There were so many bright ideas and inspiring moments at this year’s conference, we had to break this article into two parts. You can read the best ideas of 99U, Part I, here.
Read on to see why we’re so convinced that, in the hands of creatives, the future is bright.
Is creativity about starting from scratch, or finding new ways to do what you’re already doing? Zach Lieberman, co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation, says it’s the latter. In a humorous presentation, Lieberman talked about how making daily code sketches and capturing all of his work in a giant folder on his computer have led to a richer creative process. “If you have to do something again and again, you will make shortcuts,” he said. “And as an artist, those shortcuts will become your style.”
Citing the World Health Organization’s definition, Director of UX Design at Google and Founder of Mismatch.design, Kat Holmes said that what we call disability is a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment they live in. Designers must seek to break up the exclusive ‘shut in/shut out’ model by pausing at each step of the design process to question: ‘Who stands to lose their independence, their engagement, their participation in society?’ Only by deeply questioning who designs products, why we’re creating them, and who we think will use them, will designers be able to bust the cycle of exclusion.
Thaniya Keereepart, head of product at Patreon, thinks it’s an incredible time to be a creator. At the same time, she thinks the ad-driven business model of YouTube and other online media platforms fails to adequately compensate creators. In her 99U mainstage talk, Keereepart raised important questions about what it means to transact, consume, and advertise in the modern world. “Advertising, in general, is not a bad thing,” she says. “But maybe there should be alternatives.”
Merill Garbus of Tune-Yards during her multi-layered performance/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus brought the audience back from lunch and to its feet, creating loops and beats by turning the space around her into an instrument pit; stamping the stage and thwacking the sound equipment, all paired with the rollicking sound of her ukulele.
In a masterful look at a few creative ways to make human connections, Ivan Cash led attendees in sharing proud moments, personal struggles, and finally—generating lots of laughter—the most recent photo on their phones. Cash believes there is massive power in vulnerability and opening up, even to strangers. “The fallacy I hope to break today is that it’s hard to make a connection,” said Cash.
Creative coach Tina Essmaker opened up on her time founding and then unraveling the publication The Great Discontent, and her experience of feeling burnt out and unfulfilled. With templates and mission statement prompts, Essmaker coached attendees on how to find what fulfills them and wrestle the feelings they want from the work they make, even at times of stress. “Cultivating gratitude is especially important when you don’t think you have a lot to be thankful for,” she said.
In a dive into how to use nostalgia in creative experiences—99Uers got hands-on by labbing ideas for children’s playthings—Layne Braunstein asked the attendees to dig into their past and share cherished memories. “The memories that you have when you’re growing up are always stuck in your subconscious,” Braunstein explained. He encouraged designers to trust that sometimes those simple remembrances and nostalgias can unlock the strongest human emotions.
Forest Young of Wolff Olins at his master class/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
Wolff Olins’ Forest Young points out that designing for the future is like walking backwards—blindly pushing forward with your eyes on where you’ve come from. Young's goal is to make sure that designers forecast inclusion, equitability, and impact, not just bright, shiny innovations into that unknown space. “Future Design at its worst is about chasing novelty,” he said. “Maybe the things we should focus on aren’t so glamorous.”
Accurat Design Director, Giorgia Lupi, is a master of numbers, but that doesn’t mean she thinks they’re perfect. “Data is an instrument that we humans created to observe, record, and archive our reality,” she said. While data itself is an abstraction, Lupi explores what very real truths data can tell by asking unexpected questions about things like emotional health, moments of negativity, and intimate fears. “There is a world of unexplored, small, and intimate data that we never see,” she said, looking forward to a time when data-driven design is replaced by design-driven data.
Jasmine Takanikos issued a call for us all to find space to cultivate our creativity. To that, she advocates for private safe zones where inspiration can find you, keeping some ideas to yourself so they can multiply within you. Be careful what creative content you put into your system, and respect your own process and pace.
WeTransfer may be expert in sharing massive ideas across the internet, but in their masterclass, Global Head of Music Jamal Dauda and Senior Designer Karen van de Kraats shared wisdom learned from launching a content platform. One of their biggest learnings for launching a new idea? Go to an extreme with ideas in order to remove negativity at the root. “When in doubt, push it over the cliff,” they advised. “Going far with your ideas makes it easier to tone it down.”
Anna Pickard of Slack "does words" but also good slides/Ryan Muir for 99U
What does it mean to make your brand human? As head of brand communications at Slack, Anna Pickard faced the nuances of this question firsthand and shared a few of her personal findings with the 99U audience in a fun, lighthearted presentation. The core of her argument: make people feel seen. Don’t underestimate the value that a heartfelt error message or a “You’re doing great!” tweet might deliver. Says Pickard: “It’s not about pretending to be human; it’s about finding the moments when you can connect with people.”
Paige Bennett, a design researcher at Dropbox, knows that sometimes the hardest part of research can be figuring out how to share what you learned (particularly with a design audience). But giving our research a life beyond us is a skill we all have to develop. “Your findings must be able to live on without you as their guardian,” she said. To get attention and buy-in from design-savvy listeners, she suggests using multiple formats like workshops, brown bag lunches, collateral like stickers and flip books, and pop up galleries and exhibits. Don’t stick to paper and PowerPoint.
For decades, we’ve been saying that design belongs in the boardroom, leading companies. The fact that we have to keep repeating it, said Mike Rigby and Saneel Radia of R/GA, means that philosophy hasn’t stuck yet. As evangelists of how design can transform business, they argue that creativity drives companies to outperform competitors and deliver outsize employee satisfaction and should be used to regiment the whole business, not just the brand, from top to bottom. “The size of the boardroom doesn’t matter,” said Radia. “It’s the mission of the boardroom that does matter.”
From creating a special Alexa device for the needs of a woman with MS to the experience of a single woman about to become a mother, the Smart Design team drilled down to the possibilities that lie in designing for one: experiencing the nuances of one journey, versus mapping out many. The team opened up about their original motivations for becoming designers and engineers: they wanted to do something to help people. Now, the design for one focus keeps them locked in on the real motivation: to avoid “failing a design challenge vs. failing a real person.”
Ashley C. Ford closed the 2019 99U Conference on a high note/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U
When she was in 7th grade, Ashley C. Ford kept falling asleep in class. The teacher could have written her off as lazy and unmotivated; instead, he asked her questions that unearthed the real reasons, ultimately changing her life. Ford--a writer and speaker--shared this story and others in a heartfelt talk that showcased the power of being able to imagine more than what you see before you. That, she says, is the key to moving society forward. “If you can be brave enough to imagine past your understanding, you can change everything,” she says. “Not just the world, but the people who live in it.”
IDEO design leads sat down with 99U attendees to discuss AI bias by building a sample algorithm together. As biases seeped into the AI outcomes, the audience was warned that biases always start with us, not the data or the model. So, create your own personal code of ethics as a designer and apply it at the start of your process, don’t just do an ethics drive-by at the end. The goal, design research lead Ovetta Sampson says, is “to amplify the beauty of humanity with design while avoiding practices that exploit its fragility.”
From blue jeans to glasses, Alain Sylvain unpacked the history of products that were truly ‘innovative.’ But now, he says, that word has become a buzzy piece of slang that gets thrown around in pitches and meetings (and numerous headlines). We’ve diluted the true meaning of innovation through the mass consumption of the idea, said Sylvain. He advised everyone to hold themselves more accountable to precise language, including playing buzzword bingo in meetings to call attention to bad jargon habits.
In a high-energy session, Disney’s former Head of Innovation, Duncan Wardle, got attendees on their feet to explain why his favorite client pitches involve putting his presentation up on all four walls of a room. Taking the client for a walk turns a pitch into a conversation. In the same vein, Wardle encouraged attendees to playfully break out of their usual habits, whether its taking a different route home, or listening to a new radio station. After all, he said ‘No fresh stimulus in? No new ideas out!”
Conference-goers buzzing around the lobby at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center/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.