A Road Map for Navigating your Next Crisis: Nine Creative Leaders on Overcoming their Greatest Challenges

A Road Map for Navigating your Next Crisis: Nine Creative Leaders on Overcoming their Greatest Challenges

We all encounter defining challenges in our careers. It’s unavoidable. But it’s how we handle them that matters most. Whether it’s using unconventional ways to keep the lights on when the bank account is empty or explaining to corporate America that the role you aspire to is ‘Dad,’ the experiences of our subjects will help you traverse your next career challenge.

Being 50 percent excited and 50 percent terrified is a good place to be.
Duncan Wardle, former Head of Innovation and Creativity, Disney

My most daunting challenge was walking away from Disney last year, after 30 years. The moment of realization came when they handed me the bronze Jiminy Cricket Statue for 30 years of service. I had always preached getting out of your own expertise, trying something new, being brave. But I realized that I hadn’t really ever stepped out from my own comfort zone. If I was going to do it, now was the time.

I looked at a few in-house roles and was approached for a few. But one of the key challenges you face is: the more senior you get inside any organization, the more you manage the politics, not the work. I left Disney to create my own startup, helping companies embed a culture of creativity throughout their organization.

The first few months were completely terrifying. I was starting from zero as an entrepreneur after 30 years inside the safety of a corporation. The whole time, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m bloody mad!’ My greatest fear was: would companies and agencies hire me?

I confess it took longer than I thought, but the last few months, things have taken off. I’m on a mission to prove to everyone that they are creative and give them tools to think creatively. I wake up most days 50 percent excited and 50 percent terrified. I think that’s a really good place to be.

It’s very early days. I’m still finding my way. But I learned that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. It sounds cliche, but you only get one life. 

Constraints breed creativity.
Adam J. Kurtz, artist

The earlier years of my creative life were about making the most with what I had. Just five years ago, money was extremely tight. My rent was very low in a pretty grimy house with five roommates, but I still had trouble scraping it together sometimes. The first edition of my Unsolicited Advice planner was born out of necessity: I had zero money for holiday gifts. Instead, I looked toward my resources and skillset to make something to gift friends and family. I didn’t have money, but I did have access to free printing from a copy center job.

After a small run of that 2012 Unsolicited Advice weekly planner, I decided to try Kickstarter for a 2013 edition. I wanted to take a risk and see if the project could grow into something more. Turning to Kickstarter was about establishing my own legitimacy on a platform that had more brand name value than I did.

Telling the story, creating a video, and essentially selling myself as an independent creative and trustworthy person felt much more daunting than just printing 25 books at a time. The ‘all or nothing’ goal was intimidating. Even low fundraising goals are sometimes not met, and I was worried and embarrassed about what could potentially happen.

I ended up hitting my goal of $1,600 on day one, and exceeding it several times over ($7,598 total). It was more money than I’d ever had in my bank account at once. I was overwhelmed by the responsibility. I was used to doing small batches of zines, but this was the first time I thought, Wow, I do something that people really like. This might be a future. It seems silly now, but it was a formative moment in my life and career. Taking on some financial, and definitely emotional risk with that first Kickstarter project opened up a new chapter.

My big OMG am I an artist? freakout wasn’t entirely pre-emptive. The next month, I signed a book deal with Penguin Random House. And I created a personal manifesto that’s helped me set my intention and goals for the future. It’s given me something to reflect on whenever I’ve lost my way over the last few years. Knowing what actually matters to you, whether it feels important or a little silly (which is still valid!) enables you to focus on the work and keep you on track.

Be who you are. 
Tea Uglow, Creative Director of Google’s Creative Lab

Doesn’t everyone find life to be daunting? I find life completely terrifying. I am sure there are professionally daunting prospects, but most of my real challenges have been being myself; finding myself, growing into myself, growing out of old selves, closing chapters, turning pages, starting fresh.

Overcoming my denial about my sexuality, my gender dysphoria, and face blindness have been a 40-year-long program of assembly, delusion, disassembly and reconstruction. The singular most daunting part of that is: how do you communicate to everyone a truth about yourself that you’ve never told anyone? Not a lover, not a therapist, not even a pet.

The whole ‘project’ ultimately became the consolidation of everything I never wanted to admit, unpacked into a series of open letters. It wasn’t an act of bravery. It was an act of obligation, to myself and the people around me who I desperately wanted on the journey: my creative team, my colleagues, my professional collaborators and my friends. I wrote 350,000 words during the first two years of my transition. Most of it was garbage. Three thousand words made it to my first open letter—a coming out letter. Two further letters followed.

I’ve learned that letters are a far better way to share information than blog-posts or social media. They scale way better than trying to tell everyone. I learned that the internet is fickle. I have learned never to read the comments. I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s useful to insist people ask ‘How are you today?’ rather than ‘How are you?’

I’ve learned that people do want to hear from you, your story. I’ve learned never to trust a newspaper sub-editor. I’ve learned the average time-to-burn-out for a truly supportive friend (about 6 months). I’ve learned what a mess clothes sizing is for women, and how broken or under-acknowledged many female-oriented systems and models are. I’ve learned to love getting my nails done, and to take a certain pleasure in being occasionally objectified. I learned how to use Tinder. I learned loads of stuff.

I’ve mainly learned that however much you think you know yourself, your mind, your beliefs, or your history, that the world can flip on a dime. And you cannot even try to be ready for it. But you shouldn’t try to stop it when it does. I’ve learned that the human mind is incredibly powerful, and incredibly fragile and that you should look after it. Exercise it, support it, nurture it, love it.

What to do when your project has a lot of friends but is low on funds.
Vince Kadlubek, CEO, Meow Wolf

Opening the House of Eternal Return [Meow Wolf’s art experience in Santa Fe] was definitely the most daunting challenge I ever faced. Prior to House of Eternal Return, the biggest project I’d worked on was about one-fifth the size and one percent of the budget. And it was temporary. House of Eternal Return was the first time we ever got into business. None of us understood business. We kept running out of money. We were sleep deprived. And we were working around the clock to finish it on time.

I can’t do this came up all the time. And then it was followed with, ‘Yes, I can.’ We operated for a year with a constant pressure of running out of money. We never had more than two weeks worth of cash on hand. One time our bank was overdrawn and I had 100 artists to pay; $75,000 was needed. I had to make some really difficult phone calls. I called existing investors to ask them to very quickly invest more, with the transparent knowledge that we were out of money. That’s the most difficult and leveraged position a business can ever be in.

It was nuts.

The project was really rough at times, but there was a collective creative high that we were all riding. We all just wanted to make amazing art, and that’s what we were doing. There was always this really exciting thought in the back of our heads saying, ‘What if we really pull this off?’

During the build, we had over 100 artists working together, volunteering their time, and staying late. Every single person involved was absolutely crucial to the project’s success. We could not have pulled it off if we had not been working together as a collective every step of the way.

This project really made me believe that I, and the rest of the people at Meow Wolf, are capable of anything. No matter how daunting the project may seem there is always a way to make it happen.”

When corporate America doesn’t buy that your favorite title is ‘dad.’
Jason Mayden, CEO, Super Heroic

The most daunting challenge I faced was transitioning from my position at Nike to the more purposeful role of full-time stay-at-home father. At the time, my son was facing medical challenges that were greater than the ones I faced designing products for athletes. So, I decided to step away and use my gifts and talents to help him heal, both emotionally and physically.

I expected difficulties to come from the day to day tasks of being at home. But the real difficulties lay in the skepticism from my peers in the design industry. People had trouble understanding my choice to leave a prominent position in corporate America for the sake of the wellbeing of my child. Some speculated that I was going to a competitor. I felt shunned by the industry, discarded, even seen as a traitor.

I know that their judgmental perspectives were bound to a lack of knowledge. I was confident that my decision could endure a temporary rebuff from an industry that I deeply love. I decided to remain centered and calm. Ultimately, it was the right decision for our family. It helped me to focus on what mattered to me most: the preservation of childhood creativity and innocence. I decided to focus on building stronger children, rather than fixing broken adults. I decided to dedicate my life to the protection and well-being of all children—not just my own.

Now, I am the CEO and cofounder of Super Heroic, with the mission to entertain, delight and surprise every child in the world through interactive and imaginative play. We seek to encourage a spontaneous, active lifestyle.

As a CEO, I try to embed the spirit of what I’ve learned in how we work with and reward our teammates. We have an open, healthy dialogue that’s focused on promoting work/life balance. We have to play with and enjoy our families, in order to embed joy in the work that we do. It’s imperative that we live what we speak.

Don’t get promoted to micromanager-in-chief.
Emily Collins, Creative Director and Partner, Mighty Oak

The most daunting challenge I’ve faced as a creative director has been learning to step away from the process of making. I am instinctively drawn to making things with my hands. As a kid, I drew and invented characters inspired by people with crazy shoes, dogs, and wild patterns. Mighty Oak focuses on hand-made work, so the temptation to create is abundant! At first, it was very difficult to pull myself away from executing on my own.

The first time I stepped out of the weeds was for a project for Don Julio Tequila and the New York Times. It was the biggest team I had directed and I had to focus my energy on working with people and hearing their ideas. Our work is innately collaborative and needs a combined set of skills and hands. By reminding myself that we hire people for a reason and that I can not physically do all jobs helps keep micromanaging inclinations to a low for me (or at least I try!).

Once a task is someone else’s responsibility, I let them work it out and do check-ins regularly to make sure we’re on the same page. I fight the inclination to micromanage by highlighting my most important duties for the day—and doing them well—before I consider meddling with someone else’s. If my duties include checking in with people I schedule a couple of check-ins, but I don’t do their jobs for them.

I’ve found outlets to make things with my hands on my own time. Often just drawing at home at night quenches my desire to work with my hands and keeps me feeling fresh. I discover a lot of new ideas by opening up a drawing pad after 9 p.m. and seeing where my hand takes me.

My advice to those facing a similar situation would be to embrace the idea of collaboration. A multitude of artists can create much more work than a single maker, and that work is often enhanced by the collaborative process. Remember to be clear with your ideas while communicating with a team—have notes, sketches and examples ready to share. I’ve found joy in working with a group of amazing artists, and seeing so many of our ideas coming to life simultaneously.

Two designers gave up their salaries for a dream project could yield career-defining results. 
Dan Kuhlken and Nathan Goldman, founders, DKNG

The most daunting challenge we have faced in our career was our first independent solo show. The concept was 50 different screen printed designs, each paying homage to a favorite TV show or film. We called the show ICON, which represented the iconic nature of the properties we were celebrating and the iconic style each illustration would encapsulate.

Prior to this project, the largest series of prints we had ever tackled was…three. Creating 50 designs for a single event? That was completely new to us. Each design was as a limited edition of 100 prints. That meant 5,000 prints would have to be produced and ready to sell.

We thought, ‘With enough time, creating the entire series will be manageable.’

We allowed ourselves two years to create everything. But time went on, and we gave priority to more and more unrelated projects. When push came to shove, we realized we had six months remaining until the opening. And we only had a handful of designs completed. We had to create 45+ designs, including printing and shipping time. When we did the math, we realized that we needed to create three to four designs a week to get this done.

That meant we had to shut our doors to client work. We knew that the potential success of the solo show could bring us enough income to sustain our business, but in order to get to that point we needed to buckle down and execute. We made the conscious decision to forgo our salaries for four to five months.

This was the first time that we had ever used a credit card for credit, meaning not able to pay off the balance in full. It’s ironic that, when we probably needed a vacation the most, or a reward in the form of a fancy dinner, we didn’t indulge in order to stay within a reasonable budget. It wasn’t really until after the posters were being sold online, a month after the show opening, that we splurged.

It was the strangest fiscal year we’ve ever experienced. From a yearly stand point, anyone could say we did great. But if you looked at the year in detail, our company made nearly no income for four to five months. The work we created was some of the most fulfilling work we’ve ever done, but it came with the price of delayed gratification and uncertainty. Long story short, the solo show was a huge success and truly paid off. Our ICON work has landed us jobs from several large clients, including Nickelodeon, USA Today, Lowes, and Marvel.

Some of our biggest successes still come from our biggest project to date. In order to make big changes in our career, it took an even bigger leap of faith. For anyone facing a similar challenge, create a schedule, and hold yourself accountable to it!

Win office politics by walking away.
Mona Chalabi, Data Editor, the Guardian US

For over a year, I worked in an office with people who didn’t take me seriously. My colleagues weren’t all prejudiced, nepotistic, or dumb. They simply weren’t into what I had to offer.
“There are plenty of areas of my life where I doubt my abilities. But work was always different. Whether I was working in a clothing store or in a newsroom, I’d always felt like I could see what I needed to do to be ‘good’ and then could work fast to get there.

All of a sudden though, the rules for success seemed foreign. We’d all file into a meeting room and the boss would say ‘Hey man,’ ‘Hey man,’ ‘Hey man,’ then ‘Hello Mona.’ I’d never understand their sports analogies. I’ve always found it easy to talk to new people (I think that’s why I went into journalism). But now, my self-confidence was decimated.

What made it worse is that I couldn’t leave the job. There was a clause in my contract saying that if I left before 18 months I would have to pay the company a sum that I couldn’t afford. Plus, for an immigrant on a visa, switching jobs is always difficult.

My internal thought process went something like: I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid, I am stupid, I am stupid, maybe I’m not stupid.

I realized that I was fighting a battle that couldn’t be won (or, where winning meant sacrificing my sanity). The time to stop fighting was when I didn’t feel like myself anymore. So, I channeled my energy elsewhere.

I started to draw.

The illustrations looked like sh*t but they forced me to suspend my judgement of myself, to create and create until I had the strength to be critical in a way that wasn’t destructive. I finally got to a place where I could look at something and think, ‘Wow, that’s bad’, shrug and try again.

You can fight and fight and fight to be seen. Or you can walk away and try something else. I could never be one of that team. The thing that took the most time? Realizing that I didn’t want to be. Jobs are like relationships, the hard part is working out how long to fight for them.

How to get the job done when the client wants everything redone at the last moment.
Jon Burgerman, Artist

My publishers had signed off on the final version of my book, How to Eat Pizza, and my brain was sipping a beer, lying on the sofa, and cooling down with a self-congratulatory glow. That little switch in my head that said ‘picture book for April’ had turned off. Then, I received news that one of publishers wasn’t happy. The book needed to be completely revised in time for an important book fair in two weeks.

Wait, hadn’t they read any of the previous drafts? It’s not my fault! It was a real shock. But it would be awful to turn up at the book fair with a story with no ending. I had to rewrite half a picture book in two weeks.

There was no time to be annoyed. Normally, everything is slow and delayed in publishing; no one expects you to deliver the pages when you say you will. But here was a solid, no excuses, if-you-miss-it-you-might-as-well-not-go-to-the-book-fair deadline.

I was of two minds as I tackled the challenge. One was: This is stupid. I should just put my foot down. Everyone had access to the drafts, they should have voiced their concerns earlier. But then, I thought: What the hell do I actually know? I should listen to people who actually work in publishing. I’m lucky they’re even allowing me to make a book.

Rather than fight the issue—which would have been futile—I tried to understand where the publishers were coming from. They wanted the book to be more ‘Burgerman-y.’ I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was probably the best person to resolve it. There’s no magic spell. I just worked really hard. I swallowed my pride, opened up my sketchbook, my computer, and my brain and went about it.

I learned that even when a book is ‘finished’ that doesn’t mean it’s finished. Always keep good documentation of your drafts. Organize everything clearly, so if you need to look up old notes or artwork you can find them quickly.

Trying to understand the root of the problem is key to tackling it. Often, we only acknowledge the changes themselves and not the thoughts that prompted them. Once you can frame the issue for yourself, it’s much easier to solve it. And lastly, keep an open mind. In the end, everyone wants to make the best thing possible. Sure, publishers want that ‘thing’ to sell—and you know what— so do I.

from 99U99U https://adobe.ly/2HIgEyI

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Meet the Literary Design Studio Bringing Classic Literature to New Technology

Meet the Literary Design Studio Bringing Classic Literature to New Technology

It started with e-readers, and now with new digital reading platforms like Twitter fiction, VR storytelling, and crowdsourced serials blowing through the legacy print industry like a hurricane in an indie bookstore, the way we consume stories will never be the same. While the book—and book design—is far from becoming obsolete, there’s now a rich, high-quality digital field where designers can reimagine what the reading experience can be. And, like a good book, it seems like we’re only limited by the limits of our own imagination.

One studio leading the way is, Plympton Inc., the scrappy team of applied math majors and fiction fanatics behind projects like Jeff Bezos’ Kindle Singles, the New York Times’ first literary VR film, Lincoln In the Bardo, and the Subway Library, which makes long commutes bearable via free New York Public Library short stories available on mobile.

We sat down to talk to Plympton’s CEO, Jennifer 8. Lee, and her co-founder, Yael Goldstein Love about crowdsourcing creatives, whether they fear (or are causing) the death of print, and how they’re bringing classic literature to the brink of new technology.

Lia Marcoux, Little Women and The Time Machine designed by Jon.

Plympton is a digital literary studio. What does that mean?

Jennifer 8. Lee: We work on innovative projects in publishing that people are excited to work on. The budgets for these projects are really tight, so I have to find cool things in order to get talented people to work below their market rates. For example, the George Saunders VR film was the first to adapt a literary novel. We’re often trying to operate on the frontiers of format. We’re trying to do things that don’t have precedent.  

Yael Goldstein Love: We ask: how can we use technology to get more fiction into people’s lives? That’s the thing that ties everything we do together. And how can we use technology to expand what we do with fiction?

What do you mean by that?

Lee: I was a reporter at the New York Times for a long time, and then in 2011, Kindle announced its Kindle Singles program for publishing short-form posts. I became fascinated with the idea that as new formats develop, what you write will change as well. Digital would change the nature of the things we publish in the same way paperbacks did.

Which of your projects epitomizes how the pairing of digital and literature made something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise?

Love: Our Rooster app. So many people that we spoke to said, “I love fiction, but I never read fiction because I have no time.” And yet they were reading all the time on their phones: articles, the news feed. But they wouldn’t read fiction because it didn’t feel native to their phones. The Rooster app was meant to target that. Every month there’d be two serialized pieces of fiction. You could choose how big a chunk you wanted to read, which would be as long as your commute. There’s real precedent, in terms of serialized fiction, from the 19th century. This was reviving an old art form.

Whether it’s an app or VR, how do you select what your next format will be?

J8L: It depends. You’re trying to solve a problem. I really love the Recovering the Classics project, which asked designers to reimagine covers for public domain books. We were just doing it to solve our own problems: we needed better covers for public domain books. So we said, “Well, how do we solve this problem in an exciting and cost effective way? So we made it into a movement and crowdsourced covers from around the world, from students, to retirees, to professional designers. I loved how enthusiastic people were. Some of our best work comes from trying to solve a problem with fewer resources than would be ideal. Scarcity breeds creativity; if you had lots of resources, you’d solve it in a traditional way. Because you don’t, you have to come up with a new way.

Karl Orozco, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Roberlan Borges, The Brothers Karamazov.

How does funding work?

J8L: In general, all the projects we do have to pay for themselves. We sold the VR project to the New York Times. We sell a lot of stuff to libraries because we’re able to create products for them that have unrestricted user access. I’ll often come up with an idea for a project and then, going backwards, figure out where the funding comes from. The wonderful thing about books is that generally people are willing to pay for them.

But being a startup sucks. Never do it for fame or fortune. You should only launch one if you’re absolutely driven to change the world and no one else is doing it. Then the burden falls on your shoulders.

What vision of the world are you driven to create?

J8L: I’m really interested in the business models that let creators create for a living. We are a poor society if we don’t have structures in place that let the creatives in our world be creative. It’s interesting to see the creative times throughout history, whether it’s Paris in the late 1800s or China during the Tang Dynasty. There are definitely times in history where culture has left a deeper legacy than others. You need to come up with the circumstances that create that.  

So Plympton is trying to be a model for a new Renaissance?

J8L: A little bit. We are trying to figure out what the Renaissance of publishing looks like when it shifts to digital. And how do you maintain this idea that it’s a craft and give the most talented folks in our generation the ability to pursue their art?

What do you think about the state of digital publishing?

J8L: Digital publishing is wonderful. It frees up a lot of things. It also flattens a lot of things–which is reflected in the fake news stuff. I think, generally, after a couple years or so of flattening, there’s a flight to quality. That’s across journalism and traditional book publishing. Publishing, historically, has been a medium that is about care, curation, and taste. So for Plympton, publishing has always been a craft, from the writing to the cover art. I think that is not true in an engineering-led or a Silicon Valley approach to publishing.

What do you say to people who fear the death of print?

J8L: I think the printed book is an amazing invention. I think there’s a lot of relief in the industry that digital is not going to take over everything. It is going to find its home in a format, just like paperbacks found a format, and hardcover found a format. It’s a good sign that indie bookstores are rising in business and that people feel strongly about books as trophies.

YGL: There are definitely times when I stay up at night thinking, “Oh my god, is the next generation never going to hold a printed book in their hand?” But I don’t think that’s true. There was a period when e-books were gaining a lot of market share and everyone was really scared that books were going to go away. Then in 2015, even earlier, it plateaued. People really do like holding books in their hands. I don’t think that’s going anywhere. It’s possible that fiction is going to become more of a niche interest. In the same way that there was once a period when everyone who was educated read poetry. And now it’s a tiny group of people who actually read contemporary poetry. I think it’s becoming more and more of a hobby by which people identify themselves, as opposed to something that everyone does.

Is there a technology that you haven’t explored yet that you’re excited about?

J8L: Podcasting. A dating app based on books. Another idea is choose-your-own-adventure through Alexa. I would love to do that, I just haven’t found the funding for it.

from 99U99U https://adobe.ly/2qV76dA

Can This New Alternative to Braille Change the Way Blind People Read?

Can This New Alternative to Braille Change the Way Blind People Read?

Almost 200 years ago, a blind, 20-year-old French student demonstrated a dot-based reading-and-writing system at the 1834 Paris Industrial Exposition that would go on to become the single, universal standard for the visually impaired. Louis Braille, who lost his eyesight at age three from a freak accident while playing with his father’s leather-making knife tool, was inspired by a covert “night writing” code alphabet used by Napoleon’s army. Endorsed by UNESCO in the 1950s, it’s been adapted to 133 languages and spawned special Braille codes for music, science, and math notations. With growing awareness for accessible design, these embossed dots are everywhere: building signs, elevator buttons, new banknotes, even medicine packaging in Europe.

In its heyday, the blind community championed Braille as the key to independence, literacy, and employment. The problem is that only a very small fraction of blind people actually read Braille today. In the U.S., less than 10% (around 60,000 people) of the estimated 8 million blind population use it regularly. That’s a steep decline from the 1960s, when more than half the country’s blind population read Braille.

If you didn’t learn Braille as a child, the prospect of learning the system of cells and codes sounds daunting, requiring about six to nine months of intense study and memorization. With advanced text-to-speech technology and smartphone apps like TapSeeTap, which recognizes objects based on photos, or LokTell which helps blind users sort banknotes, experts fear that Braille may soon join Esperanto in the annals of dead languages.

This alarming disparity struck Andrew Chepaitis, a former equity research analyst who founded a startup called ELIA Life Technology. ELIA, which stands for Education, Literacy, and Independence for All, aspires to challenge Braille’s dominance through an easy-to-learn system based on letterforms of the Roman alphabet.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

After years of development, ELIA’s marquee project, ELIA Frames, is finally ready. Distributed as a free-to-download font on its website, ELIA Frames will be spotlighted in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s exhibition, “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision.” Chepaitis is also launching a Kickstarter campaign to introduce ELIA Frames to “a community of early adopters, innovators, and creative thinkers,” as he puts it.

For time-strapped adult learners, ELIA Frames offers a compelling proposition: Instead of months memorizing dot patterns and permutations, Chepaitis suggests that users can gain mastery of the Roman alphabet-based system in a matter of hours.  

ELIA’s system is based on a series of strokes and dots contained in four distinct shapes. Letters A-D are contained in a semi-circle; O-S are in a circle; and the rest of the letters are boxed in a square frame. Numerals are contained in a pentagon that looks like a house. Refined with the input of some 200,000 test participants, ELIA’s designers believe that the shapes that evoke letterforms from the Roman alphabet help distinguish characters.

“A family, classroom, or an office can learn it in five minutes and then incorporate it into their daily lives,” asserts Chepaitis, who got the initial idea for ELIA Frames from his mother’s PhD research. Because it’s so easy to learn, he’s hoping that ELIA will offer a common alphabet for all readers. “[Companies] may prefer ELIA, because all their employees could learn it during lunch one day and then share a common alphabet with their blind and low-vision employees,” he explains.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

ELIA already has a strong list of backers: It’s raised $450,000 in seed investments and $2.7 million in grants from the National Institute on Aging, the National Eye Institute, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and NYSTAR. It’s also partnered with Hewlett-Packard to develop a desktop inkjet printer that will allow users to instantly produce tactile fonts and graphics.

Chepaitis envisions that ELIA might attract more investment in assistive technology in general. “People have looked at our market as unattractive because of Braille’s performance, and that gave us time. Who would invest $3 million in a market where the standard has 59,000 potential customers?,” he says. “Braille is, in many ways, is still tied to the mechanical systems of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

ELIA, on the other hand, wants to position itself as the Apple of assistive languages: Friendly, easy-to-learn, and intuitive. It’s even cleaned up its branding and website with the help of Order, a graphic design studio founded by former Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth.

ELIA Frames, image courtesy of ELIA

But not everyone is completely sold on the Braille alternative, as Fast Company reports. The U.S. National Federation of the Blind (NFB) says ELIA Frames will slow readers down because they’ll have to trace around each frame with their finger. “You are never going to build up the kind of reading speed and fluency that you would want,” says NFB spokesperson Chris Danielson. “This idea that Braille is hard to learn, we would argue that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Chepaitis is hopeful that NFB might warm up to ELIA one day, but for now, he’s not letting its reservations deter his momentum. “We respect their opposition and criticisms of our work. This is a field where a lot is at stake. People’s independence, educations, literacy, and ability to work—those may be affected by our work, especially if we fail. The onus is on us to demonstrate that we can do good. If we do that, perhaps they will collaborate with us,” he says.

Chepaitis says he’s less concerned with replacing Braille altogether as he is with offering a faster, more accessible alternative for 90% of the blind population. “We are focused on helping people achieve greater independence and literacy,” he says. “It’s been really challenging. But I’ve had faith that this initiative is the most worthwhile way I could spend each day.”

from 99U99U https://adobe.ly/2vqGZ2G

Duncan Wardle, When Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone Means Saying Goodbye to the Corporation

Duncan Wardle, When Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone Means Saying Goodbye to the Corporation

Duncan Wardle spent 30 years at Disney, ultimately as Head of Innovation & Creativity. While anyone else would be happily contemplating their pension, Wardle left the cushion of corporate America to strike out on his own, coaching companies on cultures of creativity. Wardle will be hosting a breakout session at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Wardle to reflect on a moment when he faced a tough decision and how he pushed through.

“My most daunting challenge was walking away from Disney last year, after 30 years. The moment of realization came when they handed me the bronze Jiminy Cricket Statue for 30 years of service. I had always preached getting out of your own expertise, trying something new, being brave. But I realized that I hadn’t really ever stepped out from my own comfort zone. If I was going to do it, now was the time.

I looked at a few in-house roles and was approached for a few. But one of the key challenges you face is: the more senior you get inside any organization, the more you manage the politics, not the work. I left Disney to create my own startup, helping companies embed a culture of creativity throughout their organization.

The first few months were completely terrifying. I was starting from zero as an entrepreneur after 30 years inside the safety of a corporation. The whole time, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m bloody mad!’ My greatest fear was: would companies and agencies hire me?

I confess it took longer than I thought, but the last few months, things have taken off. I’m on a mission to prove to everyone that they are creative and give them tools to think creatively. I wake up most days 50% excited and 50% terrified. I think that’s a really good place to be.

It’s very early days. I’m still finding my way. But I learned that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. It sounds cliche, but you only get one life. So, as Marc Anthony would say, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work another day.’”

See Duncan Wardle along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.


from 99U99U https://adobe.ly/2HtU7sP

At Work With MoMA Design Store’s Merchandising Team

At Work With MoMA Design Store’s Merchandising Team

When the MoMA Design Store opened in 1989, it wasn’t the first design museum shop in the country, but in 2013 it became the best. The year before, a new director of merchandising, Emmanuel Plat, came on board, bringing with him 20 years of experience at Conran Shop, the design retailer where he worked his way up to president of the company. With Plat came new concepts, a new strategy, and a fresh personality that would eventually turn the MoMA Design Store from a museum gift shop into an international design destination. But first, he had to convince his new team, many of whom had been with the organization for decades, to trust him—and his first, crazy $6,000 idea.

To see them now, you wouldn’t guess that the tightly knit team had ever been at odds. Working closely, the five lead buyers are responsible for curating a selection of roughly 6,000 products each year, available online and in MoMA’s five locations (three in New York and two in Japan). One buyer handles books, and another personal accessories; furniture, lighting, tabletop, and kitchen are a department all their own, as are kids, desk, tech, and household, and paper goods, holiday items, art reproductions, and artist collaborations. Each buyer works with an assistant, bringing the body count to a lean 11.

Today, in their 11th floor office just steps away from the museum’s midtown location, they gather around a pushcart overflowing with household items to discuss a new product sample that just arrived. Beside this is another pushcart full of children’s games and toys, beside another piled high with tech gadgets, and another stacked with desk accessories. These pushcarts stretch all the way down the aisle of cubicles like cars in a traffic jam. Each buyer gradually adds products to their pushcart as they build out the next season’s collection. These carts are then wheeled around to various product review meetings, culminating in a presentation to the museum’s curatorial staff.

They’re looking at a handy little kitchen tool that purports to age a bottle of wine in less than five seconds. Chay Costello, who works directly with Plat as associate director of merchandising, says she was skeptical until she brought it home for a taste test. She’s still unsure if it’s really “MoMA,” though, as she sets it down on the edge of a cubicle wall—not quite pushcart material yet, it seems.

The difference between what makes a good, quality design product and good, quality MoMA design product is the result of an eight-step “filtration” process and years of experience in the field. Great taste doesn’t hurt, either. Among the many considerations are: Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Does it use materials or technology in an innovative way? Does it relate to the museum’s design collection? And lastly, will the customer buy it? That’s one reason the team was so surprised when the first product Plat wanted to introduce was a $6,000 kitchen set. Designed by Malle W. Trousseau, the w. Trousseau handmade wooden chest of 43 kitchen essentials easily passes all the design filters, but at a price.

“It was an interesting journey,” says Plat, reflecting on his early years on the job. “This was post-2008, so the product selection was very much what we jokingly call ‘cheap and cheerful,’” meaning colorful items often made of plastic and priced under $50. But when he started, “the strategy was to elevate the product offering and collaborate with artists. At the time, this was not necessarily accepted, and I had to make a lot of headway convincing people to go in that direction. The data we had showed there was a potential appetite for higher price points, and I wanted to experiment with that. Many people from the team thought it was crazy. ‘No one is going to buy your $6,000 kitchen set,’ they said. ‘This is MoMA Design Store, people buy postcards.’ The highest priced item at the time was, I think, a $200 kettle.”

However, when the w. Trousseau debuted at the press preview that season, “all the media outlets there were fighting for the exclusive” says Plat. “And as soon as it hit stores we sold a dozen pieces. That was validation of what we suspected: There aren’t only visitors to the museum who want to take away an affordable souvenir, but also a design-savvy, affluent customer, mostly local New Yorkers, who are interested in more exclusive objects.”

Since then, it’s been the mission of Plat and his merchandising team to establish the MoMA Design Store as a platform for launching brand new products and as a destination in its own right, independent of the museum. Plat’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. “After the economic downturn of 2008,” Costello explains, “we were catering to the market and the pricepoint people felt comfortable with. But as time went on the market changed and the design world in New York City changed. A lot of really terrific design retailers didn’t make it, which left open a great opportunity for us.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as putting gorgeous, expensive items on the shelf and watching the sales tick in. “Sell it and they will come” isn’t anyone’s motto for a reason. After looking at the store’s sales, the cluster of price points in each department, and where there were obvious holes, “We knew people would, say, buy desk accessories at this one specific price point, and furniture at another,” says Costello. “Then it was a matter of trying to raise up the price and the offerings and see how people would respond.”

Another early success is the Lumio Book Lamp, designed by Max Gunawan, which the MoMA team spotted in 2013 after its wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, raising over half a million dollars. Although it quickly became one of the store’s top-sellers, placing a bet on Lumio was something of a risk. At the time, Kickstarter wasn’t the platform of choice for product designers, but MoMA’s merchandisers noticed a growing trend and partnered with the crowdfunding platform on a special launch of 20 products selected from an initial list of hundreds. “It was a challenge,” Costello concedes, “as many of these Kickstarter designers have never sold retail, let alone wholesale, so we were teaching them how to create pricing structure, how to scale, and how to deal with lead time.”

While a lot of product research is done online, trawling Kickstarter as well as a slew of other sites and blogs, much of the search for undiscovered designs happens IRL, often as the result of serendipitous encounters. The team does more than its share of travel to design industry trade shows around the world (London, Paris, and Milan are regular stops on their annual itinerary), but for each major international fair, they make sure to pack in visits to as many local shops as their schedule can accommodate.

Soek-Hee Lee, who oversees the kids, desk, and tech product range, recounts her trip last summer to Berlin for the IFA trade show. After she finished there, she flew to Brussels to meet up with Plat and Alex Glaser, who heads up personal accessories, but they didn’t find anything that piqued their interest, so a few hours later they rented a car and sped off to Antwerp, where they were rewarded with plenty of great shops. The next day the three of them jumped back in the car, this time heading to Eindhoven, where they discovered a selection of products that will be launched at MoMA next season. After sending samples back to the New York office, they flew on to Paris for Maison & Objet, hitting three countries in just three days.

At this point, it’s relatively easy for the team to spot a promising item. “When we walk into a design store we usually know 100% of the products there,” says Costello. “So if we see something we don’t know, it stands out.” Plat agrees, adding, “The mentality we try to spread in the team is to be on constant alert.”

Once the buyers return home from the trade shows, it’s time to whittle down their selections. “We have these major style outs where we have hundreds of products that we put out on a table,” says Costello. They review the mix of items spread before them, considering what’s already on offer in the store. They ask things like: Do we already have too many teapots? Not enough teapots? Is this $10 notebook distinct enough from our other $10 notebook? Then the product testing begins. Every item goes home with a staffer, is used, evaluated, and then brought back into the mix or cut from the running. “We’ll give it to our kids and watch them play with it. Are the pieces too small? Do they seem engaged?” Only about 75% of products meet the criteria.

An obvious, but sometimes elusive criteria is whether something is on-brand for MoMA. One recent on-the-fence item is the classic Kit-Cat Clock. While it’s likely familiar to most Americans, especially Boomers, “I had personally never seen it before,” Plat says. “We thought it was fun and whimsical, but it was a little on the edge of ‘is this MoMA or not MoMA?’ But the box said ‘Made in the U.S. since 1932.’ So we snapped pictures and sent them to the office for research and reviewed it with the museum’s curators.” Despite the kitsch factor, it passed the test because, Costella says, “we thought that when presented in the context of all of the clocks we offer, it did tell a story.” Like Lumio, it’s become another best seller.

But a product doesn’t have to be a money maker in order to have a home at MoMA. “Sometimes we find a product that we think is extraordinary and we fall in love with it. We think it’s important, that it’s documenting something in the world right now.” Take the ClockClock, a series of analogue clock faces that are choreographed together to project the time digitally. Designed by Humans Since 1982, it was originally presented as an installation at Basel in 2013. “When we heard they were producing multiples, we were the first ones!” Plat recalls. “We all fell in love with it, but didn’t have huge hopes for sales. But it’s been a tremendous seller—and it’s a $7,000 clock, so that’s a surprise.”

Another important part of the review process involves the museum’s curators. Every couple of months, the buyers wheel their pushcarts into a meeting room, lay all their items on a table, and review them one by one with a group of curators. About 75% of the products make it past this stage, “but the dialogue and guidance is critical,” says Plat. “We get feedback and direction, and we hear what they’re interested in seeing. Throughout this process we learn a lot.”

A curator’s voice is especially critical when it comes to artist reproductions. If the merchandising team wants to print an artwork on a silk scarf, for instance, the curator might like the concept, but note that the piece in question is not actually from the period the museum is collecting from a given artist. It’s a constant dialogue and, as you might have guessed by now, a lot of meetings. “We’re very meeting intensive. We’re very old-fashioned that way,” says Costello.

Despite its connection to the museum, Plat insists that the MoMA Design Store “is not a museum store, it’s a design store.” Still, the connection is hard to overlook. “Besides generating revenue for the museum, one of our missions is to make good design available to as many people as possible. We can reach people who may not be interested in coming to MoMA, or may be intimidated by it, but the experience of the store can be a point of entry to the museum.” The relationship is reciprocal, too. Unlike a typical retailer, the MoMA Design Store receives natural traffic from museum visitors.

As the MoMA Design Store becomes known as a hub for launching new products and debuting exclusives, it will only continue to stake its claim as a design mecca, regardless of the museum nearby. One essential reason it has real staying power? The store passes its own eight-step “filtration” process, namely: Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Would the world miss it if it wasn’t there? Yes, yes, and emphatically yes.

from 99U99U https://adobe.ly/2Hpx5AC

Google’s Tea Uglow, on How to Share Something About Yourself that You’ve Never Told Anyone

Google’s Tea Uglow, on How to Share Something About Yourself that You’ve Never Told Anyone

Tea Uglow works on a range of projects enabling artists, writers, and performers to use digital tools to fuel their artistic practice. Her output includes seven books, 17 websites, six apps, a feature film, three plays, two concerts, four museum exhibits, and some teddy bears that talk. Uglow, the Creative Director of Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney, will be speaking at the 10th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 9-11 in New York City. Since our 2018 conference is all about overcoming creative challenges, we asked Uglow to reflect on a moment when she faced a tough decision and how she pushed through.

“Doesn’t everyone find life to be daunting? I find life completely terrifying. I am sure there are professionally daunting prospects, but most of my real challenges have been being myself; finding myself, growing into myself, growing out of old selves, closing chapters, turning pages, starting fresh.

Overcoming my denial about my sexuality, my gender dysphoria, and face blindness have been  a 40-year-long program of assembly, delusion, disassembly and reconstruction. The singular most daunting part of that is: how do you communicate to everyone a truth about yourself that you’ve never told anyone? Not a lover, not a therapist, not even a pet.

The whole ‘project’ ultimately became the consolidation of everything I never wanted to admit, unpacked into a series of open letters. It wasn’t an act of bravery. It was an act of obligation, to myself and the people around me who I desperately wanted on the journey: my creative team, my colleagues, my professional collaborators and my friends.

I wrote 350,000 words during the first two years of my transition. Most of it was garbage. Three thousand words made it to my first open letter—a coming out letter. Two further letters followed.

I’ve learned that letters are a far better way to share information than blog-posts or social media. They scale way better than trying to tell everyone.

I learned that the internet is fickle.

I have learned never to read the comments.

I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s useful to insist people ask ‘How are you today?’ rather than ‘How are you?’

I’ve learned that people do want to hear from you, your story. I’ve learned never to trust a newspaper sub-editor. I’ve learned the average time-to-burn-out for a truly supportive friend (about 6 months). I’ve learned what a mess clothes sizing is for women, and how broken or under-acknowledged many female-oriented systems and models are. I’ve learned to love getting my nails done, and to take a certain pleasure in being occasionally objectified. I learned how to use Tinder. I learned loads of stuff.

I’ve mainly learned that however much you think you know yourself, your mind, your beliefs, or your history, that the world can flip on a dime. And you cannot even try to be ready for it. But you shouldn’t try to stop it when it does. I’ve learned that the human mind is incredibly powerful, and incredibly fragile and that you should look after it. Exercise it, support it, nurture it, love it.”

See Tea Uglow  along with more creative leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, at the 10th Annual 99U Conference.


from 99U99U https://adobe.ly/2uUrJee

Tax Tips for Freelance Creatives: Debunking Common Myths

Tax Tips for Freelance Creatives: Debunking Common Myths

Does the thought of doing your taxes make you want to cry? For many in the design industry, including myself, the answer is a resounding yes. But a solid grasp of figures and finances is the equivalent to building the strong foundation to a building. If you can shore up the money part of your business, you can spend more time doing what you really love—the creative part of the job.

For those workers issued a W2 form, managing taxes is a relatively smooth process. Your employer does much of the heavy lifting and your income stream is typically more straightforward. However, taxes can be a beast for freelancers. I experienced this when I freelanced for six years before joining 99U. There are all sorts of nooks and crannies, rules and methods that apply to self-employed workers that I had no idea about, but needed to quickly learn to ensure I abided by the IRS rules and paid my fair share of taxes. 

What follows is a dive into some of the muddier parts of the freelancer taxation waters. With the help of certified financial planner Susan Lee and accountant Amy Northard—both specialists in preparing taxes for creative souls—we debunk some widespread myths freelancers might stumble across while doing their taxes.  

Myth: Everyone pays taxes annually every April.

Wait a second, you say, what’s wrong with paying your taxes annually? Let’s break it down into two buckets. If you’re a full-time employee, your taxes, along with your contributions to Medicare and Social Security, are taken our of your paychecks throughout the year. But if you’re freelance, you need to take the tax equivalents out of your paychecks. Northard recommends setting aside 25%-30% of your net profit on every job to account for your taxes on the payment.

Then, rather than waiting to pay your taxes annually every April, set up quarterly tax estimate payments where you project your total earnings for the quarter and pay the corresponding taxes every three months. “This is beneficial so that when you do get to tax time, you are not draining your account,” says Northard. This two-part approach allows you to have money at the ready when it’s time to pay taxes and helps to better manage cash flow evenly over 52 weeks.

Myth: You bring home the same amount of money as a W2 employee that makes your same wage.  

For many of us, our Social Security and Medicare contributions are a blip on our taxes—the contribution percentages seem nominal and it feels like eons until we can collect on them. But, if you’re a freelancer, you’re at a disadvantage in this department. That’s because companies split paying these amounts of 12.4% (Social Security) and Medicare (2.9%) with their employees, whereas you have to pay the entire amounts. You’re paying 7.65% more than your W2 peers, something to take into consideration when you bill for jobs. (Maybe you should add 8% to your rates to cover your Social Security and Medicare costs.) The good news, though? Your net self-employment earnings are reduced by half the amount of your total Social Security tax, and you can deduct half of your Social Security tax.

Myth: If you’re 1099 doesn’t arrive, you don’t need to pay taxes on the income.   

“No, no, no, no, no,” says Lee. “What it means is that the 1099 hasn’t come.” It’s still your responsibility to track it down and submit it with your tax documents.

Myth: You can travel anywhere for “research” and write off that expense. 

“Someone going somewhere for research, when it looks like a vacation spot, is one of the most common things I see,” says Lee. “Don’t try to do it. It’s not going to work.” What then is defined as a legitimate business travel expense? “If you are in another country, be sure to get work there,” says Lee. “Have records of contacts and some money that you were paid. And if you’re going for a two-day assignment and you spend three weeks there, the IRS is not going underwrite that.”

Myth: If you work from home, you can write off your home office, even if it’s in the kitchen/living room of your apartment.

“For the home office deduction it’s got to be exclusive office space,” says Lee. “If you’re working on your kitchen table, by definition, that’s not exclusive space.” If you do have separate office space, measure its size to deduct that percentage of your home from applicable expenses, such as mortgage interest, insurance, utilities, repairs, and depreciation. “There is something else about home office,” adds Lee. “For those taking losses in your business, you can’t take a home office deduction that year because you can’t take a home office without a profit.” One last note to add: Though you can’t take most home office expenses with a loss, you can take your portion of mortgage interest and taxes.

Myth: Bank statements are adequate documentation.

“It’s a common misconception that you can just provide your bank statements to show proof of your expenses,” says Northard. “The IRS actually wants to see receipts for things.” These can be digital receipts or paper ones. “The big point is that bank statements won’t be enough,” says Northard.

Myth: Side hustles aren’t taxable.

If you earn more than $400 gross annually, you need to pay taxes on the amount. “A lot of creatives start out doing things on the side and they don’t really treat their work as a business,” says Northard. “They’ve got expenses and income going into their personal checking account or they’re using their personal credit card. And when it gets to tax time, it’s hard to go back through all of your personal transactions and remember the business events.” This leads to expenses or income being left out or forgotten. Northard recommends having a different bank account for anything craft-related so you don’t mix it up with your personal transactions. 

Myth: An audit means you’re in real trouble.

“An audit is a request for information and it’s not necessarily the most pleasant thing,” says Lee. “It may be the only time many of us are put into a quasi-adversarial position. You feel strange about it.” Something didn’t look right to the IRS on your forms and they want to probe deeper to find out why. “Try to have back up records showing both a receipt and method of payment for every deduction,” says Lee. “If you don’t have every single thing, bring what you have. If you’ve made a mistake, tell them you made a mistake.”

from 99U99U https://adobe.ly/2q0QfEM