Creative conference 99U, which usually takes place in New York, was hosted online last weekend to an open audience and free to (digitally) attend. This year’s theme “The Creative Self”, although devised months before lockdown loomed, remained especially poignant at a time of change and when we have all been inside thinking, and questioning more.
As a result talks ranged from exploring and improving your own creative practice, to using your creativity and creative power for good on a larger scale. Below are a few learnings we took away from the conference, but don’t worry – if you missed it you didn’t miss out, as you can watch all of the conference talks and workshops here.
It’s a great time to reflect on your creative self
99U was kicked off by Yancey Strickler, author and former CEO of Kickstarter. After three years, Yancey stepped down as CEO, following a feeling tired and lost – especially in terms of who he was outside of the company, and what he wanted to do next.
To battle this feeling, Yancey decided to write down everything he did know, what he felt he is good at, and what he is bad at. He set himself tasks to find different approaches to design his own life, including tasks such as drawing a website of his life, and working out details like what the tagline might be. Then he created another experiment, spending each day exploring a different option of what his life could be – a little like a method actor. One day he pretended to write a new book and noted that it almost felt physical, and it was his body that told him this was the thing he needed to do.
The book in question became This Could Be Our Future an exploration of human nature of self interest, and explores building a society that focuses on values that make life worth living, beyond just money. It also inspired him to create the concept of Bentoism, which he details within his talk, as a methodology which enables you (as an individual or a business) to look at your life choices in a way that considers the future, and the other, and not just the immediate needs you have now – a guide to our “true self-interest”.
Yancey ended his talk by sharing that when you do this, and commit to this process, you don’t just respond to your needs in the moment, but you carve a path to where you want to be. Your best possible self.
Give yourself the space and time to find your creative happiness
Describing her personal struggles with anxiety and depression, Octavia took listeners through her career where, at first, she spent a long time working herself “to the bone” while trying to live up to other peoples’ expectations. This manifested itself in a nervous breakdown, which meant she had to “rebuild her life from scratch”. In the years that followed she found drawing and personal projects helped to bring her joy and get back to feeling like herself.
These personal projects have also gone on to have real world applications. For example, an illustration for International Womxn's Day that was originally created as an Instagram post, went on to become the cover of Flow magazine (her favourite publication!), which also went on to have a positive impact on her career.
Overall Octavia’s talk shared a lovely thought, a reality in which when you are happier you will have more energy to give to other people. It’s also not selfish to focus on your own happiness for this exact reason. It could even be as small as five minutes a day, just drawing things that “no one else will ever see” in your sketchbook.
As a creative person, you have power – use this wisely
Alain Sylvain, founder and CEO of strategy and design consultancy Sylvain Labs, shared a moving exploration of power in his 99U talk. What is it? What does it exist of? How does it manifest? And how can we use our creativity to both harness, and challenge it? Recorded on 22 May, a few days before the death of George Floyd, Alain’s talk is especially poignant for this reason, including a later introduction recorded on 3 June.
In his talk, Alain expresses that when creatives unlock power, we are capable of achieving the incredible. Especially as designers, where we have a unique relationship with power that not many other industries may have.
Within his presentation Alain shared the standard for what power looks like in popular culture, and how people are raised to believe and see it as a certain entity – typically, one that is masculine, menacing, and almost always a white man. This plays out in culture, with 70% of all speaking roles in Hollywood movies are spoken from the voice boxes of this one demographic.
However over the course of his talk, Alain stated how this perception of power is relative. By looking at examples where individuals have leaned into their own uniqueness – such as Thomas Edison, Greta Thumberg or Prince – and in turn an individual form of power is created. Through this we can unlock the potential of our own power languages and challenge the conventional norm of what power is.
If you’re wondering what to do next, Alain urges us to do three things. Learn: what is your own relationship to power? Act: how do you take from this experience and do something about it? Commit: how do you make this endure for you and the greater society that we all live in? And at this time, what a great list for us all to reflect on and start working on together.
To positively change the diversity issues in our industry today, we don’t need a process or a programme, but a full cultural and systemic shift
The founder, president and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab, Antionette Carroll’s talk focused on the future of design leadership and the roles of identity, power and equity within this. Though her professional title may be social entrepreneur, Antoinette shares that her most important title is designer. In fact it was working for ten years as practising designer which encouraged her to reflect on the impact that she can really have. As a result, beginning to work more closely to designed ways to increase diverse representation, and how to use our craft to reduce societal issues.
For instance, in 2016, Antoinette, AIGA and Google came together to create the Design Census Programme, to closer understand what the makeup of the industry looks like. According to the participants involved in the latest Census from 2019, the industry is still 71 per cent white, and only 3 per cent Black/African American. It’s hugely problematic particularly when you think about the power of design, and all the different industries and fields that it touches. If the industry doesn’t represent how the community looks and feels, how is it actually designing for the larger community?
During her talk Antoinette explained how traditional design avenues are not enough to create change alone. Therefore at Creative Reaction Lab, they work within sectors including education, government and public service, health and healthcare, media and technology, as these are sectors which affect everyday life. Processes within these sectors have also been designed in a certain way, and in a way that is perpetuating systemic inequalities. “If oppression and inequalities are designed, they can be redesigned,” adds Antoinette. For example, Creative Reaction Lab works with Black and Latinx youth to address this by becoming leaders in designing healthy and racial equitable communities, and re-designers for justice.
Antoinette also explained how the responsibility is also on our shoulders individually to change how we talk about design. Emphasised by a quote from product designer and AIGA Cincinnati operations director, Ruzanna Rozman saying, “Design is not about making things look good, but making things work”.
Towards the end of her talk she also shared that these actions are beyond just actioning a checklist, but require continued consideration on how are unlearning and progressing to create a shifted mindset. Ending her talk with her yearly resolution to, “Start… and follow through”. A clever idea can make you feel good, and feed the ego, but actually doing the work is where the impact is going to truly come.