Brilliant Ideas That Never Saw the Light of Day

Brilliant Ideas That Never Saw the Light of Day

We all have brilliant ideas that never came to fruition: smart hacks and world-changing solutions that don’t make it out of the drawing board stage. Maybe the product was impossible to build. Maybe you got distracted by a summer romance. Maybe your creative director killed it on arrival.

So we asked five creatives to revisit their brilliant ideas that never came to be and judge whether they were genius or madness.


1. A digital bookmark for printed books:
 Wai-Loong Lim, founder of Y Studios

I love reading, but I thought the traditional book experience could be even more enriching. I had this brilliant idea to create a digital bookmark called Lexicus. This was way back before the iPhone and Kindle.

My idea for Lexicus was to make it look like an old-school bookmark with a tiny camera and flexible display. The magic was that when you came across a word you didn’t know, you could use the camera to scan it, and bam! – the display would show the results. You could look up any word, like a hypertext link, without having to reach for a dictionary or – God forbid – a clunky encyclopedia. When you weren’t using it, it would tuck among the pages and not interfere with your reading experience. It felt so right that the digital and analog worlds could work together so seamlessly.

“How hard can it be, right? Turns out it was harder than anyone thought.”

To make it possible, everything about Lexicus had to be supernano. The camera would be tiny, the circuit board and display would be flexible, and the battery would last forever. How hard can it be, right?

Turns out it was harder than anyone thought. It was just too early for its time, and probably still is. These days I read only on the Kindle. I don’t see myself going back to analog, ever. But here’s the thing: There are tons of analog books out there that will never be digitized. So I think there’s a viable market for Lexicus. At the end of the day, I think it’s important to keep having harebrained ideas. As Stephen Hunt said, “If you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space.”

2. A window that tells you the history of what you see:
Alexis Lloyd, head of design innovation, Automattic

A couple of jobs ago, I was working as the creative director of the New York Times R&D Lab. We were tasked with looking at emerging technologies and building experience prototypes that explored how those changes might impact news and media – specifically the Times.

We had a lab space on the 28th floor of the New York Times Building, which had floor-to-ceiling windows. We were right across from the old McGraw-Hill Building, which has this incredible mosaic work that you can’t see unless you’re in a skyscraper next to it. I’m fascinated by New York’s density of history and stories. I would look out those windows and want to know the stories behind all the buildings, those invisible layers of history embedded in the built environment.

I had this idea of that window becoming a transparent overlay, where I could point at a building and get some contextual information about the architecture. How do you take historical stories – stories that the Times might have covered – and situate them in a physical space?

“That idea was well served, even though the actual specific concept was never fulfilled.”

It turned out there were a lot of reasons why that wasn’t feasible to do. Transparent displays are hard to come by, and back then they maxed out at 16 inches. We were looking at those big, metal binocular telescopes they have at the top of the Empire State Building, thinking, Maybe we can use these and hack the display. But there was never quite the combination of the impetus and technological ability to pull it off. The lesson I learned was not to be too literal about your ideas or too attached to one particular manifestation of them. Some of these ideas made their way into other really cool projects. That idea was well served, even though the actual specific concept was never fulfilled.

3. An ad campaign that reminds you you’re going to die:
Ben Hughes, executive creative director, Stink Studios

Early in my career, I worked at an agency pitching campaigns for the Chrysler 300, a.k.a. “the poor man’s Bentley.” People bought that car reluctantly; the mindset was they really wanted a luxury sedan, but for now they’d settle for the more affordable option.

My solution was a campaign called “Live Now,” which asked viewers to consider whether a Chrysler 300 today was better than a Bentley in the future. After all, no one can say with 100 percent confidence they’ll be around to enjoy it. Climate change, avian flu – life is full of uncertainty, and tomorrow (and that Bentley) may never come. 

At the time, I was in love with the idea of a car company dispensing with the clichés of luxury and performance and leveling with their audience. I believed it had the potential to be another landmark in the tradition of disarmingly honest advertising, up there with the likes of VW calling their cars ‘lemons’ or Avis proudly owning their status as the number two rental company.

“Here at Chrysler, we recognize that you will surely die, perhaps sooner than you would like. So consider driving off the lot in an all-new 300 today.” 

I presented it to my creative director with an almost religious fervor. I remember he paused. There was a tic visible on his forehead. He said, in measured a tone, “I’m not sure Chrysler wants to be associated with the inevitability of death. What else do you have?”

Looking back on it now, I must have been radiating a mix of naiveté and madness. My creative director later admitted that he had been worried about my mental state. But if I’m being totally honest, I still think I was right.

4. A set of ‘Disposable Friends’
Safwat Saleem, designer and artist

A few years ago, I was mildly obsessed with the idea of making these small, robot-like sculptures that I wanted to call Disposable Friends. These friends would talk to you if you pressed the button on their head. Basically, they’d cycle through a series of pre-programmed audio recordings. I wanted to make several versions with different personalities. You could pick what kind of personality your disposable friend would have. The choices were: a Muslim friend, a Latinx friend, a black friend, an LGBTQ friend, and your general immigrant friend.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing, even though I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of tutorials.”

I was excited to make a satirical work of art that would speak to the homogeneity of our social circles. The internet and social media held such promise of exposing us to different points of view, but that never quite materialized. If anything, the ideas we are generally exposed to have become even more limited and insular. I wanted the project to encourage the viewer to take stock of their own bubbles and social circles, and think about how they could expose themselves to diverse points of view.  

With Disposable Friends, there was a lot of new stuff to learn – how to program an Arduino microprocessor, which would allow the disposable friend to essentially “talk.” I didn’t really know what I was doing, even though I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of tutorials. It took so long to make tiny amounts of progress that I eventually gave up on it.

I still think about the project occasionally and I get excited again. But then I think about all the weekends I spent trying to solder circuits. If I did it again, I’d look for a collaborator who excels at the things that I don’t. As the famous saying goes: Every graphic designer needs a friend who is good at electronics. Okay, that’s not really a famous saying, but I could use a collaborator like that. Do you know anyone?

5. A beacon-equipped playground: 
Ruby Steel, senior design strategist, Smart Design

Back in 2017 I was invited to be a “fixer” on BBC Two’s television series The Big Life Fix. The program sees teams of the United Kingdom’s top designers and engineers take on challenges at an individual level. One such challenge was that of 8-year-old Josh, a profoundly blind child in southeast London. His parents had made the decision to send him to a mainstream school, but his disability prevented him from using the playground with the other children at break times. The uneven surface, along with the many kids running in every direction, made it an intimidating place for Josh. He became increasingly isolated at playtime, sitting in a corner listening to Spotify.

Often the best ideas spring from flawed ones.

The biggest barrier to him entering the space was his overall lack of understanding about where he was at any given time. So we set about designing a playground that would allow Josh to navigate the space and feel confident. Our original plan was to use beacons, leveraging Bluetooth technology, to map out the playground. When Josh walked past one of these beacons, it would provide him with a navigational cue. I was excited that it seemed technology could bridge the gap between Josh and the playground.

In our enthusiasm to prototype and rapidly solve the challenge, this initial approach was a blunder on our part. The idea broke one of my fundamental design principles – we were not designing inclusively. To solve for Josh, we couldn’t ignore the needs of the other children. Our solution needed to consider all the children in the playground.

Often the best ideas spring from flawed ones. In the end, we created a network of guidance paved with special sound tiles that would indicate to Josh where he was and also allow other children to make their own games. Rather than stigmatizing Josh by giving him a separate experience, everyone enjoys an integrated experience. The result was amazing. Josh now goes out into the playground several times a week –  a long way from the lonely little boy who sat inside at playtime.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

From Embracing Imperfections to Designing Alternate Realities: 99U’s 10 Best Innovative Ideas

From Embracing Imperfections to Designing Alternate Realities: 99U’s 10 Best Innovative Ideas

The perk of being a creative is that we live in a world of constant inspiration. We gathered up some of our favorite innovative thinking from this year—from emoji emotions to sound logos (what?!)—in the hopes that the unexpected ways other creatives are approaching their work brings a shot of inspiration to your career.

1. Get paid for creativity, not time.

In his recent paper, State of the Digital Nation 2020, FKTRY founder Jules Ehrhardt sees a tough road ahead for the long-standing creative agency model of paying for time instead of creativity, which he says has led to company consolidation, lost jobs, and cheaper pricing. “The only way for us to escape and build a new prosperous place, a new happy place, is to basically break that ‘paid for time’ client service model,” says Ehrhardt.

Matteo Farinella illustrates the new rules for communicating in a virtual world, including use emojis to share current mood status.

Matteo Farinella illustrates the new rules for communicating in a virtual world.

2. Bring emoji intelligence to your virtual meetings.

In the current distributed world of remote work, we need to treat our virtual communication with as much emotional intelligence as our in-person chats. When sitting down for a conference call, don’t dive straight into the agenda. Take the emotional temperature of the room. Are people stressed? Do they have exciting news to share? Start by asking every teammate to send a string of emojis to express their emotional state.

3. Design a set of questions to separate the good ideas from the great ones.

The curators at the MoMA Design Store put their new products through an eight-step “filtration” process designed to cut out all but the best. Their key questions are relevant to anyone launching something new: “Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Does it use materials or technology in an innovative way? Would the world miss it if it wasn’t there?” And lastly, but most importantly: “Will the customer buy it?”

Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, and Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, filming in the Microsoft office. Photo by Brian Smale.

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, and Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, filming in the Microsoft office. Photo by Brian Smale.

4. Break ground with your job title.

The title “Chief Storyteller” was once highlighted on a Fortune list of wackiest jobs titles. But, as it turns out, Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, was ahead of his time. “What it does is it gets people’s attention,” says Clayton.“I do think we’ll see more Chief Storytellers as we move into the era of brands and companies talking about their mission and purpose—purpose over product. They will be inclined to take on more of their own storytelling.”

5. Recognize trick questions.

Veteran investor Tige Savage always asks the people pitching him who their competitors are. Sure, it might seem cool to say, “No one has ever done anything like this.” But don’t be fooled. He is actually testing your market savvy. “Venture capitalists want to understand your awareness of the competitive environment,” says Savage. “They want to know why you think you have strengths that carve out a reasonable niche versus the rest.”

An empathy kit with VR and candy to help people better understand autism. Photo courtesy of OnComfort.

An empathy kit with VR and candy to help people better understand autism. Photo courtesy of OnComfort.

6. Create virtual-world solutions.

The VR boom hasn’t quite changed the world quite like we thought it would. But it’s certainly changing lives, from drug rehabilitation programs to PTSD therapy, by giving users access to experiences in a safe environment. “From time to time, naysayers will mention VR is dead, only because it hasn’t radically re-shaped the gaming industry in the way it was hyped. But even if all innovation stopped tomorrow, we would be at a sufficient level to continue to do great stuff, clinically,” says Albert Rizzo, director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies.

7. Think beyond color.

Whether it’s a red/green color deficiency or chromatic confusion over purple, one in 12 men and 0.5 percent of women have some kind of color blindness. But our digital world—from to-do list apps to clothing websites—often uses color differentiation to deliver information and wayfinding. “Many designers aren’t aware of this disability,” says UX designer Matej Latin. It’s time for digital design to get over this blind spot. To start, pull texture, pattern, and shape into your design repertoire, not just color indicators.

8. Design with sound in mind.

Joel Beckerman, founder of sonic branding firm Man Made Music, is the force behind the sounds that are as iconic to a company as their logo, like the purr of a Nissan hybrid engine (artificially added to the otherwise silent car), or the iMAX audioscape. But the soundscape he most enjoys redesigning? Hospitals. “Take for example this problem of hospital alarms: Who says an alarm has to scare the crap out of you?” he says. “We believe we can use sound to make alarms and soundscapes much more purposeful.”

9. Embrace alternate realities.

Vince Kadlubek, the co-founder of the immersive art experience Meow Wolf, sees a bright future for creativity—actually, he sees many alternate futures. “In the next 20 years, alternate realities are going to be the biggest product that customers will be seeking,” he says. Kadlubek encourages creatives to start envisioning and building them now, not just physically, but in even more undiscovered territory, digitally. “The world has felt limited by previous infrastructure that we can’t affect. That’s changing.”

Mona Chalabi uses images to provide context in her data sets, like a person practicing yoga, for a yoga data set. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

Mona Chalabi uses images to provide context in her data sets. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

10. A colorful visual trumps a bar graph every time.

Data journalist Mona Chalabi is fighting the false pretense that we all know exactly what we’re talking about. Specifically, she’s frustrated by the veneer of scientific objectivity that comes with traditional data visualizations like piece charts and graphs. “They make it seem like the data is so pure and precise and that’s not the truth of data,” she says. Instead, Chalabi hand-draws her graphs to create a more human-centric way to consume data with the proper context.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

From Getting in the Sales Trenches to Being You: 99U’s 10 Best Tips for Trusting Your Gut

From Getting in the Sales Trenches to Being You: 99U’s 10 Best Tips for Trusting Your Gut

Confidence, experience, and your own special brand of authenticity all come together to make that intangible authority: the gut check. But trusting your instincts can be hard. Never fear. We’ve collected the best advice from Louise Fili, Adam J. Kurtz, and other 99U thinkers on how to have confidence in your decisions.

 1. Know how to manage your own clients.

For an up-and-coming illustrator or designer, it may seem like getting an agent is the surest ticket to stardom. But the shrewder move may be to start out by going it alone. Learn the ropes of the business side —from negotiating fees to sorting out licenses—so you know what an agent should be doing for you. “There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from handling it all myself,” admits Laura Callaghan, an Irish illustrator working in London who’s been freelance and agent-free for the past seven years and counts Adidas and Nike as clients. “I enjoy dealing directly with clients and getting a sense of who they are and what they need.

2. Study the numbers, but trust your instincts.

Data can give us a lot of the answers. But it doesn’t possess every answer because the insight we get from our mysterious subconscious is its own kind of data. “Our guts have a wealth of past experiences and rational decisions that we can combine with digital data to make amazing experiences for our customers,” says Adam Morgan, author of the upcoming book, Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business: Proving the Value of Creative Ideas with Science.

Designer Jessica Hische photographed in the Bay Area by Jennifer Michelson.

Jessica Hische photographed in the Bay Area by Jennifer Michelson.

3. Redefine success.

Designer Jessica Hische, author of Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave, has aimed for enough pie in the sky projects to know that the thing to fear when making big plans is your own sense of confidence. To that end, she’s re-jiggered her own metrics for success: “Achieving is great, but the real accomplishment is pushing through the initial fear to actually start doing something,” says Hische.

4. Try a crazy career move.

Sometimes, the fear of scaring big-name clients can lead to safe but lackluster proposals and atrophied creative muscles. That might be the sign it’s time to try a crazy career move. Matt Wegerer, more afraid of another year of risk-averse creative work than of failure, left his cushy agency role to found Whiskey Design. Now, he leads his team with the motto: no mediocre excuses for mediocre work.

Louise Fili photographed sittingon a floral couch in her New York City studio. Photography by Franck Bohbot.

Louise Fili in her New York City studio. Photography by Franck Bohbot.

5. Pursue personal projects to experiment with new skills.

Build spaces outside of work, where your main goal is to develop not only a portfolio you’re passionate about, but also a point of view that is uniquely yours. “I feel very strongly that every designer has to have his or her own personal projects,” says designer Louise Fili. “Because it’s the only way that you really grow and find your design voice.”

Photographer Scott Rinckenberger captures snowy mountain scenes in Washington.

Photographer Scott Rinckenberger captures snowy mountain scenes in Washington.

6. Venture off the beaten track.

Find ways to bridge the great passions of your life with your hunger for creative growth. For instance, adventure photographer Scott Rinckenberger used to practice the high adrenaline sports that he now photographs. The former semi-pro skier bridged his lifelong passion with photography when he felt himself wanting to try something different. “I needed a new creative stimulus to keep my mind sharp and engaged,” he says. “I needed some new input and photography offered that.”

7. Prepare ahead so you can live in the moment.

As a travel photographer for the New York Times, Susan Wright often has only a few scant hours on location to shoot her images. That means there’s no time to ask questions or second guess. To get herself in the right state of mind, Wright visualizes the shoot ahead of time, so she can trust her gut in the moment. “Get in a meditative state and think about a location. Feel it. You get visions in your mind: the image that would be truly beautiful to capture…I give myself a shot list and then time to live in the moment.”

8. Be you.

At the end of the day, a successful career isn’t about talent, connections, or fancy tech capabilities. In the inimitable words of the artist Adam J. Kurtz, “We all have the tools and skills. Being yourself is the difference.”

Big Spaceship CEO Mike Lebowitz and illustrator Ping Zhu talking at an AIGA NY event. Photo by Tony Tailor for AIGA/NY.

Big Spaceship CEO Mike Lebowitz and illustrator Ping Zhu talking at an AIGA NY event. Photo by Tony Tailor for AIGA/NY.

9. You have more options than you think you do.

There are bound to be moments in your career when you feel like there are no good options. Those are the moments to remember you have the greatest power in the world: the power to walk away. Yes, there are real and important responsibilities, like families or employees, that may impact your ultimate choice. But even in the moments when you feel like the least powerful person in the room, remember, you always have the power to say no.

10. Do the worthwhile thing, not just the measurable thing.

“We’ve all been there where there’s a good idea on the table. We know it would improve the experience, but it would be hard to measure. So, it gets killed,” says Lyft Director of Product Design Audrey Liu. Go to the mat for those ideas that you know will have impact beyond the hard numbers. It may be more worthwhile than you ever imagined.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

From Checking Your Ego to Making Meetings Less Scary for Introverts: 99U’s 10 Best Ideas for Leaders

From Checking Your Ego to Making Meetings Less Scary for Introverts: 99U’s 10 Best Ideas for Leaders

Being in charge means having a lot on your plate. Leaders juggle everything from managing bottom lines to overseeing top-tier team culture. We’ve heard it said that it’s lonely at the top, so we sourced some words of wisdom from iconic leaders such as Beth Comstock, Scott Belsky, and Tina Roth Eisenberg to help you out. From how to hire more authentic people to how to host more inclusive meetings, their advice will make you feel like you’re not in this on your own.

"Empathy before passion" is sage advice from Scott Belsky's new book, The Messy Middle. Image courtesy of Belsky.

Wise words from Adobe Chief Product Officer, Scott Belsky. Image courtesy of Belsky.

1. Don’t make decisions out of fear.

We all hit low points in the struggle to get our big idea off the ground. At those times, we’re prone to self-doubt and that is when we start to make knee-jerk decisions. In his recent book, The Messy Middle, Scott Belsky encourages us to put people first by “being empathetic with what the customer is suffering from, and [focus] on doing what’s right for the team.”

Ueno founder Haraldur Thorleifsson smiles at the camera. Image courtesy of Ueno

Ueno founder Haraldur Thorleifsson. Image courtesy of Ueno.

2. Amplify the voices on your team.

The design studio Ueno is vocal about social issues, driven by its diverse team of employees. Rather than fear a business fallout, founder Haraldur Thorleifsson has embraced speaking up on important cultural issues. “I have no idea if it is good or bad for our business,” says Thorleifsson. “But I really don’t think about it that way. If this will be our downfall, then that’s the hill that I am willing to die on.”

3. Build momentum.

Your big, world-changing vision deserves more than a few obligatory head nods from your team. It needs genuine buy-in from everyone working together towards a greater objective. Imagine It Forward author Beth Comstock says that a leader’s goal is to create a movement, not to strong-arm people into saying you’re right. “It can become about my idea versus their idea, and that’s often where things fall down in companies because it gets to be a bit of either turf war, function war, or ego war,” Comstock says.

The creatives at Mighty Oak pose for the camera. Image courtesy of Mighty Oak.

The creatives at Mighty Oak. Image courtesy of Mighty Oak.

4. Check your micromanagement meter.

A series of promotions into management can leave us far from the hands-on work we love. Don’t let that turn you into a micromanager. Mighty Oak Creative Director Emily Collins says, “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.”

5. Ask for a joke.

Tina Roth Eisenberg, CEO of CreativeMornings, Tattly, and Creative Guild, looks to hire people who bring their authentic selves to work. How does she find these team members? “When you apply for a job with us, we always ask to include a joke,” says Roth Eisenberg. The joke is the most telling part of the job application. Do people skip it? Drop inappropriate one-liners? Or do they land a stellar punchline demonstrating just the right amount of situational awareness, timing, and tact that will probably make them a great colleague?

6. Educate your clients as well as your team.

In the ever-changing world of work, employee education is important. But training doesn’t stop there. You are your client’s first touchpoint to understanding what is a reasonable request and what is just untenable. Keep your clients up to date on the shifts in your world of work or you’ll be managing a growing disconnect between how you work and what your clients think is going on behind-the-scenes. Pull back the curtain and don’t just explain your deliverables, explain the process that’s going into them.

7. Look for unlikely people creating unlikely value in unlikely places.

Corporate hierarchies don’t tend to surface the secret valuable players who punch above their weight with soft power skills. These are the employees who generate momentum and energy far beyond their scope of work. They’re great at getting to the root of an issue, creating informal connections, and encouraging collaboration. What’s not to love? But, according to the book Talent Wins, their power is being overlooked and underutilized in just about every organization. They’re out there. Go find them. 

Lisa Doberman, the leader of the design firm Doberman, leading a brainstorming session. Photograph by Emil Nordin.

Lisa Doberman, the leader of the design firm Doberman. Photograph by Emil Nordin.

8. Manage by trust.

Lisa Doberman, co-founder of design firm Doberman, invites all of her employees to join management committee meetings and make decisions that impact the future of the company. Doberman sees rich results from the participatory-steering mechanism. “What I get in return is people’s engagement,” she says. “I get their passion. I get lots of ideas. I get their sense of responsibility.”

9. Don’t respond to customer needs, anticipate them.

“The days of just showing data are over; it’s too static,” says Mailchimp VP of Design, Gene Lee. The new goal for leaders, according to Lee, is to combine the tools of AI and data to anticipate what a user needs before they know it themselves.

10. Get the buzzer away from the big talkers.

Todd Yellin noticed that his meetings at Netflix were being dominated by a few bombastic folks, waiting with their hand over the proverbial buzzer for others to finish speaking so they could go next. Yellin, VP of Product, set about rebalancing the power of meetings away from ‘me-first’ talkers. The team experimented first with hand raising, and then went deeper, circulating shared documents before a meeting so introverts could add their comments in writing ahead of time

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U

What We Talk About When We Talk About Design Ethics

What We Talk About When We Talk About Design Ethics

It’s hard to imagine a time when creatives had more tools and resources at their fingertips. Today, a website can be built in days, an audio file edited in minutes, an image socialized in seconds. But just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should. That’s the basis of design ethics, a subject that is becoming even more important at a time when technology continues to rapidly open new avenues for creatives.

99U recently sat down with Courtney George, Adobe’s Experience Design Manager, and Phil Clevenger, Adobe’s Senior Director of Experience Design, to learn more about the process of addressing design ethics and how maintaining design standards makes designers good societal stewards.

When we talk about design ethics, what exactly are we talking about?

CG: It’s really about the means that we use to achieve an end that we deem to be good. It needs to be something that is complementary to our own values, or our company values if we’re working at a company. It’s not like legal, which is a lot more black and white: You do something and it is legal, or you do something and it is illegal. Ethics is inherently more gray and flexible.

When we think about design ethics, especially in tech, it’s about slowing down and being more conscientious and intentional about what we are creating and what we’re putting out into the world. It’s thinking about what the impact might be on the people that we’re serving, people that our customers are serving, their well-being, their relationships, society in general, and the environment. It’s never-ending, and in some ways that can be overwhelming, but it’s also extremely important in this day and age.

Why is this such a big focus for companies right now?

PC: These conversations have been around for a very long time, but what makes them immediately relevant are these three issues: scale, velocity, and access. Right now we have the ability for people to push a button and create whatever they want in an instant at virtually no cost, whatever their intention may be, whether they’re selling tacos or they’re introducing viruses, or they’re engaging in political speech. Our actions are immediately impactful at a huge scale, at zero cost, and they’re potentially very, very hard to roll back.

Where do design ethics come into play? Is there a recent example that comes to mind?

PC: A perfect example is a project that Adobe unveiled at the 2016 Adobe MAX conference. It was a technology that enables users to quickly edit recorded speech using only a text editor and, given a large enough sample of the subject’s speech, create strings of speech that hadn’t previously existed.

Do we even own our own voice?

While the narrative that we presented at MAX was entertaining, it became clear that the technology could be used by bad actors. You could imagine the ramifications of something like that especially in the current political climate. There was a considerable amount of blowback, and rightfully so, from the audience and from the community at large.

So Adobe has taken several steps back to examine it. We’ve been looking very closely at important questions: the cases we want to serve, the guardrails we want to put in, the high bars we want to set. What are rights issues around it? Do we even own our own voice? Do we have a remedy available if someone misuses our voice or our speech to harm people? And what if new solutions introduce new problems?

We’ve seen plenty of instances where even products created with the best intentions get used in ways we never imagined. When that happens, do we, as creators, ever have the ability to ever return it to what we thought it was, or is it a lost cause?

CG: You could have the best intentions and do everything right and there are still going to be unintended consequences. They’re  “unintended” for a reason. What is important is to be able to course correct, take accountability, and be mindful of the impact that it has had on people or on society. I think we do a decent job of that in the tech industry. It’s not like what you put out there is final and you never have to touch it again.

We must be respectful of our users’ time, intentions, privacy, and intelligence.

We’re good at iterating and optimizing, and I think that this is an important step, to constantly examine what’s out in the market, examine what you put out there, and keep your eye out for those consequences, so you can course correct in a timely manner.

Adobe Design is putting a lot of effort into getting the whole organization to abide by certain design ethics. What are some of the main principles?

PC: Well, this is a work in progress, but one solid principle is that we should recognize bias, knowing that bias is inherently neither good nor bad, and that bias is omnipresent. Where there are people, there is bias. The trick is to recognize the bias, understand its impact on your efforts, and to mitigate it as needed.

Another example is that we must be respectful of our users’ time, intentions, privacy, and intelligence. This is obvious enough that it shouldn’t have to be said, but important enough that it should be hanging from each of our desktops all the time. We want to make sure that we’re building tools and setting examples for our customers that ensure that we’re enabling them to be respectful of their end users across all those dimensions. If you’re popping up advertisements that get between your users’ intentions and their results, then you’re not being respectful of their time.

What are the questions that designers should be asking themselves?

PG: We are starting by asking designers to be mindful of what they’re doing, and to take stock of what they’re being asked to do. As seen through the principles we just mentioned, are you being asked to design something that perpetuates a negative bias? Are you being asked to do something that’s not respectful of your users’ time and intentions?

We’re here to try to make the world a better place for the people who consume the products we design.

Remember, we are user experience designers. We’re here to try to make the world a better place for the people who consume the products we design. And where those things aren’t happening or where your company’s values are in conflict with your own personal values  – you have to be mindful of all these dynamics. Take some time to articulate an opinion and make that opinion count. Have uncomfortable conversations, if you have to, with the people that you’re working with and the people that you’re working around. If you have to hand the work off, and if you’re uncomfortable with where it’s going, create an artifact to represent your opinion that can travel with the work. Stand up and have a voice.

It’s often said that good ethics is good business. Do you think companies will make this a bigger focus going forward, whether through setting up ethics departments, ethics programs, or something else?

CG: Yeah, I think we’re already seeing that happen, especially in the tech industry. You’re seeing it with Salesforce, which recently hired an ethics officer. You’re seeing it at many large companies, and Adobe is definitely one of them.

Regardless of what our respective companies are doing about this, we are challenging the design community overall to be thought leaders here: make sure you and your teams are stopping and asking these questions, and sharing the findings clearly at every step. Help your teams, your stakeholders, and your employers all develop best practices and principles in any way you can. It’s a huge challenge, and design can surely lead the way.

Interview edited for clarity and length.

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Design Debate: Should You Work In-House or Freelance?

Design Debate: Should You Work In-House or Freelance?

In our newest design debate, Gordon Reid, Melissa Deckert, and Mike Kruzeniski weigh in on the pros and cons of designing in-house versus as a freelancer. Ready, set, debate.

“Being my own boss, if I want to do something, I can make it happen.”

Gordon Reid, Art Director and Founder, Middle Boop

I love being my own boss at the studio I run, Middle Boop. I still have bosses, but they are clients. What I don’t have is that extra level of massive red tape that you get if you’re working in an agency or in-house.

As my own boss, whether an idea manifests into something or stays in the back of my head is all up to me. Coming from a long advertising background, one of my main frustrations was that I wasn’t being allowed enough creative input into ideas. At Middle Boop, it is just me and the clients. We’ll come up with a strategy ourselves, and we’ll collaborate. I always feel like I’ve made a difference to a client’s business at the end of a project. When you’re not your own boss, there are many layers of people to try to convince before anything takes off. Great ideas get lost. Probably 70 to 80 percent of the work I’ve done at agencies never saw the light of day.

At the end of the day, freelancing is worth the hassle, struggles, and worries because I get to properly put my own stamp on my work.

While working in an agency context, I would often look at the work and think, No one is going to know that I had any involvement. Except for maybe me pointing to a bus poster while I’m with a friend saying, “Oh, I did some of that.” At the end of the day, freelancing is worth the hassle, struggles, and worries because I get to properly put my own stamp on my work.

This summer, I took two months off to do a self-initiated projected called Weird World Cup. My intern Callum and I commissioned 20 illustrators and designers to create beer mats based around the artists’ favorite weird or humorous moment from a World Cup—then all the money went to charity and we got global press. You can’t do this kind of thing when you’re in a full-time job.

I occasionally take time to freelance as a consultant in agencies or in-house. Right now, I’m in-house at a large tech company, and it’s definitely a breath of fresh air. There are many perks—free food, free gym. The other day, my partner asked me, if the company offered me a full-time job, whether I would take it. I said no. The lifestyle of running your own business is just too good. I couldn’t work for someone else’s vision for a long time. I would get bored and feel like my time was being wasted.

“In-house experience was essential for starting my own studio.”

Melissa Deckert, Designer and Co-Founder, Party of One

I started working at Etsy almost right out of college. During my time there, the company grew considerably. As the brand grew so did our team—my experience scaled from small internal projects to large international campaigns. I became comfortable pitching and presenting work in front of a lot of people. I was able to travel extensively, not necessarily something I would have been able to do at that age. Working in-house was an important part of my growth as a designer and a huge learning experience. Ironically, it fueled my confidence in starting my own studio.

After some time at Etsy, it seemed the only way to grow at the company was by taking on a role in management, which I wasn’t interested in. I wanted to expand my practical skills, as well as experiment with my own style, which was at odds with in-house work.

When you’re working independently, your livelihood is deeply tied to what you produce, which places a heavier association between your work and your self worth.

Eventually, I decided to go freelance, which opened up a whole new world of adjustments. When you’re working independently, your livelihood is deeply tied to what you produce, which places a heavier association between your work and your self worth. There is also the constant fear of never getting another job. At the start of my freelance career, I worked from home which lent me certain freedoms, but ultimately felt isolating and devoid of community. I quickly realized that I thrived from having other people to bounce ideas off and craved creative kinship.

I began collaborating with my friend Nicole Licht, who had hired me at Etsy. She started freelancing around the same time as me, and, while I was leaning towards traditional design with an interest in things like lettering, Nicole was leaning towards illustration and paper craft.

After two years of regular collaborations we decided to form Party of One. By combining our skills, we now have the opportunity to do many kinds of work with a wider variety of clients. Together, we also keep one another from spiraling into thoughts of “I’m never going to get work again” and “I don’t know how much to price for this.” It was valuable to work in a big team in-house—to garner skills and learn what we liked—but, on our own, it is hugely satisfying to have our name behind what we create.

“To do really big, ambitious work takes time and direct connection with a company.”

Mike Kruzeniski, Design & Research lead, Twitter

The entirety of my career has been in-house, except for a short time freelancing. From that brief experience, I found I got to work on a lot of projects, but it never felt like I could get into them in a deep way. I was attracted to the idea of getting very close to products and the companies that make them.

For a handful of years, I was a Principal Design Lead at Microsoft. Since 2012, I’ve been at Twitter, growing with the company over the last six and a half years. To do big, ambitious work takes time. By being in-house, you can get all the foundational information of what a company is trying to achieve and build on that in a multi-year way. You’re directly connected to the people that are building the products with you. If there is something I need to achieve, I can talk directly to our data scientists or to the marketing or engineering teams. I can work with them on projects over long periods of time. This is more difficult to do as a consultant.

You learn leadership and communication skills, organizational management—skills that you might not learn if you’re only working with other designers.

In-house, you learn skills from other people in other departments, too. A lot of time over your career, the things that you learn aren’t always just specific to your discipline. You learn leadership and communication skills, organizational management—skills that you might not learn if you’re only working with other designers. You can learn a broader set of skills by working with a more diverse group of people and disciplines.

One of the myths around in-house work is that there is no variety. In reality though, variety appears in different ways. Quite literally while at Microsoft, I would go from product to product. At Twitter, we also have a range of different products that people work on. We’ll have designers that will spend time on one of those, and then jump to another. Within the product itself, we put so much intense focus into all the different features that people will can move from designing video experiences, to conversations, to profiles, and those will feel like very different projects. Then of course we have products like Periscope and our advertiser products. So there are a lot of different areas to put your energy into.

As well as the product variety, there is also a variety in terms of roles. People will try on different types of roles during an in-house career. We’ve had designers pick up project management skills and then even gravitate over to the product management team. Similarly, we’ve had engineers that join the design team. There is not just a skills exchange, but also a sense of career fluidity. At Twitter, a designer might also help the company design a long-term strategy in a way that’s not typically considered design work—there’s no mock-ups for example. There is a role shift that can happen here, which is very interesting for a long-term career.

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How Do You Know When It’s Done?

How Do You Know When It’s Done?

To an outsider, they appeared done. The goal was to produce monotypes of people wading in water, and here they were: black, white, and lonely, as intended.

But to Clara Lieu, the artist who made them, they were incomplete. “This is a strange thing to say, but I felt like I didn’t think about them enough,” she says. “I want my pieces to go through a cycle of thought and consideration, and with this, it was almost like the work got made faster than I was ready for it to get made.” Her feelings speak to an age-old dilemma artists and creatives face: the ability to determine when a piece of work is truly done.

Sometimes, the decision is driven by external factors: a deadline, the evaporation of funds, the death of the artist. Artist Alice Neel decided her 1965 portrait of a soldier headed to Vietnam was finished when the subject didn’t come back for a second sitting.

It comes down to a feeling: Either it’s done or it’s not.

But in the absence of external circumstance, the decision to put down the brush (or pen or chisel) has everything to do with the mind-set of the artist. When Rembrandt was asked why so many of his works look unfinished, he famously replied, “A work of art is complete when in it the artist has realized his intention.”

It comes down to a feeling: Either it’s done or it’s not. Lieu, who teaches as an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, says it’s a sense that develops as you mature as an artist. She often advises her students to overwork at least one piece, just so they can better develop their personal litmus test. “I tell them, ‘You have to do one drawing that you just murder – that you just destroy and totally overwork.’ Once you’ve gone too far, it becomes easier to say to yourself, ‘Okay, that was overboard.’”

Sometimes, the decision that a piece is finished comes from a fear of ruining it.

For many creatives, knowing when a piece is done is almost never dictated by a feeling of overwhelming joy or gratification. New York City–based animator Yuri Fain says it feels more like the completion of a household chore. “I never step back and go, ‘Yuri, oh my gosh; that’s amazing!’ Until it’s done, I’m annoyed. And when it’s done, I’m, like, slightly less annoyed,” he says with a laugh.

Sometimes, the decision that a piece is finished comes from a fear of ruining it. Other times, the decision to end a work comes from just being sick of it. Artists and creatives often speak about how they start off being excited about a project and then lose interest or start to hate the idea along the way. “I’ve done so many things where I’m into the idea and it’s going to be so cool. Then the minutes and hours go by, and I feel more frustrated with it than when I started,” says Fain.

While emotion is a huge part of the process, there are also practical steps an artist can take in determining whether or not a piece is finished. Artist Nicholas Wilton, who runs creativity workshops and online courses through his company Art2Life, will sometimes snap a picture of a painting and save it on his computer to see what it looks like in thumbnail form. Doing this helps him get a bird’s-eye view of the piece, which helps him decide whether it’s complete. “There’s the close-up view and the 30,000-foot view. To make something really strong, I believe both of those views have to be satisfying and really powerful,” he says.

Mike Perry has one of the most fluid views of his work, sometimes adding new details or entirely painting over pieces he first painted years ago.

Other strategies are more obvious. Many artists find value in committing to a deadline, the way they would for any paid work. Many also find value in putting the work away for a period of time. Whether it’s two days, two weeks, or two months, an artist is bound to come back to it with fresh eyes. There’s no right or wrong answer; visual artist and designer Mike Perry has one of the most fluid views of his work, sometimes adding new details or entirely painting over pieces he first painted years ago.

External feedback may also be valuable. After Lieu created her unsatisfying monotypes of people wading in water, her husband happened to see the plexiglass plates she had used to print them and mentioned he liked them more than he liked the art itself. “As an artist, you don’t want to hear that the plates look better than the finished product,” she laughs. “But then I thought about it and realized he was onto something.” The plates, which had been sanded down and thus had a frosted, translucent quality, inspired Lieu to sand sheets of plastic and draw on them. Those became her finished product.

As an artist, the risk you take by giving others too much power over your work is that you end up with something that doesn’t feel like it’s your own.

Of course, outside feedback has its limits. As an artist, the risk you take by giving others too much power over your work is that you end up with something that doesn’t feel like it’s your own. Wilton says it’s ultimately about fulfilling your own vision. “I’m a human being and I like people to favor my work, but it is not at all the driving force. The driving force is what is a ‘yes’ for you.”

There’s beauty in the mystery of that choice. Two years ago, the Met Breuer museum in New York City hosted an exhibition called “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.” It contained nearly 200 artworks spanning 600 years, all of which were left incomplete for a variety of reasons. One of the gems was Jan van Eyck’s “Saint Barbara,” a 1437 metalpoint drawing that appears to have been intended as an altarpiece painting. The sketch is intricate, but the painting itself is half complete. In its review of the exhibition, The New York Times highlighted the piece, asking, “Is that what it was meant to be, an ultravirtuosic preparatory drawing waiting for paint to be added? Or was it conceived to be from the start what it is now — self-sufficient, done?”

Van Eyck signed and dated the piece. And maybe that’s enough.

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