What does it mean to be a creative? This year’s Adobe 99U Conference is an examination of “The Creative Self.” When we set about curating speakers, we looked to people taking an individualistic approach to their work and careers. Ahead of the event, we’re asking them how they nurture their own creative selves.
Alain Sylvain relishes a challenge. As the founder of innovation and design consultancy Sylvain Labs, he is not afraid to push against convention and see creative potential in unexpected corners. Sylvain Labs has partnered with companies such as Google, American Express, Airbnb, and Spotify to develop strategies and identify exciting, unexpected possibilities. Building his own company allowed Sylvain to create the culture he was seeking in the workplace, with a clear commitment to diversity and inclusion. We spoke to him about his fierce independence and dedication to being “ruthlessly direct.”
Q. When do you feel most purposeful?
A. In truth, I feel most purposeful when I’m alone. I know this might sound uninspiring or egocentric, but I believe that purpose, at its core, is a deeply individual, personal thing. We run the risk of losing that individuality when we’re influenced by the intoxicating stimuli of the everyday. And in this “purpose”-crazed moment, the term is beginning to lose meaning—abstract, lofty, and, increasingly exploited by brands, businesses, and celebrities. Exploring my purpose feels true only when I’m alone— either in a physical or more mental way.
Q. How would you describe your creative voice?
A. I wouldn’t describe it, to be honest. Creativity is inherently an ever-changing, infinite pursuit and I would feel suffocated by putting a word to it. But, if you really pressed me, candor and forthrightness are important to my work. A question I ask myself often is, are we being ruthlessly direct about a challenge or insight?
Q. What are your most important work/life boundaries?
A. I deeply believe that you are just one person. Putting on one persona at home and one at work has never been something I could do. And I don’t think people should feel the need to, because those self-imposed boundaries become a point of stress. Perhaps I have it lucky, working in an environment that I helped create. It’s probably easier for me to have that space.
Q. What is your ideal creative environment? What are the circumstances that let you thrive and do your best work?
A. The middle of the night. My best ideas come to me when I’m sleeping. It’s like my brain wants to create challenges for me while I’m trying to refuel, and they often overcome me whether I like it or not. Sleep and a state of rest frees a part of my brain. I just wish I could remember more stuff when I wake up in the morning!
Q. Describe a creative breakthrough that’s had a lasting impact on how you think about your life and work.
A. In 2019, we partnered with the WNBA to help them reinvent their brand. Our goal was to help assert the league’s relevance and influence. And we were in a perfect cultural moment of momentum to do so and create a real buzz. We worked together to help define a brand that captured their enduring ethos—to inspire and empower women. We also helped design a new identity inspired by the players themselves. But what’s really had a lasting impact on me is what happened after our work was done. A groundbreaking CBA [collective bargaining agreement] for WNBA players was recently announced, which will increase compensation and benefits. It’s a big move, and having played a small part in changing something for this league continues to excite me.
Q. For this year’s 99U Conference, we have invented a menagerie of “creative specimens,” each with a unique personality. Which one do you identify with the most?
A. Purposo Careerus.
[Ed. Note: Not easily distracted from its path, the Purposo Careerus’s productive career span is driven by a primal inner purpose.]
Hear from Alain Sylvain and more creative specimens at the 12th Annual Adobe 99U Conference, June 3-5, 2020 in New York City.