Hackable minds, the power of empathy, and boredom: what we learned at Adobe's 99U

16 May 2019
Reading Time
8 minute read

Last week, we were at the Adobe 99U Conference in New York. Tackling the theme of “The Future of Creativity”, we heard talks from a varied line up of designers, scientists, storytellers and musicians who shared some of the (scary) realities of the era of design we are living in. Yet, rather than just concern the audience about the future, speakers offered design-led coping mechanisms to deal with future mishaps, inspiring attendees to stay human and creative throughout.

A favourite of ours, the annual conference does a lot more than just leave you feeling inspired by the work of others. With a focused theme, a well curated speaker line-up and workshop sessions, 99U offers the tools to implement actual change in attendees jobs, and their wider creative lives too.

Below are some of learnings that we’ve taken home with us.


Adobe 99U: Dr Vivienne Ming, photography by Ryan Muir

Creativity is future proof

The conference kicked off with a talk by theoretical neuroscientist Dr Vivienne Ming, the founder of Socos Labs. Vivienne’s job sees her exploring how we can use AI to change our brains, hacking them in ways to make us smarter, more emotional and even more creative. If that sounds appealing to you then it’s available if, as Vivienne puts it, “you survive the surgery”.

Though we are living in a new era of design – a design world that lives hand in hand with data, automation and artificial intelligence – Vivienne is resolute that creativity is the thing that can’t be coded. It remains our main asset into the creative future.

To keep hold of this creativity Vivienne encouraged practitioners to stay bold, particularly as we enter a time where more and more machines can turn our creative visions into a reality. Although it may be technology allowing these ideas to come to life, we need to remember that “the visions are ours”.

What Vivienne fears however is a world where we are not bold, where we instead just default to the technology, whereas what we need is for creative people to stand up and take risks. In her words: “If the cost of losing your job is greater than the cost of innovating – you are not being creative”. Right on.


Adobe 99U: Michael Ventura, photography by Ryan Muir

Empathy is the skill of the future

For a future focused conference, it may be surprising that the word of the event was definitely “empathy”. Mentioned many times as the most important thing designers should harness as part of their creative process, speakers pointed out how empathy is necessary when increased technology can affect design decisions.

In its talk about creating effective multidisciplinary teams, DLW Creative Labs (the DLW stands for Design/Life/Work) cited empathy as the “skill of the future”. People now go to work for personal fulfilment and not just to put bread on the table as their parents may have. To deal with this increased link between purpose and profession, we need to be cultivating creative teams and leaders that can really hold this up in both their work and working practises. Empathy is a great tool to help us do this.

Another speaker for which empathy is key was Michael Ventura, founder and CEO of strategy and design practice Sub Rosa, who has developed a new empathy based design process originally workshopped with students.

This exploration has led Sub Rosa to interesting and vast new projects, including work with the US Military and breast cancer screening centres. An example of using empathy came from the latter project, with Michael sharing how the studio re-designed the often uncomfortable experience of breast cancer screening by using an empathy focused lens throughout. The results were positive, with visits going up by 12%, meaning they have the chance of finding 12% more cancer, just by making the experience more empathetic.


Adobe 99U: Tim Brown in conversation with Courtney E. Martin, photography by Ryan Muir

Design has shifted, but needs to continue shifting

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, has asked himself the same question his whole life: “what’s next for design?” And, in conversation with Courtney E. Martin, we heard him share his reflections on what has changed in our industry.

Firstly, Tim has witnessed design shift from a practice completed by the individual designer to the design team. However, despite noticing how we are moving towards a more group focused approach to designing, as well as open and inclusive ways of working, design is currently one of the less diverse societal practises today. Tim shared that the best examples of design come from nature, and successful ecosystems are always the ones that are the most diverse, so we need to be instilling that learning into our design teams.

Tim also reflected that design is no longer just mastery, but the ability to constantly evolve and learn. Previously design would end at the delivery of a product, but now we need to be creating something with the intention to continuously evolve and iterate on it. It’s no longer about launching a project into the world and then deciding that it’s “someone else’s problem”. This old mindset is now destructive and we need to think about design as a practice that must evolve, and continue to learn from it when it’s in use.


Adobe 99U: Jeanette D Moses, photography by Ryan Muir

We need to learn quickly from the consequences of our design decisions

IDEO’s Tim Brown also shared one of the boldest, and most exciting statements of the conference for any designer sitting in the room: it’s the “best time to be a designer in the last 150 years”. But when the consequences of our design decisions can take a negative turn, as seen with the turning of Facebook algorithms from happy communities to echo chambers, we must try to still remain bold.

Tim believes that if we are so concerned about doing no harm at all, we will never create anything new. Our oath as designers should be about being adept learners and implement those learnings, rather than immediately disengaging and moving on when a product or design has been delivered.

Design researcher Ovetta Sampson and data scientist Jess Freaners from IDEO also hosted a workshop where they stressed the importance of asking constant, responsible and ethical questions throughout the design process. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of a product going into the world and excluding a whole audience with disastrous consequences.

To demonstrate this, the pair shared examples from Nikon and Google which demonstrated terrible and offensive outcomes that happen when a non-inclusive process affects an algorithm, and ends up making a whole audience feel excluded.


Adobe 99U: Sahar Yousef, photography by Ryan Muir

Look after your creative mind (by turning off your notifications)

A further revelation came from Dr Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, who pointed out that “how we work is in opposition with our biology.” Following a decade of research in the field of human performance, Sahar is now utilising her knowledge to help people, teams and whole departments become more effective at work.

Sahar pointed out how, even though in the history of business we have never been able to make or collaborate at this scale, our ancient brains aren’t able to keep up with the pace. The lions, tigers and bears that our animal brain is on the lookout for have been replaced with the ping of the email, or the buzz of a Slack notification. And, it’s making us feel like we are working in a blender.

This constant interruption is leaving us stressed, distracted, and taking away from our work time. For instance, Sahar shared that 96% of managers and leaders feel on the brink of burn out all of the time. Sound familiar? Luckily she gave us some tips to help save our minds.

Firstly, distraction is the number one effectiveness killer. The University of Texas, Austin, discovered that just having your phone in view (even if it’s off!) lowers your IQ and that of those around you. Take back control by turning off your notifications, those little vibrations and red notification symbols are designed to suck you back in.

It also takes more brain power to do tasks when we’re distracted, or when we are multitasking. Sahar recommends scheduling intentional time to accomplish a task, naming it a “focus sprint”. Setting an intention for the time, and writing it on a post-it helps, so when your mind wanders you can read it again and centre back on your mission.

It’s also worth evaluating when are your “Peak Performance Hours” – the times of day when you know your brain performs at its best. Then, reshuffle your working day to support these key hours of creativity and focus. It’s important to take the time to work this out, and stick to it, so you are not at the whim of whatever the last request was that came through on email.

As Sahar concluded, “we are not machines or algorithms – our brains are ancient” and if we are not embracing or leveraging this, then they are completely wasted.


Adobe 99U: Kyle T Webster, photography by Ryan Muir

Let yourself get bored

Illustrator, designer, author and founder of KyleBrush.com Kyle T. Webster changed the pace of the talks, by laying down on the stage and letting us take a minute to “space out”… all in celebration of boredom.

With constant app notifications, and more Netflix options than we know what to do with, boredom is quickly disappearing from our lives. Kyle is concerned about this, as boredom is the space where our creativity is sparked. Boredom is a blessing, as it gives our brains time to wander, to cook, and to come up with our next idea. Which if we are as creative as Kyle, could lead to a lucrative new design idea, or even a book deal.

Today our modern lifestyles are not set up to support the mind “spacing out”. As soon as we do hit this place of discomfort – that’s when we reach for our phone. Kyle encouraged us to fight it, to allow ourselves the space and the time to get bored, and to think of this uncomfortable feeling as a “blank canvas for the mind”. If the best ideas live in deeper water and we don’t reach out for them, we risk losing them altogether.

So, here’s to the future of design. Let’s be empathetic, never stop iterating, keep on learning, but, most importantly, turn off our notifications and take the time to get very, very (very) bored… so that we only have the option to get inspired.

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