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Big Ideas

99U Conference 2012: Key Takeaways On Making Ideas Happen (Pt. III)

Lessons on embracing "gut churn," turning self-doubt into a strength, and embracing your work as a gift from this year's 99U Conference.

More insights on making ideas happen from the 2012 edition of the 99U Conference
Jad Abumrad onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM
JAD ABUMRAD /// Creator & Host, Radiolab
Jad Abumrad is the man behind WNYC’s Radiolab, a unique radio program “about curiosity” that combines cutting-edge sound design and storytelling techniques to explain complex scientific topics. Jad talked about the uncertainy, anxiety, and outright terror of creating something entirely new.
  • Embrace “gut churn.” Gut Churn is that awful feeling of discomfort and uncertainty you have when you’re not sure if your idea will sink or swim. In the early days of Radiolab, Jad’s cohort remembered, “years and years of being sick to my stomach.” Greatness might not always feel good, but heading into unchartered territory is rarely comfortable. In fact, “gut churn” probably means you’re onto something.
  • Turn your darkest moments into opportunities. Think of those nightmarish moments: you’re at a podium without your notecards or, in Jad’s case, you’re doing a sold-out live show and your computer dies – and you have no backup. How you choose to handle those excruciating situations – and how you choose to reflect on them later – will help you evolve. “Take the worst feeling in the world, reframe it, and suddenly that feeling becomes the solution.”
  • “Change cannot be planned, just recognized after the fact.” When you’re in the thick of creating something new, you often don’t know exactly what you’re doing. Jad talked about trusting those subtle, gut feelings that arrive periodically – he called them “pointing arrows” – and tell you that you’re on the right track. To achieve true change, you have to trust the pointing arrows.
Paula Scher onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

PAULA SCHER /// Partner, Pentagram Design
Designer Paula Scher has left an indelible mark on New York City. The boroughs are peppered with her identity work, from city staples like MoMA and the Public Theater to NYC’s new darling, The Highline park. Since 1991, she’s been a partner at Pentagram Design, and she walked us through some of her most memorable projects, revealing insights on work process and unlikely solutions.

  • Sometimes it’s not about the design, it’s about the people. Scher has done any number of rebrands for clients, and knows that it can be difficult to see your vision carried through after the handoff. So when she was called upon to unify the Museum of Modern Art’s branding, she knew she’d have to take a new approach. Instead of just giving MoMA identity guidelines, Scher took it upon herself to convince the museum to change its internal reporting structure. Sometimes you have to think bigger than the visual questions if you want to see your designs succeed.
  • The brief isn’t always right. The city of Pittsburgh called on Scher to do a logo for the Northside of the city. (People didn’t like going to the Northside, so they wanted to rebrand it.) After doing some research, Scher found that the real problem was that people had to travel across an unsavory underpass to get to the Northside and it was offputting. So she ignored the brief, and came up with an in-depth plan to reinvent the underpasses as a welcoming environment with art installations. Her advice? Don’t feel hemmed in by the creative brief if it’s not addressing the right solution.
  • The impossible can happen. No matter what the “creation story” becomes later, all great things start out small – with a nugget of inspiration. Scher walked the audience through the genesis of NYC’s Highline Park – for which she designed the logo – and all of the serendipitous coincidences required to make it a reality. Sometimes the most unlikely projects can turn into great successes.
Tony Fadell onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

TONY FADELL /// Founder & CEO, Nest
This year’s 99U Conference saw the launch of a prestigious new award, The Alva, recognizing a remarkable serial inventor whose creations have made a real and lasting impact on our world. We were honored to have the Tony Fadell join us as our very first Alva recipient.

Author of more than 100 patents, Tony embodies the spirit of the 21-century inventor. From the iPod and the iPhone to the Nest Learning Thermostat, Tony’s incredible creations have disrupted industries, introduced beautifully designed solutions, and changed the way we live.

As he accepted the 2012 Alva Award, Fadell gave us a sneak peek into the creative process that drives his remarkable inventions — answering a series of questions sourced from the creative community.

  • At the core of any exciting project is a difficult problem. If your project doesn’t have one, you’re probably just inventing a slightly different version of something that already exists. If we truly want to create game-changing products, we need to dig deep, suss out the most complex problems, and tackle those.
  • You must ship (preferably within a year). As creators, there’s nothing more discouraging than projects that dead-end or fizzle out. Tony argued that you can only keep your team motivated for so long before morale suffers. Ultimately, we and our teams need to see tangible results in the world – something we can point to and say “I made that” – in order to maintain the energy and passion necessary to create great things.
  • If you’re not having doubt, you’re not pushing hard enough. When asked, “What were the greatest moments of doubt that you encountered?” Fadell admitted that he’s always doubtful. He recounted a story in which an Apple “expert” said that his approach to the iPod project was a terrible idea and would never work. If success seems unlikely, that should be your reason to push even harder.
  • “Frustration is where my creativity comes from.” An early curiosity about how things worked, understanding how they were built, and then wanting them to be built differently – and better – is where Fadell’s unique brand of creativity came from. Inspiration is highly personal and often strikes unexpectedly; be attuned to the world around you to find more of it.
James Victore onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

JAMES VICTORE /// Designer & Educator

Brooklyn-based designer James Victore is passionate about design’s place in the world. A powerhouse whose very stage presence amped-up the room on Friday, Victore’s in-your-face designs have been displayed at MoMA and, most recently, the book Victore or, Who Died and Made you Boss? His buoyant, irreverent words inspired us to reflect on how we can each stay true to our own voice.

  • Tell your story, uncontaminated. As Victore put it, “a band doesn’t ask the marketing department what kind of songs to write.” Don’t water down your voice or worry about the reception  – truth and uniqueness go a long way.
  • In the particular lies the universal. If you tell your story well and truly, it will resonate with others. You opinions, intelligence, and history matter. But you have to do the work, and pull from the most personal areas of your life, to create something meaningful. (Read more on this in a 99U piece from Victore here.)
  • Think of your work as a gift. Victore says, “Good work matters, and design can be a tool to affect opinions and culture.” He walked the audience through an incredible series of posters he did for an unlikely client: NYC’s Department of Probation. By viewing the work he was creating for the down-and-out folks who pass through the probation offices as a gift, Victore was able to create something special. Viewing your work as a gift will radically change what you create.
  • Just ask! Ask for more time, more creativity, more money. When his work was accepted into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Victore wanted some sort of official recognition he could share. But that wasn’t something MoMA normally did. Victore finally settled on asking for a letter to his mom, and eventually he got it. (“Dear James Victore’s Mom…”) The moral of the story? Just ask. And you might actually get what you want.
Baratunde Thurston onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM

“I’m the type of dude that thinks I can do anything,” said Baratunde Thurston, the Director of Digital at The Onion and the bestselling author of How to Be Black. Wrapping up two days of serious insights, Thurston closed out the Conference with a hilarious recap of lessons learned. But he also shared a few gems of his own along the way.

  • Just because you use tools doesn’t mean you’re actually building things. Sometimes we can get distracted from doing meaningful work by the busy work of getting over-organized, learning a new software, etc. Remember that using a product, or making a chart, doesn’t actually mean you’re accomplishing something – and keep your eye on the prize.
  • Do or do not. There is no “try.” Sure, this advice may have come from Bartunde via Yoda, but it’s a classic. Great things aren’t achieved with half-measures, you have to go all in and never doubt your goal to have any chance of success.
Scott Belsky onstage at the 99U Conference. Photo: Julian Mackler / MACKME.COM
After Baratunde, Conference host and Behance CEO Scott Belsky left us with a few final words of advice…
  • Fall in love with building the capacity of people. Truly great leaders love building the capacity of people – and see every conflict as an opportunity to do so.
  • Propose ideas without polish. Collaboration is a great buzz word, but it’s not possible unless people are invited to tamper and iterate with your ideas. As perfectionists, we often make this mistake.
  • Don’t surrender strategy to execution. Efficiency is really bad if you’re headed in the wrong direction. So, carve out time, think about where you want to be, set direction… and THEN execute.
  • The occasional demon works wonders. Especially in the creative world, our demons are part of what distinguishes us. But we must be sure to face our demons before they face us. Get feedback from anyone who will share it, and candid self-appraisals. Do the personal work.
  • A labor of love ALWAYS pays off. Even “failures” in the eyes of others are enriching for us. Every dead-end helps lead us in the right direction.

WANT TO LISTEN TO MORE GREAT STORIES FROM 99U? Longshot magazine and Radiolab teamed up to cover the 99U Conference and dip into the dark side of creativity – the failures, the f*ck ups, the mistakes, the setbacks.You can listen to their 30-minute, best-of roundup of the conference, or dip into all sorts of different interviews and sound bytes.–

What Were Your Takeaways?

Any great points that we overooked? Share your takeaways in the comments!

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Comments (3)
  • Vinny Lohan

    BEST experience EVER!

  • Ramon Vullingsn

    It was a great and rich conference!

    My key take away is the leadership remarks by Tony Fadell: the reason for leaders to explain the ‘why’ is to get the DNA in the organisation…

    Thanks again,


  • KBM

    I truly enjoyed reading this, it’s too bad that I’m all the way in Manila and could not listen in person. My favorite idea is on collaboration: “Collaboration is a great buzz word but it’s not possible unless people are invited to tamper & iterate with your ideas.”

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