or two while we’re there.

Keep Wanting to Get Better

As a team, we also had the opportunity to play National Geographic’s Escape the Cold. We were locked in a room and told to find the key to escape. While it was really a promotion for the new season of a reality TV show, it was also a great experience. We got to work together to solve the puzzles that would eventually get us out. It’s fun to take on new challenges as a team, even if they’re completely out of the norm. It was actually such a good experience that we did it twice, taking on both rooms.

Everyone is looking forward to the next time we get to go back and hoping that we will meet more awesome people and experience even more awesome things that expand our universe and keep us wanting to get better at the things we do.