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What We Learned at the 2017 99U Conference

What We Learned at the 2017 99U Conference
Published June 12, 2017 by The 99U Team

At 99U, we talk a lot  about the creative community and there was no better representation of that than the audience, speakers, and partners of the 9th annual 99U Conference. Together, they represented 661 cities spread across six continents who traveled to New York City for three days and nights of speakers, Studio Sessions hosted by top creative organizations, and rollicking parties.

While most events might wait until their 10th anniversary to throw a big anniversary celebration, 99U fittingly pulled out all the stops for our 9th edition. We had thought-provoking main stage talks from leaders at brands like Instagram, Airbnb, and Pentagram, on everything from the BS of design thinking to navigating career paths in this age of disruption.  

Then there were the Studio Sessions hosted by companies such as Spotify, BuzzFeed, IDEO, Refinery29, the Upright Citizens Brigade, ustwo, Dropbox, SYPartners, and Shake Shack. If you didn’t attend and you’re starting to feel a tad jealous, we apologize for what we’re about to tell you next—our closing party at the Museum of Modern Art went until the wee hours and featured a DJ set by Hot Chip.

The 99U Conference takes an inclusive approach to creativity. Whether you’re a designer, artist, marketer, engineer, educator, artist, CEO—if you approach your work creatively, 99U’s goal is to help you find the inspiration to build an incredible career. And we did have delegates from all of those fields and more, who heard stories of personal triumph in the face of career challenges, participated in hands-on workshops focused on learning specific creative and job skills, and walked away with new ideas that can make a real impact on their work.

To the 1,000 delegates who attended this year’s sold out event, thank you. And to those who are interested in attending next year, we’d love to have you. In the meantime, here are some of the best and brightest ideas we heard at the 2017 99U Conference.

Creativity is medicine.

"People need doctors. People need clean water. Is creative work as much of a deep need? I would say yes," said Farai Chideya, author of The Episodic Career.

Challenge the world around you.

"You never see a person on a cycling sign. You see one on a wheelchair sign. You’re saying you can’t use that object unless you are that person," said Liz Jackson, founder of the Inclusive Fashion + Design Collective, as she strode the stage with the aid of a cane. "We are disabled not by our bodies but by the world around us. It is a social construct. Disability is nothing more than a brand, the world’s ugliest brand."

Mike Perry 99U Conference Speaker Mike Perry / Photo by Julian Mackler

Challenge censorious tendencies.

With his work, artist Mike Perry has challenged everyone from the FCC to 99U (we were asked to strike a ‘no obscene images’ clause from his speaker agreement). Even Playboy had to be persuaded to run one of his illustrations, which they eventually did with adjustments. "Drawing people is like [sex]” said Perry. "If you’re not careful, you might create a new life."

Design is a foundation, not a fix.

"Initially, design was the ‘fix it’ team. ‘Can you make the experience better?’ But the best businesses are built with design leadership," said Adobe executive vice president of digital media, Bryan Lamkin, who was product manager of Adobe Photoshop "before Photoshop had layers," he said to raucous applause from the designers in the room.

Consider your inner Björk.

"Let’s re-envision the incubator model to foster cultural value, not just capital value," said Julia Kaganskiy, the director of the New Museum’s incubator, NEW INC. "We don’t want to be the next Facebook or Google. Maybe we want to be the next Björk."

Ian Spalter 99U Conference Speaker Ian Spalter / Photo by Julian Mackler

Data doesn't have feelings.

This is important because users—and investors, and customers, and colleagues—do have feelings about your product. "With data, you don’t know how you’ve made people feel about the changes you’ve made," said Ian Spalter, head of design at Instagram, who made the best comparison of the day: "Design is about puppies. Data is about politicians. But there is magic to be found mixing intuition with statistics or art with science."

You can’t plan for everything, so stop trying.

Selling your company often appears like a well-deserved ending to a long journey. But exiting isn’t always the victory it seems. Barbarian Group founder Rick Webb learned that lesson the hard way when he sold his company to a Korean conglomerate that went through an unexpected corruption scandal shortly thereafter. In his 99U talk, Webb candidly spoke about what it’s like to sell your company and then be faced with challenges that you never saw coming.

Keep it simple.

99U founder Scott Belsky, who had early-stage investments in Pinterest, Warby Parker, and Periscope, emphasized making products simple and accessible—and keeping them that way. Users flock to simple products, noted Belsky, then companies take users for granted and adds features to satisfy the power users, which alienates the users who flocked to the original simple product. "Products can be powerful enough for professionals, but accessible to everyone," said Belsky.

Prototyping is everything because everything is a prototype.

"Every launch is effectively a prototype. No design is ever done," said Khosla Ventures design partner, Irene Au, in a talk that held up a complex project with her residential architect as a model for all design collaborations.

Natasha Jen 99U Conference Speaker Natasha Jen / Photo by Julian Mackler

Post less, critique more.

If Google Image search is your sole barometer, "design thinking uses just one tool: 3M Post-Its,” said Pentagram partner Natasha Jen. “Why did we end up with a single medium? Charles and Ray Eames worked in a complete lack of Post-It stickies. They learned by doing." Jen lobbies for the "Crit" [criticism] over the "Post-It" when it comes to moving design forward.

Know your design ancestry.

Writer and Postlight founder Paul Ford spoke in exquisite, informed detail about the four user experiences that transformed his life: the Control Panel in Macintosh's debut System, the Reveal Code mode in WordPerfect 5.1, layers in Photoshop 3.0, and the general dexterity of Netscape Navigator. He also gave a knowing nod to the favorite crutch of newbie designers: the drop-shadow.

Friction builds character.

"What do we lose when we remove friction? When we remove all friction, we remove opportunities for serendipity, confrontation, and personal growth," said Airbnb's Steve Selzer.

Debbie Millman 99U Conference Speaker Debbie Millman / Photo by Julian Mackler

You can’t disrupt the need for hard work.

"Anything worthwhile takes time,” said Design Matters' Debbie Millman. "Anything worthwhile takes a lot of time.”

The most important user interface is between you and the gym.

"You can’t do good work if you’re not in good health," said artist and designer James Victore. "I know too many people are basically killing themselves at work. We have to stay happy, healthy people."

Create the conditions for creativity.

The right environment can make a huge difference in getting a budding idea off the ground, and Refinery29’s co-founder and executive creative director Piera Gelardi highlighted four ways to foster that creative state: know what works for you, laughter unlocks brilliance, do it for someone else, and embrace the uncomfortable.

Real-life prototype as much as possible.

Clients tend to connect and understand the idea you’re presenting to them much easier if they can see the solution, live in their hands, shared the team at Ustwo. It doesn’t have to be the completed output. Just enough for them to understand the route you’ve chosen.

Know the reality of ‘just-a-minute’ thinking.

On average we switch tasks every three minutes and five seconds, said Capes Coaching co-founder Betsy Capes,. "It's not multi-tasking," she noted. "It's task overload. It takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to an interrupted task."

Sweat the right stuff.

Be mindful to sweat the right details and not all the details, when dealing with large projects or many iterations, noted Dropbox’s Aaron Robbs and Collin Whitehead.

Creativity is multi-dimensional.

"A greater knowledge of the materials you can use alters the way you design," said Material ConneXion's Dr. Andrew Dent, who works with clients from adidas to BMW on choosing the materials that go into their next best-selling sneaker or sedan.

Shake Shack does a killer lunch spread.

Data isn’t just for data scientists.

“Everyone [on a team] can and should be involved in the data collection process” said Spotify’s user researcher Caitlin Tan.

Good work doesn't need trust.

"'Trust me, this is an amazing idea' doesn't exist anymore," said Verdes partner Greg Matson. "Your idea needs to sell itself. It's more show me than trust me."

Google Tiltbrush A delegate takes Google VR's Tilt Brush experience for a spin / Photo by Julian Mackler

Dwell on the past.

"We believe in a 'learning loop,'" said BuzzFeed senior producer Erin Phraner. "We loop back to successful videos to try and learn from it and to find new things we can test in the next video. It's so important to us because it's a great indicator of what is working."

Attack your project from different perspectives.

“Sometimes designers needs to step back—be an art director or a production manager—to to find the most appropriate methods or design solutions for the problems. You don’t have to do everything yourself,” said MoMA associate creative director, Ingrid Chou.

Prototypes over presentations!

Intercept your biases.

Why is it so hard to break down biases? Because it only takes 1/10 of a second for our brains to categorize someone by race and about 1.5/10 of a second by gender, said SYPartners managing creative director Rie Norregaard. To increase awareness of these biases and begin to advocate for change, Norregaard recommends creating a space with your team where it’s okay to talk through our biases. 

Studio Session 99U Conference 99U delegates get to work at a Studio Session / Photo by Julian Mackler

Round our your team by perspectives, not jobs.

When designing the dream team for a design sprint, the team at The Design Gym brings a variety of perspectives. What kind exactly? Here’s an easy way to think about it that cuts across industries: have a hustler, hipster, hacker, and heckler.

The Best is Yet to Come

99U has already set the dates for the 2018 conference, taking place May 9 - 11 in New York City. Tickets go on sale later this summer.

99U Conference Closing Party DJ Juan Maclean backed by Symmetry Labs' Sugarcubes light installation at the 99U Closing Party / Photo by Julian Mackler

*With reporting and writing done by Richard Morgan. 

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