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99U's Best of Innovation article represented with growing circles in various colors. Image by Julie Campbell

Big Ideas

From Embracing Imperfections to Designing Alternate Realities: 99U’s 10 Best Innovative Ideas

These designers see opportunity for innovation everywhere they turn, from tactics for working better to tech that is changing lives. 


The perk of being a creative is that we live in a world of constant inspiration. We gathered up some of our favorite innovative thinking from this year—from emoji emotions to sound logos (what?!)—in the hopes that the unexpected ways other creatives are approaching their work brings a shot of inspiration to your career.

1. Get paid for creativity, not time.

In his recent paper, State of the Digital Nation 2020, FKTRY founder Jules Ehrhardt sees a tough road ahead for the long-standing creative agency model of paying for time instead of creativity, which he says has led to company consolidation, lost jobs, and cheaper pricing. “The only way for us to escape and build a new prosperous place, a new happy place, is to basically break that ‘paid for time’ client service model,” says Ehrhardt.

Matteo Farinella illustrates the new rules for communicating in a virtual world, including use emojis to share current mood status.

Matteo Farinella illustrates the new rules for communicating in a virtual world.

2. Bring emoji intelligence to your virtual meetings.

In the current distributed world of remote work, we need to treat our virtual communication with as much emotional intelligence as our in-person chats. When sitting down for a conference call, don’t dive straight into the agenda. Take the emotional temperature of the room. Are people stressed? Do they have exciting news to share? Start by asking every teammate to send a string of emojis to express their emotional state.

3. Design a set of questions to separate the good ideas from the great ones.

The curators at the MoMA Design Store put their new products through an eight-step “filtration” process designed to cut out all but the best. Their key questions are relevant to anyone launching something new: “Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Does it use materials or technology in an innovative way? Would the world miss it if it wasn’t there?” And lastly, but most importantly: “Will the customer buy it?”

Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, and Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, filming in the Microsoft office. Photo by Brian Smale.

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, and Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, filming in the Microsoft office. Photo by Brian Smale.

4. Break ground with your job title.

The title “Chief Storyteller” was once highlighted on a Fortune list of wackiest jobs titles. But, as it turns out, Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, was ahead of his time. “What it does is it gets people’s attention,” says Clayton.“I do think we’ll see more Chief Storytellers as we move into the era of brands and companies talking about their mission and purpose—purpose over product. They will be inclined to take on more of their own storytelling.”

5. Recognize trick questions.

Veteran investor Tige Savage always asks the people pitching him who their competitors are. Sure, it might seem cool to say, “No one has ever done anything like this.” But don’t be fooled. He is actually testing your market savvy. “Venture capitalists want to understand your awareness of the competitive environment,” says Savage. “They want to know why you think you have strengths that carve out a reasonable niche versus the rest.”

An empathy kit with VR and candy to help people better understand autism. Photo courtesy of OnComfort.

An empathy kit with VR and candy to help people better understand autism. Photo courtesy of OnComfort.

6. Create virtual-world solutions.

The VR boom hasn’t quite changed the world quite like we thought it would. But it’s certainly changing lives, from drug rehabilitation programs to PTSD therapy, by giving users access to experiences in a safe environment. “From time to time, naysayers will mention VR is dead, only because it hasn’t radically re-shaped the gaming industry in the way it was hyped. But even if all innovation stopped tomorrow, we would be at a sufficient level to continue to do great stuff, clinically,” says Albert Rizzo, director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies.

7. Think beyond color.

Whether it’s a red/green color deficiency or chromatic confusion over purple, one in 12 men and 0.5 percent of women have some kind of color blindness. But our digital world—from to-do list apps to clothing websites—often uses color differentiation to deliver information and wayfinding. “Many designers aren’t aware of this disability,” says UX designer Matej Latin. It’s time for digital design to get over this blind spot. To start, pull texture, pattern, and shape into your design repertoire, not just color indicators.

8. Design with sound in mind.

Joel Beckerman, founder of sonic branding firm Man Made Music, is the force behind the sounds that are as iconic to a company as their logo, like the purr of a Nissan hybrid engine (artificially added to the otherwise silent car), or the iMAX audioscape. But the soundscape he most enjoys redesigning? Hospitals. “Take for example this problem of hospital alarms: Who says an alarm has to scare the crap out of you?” he says. “We believe we can use sound to make alarms and soundscapes much more purposeful.”

9. Embrace alternate realities.

Vince Kadlubek, the co-founder of the immersive art experience Meow Wolf, sees a bright future for creativity—actually, he sees many alternate futures. “In the next 20 years, alternate realities are going to be the biggest product that customers will be seeking,” he says. Kadlubek encourages creatives to start envisioning and building them now, not just physically, but in even more undiscovered territory, digitally. “The world has felt limited by previous infrastructure that we can’t affect. That’s changing.”

Mona Chalabi uses images to provide context in her data sets, like a person practicing yoga, for a yoga data set. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

Mona Chalabi uses images to provide context in her data sets. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

10. A colorful visual trumps a bar graph every time.

Data journalist Mona Chalabi is fighting the false pretense that we all know exactly what we’re talking about. Specifically, she’s frustrated by the veneer of scientific objectivity that comes with traditional data visualizations like piece charts and graphs. “They make it seem like the data is so pure and precise and that’s not the truth of data,” she says. Instead, Chalabi hand-draws her graphs to create a more human-centric way to consume data with the proper context.

More Posts by Emily Ludolph

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. 


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