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Big Ideas

The Best Ideas from the 11th Annual 99U Conference, Part I

Top ideas from 99U 2019 to help make the creative future bright.


“There are events around the world where creatives like you are told about technologies coming to take your jobs,” said Will Allen VP, Community Products at Adobe. “This isn’t one of them.”

From why Socos’ Labs Dr. Vivienne Ming thinks creativity is useless without courage to IDEO President, Tim Brown’s assurance that this is the greatest time to work in design, the ideas from this year’s 99U Conference were groundbreaking and thought-provoking. They pushed the envelope on how we can use new technology and reminded us of the ways in which we are deeply human. In fact, there were so many incredible ideas from 99U this year, it took two articles to capture. Our coverage continues in Part II, here.

From AI to empathy, from boredom to bravery, here is Part I of the top takeaways from 99U 2019. 

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Creativity is useless without courage

Dr. Vivienne Ming, AI expert and co-founder of Socos Labs—she prefers the title ‘mad scientist’—electrified the 99U audience with her forecasting of inventions like brain patches to stimulate creative thinking, and brain hardwiring to make you smarter. It will be an amazing experience, she assured the assembled creatives, for those that survive the surgery. But, she warned, her AI inventions and technological advancements are nothing if we do not use those tools courageously in the service of a greater purpose. “Taking creative people that know how to explore the unknown and have the courage to do what they think is right, that is fundamentally what creativity is about,” she said.  

Aim empathy in all directions

Michael Ventura isn’t quite the grandfather of empathy, the concept sweeping the design industry, he’s more like the really cool high-school empathy teacher you make sure to visit every time you’re back in town. His talk encouraged the audience to break away from the notion that empathy is about being nice or compassionate or that empathy is only something aimed at others. “It’s important that empathy goes in all directions. We have to go inward to figure out what’s up with us. We have to go external. We have to look into the past and see what we’re bringing with us. And then we look through the windshield to see where we’re going.”

Boredom is a blessing

Artist and illustrator Kyle T. Webster started his 99U talk by boldly getting bored. Supine on the floor of the stage, he invited the audience to experience a feeling that’s only getting rarer as we fill our lives with ever more screen time. Webster called for creatives to make space to space out in order to unlock the place where creative ideas come from. “It’s a beautiful, blank, unexplored space that we will probably lose altogether if we’re not careful,” warns Webster. “We need to seek it out and bask in it.”

Kyle T. Webster let the audience empty their minds to fill it with new ideas/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

First: self-discovery. Then: fulfilling career

Do you feel unfilled at the end of the work day? Meg Lewis suspects it’s because your job only asks you to utilize one of your many skill sets. Your real path, she said, may be paved with a lot of small, unique skills nested together to form a career made exclusively for you. Lewis doesn’t encourage attendees to walk away from their desks. Instead, she advocates doing the work of defining our distinctive qualities, our best skills and the activities that bring life joy and purpose. Then, she said, use that uniquely-you information it to fill your current career with purpose.

‘Intelligence’ is not a technology

Tech education consultancy Decoded works with large companies to demystify machine learning. Their thought-provoking workshop challenged attendees to confront and complicate their idea of intelligence. “AI is a goal, not a technology,” the team said. Currently, AI requires models and big data to learn. There can be no machine learning without big data.

Don’t fight the future

At any moment, there are multiple parallel futures fighting for dominance, said Brian Collins. And all too often, we’re in there fighting too. We shouldn’t be fighting or proofing against the future, Collins told attendees. We should be creating a chosen future with maximum love.

Brian Collins in his master class ‘Designing Tomorrow, Better’/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Know the essentials of teamwork

From outlining roles and accountability to figuring out your coworkers’ pet peeves (aka ‘landmines’), DLW Creative Labs brainstormed the core tenants of powerful multi-disciplinary teams. Most of all,  know that we’re all human. Emotion is one of the most powerful levers for connecting a team. “It takes work to create good habits around sharing emotion,” they said. “Empathy is a practice. Committing is essential.”

To communicate your complex world, doodle

Lisa Rothstein draws on the human tradition of storytelling through pictures to encourage creatives to share their thoughts in doodles. “When you’re drawing, you’re in the world of ideas,” she said. “It’s the visualization of thinking.”

Hearing is believing

So much of design is geared toward the visual, though sound may have even more power. In a dynamic presentation that included a chills-inducing performance by a children’s choir from the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School, Man Made Music founder Joel Beckerman explained how sound is not only helping hospitals, electric car companies, and other organizations enhance their branding, but also improve the customer experience. What if, for example, alerts for hospital equipment created a soothing symphony instead of a cacophony of stress-inducing beeps? Man Made Music is working to solve this and other sonic challenges.

Joel Beckerman and 99U’s first sonic keynote/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

When you’re looking for inspiration, go analog

Magazines, yarn, and scissors helped attendees get down to basics in an exercise of analog inspiration. Attendees left with weird and wonderful posters and collages, made under the watchful eye of Adobe Creative Resident, Temi Coker.

The goal of collaboration isn’t projects. It’s relationships.

Chronicle Books executive publishing director Christina Amini moved the audience with stories of her past collaborators, and how she carries the work of lost friends into the future. To make a collaborator of lifelong value takes trust, time, and purpose. “Not every project will have commercial success,” she admits, “but the magic of collaboration is that over time it will create a generative relationship.”

Ask how to create safety as you embrace creative chaos

How we structure creative organizations will determine everything about our future of work. So, the team at co:collective posed the question of whether chaos or structure promotes more creativity? And, if you commit to blue sky thinking, to swimming in the deep end of the pool, and to standing on the lip of the cliff—aka, chaos—how to do create psychological safety at the edge of the unknown?

A participant in Temi Coker’s analog mood board workshop/Photo by Jeanette Moses for 99U

To be a great public speaker, embrace silence

At the top of their terrors list, public speaking. Next in line? Death. From physical activities to puzzles, Anton & Irene worked with attendees on how to boldly present ideas from confident body language to powerful slides. One of the most important tools of public speaking? The ability to embrace silence.

Create at scale

Sure, channeling your latest idea is a wonderful exercise in personal creation. But what about creativity at scale? This was what was at play when the Adobe Design team sat down to work on their newest product, Project Gemini. In their 99U conference workshop, they discussed how to build a visual system. Inspired by Egyptian wall painting, attendees considered how to build consistent design solutions using visual systems with layers of icons, line drawings, shapes and textures. “Instead of chasing a design trend, we want to come up with a more timeless solution,” the team said.

New ideas need time to fly

A lot has changed in the world since Tim Brown published his landmark book, Change By Design, in 2009. Of course, in a world where tech is transforming nearly every industry, the IDEO president and CEO (he’ll step down from his role in August but stay with the company) says it’s the best time in history to be a designer. It’s also a time when designers must increasingly consider the ethics of their work, though Brown cautions against any sort of knee-jerk reaction to risk-taking. “The thing about new ideas is that they’re like a fragile new species. They have to live for awhile before they flourish. If they get killed before that, they don’t have a chance to flourish,” he says.

Tim Brown of IDEO in conversation with Courtney E. Martin/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Practice using your negative imagination

We all want to make something that will change the world for the better. But the harsh reality is that an optimistic group of designers are capable of creating something that can be used for ill. In a framework workshop on design ethics, Silka Miesnieks and Phil Clevenger of the Adobe Design team asked designers to practice negative imagination—imagining how every design could be used for bad, to anticipate use cases and prevent them. “We are experience makers,” the team reminded 99Uers. “We’re responsible for the things we’re putting out there.”

Listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear

SYPartnersJessica Orkin took attendees through a meditative experience to click their brains into the overlooked power of deep listening. To listen deeply, Orkin says, is to seek new perspectives instead of resisting differences, to lead with curiosity instead of jumping to conclusions, and to quiet the ego instead of believing you have the answers.

Music is a key tool for branding

In a workshop designed to build on Joel Beckerman’s sonic keynote, Man Made Music encouraged designers to embrace sonic branding as a necessary tool for any creative working in communications and branding. Sound creates experiences that are more identifiable, memorable, and evoke all sorts of emotions around an organization’s personality than visuals alone.

Local Projects interactive workshop for institutional design/Photo by Jeanette Moses for 99U

Stand in place and context

From holograms to kinetic sculptures, Local Projects designs platforms for narratives within cultural institutions like museums, churches and libraries. Their biggest tip for powerful experiential design? Have a sense of presence. “There’s a unique, highly irrational, but real link for humans between architecture and history: the space and the lives that were lived. You know that space holds these memories.”

Stop kidding yourself about multitasking

When Dr. Sahar Yousef said we should examine succumbing to the dark side of constant connectivity, she knows what she’s talking about. The cognitive neuroscientist worries that the world of work has evolved while our brains have not. She issued a call for creatives to strategize deliberately to protect our most precious resources: time, focus, and energy. That includes turning off phone notifications, automating decisions like eating the same breakfast or wearing the same outfit, and to stop kidding ourselves about multitasking. As we cut distractions, hone focus with short sessions of intense concentration. “Don’t run a marathon,” coaches Yousef. “Run a marathon of sprints.”

Zach Lieberman had a hands-on approach to making a point/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

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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