More insights on making ideas happen from the 2013 edition of the 99U Conference, presented by
Michael Wolff, the world-renowned designer and creative advisor who formerly co-founded Wolff Olins, sat down with
99U Editor-in-Chief Jocelyn Glei and Behance's Chief of Design Matias Corea to share some insights from his incredible
design career. Among the nuggets shared:
- “Brands become successful because of how they make people feel.” Wolff believes
that people won’t remember what you did or what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
- “It’s really easy to pat yourself on the back.” One of the pitfalls of young
designers is that they are easily satisfied. If you stay satisfied, Wolff warns, you may find yourself knowing a
great deal about very little and very little about a great deal.
- “People can see how you behave.” In a story from his youth, Wolff described the time
when he realized everything about your behavior can be seen. He suggests that very few companies realize just how
transparent their actions are to their customers.
In an animated talk, New York Times bestselling author A.J. Jacobs discussed lessons learned while writing
The Year of Living Biblically (his account of spending a year trying to follow every rule of the Bible as
literally as possible). He shared advice on facing fears, the creative process, and the benefits of “faking it
till you make it.” Other lessons learned from his year of being a guinea pig:
- “Self-delusion is one of the greatest inventions in human history.” Our behavior
greatly affects our thoughts and attitudes. If you are feeling a lack of confidence or have an urge to change
something within yourself, you must “act your way into a new way of thinking," rather than trying to think
your way into a new way of acting.
- How we carry and move our bodies affects our mood. Research shows that "walking the walk" is
important. How we hold our bodies affects our minds and our confidence and our performance. For instance, if you
stand up straight and walk with purposeful long strides, it will actually make you feel more assured and powerful.
- “Sometimes to make miracles happen, you just have to dive in.” Embracing the act of
walking in someone else’s shoes is the basis for all of Jacobs’ research. By treating yourself like a
“human guinea pig," you can actually change your outlook and mindset in the process.
Charlie Todd, the mastermind behind projects like No Pants Subway Ride and Seeing Eye People
(though, “Those aren’t improv at all,” he admits), showed students at his master class how the
tenets of improv can carry over to the creative process. The main lessons:
- “Yes, and...” is the foundation of improv and something we should implement in everyday life. By agreeing with others' suggestions
and keeping the forward momentum going, you become a better collaborator and open up creative possibilities that
wouldn't otherwise be available.
- "When you stall by asking questions and bickering, you halt the creative flow.” Students
also learned how criticism and questions can break up the creative rhythm. Todd showed how, rather than questioning
others, we benefit more from adding onto and expanding their statements — even if the ideas seem crazy. You
never know where an idea can lead if you give it a chance.
Scott Belsky opened with a
bracing statement: “Most ideas never happen, and even the greatest ideas suffer horrible odds." So how do some
teams defy the odds and actually make their ideas happen? Belsky revealed the sweet spot – that it’s about
more than creativity, great idea execution takes organization, community, and great leadership. A few key insights:
- Have a culture of “capturing” at meetings. No one should ever leave a meeting without
a list of “actionable tasks” to move a project forward. If there are no tasks to “capture”
after a meeting, then the meeting probably shouldn’t have happened.
- Find your beacons, then don’t look away. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of
a project, but identify those “sacred extremes,” the two or three things at the heart of what
you’re trying to accomplish, and look to them for guidance.
- Silence the visionary; leaders should talk last. Naturally, a team will respect the opinions of
their leaders, which can be a disservice to the team. In meetings, let the leader speak last to give the team a
chance to voice their unbiased ideas.
As the CEO of Undercurrent, a digital strategy firm that advises global brands like GE, American Express, and Ford,
Dignan spends his days inventing new solutions that get used — and ladder up to a larger plan. Some takeaways he
- Mission comes before strategy. How do you want to make a dent in the universe? Once you can
answer this bold question, you’re ready to start strategizing.
- The landscape for what is possible has changed, and the speed at which things happens is faster
than ever. With that in mind, we can no longer react. Instead, we have to anticipate how others will react.
- The four pillars for a great digital strategy are: people (who’s your team?), process (how
will you make decisions?), product (what will you create?), and platform (how will others build upon it?).
As the co-founder and chief product officer at Airbnb, Gebbia let us in on the history of the company and how his
vision came to be what it is today. Leading the audience through an interactive exercise, Gebbia asked attendees to
visualize their goals by storyboarding. Some highlights:
- “Go meet people. It’s okay to do things that don’t scale.” If you
are faced with a problem, you don’t always have to solve it in a "scalable" way. When Airbnb was struggling in
its early days, actually going out and spending time one-on-one with customers was a game changer. It wasn't
scalable over the long term, but it made all the difference in the short term.
- “Storyboards show you things that words can’t, and they help bridge words to
experience.” Airbnb created a common vision for its staff by storyboarding the entire customer flow
and experience and putting those storyboards on display in their San Francisco offices. Visualizing where you are
and where you want to be, through sketches, is an extremely powerful tool for setting your goals and staying on
- Take the next step. Gebbia encouraged the 99U audience to write down an idea and aspiration of
their own, and using a storyboard, envision and draw that snapshot moment where the idea enters the world. Everyone
was left with the question, “What is one thing you can do next to forward your idea?”
More 2013 99U Conference Recaps:
Part One: Brené Brown, Cal Newport, Gretchen Rubin, & More
Part Two: A.J. Jacobs, Joe Gebbia, Charlie Todd, & More Part Three: Ramit Sethi, Leah Busque, Jeff Sheng, & More Part Four: Hosain Rahman, Josh Reich, Heather Payne, & More
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