If there is one pervasive theme that has taken hold of our work lives, private lives, and digital lives in the past year, it’s that challenges are always present -- and they demand confrontation. This year, the Adobe 99U Conference focused its theme around tackling challenges by exploring new approaches to creative leadership, overcoming hurdles that limit our own work, inventing and reinventing formats, and using creativity to effect social good.
From 99U founder Scott Belsky to CreativeMornings founder Tina Roth Eisenberg to John Maeda, speakers dug into how to design the immersive experience of our future, how to replace job perks with passion, and why the future will be crafted by those who do the work beyond the scope of what their job title requires.
We’ve rounded up our speakers best and the brightest ideas so you can incorporate their insights into your career and reshape, upend, and nurture your creative life.
Lead fearlessly and from the heart.
You get to mindfully pick what kind of leader you are—whether you lead from fear of failure, or are joyfully driven by your vision. For CreativeMornings and Tattly founder Tina Roth Eisenberg, the best method is to make your work a playground for your future best self. “I am learning everyday to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire and not terrify me,” she said.
Don’t protect yourself from failure.
A culture of consensus building can kill any chance of disruption and innovation. Instead, Todd Yellin, VP of Product at Netflix, encourages his team to challenge convention, even if there is the risk of failure. “You want to lean so far forward that sometimes you fall on your face,” said Yellin. “You can never make it to a true utopia, but you should keep on pushing.”
To be a creative leader, start silly.
Whenever we begin a project we tend to also begin with an ambitious goal and that can make the whole project feel super serious and pressure-filled right off the bat. But what if we sometimes began with play and discovery rather than metrics and objectives? According to Google Creative Lab’s Tea Uglow, there is no reason that approach also can’t yield a successful result. “You can start with stuff that feels dumb and stupid, and play with it and you will get to places where it becomes potent and powerful.”
John Maeda and Adobe VP of Design Jamie Myrold/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
“Being inclusive means welcoming the unknown,” said Automattic’s John Maeda who has made it his mission to rehabilitate the design world with a broader and braver sense of who we’re designing for. And when we design for everyone, we can reach everyone. “Better products are created in tech when we’re inclusive-minded because the total addressable market increases,” he said.
Do, delegate, or drop.
In order to write compelling new chapters in our career, we have to give ourselves permission to drop a ball or two. Or better yet, learn to delegate—even if that feels totally unnatural. “If you want something you've never had before you're gonna have to do something that you've never done before in order to get it.”said Drop the Ball author Tiffany Dufu said, So either do it, delegate it, or drop it. (And, as Dufu reassured everyone, if you drop unrealistic expectations, nothing bad will happen.)
Make your message the focus of your work.
Artist and author Adam J. Kurtz admitted he doesn’t necessarily aim for by-the-book visual perfection. Instead, he embraces an unpolished aesthetic and a habit of churning out a lot of ideas for the internet to either adore or ignore. “My work looks bad, but I have a lot to say,” he said. “My visual voice, the handwriting that I use, is emotive and disarming and it allows me to tackle difficult topics.”
Set your own house rules.
Sound artist Christine Sun Kim viscerally feels the effect of sound when it invades her home. Rather than be a passive player, Kim builds house rules and art projects like performances and sound diets to wrestle with the role of sound in her personal space (including asking a nearby church to cut back its bell-ringing schedule). “For me home is where my deaf identity and deafness are one and the same,” she said.
Walk your stakeholders through your ideas, literally.
Duncan Wardle, the former Head of Innovation & Creativity at Disney, recommends printing and posting your ideas around the walls of a conference room and physically walking your team and clients through them. “People sitting behind tables will judge you, they can’t help it,” says Wardle. “When you walk with somebody, a presentation turns into a conversation.”
Tiffany Dufu/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
Start your business with a problem you want to solve.
“Sometimes when people talk about their business idea, they jump to the benefit of their business,” said Emily Heyward, Red Antler co-founder. “But people are not sitting around wishing your business existed—no one is sitting around wishing for a crunchy cereal with raisins.” However, they might be wishing for a quick answer to breakfast, or to lose weight—their motivation for buying the product you’ll make. “You have to go deeper to the actual problem behind why someone might care about this idea.”
Mindlessness is an affliction. Mindfulness is the cure.
These days you’re either at a company that is disrupting, or one that is being disrupted. As a leader, embracing change starts at the individual level, said SYPartners’ Sara Kalick, who advocates for scheduling time for mindfulness into everyday life, through things like meditation or setting down your phone and disconnecting from the always-on mode. “If you don’t let your thoughts control you, you can be responsive, not reactive,” said Kalick. “That is hugely important for leaders.”
Risk-taking is an art...and a playground.
Our most valuable contributions can come from the times when we launch into untrammeled territory. But risk-taking is uncomfortable, awkward, and frightening. To keep creatives from shying away from going out on a limb, Good F***ing Design Advice co-founders Brian Buirge and Jason Bacher recommend adding partners-in-crime to share the burden of your risk, injecting playfulness to energize your process, and to embrace—not avoid—a sense of fear. “Pride and insecurities are responses to vulnerabilities,” they said. “They are telling you something. So listen!”
Don’t be afraid to ask the obvious question.
Iteration through prototyping is one of the most integral steps in the design process. It’s often the best way to bounce around new ideas, question creative solutions, and unearth new problems. But we often skip the most important piece in the prototyping process. As we rush to dream up new solutions and ideas, we often forget to ask ourselves ‘why?’ Why do it this way? Why prioritize that? Adobe Creative Resident, Natalie Lew alongside Donors Choose, said to ask three ‘why?’ questions after someone gives an initial answer, so you can get to the heart of what is really driving the change.
Attendees workshopped their own ideas during break out sessions/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
If you’re not designing for the future, you’re designing for the past.
Brand strategy firm Lippincott highlighted three key human experience design trends to help us plan ahead: a world of devices and systems treated as intimate resources and friends, which will set higher and higher bars of trust in order to access with your product; an increasingly customized world, where every moment and experience is designed for each individual; plus a new synthetic reality where the real and virtual meet and blend. In order to keep pace with the future, designers must address these shifts now. After all, the Lippincott team points out, “If you’re designing for today’s customer, you’re probably designing for the past.”
Think forward with your feedback.
Feedback is one of the most valuable and yet unspoken gifts we can offer our colleagues. Why is so much left unsaid? ustwo believes we don’t have the roadmap to manage our fear of crossing the line from feedback into critique. The most important thing to remember? “Be actionable,” said the team from ustwo. “Effective feedback is specific, relates directly to the goals of the project, and suggests a possible next step.”
Sometimes the most effective tech is the most old school
Stop motion animation brings to mind whimsical characters navigating a bumpy existence. But animation studio Mighty Oak says there’s more to stop motion than a wink and a smile. Major brands, from Volkswagen to Sun-Maid, have put animation at the center of their campaigns, embracing the personality that animation can add to the simplest shapes and images. According to Mighty Oak, animation keeps viewers engaged for longer lengths of time than live action. Even more importantly, the simplicity of the medium makes more complicated messages possible. “It allows us to discuss tough issues, explain complex information, remove barriers, cut through the clutter, and make memorable impressions,” said Mighty Oak CEO Jess Peterson.
99U founder Scott Belsky/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
The messy middle of a project can hold the biggest rewards.
99U founder Scott Belsky is no stranger to launching new endeavors. His current focus? That mysterious middle no one talks about in between inception and shipping; the time when you can’t see the finish line and you’ve forgotten what got you into the project in the first place. “Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that long-term vision is enough to keep us motivated,” said Belsky. But that’s not enough. In order to stay motivated during that muddle of a middle, Belsky advises building a team that accepts the burden of processing uncertainty, enjoys being together apart from product success, and to set whimsical milestones that lead to team excitement when there are no formal rewards in sight.
Deliver your wordy message in a visuals.
An audience’s attention is one of our most valuable resources. How can we make sure to keep it long enough for them hear our whole message? Data journalist Mona Chalabi transforms numbers into witty, incisive visuals that both delight and surprise and drive home serious facts and figures.
“Charts don't connect the subject matter with the visualization themselves,” said Chalabi. “I try to connect the subject matter with the depiction of the visualization.” So if she’s been assigned to design a chart showing a major world event, she surely isn’t going to a ho hum bar chart. “If you’re talking about an economy that's in freefall, that's diving, why not show a diver?” she says. “The surprise is meant to hold your attention.”
Speaker Mona Chalabi/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
Fun fact: Alternate realities are the product humans desperately desire.
Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek didn’t plan to get into one of the fastest growing economies of the 21st century. He originally set out to build an arts collective. But the immersive installations he launched at Meow Wolf fed into our desire to experience the avante garde. Kadlubek sees a growing opportunity between reality and design as the two shape the world, and he challenged designers to think of themselves as shapers in the new freedom of this landscape. “The world has felt limited by previous infrastructure that we can’t affect,” he says. “That’s changing. All creatives around the world should start thinking about how together, over the next 20 years, we can create a beautiful new world.”
Replace perks with passions.
It’s no secret: tech and media are great fields to work in. Entry level talent can get unlimited vacations, three free meals a day, and workspaces with Kombucha and nap pods. But Audrey Liu, Lyft’s Director of Product Design, cautions against emphasizing all-day fun, not fulfillment, to attract talent. “We’ve lost sight of the one perk we should all care about,” Liu said. “A shared sense of passion for the problem we’re trying to solve.”
Inspire the dreams of others by chasing your own.
Super Heroic CEO, and former Nike Senior Global Design Director, Jason Mayden is driven by the philosophy that if we can play together, we can live together. Through his company, Super Heroic, he’s created a world of play that coaches kids toward creativity, agility, and perseverance. But to raise a new generation who can play and dream together, adults have to set a good example by tending to their own dreams. In order to inspire new generations, we must follow our own dreams. “You being comfortable with your dream,” said Mayden, “Allows someone else to be comfortable with their dream.”
Speaker Audrey Liu/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
Shoot for the mundane, not the moon.
On a trip to Cuba to work with local start-ups, Marcelino J. Alvarez, founder of Uncorked Studios, discovered an entrepreneurial culture that, unlike in the U.S., wasn’t obsessed with profits and products, but with contexts and communities. Inspired by them, Alvarez advised designers to zero in on the everyday needs of systems and communities, “There are way more opportunities to scale impact through the mundane than through moonshots,” he said.
Unbury your greatest hopes and fears.
Ashleigh Axios, design exponent at Automattic and former Obama White House creative director, wants us all to be a little more self-centered. Not in the way that makes us design unnecessary products for a quick buck. She means self-centered in a more introspective, vulnerable way. Axios challenged designers to dig deep into the things that frustrate us—whether it’s hurt about racial inequality or an experience being bullied as a child—and create products that address those problems. “Every frustration,” she said, “every fear, every hope that you've buried really deep down inside thinking there was no way for it to change into something positive, I want us to pull that back up. Those are the things that will make us better off.”
Resistance at its best will slow the pace of change. Resistance at its worst can decimate a company or career.
The key to understanding why people resist change, said NOBL's CEO Bree Groff, is to understand why exactly people are resisting. “I would argue that people aren’t resisting change—they’re resisting loss,” said Groff. Based on NOBL’s work with brands and agencies, Groff pinpoints six types of loss employees feel during organizational change: loss of control, pride, narrative, time, competence, and familiarity. Her advice for someone who is trying to enact change is to follow three steps: Honor the end of what you’re saying goodbye to, address the loss, and celebrate the beginning. Most people start with celebrating the beginning, noted Groff, but first they need to lay the proper groundwork for turning the page.
Learn to speak the language of every medium you touch.
We can’t be an expert in every medium, but our jobs require often require us to go beyond our speciality and work in new formats. What’s a creative to do?? Make sure you learn the language of the medium you’re in charge of. For instance, if you’re the brand director on a photoshoot, have a palette of visual language to communicate with your photographers so you can articulate direction to them. The best tactic for framing the initial conversation? “Make multiple mood boards,” said photographer and Adobe Creative Resident, Aundre Larrow. “A mood board for how you want expressions, how you want the light, and for the general feel.” You might not be a photographer, but you are still in charge of the photoshoot.
Attendees participating in Google's break out session/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
Get to the point (and then you can embellish)
What if you only had five seconds to sketch out your idea? What would you put down on paper? Some intricate design? Or the bones of the problem you’re looking to solve? In her breakout session, Adobe Creative Resident Jessica Bellamy challenged her audience to draw certain objects in five seconds to show how, when you get to a design’s essence, function precedes form “Beautiful design does not mean it communicates its function,” said Bellamy.
When in doubt, do as Google does.
Over the last 10 years, Google has become one of the largest and most important companies in the world. Even though its employee count has quadrupled during that time and its reach spans the globe, the company’s philosophy today remains the same as it was in the early years. “Focus on the user and all else will follow,” said Jens Riegelsberger, UX Director, Google, sharing a mantra that, come to think of it, companies of any size can follow as the golden rule of business.
Bottom up in the new top down.
Brands today have more dimensions to them than ever before, and experience, experience, visual, and verbal design must connect to each other, and to a brand’s purpose. This means companies have to be built in a whole new way, said the team at R/GA. “Modern brands are built from the bottom up because today, behavior is as important as belief,” said R/GA’s executive creative director Mike Rigby. “Bottom up means starting with designing the system and thinking about all of the interactions the audience has with the brand first instead of pushing a brand directive from the top to the bottom.”
Take Time out for Pen and Paper
Effective Brainstorming = Frame > Open > Close
Who hasn’t been in an ideas meeting that has gone completely off the rails? Sure, we want to be open to any and all concepts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use a strategy to keep us on track. “The best way to brainstorm is Frame -> Open -> Closed,” said Jason Cha, director at The Design Gym. “Frame is where you figure out the challenge or problem; open is where you think of ideas—anything goes, you can just spitball the broadest ideas. “Closed is where you figure out how to actually solve the challenge using your open ended ideas.”
Bring in new voices and onboard them to lead the conversation.
General Assembly advised creatives to open up the pearly gates of design to new voices and new experiences. After all, the collective is stronger than the individual. The new mindsets General Assembly looks for? A full systems approach to design, and people who think ahead to design for evolution and adaptation. To bring those new voices in, Tyler Hartrich advised, “build a culture that allows newcomers to contribute to the way you do things.” The more we open up the doors, the better we will be as an industry.
When you demo new tools, demo new ideas too.
When working with new products, your key ingredient is the desire to try new things. That means, lead with a wish to learn, not a desire to be perfect. “Be inspired to make something you’ve never made before,” said artist and designer, Jennet Liaw.
When it comes to branding, sound matters.
Design is often thought of as a visual journey, which leads us to overlook one of the most powerful ways to connect with an audience—through sound. Emotional response to sound is strongly linked with the desire to engage or avoid an experience. “Our role is to score the brand experience,” said Kristen Lueck, Director of Strategy for Man Made Music. “If a product or experience makes a sound, it will have personality – you have no choice in the matter.”
Go with your gut.
It’s tough to evaluate and critique a partner’s work. We worry about hurt feelings, or possibly squashing the germs of a good idea. But DKNG founders Nathan Goldman and Dan Kuhlken say lets your instincts guide you. “Whatever your initial reaction to your partner’s work, don’t take it lightly,” they said. “It’s quite possible that anyone viewing the work will have a similar opinion.” Be upfront and honest, and, if you have to have a hard conversation, better it coming from you than a client who feels the same way.
Make thinking and making the same thing
Artist Jon Burgerman has crafted a career out of doodling. But there’s more to that practice than whimsical lines. “Doodling is thinking and making at the same time,” Burgerman said. Sometimes the best ideas, with the biggest impact can come from the very simple, silly, and quick, so find ways to remove the barrier between your thoughts and your attempts. “Allow your imagination to be your raw material,” advised Burgerman.
Attendees toasted two days of ideas with a dance party at MoMA/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer.