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Nishat Akhtar

99U Conference 2020

99U Conference Speaker Spotlight: Nishat Akhtar on Building Worlds of Creative Possibility

The designer, illustrator, and creative director reflects on perspective, accountability, and the value of pushing against sameness.

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.


Nishat Akhtar is creative director at Instrument, serves as an adjunct professor at Portland State University, and maintains a thriving illustration and art practice. And while she makes balancing these roles look easy, she’s struggled internally with the homogeneity of many structured workplaces and the sameness that imbued so much of the industry. She talked to us about the turning point that came with realizing the importance of her contributions, and the one non-negotiable activity that clears space for effective design and leadership capabilities. 


Q. When do you feel most purposeful?

A. There’s a triangulation of community, creativity, and education or mentorship where I feel my best. My roles as an artist, an educator, a creative manager, a collaborator, and even just as a friend get satisfied by these pillars and are the core reason I do any of this. I care about people, creativity fuels me, and am committed to a lifetime of learning. From hard life moments to working through creative blocks, the moments when conversations emulate finding sparkle in the dirt are my favorite. These are the times I exercise my two strongest and most inherent parts of self: curiosity and empathy. Letting both drive, along with experience and care, lead me into helpful moments of discovery with folks more often than you’d think. It’s that intentionality that enriches my life and work, by helping others in areas big and small.


Q. How would you describe your creative voice?

A. While it’s essential to leave flexibility for visual styles to evolve and change, a few evergreen adjectives that drive my creative work are illustrative, curious, playful, honest, and experimental. Add some old-school soul beats and we’re in business.


Q. What are your most important work/life boundaries?

A. Work without life builds up a fog in my purview that makes it impossible to make decisions quickly and clearly—clear decision making is crucial to design or working with a team or clients. Playing sports is a reliable defogging process for my brain, and I’ve committed to playing soccer weekly. I never (or rarely) compromise showing up to those matches. I have accountability to my work, but I also have accountability to my sports teams. I keep the same level of respect for both. The best work/life tactical boundary I’ve established is limiting weekend work to Sundays only. This protects some downtime when you can’t have it all.


Q. What is your ideal creative environment? What are the circumstances that let you thrive and do your best work?

A. Give me a space to draw and write in a diverse culture and I’m happy. I find the best ingredients are intelligent, curious, creatively playful people along with space to quickly ideate (whiteboards, etc.) and abundant sunshine.


Q. Describe a creative breakthrough that’s had a lasting impact on how you think about your life and work.

A. Sameness doesn’t make the best work. I came onto a team a few years ago where my perspective was lovingly deemed “The Wildcard.” While that initial identification was distinctly othering, after some time of settling in, I realized the difference was an essential counterpoint to a homogenous sense of thinking that was merely replicating itself and ultimately closing a team off to a world of possibility. I understood that my contributions coming from a different point of view and background was of extreme value to the work and the team, too. This validated for myself all my experiences of not belonging—now I understand that difference is a value all its own.


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. Sensitivo Empathis.

[Ed. Note: The Sensitivo Empathis is a highly empathetic member of the creative kingdom, with a canny ability to hear the needs and desires of other creatures.]

Sensitivo Empathis

This year’s Adobe 99U Conference is going virtual and free to creatives worldwide: join us June 17 on Behance. Registration is now open at

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