From being bad to burping glitter: things we learned at The Adobe 99U Conference

16 May 2018
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4 minute read

Last week I was in New York at Adobe 99U, a conference which brings together a selection of the best creative leaders from the industry to share new ideas. The talks explored how to be a creative leader today, from the design process to directing a team and everything in between. It also, refreshingly, featured one of the widest ranges of creative voices we’ve seen at this type of event, which made for an inspiring, interesting and original few days. Below, we share a few learnings from the week on how to become a better creative leader and practitioner.

It’s ok to be yourself at work

Tina Roth Eisenberg, the multi-talented creator of CreativeMornings (and many other ventures), believes in truly being yourself at work. She admitted this isn’t the usual advice you read in a leadership book, but bringing your personal experiences to work every day is really important when you’re in a creative job role. To ensure this continues through her own companies, when interviewing she asks questions which reveal more of a candidate’s personality such as “tell me about a difficult time in your life – what did you learn?” and “would you rather fart confetti or burp glitter?” – allowing Tina to really get the answer that determines whether the candidate is the perfect fit.

Should we be bad?

Adam J. Kurtz, artist and author of Things Are What You Make of Them: Life Advice for Creatives, gave a bold and funny talk asking: “should we be bad?”. Through learning to not worry and put his emotions and observations on paper in a funny and cheeky way, Adam has made a career for himself by making fun and honest books, illustrations and products. A firm believer that “bad design works” (as proven by the ever-popular meme) he encouraged the 99U audience that nobody really cares, so take a chance – “being bad might be being good”.

Turn your team into challengers

When we think about great people and great companies, obvious people come to mind such as Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs. However, vice president of product at Netflix, Todd Yellin, reminded us that it’s not just the names at the top who get all the credit – it’s the people who work with them who change the world.

As a result, Todd encouraged us to toss away hierarchy when it comes to good ideas, and encourage a culture which allows people to challenge freely. How do you know when you have created this culture? When your employees act like confident teenagers — with the passion and courage to stand up to you and drive the change which a company needs to keep innovating.

You shouldn’t try to design your career

Tea Uglow opened her talk by asking “what is creative leadership?” and answered it in a way that let us breathe out and relax with “…I really don’t know”. This set the tone for an honest and inspiring talk from the "experimental person in charge” of Google’s Creative Lab. She shared her personal story of starting at Google 12 years ago, and going from a temp making PowerPoint slides to creative director, and from Tom to Tea. In her talk, Tea stressed that as creativity is lateral, we need to give ourselves space to come up with ideas that form our own creative journeys freely. Rather than setting out a five year plan, you shouldn’t try to design your career as “we don’t know where that’s going, and that’s fine”.

Kombucha may be distracting us from what’s important

While working at SYPartners and Lyft, Audrey Liu has learned to find a deeper meaning in her work, creating products which help people. Audrey’s talk shared her concerns that a professional culture of kombucha on tap and daily massages has gone too far. Through doing this, we’re telling people to seek comfort and pleasure at the office, whereas truly fulfilling work is actually quite hard. A culture of too many perks is attracting people to roles for the wrong reasons, and we have lost sight of the work we are putting out into the world.

Now in her role as director of product design at Lyft, she is engaging her team on a deeper level – ensuring they hear the first-hand impact of the lives of the drivers they are designing for. This is to make sure they are in the job for the right reason. To do the right thing, and not the most measurable thing.

Try to change culture, as soon as possible

Ashleigh Axios, currently head of creative studio at Automattic, shared her experiences previously working as creative director and digital strategist at the Obama White House. While working there she was able to find meaningful ways to engage citizens, and break down complex topics through design.

Ashleigh also shared her boredom of “selfish projects” and challenged us to do more and to create work that really changes culture. She encouraged the audience to take the things which we feel do not apply to us, and relate it to our work. “Dig deep into the things that bother you and the struggles you have and turn it into something positive,” she explained. This is an act we also must not put off, as politically and socially, now is not the time to wait.

Design can be data

We learned about a lot more than creative leadership too! Facts such as what the most popular dog name in New York is (Bella) and what day of the week people search for a hangover cure (Sunday)… all as part of a fantastic talk from Mona Chalabi, data editor at the Guardian US.

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