Design Director Alex Center Got a Masters in Branding at Coca-Cola

Design Director Alex Center Got a Masters in Branding at Coca-Cola

Giant corporations have a certain rep — they’re slow-moving beasts churning out mass-produced goods that ride closer to the center line than the cutting edge. The cool kids all want to work for the niche studios. But not Alex Center. The Coca-Cola creative and design director loves operating in a mass play market. “Transitioning from a small to big company has taught me everything I know about branding and selling products,” he says.

Talking to Center is like peeking through the walls of one of the largest corporations in the world. Over the last 10 years, he has experienced firsthand how the sheer size of a corporation like Coke affects the design process — something he is able to contrast with his days at vitaminwater before its acquisition by Coca-Cola.

A champion of in-house design teams, Center recently spoke with contributing editor Dave Benton about the way a designer can become a central part of a large brand’s journey over time in a way that is not possible for an agency, how Coca-Cola communicates the distinction between strategy, positioning, and visual design within its organization, and how his job changed when he went from working for vitaminwater to Coca-Cola.

Design is an inclusive term. How do you communicate the distinction between strategy, positioning, and visual design within Coca-Cola?

It all comes back to goals and intention: What kind of brands are we building? What do they stand for? And, ultimately, [how] do we want people to understand and feel about them? As a designer working for a company investing a ton of money in the formula of the product — the actual physical liquid that goes into the bottle that is going to reach millions of people— you’re talking about a lot of decisions, so you have to think about how design helps us achieve our goals and our mission.    

As designers, you have to ask yourself what the principals and intention are, and whether the work you are showing achieves that. Companies want people to go post about them on Instagram and feel like their brand is representative of the consumer’s mindset. In order to design things to make people feel that way, designers need to put themselves in the end user’s head. Often non-designers within a company fail to think about what the customer is going to feel when they walk past the product: Does it make them feel understood? Do they want to be a part of the brand? Do they want to pick up the product and try it for the first time and give us their money?

These are the questions everyone should be asking. It’s commercial art. The goal is commerce, but it’s more than the product inside of the bottle. It’s the brand that we want people to fall in love with. It’s the ability to make someone feel that they have to buy a Levi’s denim jacket instead of another denim jacket that’s exactly the same. For me that’s one of the most fun things about it. All the drinks in the cooler are fairly similar at the end of the day. They all quench your thirst.

I’m very romantic about the moment of truth in the beverage category. That moment when you get to that cooler in the back of a deli, you are faced with a choice of at least 20 different brands. I’m fascinated with why you make the decision to go for this, rather than that. You package what your brand is, and you try to charm people through your packaging. The strategy, the positioning, the visual design, and craftsmanship are all equal. At Coke you can’t go in with one without the other. The stakes are too high and the investment is at the highest level.

I’ve stopped saying “good” and “bad.” It’s either successful or unsuccessful. Let’s face it, there is bad design that is successful. You can debate what good design and bad design is until you are blue in the face. But you can’t deny that LaCroix, for example, is effective design. Or Sriracha. The brand of Sriracha is super strong right now, but I don’t think anyone would say the design is particularly beautiful. Branding is meaningful differentiation.

How did your job change when you went from working as part of a small design team for vitaminwater to working for Coke when they acquired the brand?

Everything changed while kind of staying the exact same. When we were smaller we had the advantages of being nimble and quick. When I started designing for vitaminwater, I would sit directly next to the brand director and the creative director would be just two seats down, so the approval process consisted of me simply showing it to the right and to the left. The decisions that were made were in the minds and bellies of the design and creative teams with marketing, and they were all sitting together. That made for some great products that got out to the world quickly.

When I compare that to the process of a publicly traded company like Coca-Cola — the time it takes to get things done, the amount of people involved in everything I work on, and the amount of testing and approvals, it can slow things down. Ultimately, only the best work gets through the funnel. When I was younger and working in a smaller environment, the funnel was super wide and we would throw things into the world that were really questionable. As a result there were some huge wins, but also some really arguable things we put out there.     Transitioning from a small to big company has taught me everything I know about branding and selling products. In the past I would create a design because I felt it was right for the brand and right for the business. Now I have to show that it is and why it is, which has made me a stronger designer. What I am doing has to strategically align with our business goals and objectives. A big part of my job today is getting people within the company to understand that where I am headed is the right place to go.

How has staying at one brand so long affected the way you think of branding?

Having worked for a brand for so long, I know that “branding” is not a singular project. Being a brand is kind of like being a rapper. Not a lot of rappers are loved because of their name and their first album. People love rappers because they put together a body of work over a period of time that they continuously find themselves connecting with. When someone says they are doing a branding project they think they are doing a logo and a look, but the brand is a moving, flowing stream…a marathon…a rap career…it changes!

Every single thing you do, every album, every tour, every tweet, and every decision you make, amounts to people either loving you and wanting to be a part of your orbit or not. The best rappers are the ones that have been able to find new and exciting ways over time to make people care. This pursuit started before I got here and will continue after I’m gone. But during the time I’ve been here I’ve been a part of making things that make people care about these brands. To me, branding is a series of moments: They are our versions of albums and mixtapes.

A lot of designers want to work on niche brands and stay away from the big commercial ones. You don’t work that way. Why?

I like things that are mainstream, and I love operating on a global stage. The bigger and the more impactful, the more exciting. You ask any rapper if they want more people to listen to their music and the answer is “yes.” The way to do that where it feels great is to get the most amount of people to listen to your music and not compromise while getting there. I remember in my earlier days, I physically went to see a billboard I laid out and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. So many people were going to see it!

I want to do work that the majority of people can interact with. My favorite designs are the ones that have the biggest impact, whether that impact is positive or negative. Just making people aware is huge. I’ve been coming in every day for 10 years and working on one thing, and I feel like I’m just now coming into my own. I feel like I got my masters in branding and design at the best school in the world, the Coca-Cola marketing department.    

How is design different working in a company as opposed to an agency and how does this affect the value you and your team provide?

I’ve never worked in an agency so I can’t speak to that experience. I know the client side really well and I’ve seen companies begin to bring design in-house because non-designers in companies are getting smarter and more adept at using design to accomplish and truly understand our business goals. Working in-house you get to be a part of the full picture. In an agency — no matter how close you are with your client — there is always that moment when the client walks out the door.

Agencies will always have influence and always be needed for an outside perspective, but in-house you are the person that drives that car. No matter how good an agency is, there’s always a sense of “inside-outside.” At the end of a day, we are not going to make a decision because our agency tells us to— it’s going to be because we think it’s the right thing to do for the brand and the business. Although it is ideally a real collaboration, ultimately the decisions come from inside.

How have you seen the world of design change in large corporations over your years at Coke?

When I went to school and studied design, being a graphic designer was cool but hardly anyone did it because less people had an understanding of what a designer did. In 2016, professional basketball teams filled stadiums full of season ticket holders just to unveil their new logos and uniforms. People really care about design now. Budweiser changes their logo on their packaging and it’s on late night TV. That sort of arena of “branding as a sport” is amazing. It’s also made the everyday person a bit more critical of what we do. But it has ultimately given us a more valuable spot. If you look at the big companies like Target, Nike, or Coca-Cola, they literally have 100+ people in-house designing and these people are laying out the future of these companies.     Everyone in the design community always said they just wanted a seat at the table. Now the seat is ours. Designers now have positions at the highest level inside of our world’s biggest companies. This is the golden age of design. The flip side of that is that now everyone feels they have the platform to vote “yes” or “no” on something you create. Creativity can be very objective! In this arena there is not a lot of room for error, especially in 2017 where you see businesses who make small mistakes pay so severely.  

Have you had a moment in your career where you feel like you “made it”?

I felt like I had 1,000 percent achieved my goal when I was working with rappers and athletes [at vitaminwater]. We were the hot brand back then and I had the dream job of all dream jobs – doing what I loved and getting to make stuff that people across the world would see. I became confident in myself because I was confident in my job and who I had become. I felt like there was nothing cooler and nothing better than what I was doing.

50 Cent was an ambassador for vitaminwater during your early days working with the brand. Have you got a good 50 Cent story to share?

The most memorable was my first big photoshoot with 50 Cent where I was the art director. We had spent weeks preparing for it. When he got to the set people had built me up as the genius behind the shoot and introduced me that way to 50 Cent. He sized me up and said, “So you think you’re pretty special, huh?” I won’t forget that moment…I’m a huge 50 Cent fan.

You’re a big Hip Hop fan. What is your favorite Hip Hop quote that relates to design?

I end all of my talks with the same quote from Lil Wayne. The quote is from his song Dr. Carter and the quote is “Gotta work everyday, Gotta not be cliché, Gotta stand out like Andre 3K.” It’s one of my favorite Wayne songs where he plays a doctor giving advice to other rappers in an attempt to save the rap industry from its “death.” I love that quote because it’s about putting in the work, trying to better yourself everyday, all while making sure that you’re standing out from the crowd. This is great advice for any designer and something I try to remind myself on the regular. There are a lot of similarities between being a great rapper and being a great designer.

from 99U99U

In Praise of the Home Office

In Praise of the Home Office

Early on a Sunday morning I’m sitting in my favorite space, a small outbuilding behind my house, in my favorite chair, a twenty-five year-old, medium-sized Aeron with a few small burn holes in the mesh seat. Even though it’s spring, it’s still cool outside. I’ve got my hoody pulled over my head, keeping the ole brainpan warm. I have nowhere to be but here. The red second hand of the school room clock mounted high on the wall ticks audibly, counting off the progression of moments, every one of which belongs to me.

Through the several windows I can see that the sun has begun to burn through the layer of clouds, revealing a patch of light blue sky—I’ll leave the exact color to my visual artist friends; to me it is reminiscent of the powder paint we used for skies in elementary school. A plane streaks overhead, gleaming and metallic, rumbling through the atmosphere like thunder. In the middle distance, a red-tail hawk circles, searching the canyon for breakfast; hummingbirds hover and dart, flirting and issuing their odd squeaks. A breeze plays through my neighbor’s invasive stand of tall bamboo. The stalks sway and knock together, making woody sounds like a marimba. From over the hill I can hear the throaty engines of powerboats and other personal watercraft churning circles around nearby bay, weekend warriors at play.

Here in my home office, the line between pleasure and duty is blurred. Weekend or weekday, there is no difference to me. Nobody counts my hours. My work is also my hobby. It takes as long as it takes. That someone is or is not paying me at any particular time is sort of secondary. Like most people, I work to live. But I also live to work.

This is where I do it—a 900-square foot patch of universe chock-a-block with photos, keepsakes, books and other familiar objects of personal history, most of it qualified as tax deductible, all of it mine to command.

Like nowhere else, when I am here I know who I am.  


Now it’s a little after noon. I’ve just returned from the house, where I threw together leftovers for my typical 15-minute lunch. Afterwards, I folded the whites and stuck the darks in to the dryer.

When I think about it, I come from a tradition of home offices. Both of my grandfathers—a lawyer and the owner of a clothing and shoe store—had offices in their homes, satellites to their more traditional workplaces. I remember being a little boy and swiveling around in their desk chairs, hunt-and-pecking on their clunky antique typewriters. In part I believe I owe my love of writing to the happiness of these times, my unexplainable attraction to the physical act of typing—the wonderful rachet-sound of the platen, the percussive clack of the keys against 20-pound bond, the ding at the end of each line heralding the need for the cleansing physical action of the carriage return. To type is to have the world at your fingertips—twenty-six neutral symbols to endlessly recombine. It is a task that requires both whimsy and precision. Another universe to command.

My father was an OBGYN. He had a home office, strictly for paperwork, in the basement of our rancher, the only place in the house he was allowed to smoke his cigars. The centerpiece of my dad’s home office was a desk his parents bought him for use in medical school—a blonde mahogany, Midcentury Modern kneehole desk with curved drawers by Heywood Wakefield, according to my research on the web. There is a matching Tambour door cabinet, on the back of which is stamped the manufacture date, May 1, 1954, two years before my birth. (The desk is too heavy to move.) As a boy I remember stealing down to the office when my parents were out for the evening. In the deep, double-drawer on the left side of the desk, my dad kept a stash of racy gag gifts given to him by friends—an oversize toothbrush with two plastic breasts instead of bristles, a windup penis with feet, a deck of cards with naked ladies instead of kings and queens.

When I went law school, my Dad gave me the desk and the hutch, for both practical and symbolic reasons. Hopefully, he said, it would see me through grad school with the same kind of success as he.

Of course, law school only lasted three weeks, but I was allowed to keep the furniture, which has traveled with me through forty years of home office incarnations. In Arlington Virginia, the desk was in the second bedroom of an apartment situated just beneath the flight path to what was then called National Airport—the entire building would shake. In Washington D.C., I lived in a basement apartment, and then in a loft, and then in a townhouse, the last for 12 years. My office was on the third floor; the desk had a nook within the front bay window, which looked out on the cityscape of a still-untamed section of town (in present times the Theater District), where hookers and crack dealers worked the dark corners, a different kind of natural show playing at all hours of the day and night.

Now my father’s desk has outlived him. For the past twenty years it’s been in this room, in San Diego, at the bottom-left corner of the continental United States, twenty-five miles north of the Mexican Border. The deep drawer is now full of vintage reporter’s equipment—defunct tape recorders, film cameras, old pads and other office supplies, not nearly so much fun as the booby toothbrush and other naughty bits of yore. In the hutch I have a ton of tear sheets from my years as a newspaper reporter and a few copies of the literary magazines I edited in college. I still remember sliding it open one time and finding multiple copies of a sex manual my father must have given out to patients. The authors were a husband and wife team. The photos were black and white. Naked, and without expression, the authors demonstrated dozens of positions, a sort of humorless kama sutra for the Masters and Johnson set.

In order to better accommodate the various pieces of hardware associated with today’s modern office, I have since added around the desk an eclectic mix of work tables and equipment stands, so that I’m nearly surrounded with surfaces—imagine a closeout sale in the office furniture department at Staples and you get the idea. (My original typing table, which used to hold a used, IBM Selectric typewriter, now holds the laser printer.) Swiveling around,  rolling my chair (over a plastic floor mat), I can attend to the different tasks and projects I have going simultaneously. Sometimes I imagine myself sitting in the command pod of a space ship, all the controls of my great solo enterprise at my fingertips—look at that, another reference to control.

Clearly a theme is emerging here. I am my own man, yes. But that also makes me nobody else’s man. Responsible to, and responsible for, only myself. Powerful and powerless at once.   


Nighttime now. These things take time, another reason I suppose I’ve spent so much time in my home office. The sky is dark. Stars have appeared. Somewhere across the canyon an owl is hooting. If I listen carefully I can hear the waves break quietly on the coastline, a half mile away.

After making myself a simple dinner of steak and greens, I’ve put up the dishes and returned the fifty or so steps to my office. Yesterday, I left the house to go to the post office. Today I didn’t leave the house at all; most of my time was spent in this chair. And yes, I am still wearing the sweatpants I put on this morning when I rolled out of bed. I will make sure to shower at the night’s end. I’m a home-based worker but I’m no misanthrope.

For the last few minutes, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to tally the number of hours I’ve spent in proximity to this desk, alone in a room with my thoughts and labors. With all the travel for work it’s hard to say, though I also know that for every week in the field doing research, I’ve generally spent several more weeks at my desk—making calls and arrangements, transcribing, doing further research, composing, rewriting and editing.

Struggling to find the right formula, I went to the doorway and looked into the darkness, in the direction of the hooting. One hot summer evening the owl had overflown me by only a foot or two—the whoosh was palpable in the immediate airspace and kind of freaked me out.

Standing there, I noticed one of the many photos of my son. A decade ago, he was working hard to become a point guard on the middle school basketball team. At an age where many boys dream of becoming pro athletes, he had a Lakers jersey with his name—SAGER—custom printed on the back. He was taking extra practices, working out with a coach, running several miles every day.

One afternoon when he was off at practice, I was sitting here in my home office, thinking I wished I could do something to help. One thing you (hopefully) learn as a parent—the kid has to take the all the practice shots and do all the math problems himself. You can’t do it for him. All you can really do is cheer them on.

In that instant, an idea came to me. I walked over to the desk and picked up a pen. I wrote it like this:


Hard work

Well enjoyed

Builds a man

Makes a life

Day by day


Though I wrote this with myself and my son in mind, the same can be said for building a woman as well.

It’s what I’ve learned after forty years of sitting in my home office, doing what I love.   

from 99U99U

What We Learned at the 2017 99U Conference

What We Learned at the 2017 99U Conference

At 99U, we talk a lot  about the creative community and there was no better representation of that than the audience, speakers, and partners of the 9th annual 99U Conference. Together, they represented 661 cities spread across six continents who traveled to New York City for three days and nights of speakers, Studio Sessions hosted by top creative organizations, and rollicking parties.

While most events might wait until their 10th anniversary to throw a big anniversary celebration, 99U fittingly pulled out all the stops for our 9th edition. We had thought-provoking main stage talks from leaders at brands like Instagram, Airbnb, and Pentagram, on everything from the BS of design thinking to navigating career paths in this age of disruption.  

Then there were the Studio Sessions hosted by companies such as Spotify, BuzzFeed, IDEO, Refinery29, the Upright Citizens Brigade, Refinery29, ustwo, Dropbox, SYPartners, and Shake Shack. If you didn’t attend and you’re starting to feel a tad jealous, we apologize for what we’re about to tell you next—our closing party at the Museum of Modern Art went until the wee hours and featured a DJ set by Hot Chip.

The 99U Conference takes an inclusive approach to creativity. Whether you’re a designer, artist, marketer, engineer, educator, artist, CEO—if you approach your work creatively, 99U’s goal is to help you find the inspiration to build an incredible career. And we did have delegates from all of those fields and more, who heard stories of personal triumph in the face of career challenges, participated in hands-on workshops focused on learning specific creative and job skills, and walked away with new ideas that can make a real impact on their work.

To the 1,000 delegates who attended this year’s sold out event, thank you. And to those who are interested in attending next year, we’d love to have you. In the meantime, here are some of the best and brightest ideas we heard at the 2017 99U Conference.

Creativity is medicine.

“People need doctors. People need clean water. Is creative work as much of a deep need? I would say yes,” said Farai Chideya, author of The Episodic Career.

Challenge the world around you.

“You never see a person on a cycling sign. You see one on a wheelchair sign. You’re saying you can’t use that object unless you are that person,” said Liz Jackson, founder of the Inclusive Fashion + Design Collective, as she strode the stage with the aid of a cane. “We are disabled not by our bodies but by the world around us. It is a social construct. Disability is nothing more than a brand, the world’s ugliest brand.”

Mike Perry 99U Conference

Speaker Mike Perry / Photo by Julian Mackler

Challenge censorious tendencies.

With his work, artist Mike Perry has challenged everyone from the FCC to 99U (we were asked to strike a ‘no obscene images’ clause from his speaker agreement). Even Playboy had to be persuaded to run one of his illustrations, which they eventually did with adjustments. “Drawing people is like [sex]” said Perry. “If you’re not careful, you might create a new life.”

Design is a foundation, not a fix.

“Initially, design was the ‘fix it’ team. ‘Can you make the experience better?’ But the best businesses are built with design leadership,” said Adobe executive vice president of digital media, Bryan Lamkin, who was product manager of Adobe Photoshop “before Photoshop had layers,” he said to raucous applause from the designers in the room.

Consider your inner Björk.

“Let’s re-envision the incubator model to foster cultural value, not just capital value,” said Julia Kaganskiy, the director of the New Museum’s incubator, NEW INC. “We don’t want to be the next Facebook or Google. Maybe we want to be the next Björk.”

Ian Spalter 99U Conference

Speaker Ian Spalter / Photo by Julian Mackler

Data doesn’t have feelings.

This is important because users—and investors, and customers, and colleagues—do have feelings about your product. “With data, you don’t know how you’ve made people feel about the changes you’ve made,” said Ian Spalter, head of design at Instagram, who made the best comparison of the day: “Design is about puppies. Data is about politicians. But there is magic to be found mixing intuition with statistics or art with science.”

You can’t plan for everything, so stop trying.

Selling your company often appears like a well-deserved ending to a long journey. But exiting isn’t always the victory it seems. Barbarian Group founder Rick Webb learned that lesson the hard way when he sold his company to a Korean conglomerate that went through an unexpected corruption scandal shortly thereafter. In his 99U talk, Webb candidly spoke about what it’s like to sell your company and then be faced with challenges that you never saw coming.

Keep it simple.

99U founder Scott Belsky, who had early-stage investments in Pinterest, Warby Parker, and Periscope, emphasized making products simple and accessible—and keeping them that way. Users flock to simple products, noted Belsky, then companies take users for granted and adds features to satisfy the power users, which alienates the users who flocked to the original simple product. “Products can be powerful enough for professionals, but accessible to everyone,” said Belsky.

Prototyping is everything because everything is a prototype.

“Every launch is effectively a prototype. No design is ever done,” said Khosla Ventures design partner, Irene Au, in a talk that held up a complex project with her residential architect as a model for all design collaborations.

Natasha Jen 99U Conference

Speaker Natasha Jen / Photo by Julian Mackler

Post less, critique more.

If Google Image search is your sole barometer, “design thinking uses just one tool: 3M Post-Its,” said Pentagram partner Natasha Jen. “Why did we end up with a single medium? Charles and Ray Eames worked in a complete lack of Post-It stickies. They learned by doing.” Jen lobbies for the “Crit” [criticism] over the “Post-It” when it comes to moving design forward.

Know your design ancestry.

Writer and Postlight founder Paul Ford spoke in exquisite, informed detail about the four user experiences that transformed his life: the Control Panel in Macintosh’s debut System, the Reveal Code mode in WordPerfect 5.1, layers in Photoshop 3.0, and the general dexterity of Netscape Navigator. He also gave a knowing nod to the favorite crutch of newbie designers: the drop-shadow.


Friction builds character.

“What do we lose when we remove friction? When we remove all friction, we remove opportunities for serendipity, confrontation, and personal growth,” said Airbnb’s Steve Selzer.

Debbie Millman 99U Conference

Speaker Debbie Millman / Photo by Julian Mackler

You can’t disrupt the need for hard work.

“Anything worthwhile takes time,” said Design Matters’ Debbie Millman. “Anything worthwhile takes a lot of time.”

The most important user interface is between you and the gym.

“You can’t do good work if you’re not in good health,” said artist and designer James Victore. “I know too many people are basically killing themselves at work. We have to stay happy, healthy people.”

Create the conditions for creativity.

The right environment can make a huge difference in getting a budding idea off the ground, and Refinery29’s co-founder and executive creative director Piera Gelardi highlighted four ways to foster that creative state: know what works for you, laughter unlocks brilliance, do it for someone else, and embrace the uncomfortable.

Real-life prototype as much as possible.

Clients tend to connect and understand the idea you’re presenting to them much easier if they can see the solution, live in their hands, shared the team at Ustwo. It doesn’t have to be the completed output. Just enough for them to understand the route you’ve chosen.

Know the reality of ‘just-a-minute’ thinking.

On average we switch tasks every three minutes and five seconds, said Capes Coaching co-founder Betsy Capes,. “It’s not multi-tasking,” she noted. “It’s task overload. It takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to an interrupted task.”


Sweat the right stuff.

Be mindful to sweat the right details and not all the details, when dealing with large projects or many iterations, noted Dropbox’s Aaron Robbs and Collin Whitehead.

Creativity is multi-dimensional.

“A greater knowledge of the materials you can use alters the way you design,” said Material ConneXion’s Dr. Andrew Dent, who works with clients from adidas to BMW on choosing the materials that go into their next best-selling sneaker or sedan.

Shake Shack does a killer lunch spread. 


Data isn’t just for data scientists.

“Everyone [on a team] can and should be involved in the data collection process” said Spotify’s user researcher Caitlin Tan.

Good work doesn’t need trust.

“‘Trust me, this is an amazing idea’ doesn’t exist anymore,” said Verdes partner Greg Matson. “Your idea needs to sell itself. It’s more show me than trust me.”

Google Tiltbrush

A delegate takes Google VR’s Tilt Brush experience for a spin / Photo by Julian Mackler

Dwell on the past.

“We believe in a ‘learning loop,’” said BuzzFeed senior producer Erin Phraner. “We loop back to successful videos to try and learn from it and to find new things we can test in the next video. It’s so important to us because it’s a great indicator of what is working.”

Attack your project from different perspectives.

“Sometimes designers needs to step back—be an art director or a production manager—to to find the most appropriate methods or design solutions for the problems. You don’t have to do everything yourself,” said MoMA associate creative director, Ingrid Chou.

Prototypes over presentations!


Intercept your biases.

Why is it so hard to break down biases? Because it only takes 1/10 of a second for our brains to categorize someone by race and about 1.5/10 of a second by gender, said SYPartners managing creative director Rie Norregaard. To increase awareness of these biases and begin to advocate for change, Norregaard recommends creating a space with your team where it’s okay to talk through our biases. 

Studio Session 99U Conference

99U delegates get to work at a Studio Session / Photo by Julian Mackler

Round our your team by perspectives, not jobs.

When designing the dream team for a design sprint, the team at The Design Gym brings a variety of perspectives. What kind exactly? Here’s an easy way to think about it that cuts across industries: have a hustler, hipster, hacker, and heckler.

The Best is Yet to Come

99U has already set the dates for the 2018 conference, taking place May 9 – 11 in New York City. Tickets go on sale later this summer.

99U Conference Closing Party

DJ Juan Maclean backed by Symmetry Labs’ Sugarcubes light installation at the 99U Closing Party / Photo by Julian Mackler

from 99U99U

Five Ways to Benefit from Embracing Spontaneity and Disorder

Five Ways to Benefit from Embracing Spontaneity and Disorder

The section of Martin Luther King’s iconic 1963 speech that everyone remembers – where he begins “I still have a dream…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” – that’s the part where King listened to the emotion of the audience and spoke from his heart. “Without notes, without a script lovingly prepared and committed to memory, his words began to trickle out and then to pour forth freely,” writes author and columnist Tim Harford in his book Messy, which celebrates the value of spontaneity and disorder. “It was a duet with his audience.”

These days it’s hard to avoid the admonishments of self-titled productivity gurus that we should take more control over our lives, our calendars, and in-boxes. We’re told we must reign in our wayward minds, rediscover the art of focus and plan, plan, plan.

But Harford provides countless examples of creative and entrepreneurial minds soaring to their greatest heights through the exact opposite approach, via thinking on their feet and an avoidance of over-planning: from the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett who recorded his mega-selling The Kohn Concert album when forced to improvise on a small, out-of-tune piano, to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who left Barnes and Noble and other corporations flat-footed when he seized the moment and gambled on the potential of online selling.

Without wanting to be overly orderly about it, we’ve drawn on Harford’s book and our own archive to show you five key areas where you could benefit from allowing a little more extemporaneousness and disorder into your work.

Do juggle multiple projects

For a study published in 2009, Robert Root‐Bernstein, the author of Sparks of Genius, and his colleagues, set out to discover what distinguished scientists who consistently made a huge impact from those whose work was less relevant. Based on interviews and tests with 40 scientists (including Nobel Prize winners) over two decades, Root‐Bernstein and his team found that a key factor was that the high impact scientists maintained simultaneous involvement in numerous research areas.

The fact is, working on multiple projects allows you to cross-pollinate ideas from different domains, meet people with diverse perspectives (see below), and when you’re taking a break from one challenge, it allows your brain time to incubate the problems in that area, increasing the chance that you’ll come up with solutions.

Don’t bother tidying your desk (or in-box)

According to the lean space philosophy, a minimalist, tidy desk and office is the foundation of efficiency and professionalism. But research that’s compared filers (who like to sort and store all their paper documents) and pilers (who leave piles of documents on their desk) has found that actually filers are less efficient: They struggle to deploy an effective ordering strategy and waste time storing low value documents.

Pilers, by contrast, waste less time on organization and are particularly adept at finding documents relevant to their current work (because they’re usually the ones nearer the top). “For the senior manager, the lesson is simple,” says Harford. “Resist the urge to tidy up. Leave the mess – and your workers – alone.” And it’s a similar story with email: An analysis, published in 2011, of hundreds of workers’ attempts to locate emails found that those who simply used the search function were substantially quicker than those who relied on a sophisticated system of folders (17 seconds vs. nearly 60 seconds, on average).

Do embrace the discomfort of strangers

When you need to collaborate, it’s tempting to go back to the tried and tested players who you’ve always got along with. But time and again studies show that group decision-making can benefit from a range of views and diverse perspectives. A relevant study from 2003 asked groups of friends to solve murder mysteries, either with or without a stranger also on the team – the participants in all-friend groups felt more comfortable and believed they had performed better, but actually it was the groups that included a stranger who excelled, even though they felt less comfortable, presumably because the strangers brought a fresh perspective and reoriented everyone to the task goal rather than to simply getting along.

“It is the ill-matched social gears grinding together than produce the creative spark,” says Harford. The same principle applies when you’re networking. At a conference or party, it’s natural to want to seek out the people you already know – in fact research shows that’s what we do even when we say our goal is to make new contacts – but to truly network, you need to embrace the discomfort of strangers and give yourself the chance for some random encounters.

Don’t keep a daily planner

No one will thank you if you’re forever late for appointments or missing project deadlines, but when it comes to planning goals and tasks ahead of time, there’s a good case for allowing plenty of room for maneuver. This means daily planners – where you schedule ahead what you plan to achieve each and every day – are usually not a good idea. Psychologists actually tested this back in the 1980s when they asked university students to either keep a daily planning calendar, a monthly planner, or none at all. In terms of completed work, the monthly group achieved nearly twice as much as the daily planners who managed to do worse than those with no plans. To paraphrase Harford, the reason daily planners don’t work is because stuff happens, like colds and computer crashes. “With a broad plan or no plan it’s easy to accommodate these obstacles and opportunities,” says Hartford.

Do improvise

As someone who has had to overcome a dislike of public speaking, I’ve definitely learned the benefits of preparation – nothing beats nerves better than knowing your stuff and feeling confident in your presentation. But I’ve also experienced the downsides: I mastered my script for a recent TV appearance but then was thrown after the presenter went off piste.

Harford gives his own example, of the way that Marco Rubio – the one-time favorite to become the Republican party’s candidate for president in 2016 – was mocked after a presidential primary in which, robot-like, he was unable to depart from chunks of over-learned rhetoric. The best solution is often a compromise – a mix of learned passages (I’ve found it especially helps to master the opening of a speech) and improvisation. Crucially, when you improvise, you are more likely to be original and creative – your brain literally stops censoring your words so carefully. “A script can seem protective, like a bullet proof vest, sometimes it is more like a straight-jacket,” says Harford.


Embracing a little chaos and spontaneity in your work isn’t a license for laziness – of course success depends on ambition and relentless dedication. Rather, it is about not wasting time on ineffective, unrealistic planning and not cramping your style through over preparation. Leave space for the magic. “Real creativity, excitement and humanity lie in the messy parts of life, not the tidy ones,” says Harford.

from 99U99U

Turning Hand-Painted Ads into Social-Media Magnets

Turning Hand-Painted Ads into Social-Media Magnets

If you’re walking the streets of Los Angeles, New York, or a major city somewhere in between, and your attention is drawn to a surprising image painted on a building, there’s a pretty good chance the artists at Colossal put it there. Vinyl billboards and digital displays are far more common in today’s cityscapes, which makes Colossal undeniably “old-school.” Or so you’d think. Although their workers still dip paint brushes into plastic buckets to get the work done, Colossal’s innovative projects consistently generate millions of hits on social media.

Colossal teamed up with BBDO and Gillette to take over one side of a five-story SoHo building with hand-painted images of former Yankees star Derek Jeter sporting a five-o’clock shadow on day one, slathered with shaving cream on day two, and clean-shaven on day three. The cycle repeated for an entire month, drawing crowds of puzzled New Yorkers who shared photos on social networks, ultimately tallying 23 million impressions from sports outlets catering to Gillette’s target demographic: men. For Snickers, Colossal gradually turned a smiling Marcia Brady into a snarling Danny Trejo over the course of two weeks, playing on the candy bar’s “You’re not you when you’re hungry” theme. The campaign earned an Obie Award for best OOH campaign while racking up 1.5 million YouTube views and 50,000 organic likes on Instagram.

We spoke with Colossal co-founder Paul Lindahl to find out how the company gets so many people to point their smartphones to the scaffolding.


Tell us about Colossal’s beginnings. When did you open? And what was the initial thinking behind the company?

We started Colossal in 2004. I had already been painting murals at other companies for around 10 years, and at that point digital advertising had taken over and the industry couldn’t wait to kill paint. Colossal has never been about joining anything; it’s actually the opposite, I’ve always done things I like regardless of popular opinion. I don’t need the majority for confidence or direction. Colossal is a part of who I am, it’s not my livelihood; it’s my life.

How do you get most of your work? Do agencies come to you with a client who might be right or do clients come straight to you?

We have a full-time mega-talented sales staff who work with advertising agencies, creative agencies, and with brands directly. Our aim is to impress: We’re painting more than 400 murals a year at this point, and 100% percent of those murals need to be perfect. We get the work because we do good work.

You’ve been amazingly innovative in terms of social media, to the point where you’re clearly partners in the ideas, not just following a client’s lead. What was the first project that went beyond just painting a sign and calling it a day?

Back in 2008, we painted every single step of the Stella Artois “perfect pour” ritual on one of our SoHo walls. Stella Artois created an online journal that took consumers along on the journey with daily updates on the production, then produced a documentary film solely focused on our story, the craft, and the history of hand paint. Each day there were events at the bar across the street from the wall, and they even installed old-fashioned viewfinders on the corner so passersby could see our guys up close and personal. The best thing about it? They celebrated our art, not beer, and that really made people pay attention.


Can you take us through a recent brainstorming process for one of your favorite recent projects?

We created a proper in-house creative department more than a year ago. The team, along with the entire office of passionate thinkers, has been delivering some incredible concepts for our clients. One recent idea involved painting original art on a majority of our Bushwick locations. Each wall has been custom designed by local, emerging artists, many of whom were hand-selected from Colossal’s network of creatives. The brand, Adidas, is foregoing traditional advertising in favor of bringing this art into the community. The campaign just launched on May 15, so New Yorkers should get out to Bushwick to check out the Colossal-curated outdoor gallery of art.

What makes a great client?

A great client is one who’s curious, excited, and has a budget. We’re definitely not the typical Times Square media company. If you want your ad on one of the thousands of signs flashing in people’s faces or a real-life company mascot forcing value-meal coupons on tourists, then you’re probably better off working with someone else.

Sign painting is a classic art form, and in many cities, you can still see “ghost signs” that live on for decades. But you’re often painting images that last no longer than 24 hours before you replace them entirely (see Snickers, Gillette). Does it ever feel painful to “erase” something you’ve just created?

It’s a shitload of work but for us it’s more about the journey than the destination. Going to work when it’s dark and coming home when it’s dark, day-in and day-out, pushing through countless obstacles to make something that’s next to impossible is the fuel for our fire. A ghost sign is beautiful, but it’s also a tombstone.

How do you create the work itself, at such a huge scale?

The artwork is formatted at one inch to one foot and scaled up to the size of the wall it’ll be painted on. We draw contour lines that break down the image inside a grid pattern that’s placed on top of the art work and then projected onto templates which are applied onto the wall. (See some of the process in this video featuring murals for High Line Park.) From there, it’s all about doing our best to keep the paint on the wall and not on your car.

Can you give us some idea of how much paint you go through?

Last year, we spent $50,000 on the color red.

Colossal works in a lot of different cities, but there’s something about New York City that seems like a real fit for your work. Do you agree?

New Yorkers are hustlers, always have been. I’m not originally from New York, and almost nobody is—that’s what makes it rad, that you come here to do your thing with the best. The city is in a constant state of change and it’s never the same thing for that long and so you gotta stay on your game, that’s why Colossal fits here.


from 99U99U

Todd Hido: Finding Joy in the Process

Todd Hido: Finding Joy in the Process

New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard once said “The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life.” The same can be said about the work of the singular American photographer Todd Hido.

Hido’s haunting images of lone houses at night put him in the pantheon of American artists for whom the road is home, or at least the only way home. Beginning with his masterful debut House Hunting in 2001, Hido has elevated the monograph to a cinematic art form whose sequential images reveal compelling narratives among themselves, yet, like whispering children, keep the darkest truths under wraps. We spoke with the Ohio native turned Oakland resident about his craft, his inspirations, and where his work is taking him now.

Looking back at your six monographs, is there one that stands out as being the most meaningful to you. If so, why?

I think there are two that are the most meaningful. Obviously, the first book always has a place in your heart because it’s that book that you’ve been turning around in your head for years and years as a young artist, hoping that you might get to make it one day. The book that I feel is the most significant is Excerpts from Silver Meadows, and the reason is that all my other books prior to that had, I think, a maximum of 35 images. I remember hearing something Bruce Weber once said: “It’s much harder to do a book with 32 pages, as opposed to 100, where nobody will notice the clunkers.” If you have it honed down to a very small set of images, then every image has great significance in that book. I always remembered that, and I followed that method for a while.

When it came time to doing Excerpts from Silver Meadows, I was at a place where I had formed enough of a sophistication with sequencing and editing that I was ready to let it out, because I’ve always been a person that arranges pictures. It’s almost like this obsessive habit I have. Even in my studio, there’ll be pictures laid out on the table, and I’m constantly shifting and shuffling them around. I’d come home from a darkroom and put pictures down, and then it would start the shuffle again. When it came time to do Excerpts from Silver Meadows, I feel like I had a lot to say, and I did a book that had 130 images.

For me, it has this super-cinematic quality to it, because there’s such a mixture of things going on in there. I was also able to incorporate in that book my love and selection of found items, sometimes from my own personal family’s albums, like my father’s scrapbook from when he was in high school. And then all sorts of things that I would find that threw a wrench into a sequence of pictures, like a car crash or a picture of a crashed car. You could throw that image next to a bunch of other pictures, and it really puts a wrench into that story in some way.

It sounds like it was liberating in a way to have the book be bigger and more openly autobiographical, and include stuff that you didn’t make, but that made it into the book. You’re sort of repurposing everything.

Absolutely. Something I found exciting is that I would make things that looked like I didn’t make them, which was fun. The first time I got out a can of spray paint and spray painted a heart on a picture and let it drip all over a punk rock poster was liberating as a photographer. Like, “Hey, I can’t believe I made that.” It opened the door to experimenting more.

Did you have any say in the format of Intimate Distance, the Aperture monograph? What was it like for you to see photographs from many or probably all of your books all in one other book that in a certain sense wasn’t your book?

You’re right, Intimate Distance, my 25-year mid-career survey. Is different than any book I’ve ever made. The reason it had to be different was because my approach in the other books was that I basically took the pictures that I was most interested in working with and I would sequence them into something that made sense to me. That was largely driven by pure intuition and there was that narrative thread. When it came time to do my mid-career survey, we all kind of knew that we had to have a different structure, because if I just went and did my narrative, intuitive mix, then we would end up with a book that was like my other books. So we decided on one of the simplest approaches ever, which is to organize the pictures in chronological order.

I’ve always studied photography; I’ll be a student of photography until the day I die. The process is something that’s fascinating to me. My hope was that it could be enlightening for people that are interested in my work to see the actual order I make things in, because I think what happens a lot with students or people starting out in photography is that they think, “Oh, this person just arrived at this great idea. They ran out and executed it.” That scares a lot of people away thinking that they couldn’t do something like that. But I wanted to show how all over the place I am. One day I’ll shoot a portrait, and the next day I’ll shoot a landscape, and then that night I’ll do night photography. I wanted to show that I’m like anybody else that goes out and shoots what’s around them and follows their interest.

“I’ve always studied photography; I’ll be a student of photography until the day I die. The process is something that’s fascinating to me.”

It’s interesting that your publisher gave you so much input.

I wouldn’t have worked with them if I hadn’t had input. There are many different kinds of photographers, but sometimes they fall into two camps. Some photographers just shoot and shoot and shoot. Somebody else ends up saying, “Hey, let’s make this into a book” and the photographer gives them the pictures and the publisher makes the book. But for me, as soon as I realized that books were a way for me to sort out my work and organize my thoughts, I went to see my publisher, Chris Pichler of Nazraeli Press, and he realized that I wasn’t the kind of photographer that was going to hand him a box of pictures and say, “What do I do? I don’t know what to do.”

He noticed immediately that I knew exactly what I wanted to do and exactly how I wanted to do it, and he had the faith in me to basically say, “Well, here’s a dummy. Why don’t you go ahead and come back when you have it sequenced and organized?” That worked out perfectly, and that’s been our relationship ever since. I feel lucky to have that relationship with him, and because of that, I’ve grown, too. I’ve learned a great deal about bookmaking, sequencing, and editing. It’s one of the things that are, I think, my forté.

Looking at your photographs, I sense the use of film but could be wrong. Could you talk a bit about your choice of equipment and techniques, and whether they have evolved much in the past 25 years?

They have evolved greatly, and it’s been by need. For the first three quarters of my career, everything was shot on film and made as an analog print in a darkroom. And then those materials started drying up and the darkrooms started closing down. Mostly working in color, having no access to a darkroom, and becoming frustrated with how complicated it was to work analog, I needed something to change. I’m an adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where they had closed the darkroom, and one of my students would come in with some C-prints, and I was like, “Where did you get those C-prints?” He got them online and the quality was amazing.

He started working for me after graduation. The main thing he did was to introduce me to the photo software Lightroom. As soon as he showed me Lightroom, it all clicked, because it’s such an intuitive and amazing program that I was able to change the because I could use a little lamp and have that light up a model’s face and make a picture that looked like it was taken on a tripod. One of the things I often go for in my work is I want to make pictures that are believable. I don’t want to make images that look super staged or highly improbable. I want them to feel like they just came from the continuum of daily life or nightly life.

Tell me a bit more about why you chose to focus your work on people at one point.

I always photographed my friends and made portraits, but it wasn’t something I would consider to be a primary strand of my work. It was way I work. I came to understand that I could take a picture with a digital camera in the dark, handhold it, and it didn’t look terrible. I’ve been using digital cameras ever since as my primary tool.

Did you find that using a digital camera in some way changed your process and/or your actual images?

Yes and no. The no part is that one of my conditions for utilizing digital images was that I would be able to make pictures that looked like they were my other pictures that were made with film. Because of my desire to be able to match my other work, because I had 20-some years of work going already, it was important to me that it wasn’t like a line in the sand, where you could say “There’s the new digital Todd I know and like” or “For all of you analog lovers, you’re out of luck.” I needed to be able to make pictures that looked like you couldn’t identify exactly how they were made. Again, Lightroom gave me the functionality to be able to do that. I sometimes quiz people, like, “I challenge you to find the digital pictures in here,” and they can’t.

Then the yes part is what’s changed in my work because of using digital. It’s opened up a much more cinematic quality to the work because of that ability to handhold the camera in lighting situations that I used to have to be on a tripod for. It opened up the world of light even more to me because something that occurred when it occurred. Then there was a point in time – it was my fourth book, I believe, called Between the Two – when I all of a sudden started becoming interested in photographing nudes. Because I’d done two night photography books and then my next book was something where I challenged myself to focus on landscapes during the daytime, because I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into being the night photography guy. After that I shifted my attention toward the genre of portrait nudes.

Do you feel there’s a distinct difference between photographing landscapes and setting up a shot as a kind of tableau, or is the process more alike than different?

It’s totally different. Since I’m not a street photographer, all the pictures of people that I’ve done have been something that I’ve set up. The environment that I shoot in is as important as the person. The environment creates a mood, so I want to have the right backgrounds. A lot of times I would use a motel room because it was a room that was a clear, blank room.

You mentioned about how in Roaming you wanted to not photograph houses or photograph at night, so you weren’t continuing an earlier body of work. Has that ever happened again or was that kind of a one-time thing?

A lot of the work that I’ve done prior to now has been largely autobiographical. But now I’ve been doing something completely different. It’s mostly landscape-based, and I’ve been photographing in places like Iceland and the Sea of Japan. I’m about to go to Death Valley to photograph. Those are all places that couldn’t be farther from the suburbs, and they’re all environments that are not the kind of things that I’ve been shooting in before. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious change, but after wrapping up a mid-career survey, it was a perfect shifting point to move to something different.

That’s exciting. Is that going to be a book or perhaps more than one book?

I know it will be one book in September of 2018. I’m shooting the parts still, and I haven’t even begun to edit, because that’s what I do: I shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot until I feel like I have that critical mass. Then I start to put together the pictures, and then go out and round out the holes.

“I was bad at everything in school, but once I started being interested in photography, I wanted to go to school.”

Much of your work evokes the sense of an apparition or a vision, not exactly visionary but something that stops the viewer in his or her tracks with something otherworldly and at times even apocalyptic. Do any of these themes resonate with you or is this pure projection on my part?

I always say that the meaning of the image resides in the viewer. But I definitely loaded the deck, and that is something that I would say is true about my work, that there’s something like an apparition. Is my new work apocalyptic? Oh, I would say it kind of fits that mode. Plus, the times we’re living in. It’s like I’m absorbing this into my process, the darkness. For my next book, the working title is Bright Black World. It comes from a description that a writer named A.S. Byatt had. She made a book of Nordic mythology. It talked about the Fimbulwinter, which is their version of the Myth of the Endless Winter. When it got dark, started snowing, and it never stopped. That’s her description of that darkness, and it’s where I got that title.

Was there one decisive moment when you realized you wanted to be a photographer?

It wasn’t necessarily a moment, but it was more of a progression in my life, because I used to race BMX bikes and was the state champion of Ohio four times. So I picked up a camera and would photograph my friends doing stuff, like any kid with a skateboard today who would want to photograph their friends doing tricks. Your natural impulse is to record it so you can share it – if you don’t record it, nobody will know it happened. In high school I also had a great teacher, Mike McGlure, who said to me, “You are different from the other students in this class. You have a special talent.”

He encouraged me and would enter my pictures in contests. I remember I got some State Governor’s Award for Photography, and it was from him entering me into the contest. I was bad at everything in school, but once I started being interested in photography, I wanted to go to school, because that’s where the darkroom was and I found something that made me excited about being there. Ever since, all I’ve ever done is photography. I’ve never done anything else. It was 1986 when I graduated, and so that’s how long I’ve been focused on photography on, I would say, a daily basis.

This image and the following photos are by Todd Hido and have been made available for use in this interview.

Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido.

Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido.

Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido.

Photo by Todd Hido. Courtesy of Todd Hido.

from 99U99U