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Pauline's Impressions at SXSW

The great thing about SXSW is that wherever you go, you’ll always find something inspiring, surprising or simply entertaining. This year it was mostly women designers and entrepreneurs that I ran into, whose vision, energy and devotion immediately struck me. To name a few: Nina Walia, an inspiring designer at Google Jacquard, who gave me a great tour at the Levis Outpost, Gillian Morris, who became a leader in the travel industry with her company Hitlist and the talented Sarah McBriar who founded AVA Festival, which presents artists like Jeff Mills, Marcel Dettmann and has a forward thinking approach when it comes to cross-overs between music and art.

Pauline van Dongen presentation ndw

To be arriving in a rainy and cold Austin is a rare experience, but I felt it only confirmed the fact that during South by Southwest, the city is full of surprises. In the Netherlands, people tend to have this superstitious thought that they may have brought the famously bad Dutch weather with them. Luckily for all of us South by-ers, it didn’t take too long for the Sun to return and bring about an even more energetic vibe.

The reason for my visit to this year’s SXSW was twofold. Suyzi Packchyan, thought leader in wearable technology at BCG Digital Ventures, invited me to speak as part of the panel: ‘Beyond the Interface. Designing wearables that people love’. Together with Steven Holmes, Vice President at the New Devices Group at Intel, we took the stage to share our ideas on how wearables can integrate in our lives in a better and more meaningful way.

One of the things Steven remarked, was that we first need a better categorization of wearable technology. As a comparison he pointed out how a skateboard, a car and a spaceship may all be considered vehicles, but are widely different design objects that serve a complete different purpose, type of use and context. The labels wearables or wearable technology have often left people confused. “Aren’t all clothes ‘wearables’?” , people often asked to me. Clothing (as an extension of our body) being a technology by definition, creates a degree of ambiguity with the term ‘wearable technology’. I personally would like to encourage everyone to no longer hold on to the distinction between fashion and wearables. To clarify how a garment is different from the ‘non-augmented’ garments we are used to wearing, something could simply be named technology enabled, interactive, intelligent or smart. It has proven to be very hard for customers to appropriate intelligent clothing and make it their own, and designers in this realm certainly struggle with this. Especially when 1) we don’t manage to break out of the smartphone paradigm 2) we fail to show that intelligent garments are in many ways just like any other item of fashion.

As Syuzi said: “Our body is not a smartphone.” There are so many more interesting, engaging and subtler ways in which we can intimately interface with and through our bodies. An example on how we can better embrace this is our latest design Issho.

Adam Grant, keynote speaker at SXSW, spoke about how to build bridges between different domains by making the unfamiliar more familiar. By using metaphors as a way to convey a concept to an audience, the communication surrounding the design can create a powerful conveyance.  This made me think about the way in which Issho had come to life. Like a dear friendship, you build a relationship with this denim jacket; you’ll venture out into the world to experience things together. The jacket reflects on your behaviour and every now and then invites you to be more mindful. Launching this design had been another reason for my presence at SXSW. I was very happy to see how a concept my team and I worked on, in collaboration with ItalDenim, resonated with the audience.

Read more about Issho on  Dezeen.

Thanks to the invaluable support of ItalDenim, we’ve been able to develop the touch sensitive denim at industrial scale. During SXSW, the New Dutch Wave supported us by hosting a presentation about the jacket at their takeover house that set out to provide a platform for Dutch creative talent.

As I sat in the plane, returning home, ironically the small screen in front of me played a commercial of ‘KiloGear’ with the tagline ‘Fashion x Function’. Once again I was pointed to fashion’s ambiguous relation with functionality. Typically when I present a new design, people ask: ‘So, what does it do’. Yet answering that question does not give enough credit to the design. Besides that, hardly anyone ever asked me that question at the time when I was making designs that were not augmented by technology. So let us be more attentive of these subtle shifts in our thinking and instead try to be more consequent in our questioning and reasoning. Therefor this time, when presenting Issho, I proposed something else: Let’s replace “what does it do” by “What does it incite us to do?”. Because that way we will come to understand not just what a product is meant to do, but it will also reveal how it changes our behavior and perspective and may engage us in doing so.”

Thank you for reading!

– Pauline.