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Learning & Development Blog

Revisiting SXSW

Revisiting SXSW: Training Design Ideas From Surprising Sources

As innovation in technology continues to skyrocket, organizations and their people experience change at an unprecedented pace, leaving everyone a bit weary just trying to keep up.

As learning and development professionals, we feel constant pressure in this fast-paced tech environment to design training that is efficient, meaningful, and engaging. For those reasons, many instructional designers have expanded their skill set to include user experience design, design-thinking, and visual design skills.

Many learning designers, including me, have turned to the world of web design and graphic design for inspiration, but now we need to cast our nets even further. The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, TX, is a great venue for doing just that.

This past March, I attended SXSW Interactive and discovered new learning design ideas from what I thought were unlikely sources—people who work in editorial cartoons, building architecture, museum operations, and science fiction. As I prepared my schedule in advance of SXSW, I was particularly drawn to the design and storytelling tracks. My mission was to discover what design means for learning and development in 2019.

Here are four inspirations that I took away from SXSW Interactive to influence and improve training design.

Use Cartooning to Communicate What’s Going On

The first session I attended was by Liza Donnelly, Editorial Cartoonist and Visual Journalist at The New Yorker Magazine. In her talk, she demonstrated how the skills of cartooning can be useful, especially in times when “everyone is shouting” and the internet is overflowing with data, opinions, fear, and anger.

Donnelly presented cartooning as a “quieter way” to communicate, and explored humor’s role in disruption. As she discussed how cartooning can capture what’s going on without the impression of shouting, she also highlighted cartooning’s effect by displaying powerful examples and by cartooning on stage, in real time.

While Donnelly referred to events in the world around us, I thought of transformations happening within the organizations I work, and the people who are part of those changes. With each change, I observe opinions, fear, and anger as well as a fire hose of information directed at those expected to implement change.

Cartoons In Change Management

I left Donnelly’s talk eager to explore how creative innovations such as cartooning could help learning designers be more human-focused and effect change through visual storytelling and humor. Could we distill a “what’s-in-it-for-me” (WIIFM) message into a single-frame cartoon and communicate it that way? Or, use cartoons to recognize and address employees’ change-related fears? What if we cartooned during user acceptance testing or end-user training and shared those cartoons with the greater organization to gain buy-in for the change in process?

Tell Compelling Stories with Interactive Maps

Alison Killing, architect and urban designer at Killing Architects, gave an inspiring talk on the powerful, but under-explored, potential of interactive maps for storytelling.

Using the online documentary Migration Trail, Killing demonstrated the possibilities for telling stories in an interactive map format. Migration Trail is a mapped-data visualization that follows a series of fictional migrants traveling to Europe over ten days. Structured around these immigrant stories, the map brings the stories to life using elements such as interactive data layers (political, environment, personal), podcasts, message boards, and timelines.

As Killing navigated through the Migration Trail, I was stunned by the map’s ability to bring huge amounts of data together and help to make sense of it.

Migration Trail

Given that good instructional design, especially for how-to and task-based content, must be rooted in day-in-the-life processes, interactive maps seem like a compelling and viable design approach. It is not a stretch to imagine how day-in-the-life learning can be much more compelling by integrating stories and elements like interactive data layers, podcasts, message boards, and timelines.

Use Pop-ups to Create Emotional Connection

One of the sessions I was most curious about was “Pop-ups: Designing for Emotional Experiences.” I was excited to discover how, according to the session description, the panelists would explore creating an emotional journey in 12 rooms or less.

I have experienced a few pop-ups and temporary installations, like a retail store pop-up that is in a building for a month or two, but had not considered the idea of pop-ups as a design approach. What I learned is that pop-ups are one of the fastest-growing ways to market-test innovative concepts and products as well as create lasting impressions.

During the session, the panel of four creators of some of the most successful pop-ups in the market shared how they used pop-ups to connect people to brands. We heard from Jeff Lind of Color Factory, Jason Mastrine of Patron Technology, Rebecca Throne of Burning Man, and Christopher Voss of Brooklyn Museum. They defined the key elements of designing a successful experience as space, location, and content. Using temporary space to create a hands-on experience—integrating music, art, virtual reality (VR), and more—these the panelists established an emotional connection and lasting impression with the intended audiences.

Color Factory Pop Up NYC

While designing and building a pop-up for learning purposes seems far-reaching, I am very intrigued by the approach (And the possibility! See the Sci-Fi Thinking topic below.).

Consider what a pop-up for learning design might look like for new employee onboarding and training, perhaps starting with the lobby and progressing through the break room and onto the new employee’s desk. Could we used pop-up installations (from simple posters to hands-on “kiosks”) to communicate and train during the weeks leading up to a new system go-live?

Use Sci-Fi Thinking in the Design Process

In “Human-Centered Tech and Design Shaping Society,” Ann Rosenberg, Senior Vice President & Global Head of SAP Next-Gen, discussed how science fiction is the best way to activate a human-centered, design-thinking mindset as it raises the big questions: Who’s human? What kind of society do you want to live in? Science Fiction As Inspiration For Learning Ann Rosenberg

Rosenberg pointed out how “science fictions of the past have become science facts of today” and gave specific examples of how sci-fi has been a driver of innovation, including the 1960s Star Trek communicator device inspiring the first cell (flip) phone.

Sci-fi thinking is about working from the future backwards to imagine what’s possible. For instructional designers, especially those using a design thinking process, sci-fi thinking supercharges the ideation phase. Look into the future—imagine that the learning has taken place—and ask "what" (not "how") questions: “What does success look like?” “What are the impacts of the learning solution—positive and negative?” “What story do I want to be hearing or telling?”


As technology rockets us into the future, keep your eyes and ears open! Explore new design trends, regardless of industry, and imagine how they can influence your learning designs.

May the (design) force be with you!
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