Eddie Opara: On Criticism Versus Trolling, Fragmentation of Design, and Joining Pentagram

Eddie Opara: On Criticism Versus Trolling, Fragmentation of Design, and Joining Pentagram

The pilgrimage to visit Pentagram partner Eddie Opara starts at Grand Central Terminal. You push through the wall of commuters going in the opposite direction, which is when you might catch yourself thinking—too late—an unusual thought for a New York City Monday: “I forgot to bring sunscreen today.” The train hums out of Grand Central and river town station platforms begin to flick by. Past Wave Hill gardens, new developments rising along the Hudson River waterfront, and the Domino Sugar refinery in Yonkers. New York City’s skyscrapers blur behind into the morning haze from the bay. And in no time at all, you’re in the world of Eddie Opara.

Opara lives in the town of Hastings-on-Hudson, though he notes that the community prefers the word village. “They want the idea of what a ‘village’ is: idyllic, quaint, murder mysteries,” he says. He moved here three years ago, into an airy Eichler style mid-century modern and commutes to the Park Avenue Pentagram offices for work. Even Opara admits, while neighbors wave as we stroll around a wooded koi pond and listen to laughter from the elementary school where his child studies, it’s a darn bucolic life for a designer.

At the age of 47—the same age as Pentagram—Eddie has three decades of design wisdom to offer. But even in this sage time of life, the enthusiasm of a precocious young designer often comes to the surface. From reliving the delight of starting his own company, to his amazement at an invitation to join Pentagram, to his scorn for U.S. passport design, and his hopes for the future of the graphic design industry, you’re guaranteed to enjoy an [expletive-punctuated] walk in the woods with Eddie Opara.


Q. You grew up in London in the 1970s. What was that like?

A. I was born in 1972—the year Pentagram was born. I grew up in a middle-class, immigrant family that worked really hard. My mother was a nurse. My father worked for a time in advertising and they pushed us to be good English kids.

Q. When you started your own design firm, the Map Office, what were important philosophies that you wanted to put in place?

A. The idea of being the all-rounder is really important. If you’re going to work for me, you should be your own personality but you should do the same things that I do. That includes every type of medium within the area of graphic design. You code a bit, you can animate, you can do print, spatial, everything. Then, you can talk more about the work. You can take on more ranges of work and interests. I find that really intriguing.

Q. What were the early days of the Map Office like?

A. I was working out of my house in Brooklyn, a brownstone in Bed Stuy. I had the office in the front room and I’d be in my pajamas, eating bacon in the morning with our one employee, both of us just designing stuff. I’m like, “This is the life. This is it. I made it. I can work from my bedroom and then go to a matinee or the cinema and chill out.” Of course, I only did that once. And the Map Office just kept growing.

A black and white photograph of a man in glasses beneath a bright light

Opara started his company, the Map Office, with just one other designer working out of his Bed Stuy living room.

Q. Why not keep going with that? Why move the firm to Pentagram?

A. I got to the point where I really needed more help.

Q. From a business perspective?

A. From a leadership perspective. From somebody who’s the equivalent of you. You can talk to them about jobs and issues and money and designers and life and everything. And there was nobody. You’re on your own. You’re isolated.

Q. How does getting an invitation to become a partner at Pentagram come about?

A. I got a call to come do a lecture at Pentagram. I was like, “Why me?” in my head. And I gave this lecture and I got a lot of questions from Paula Scher, Michael Beirut, and Michael Gericke. At the end we had some dinner and I thought nothing of it.

And then a few weeks passed and Paula said, “Do you want to go for lunch? Where do you want to meet? I said Café Suisse because I love their chicken schnitzel. I nearly choked on that chicken schnitzel. I was having a bite and Paula just asks me, “Do you want to join Pentagram?” I was in shock.

Q. Was starting at Pentagram everything you dreamed it would be?

A. It was like when I first bought a house and I turned the key in the door, opened it, closed it. And then I sat on my couch and started fucking crying my eyes out. Because I was like, “How am I going to deal with all this shit? I’ve got no fucking money.” That’s how it felt; I’d bought a whole fucking brownstone and it had to be ripped out. But all the partners have said the same thing: how the hell am I going to be a part of Pentagram and do this? It’s tough. It’s not easy, but its great and exciting and risk-taking.

A man on a staircase looking away from the camera, wearing a camouflage shirt

Opara photographed in his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, where he moved three years ago.

Q. You studied design in Europe. What was a formative part of that experience?

A. In my third year in a four-year course, I moved to Holland. It changed everything. I was just blown away. Design is so integrated into their life and into the landscape of the Netherlands. It’s super accepted. Britain, it’s gotten there too, but it’s taken a little longer. American, no.

Q. What do you see when you look at design in America?

A. I see fragmented [design]. There’s no starting point. There’s no understanding of “We the People” when it comes to aspects of design. It should be an endeavor that is both independent and also from the government: local government, regional, state government, federal government. And it should all be coalescing together. Countries like Germany, Holland, Britain, Switzerland, and France have integrated design through the idea of “we need to help our people understand how we communicate with them.”

America doesn’t have that. It runs on the ideals of stars and stripes. It doesn’t take into consideration the heuristics of design for the people. I find that to be detrimental to the way that America works. If you’ve ever seen a tax form in Britain, it’s so insanely simple. The UK government site won the national design award in Britain because it’s so good. It’s so clear. It could save America a lot of money, because everything would be optimized clearly. But no.

“We, as designers, have used rhetoric that is not robust, interesting, or intriguing enough.”

Q. Is there an example of what could be better in the U.S.?

A. To know one’s country is to know one’s passport. America’s looks like—maybe after this my American passport is going to be stripped away—it looks like a U-Haul truck. The eagle’s head looks like the actual size of an eagle’s head. It’s enormous. It’s unwieldy. It’s like going into a grandmother’s living room with the plastic on the couches and the sacrament smell in the air. It’s a little like that.

A headshot of a man in glasses wearing a camouflage shirt

Opara believes we need a more robust language for design.

Q. Does that mean local governments should hire more designers?

A. Yes, state and local should hire way more designers. They should be highly qualified, highly trained. Plus, they should be bringing in external experts based on the principles other than “you’re the cheapest person based on our scope of work,” which is how they normally pick somebody.

Q. You once worked on a project where you did a poster about Democracy inspired by Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms. How did you approach that?

A. I sat down and I said, “You know, if this is about Democracy, let it be. Let me sit down with all the guys and let’s go over this.” We were questioning the types of democracy: who’s to say that American democracy is the best one? If you don’t question it, somebody could have tainted your democracy without you knowing it. Would I do a project like that again? Absolutely.

“Designers do not solve problems. No, we do not. We deal with situations at the current time. So, we are never finished.”

Q. You mentioned that the idea of things being unfinished is core to you. What does that mean?

A. As designers, let’s be as optimized as possible with the way we state certain things, because otherwise we will confuse everybody. How many times have you heard, “What does a graphic designer do? And they say, “We solve problems.” But if you solve a fucking “problem,” how come we have so many different design style cars? Or chairs? Didn’t we solve that “problem”?

It’s really that we’re dealing with situations. Designers do not solve problems. No, we do not. We deal with situations at the current time. So, we are never finished.

A man in a striped red shirt with glasses

Opara is wrestling with where graphic design is going.

Q. What keeps you up at night right now?

A. It’s hard to wrestle with understanding where graphic design is going. I’m a major critic of these sites that have popped up that immediately criticize designers—it’s just trolling people with “that’s sad,” “my kid could have done better,” and “you’re fucking shit.”

What’s occurring is a tension between design criticism and design trolling. Design trolling, I believe, is winning. The intelligence of design criticism is not strong or important enough for these people to take seriously. If you think about how design in general is changing: you have all these management consultancy companies that are coming in. I’m concerned that design may actually be run sooner or later run by the McKinseys and PWCs and Deloitters of the world. It’s an interesting threat.

Q. How did this kind of design trolling start to dominate the conversation?

A. We, as designers, have used rhetoric that is not robust, interesting, or intriguing enough. It’s not looking towards the future enough. We get caught up arguing amongst ourselves over these fickle pieces of commentary from the trolls and then writers start blowing that up.

Now, the New York Times and even the Guardian cover art and design. But, where’s the design? It’s all art. I don’t think there’s enough people talking about what we do. I find that to be wrong and worrying.

Q. There’s a running theme we’ve been talking about—from more designers in government, to media coverage—there should be a more robust conversation around design. Why is it important that we pay attention to graphic design?

A. It’s as simple as this: if there are no graphic designers, how do we communicate visually? How do we understand what’s in front of us? That can change the way one sees the world. I think that’s more than important.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2YRtJ0X

Watch Out for These Phrases Designed to Trap Freelancers

Watch Out for These Phrases Designed to Trap Freelancers

“It’s an opportunity to be seen by a great audience.”

“It shouldn’t take you very long.”

“We promise to only ask for minimal changes.”

We’ve all heard them; the carefully worded, manipulative phrases designed to take advantage of freelancers where they’re most vulnerable: places like job instability, risk management, and romanticizing of passion. When you’re working on a team of one without a sounding board to call foul, those phrases can start to sound convincing. So, we assembled a crew of hard bitten, world-weary, sign-on-the-dotted-line creatives to each call out a red flag staked in a pile of bullshit so that you can spot it too, and to offer advice on how to respond.

Come along for a cathartic eye roll. Can you believe we’re still getting this stuff in our inboxes?


1. “We don’t have a budget for this one, but we will for the next.”
Mac Premo, Stuff Maker, Mac Premo, Inc.

That phrase is my number one of all red flags. It admits that the work is worth more than is being offered for it, and says that acknowledgment will come later if you prove yourself this time. It’s like going into a pizza place, ordering a slice, taking a bite and saying, “No, it’s not what I hoped” and walking out of the store. It doesn’t work that way. It leverages the baked-in inequality that exists in the freelance world. It’s taking advantage by using the carrot of opportunity while ignoring the reality of straight up ethical business.

Every single person in the freelance sphere has dealt with this. And even if you know better, you still look at the big picture of the potential project and say, “Yeah but this time…” Because, the definition of insanity and the definition of freelancing are the same thing: you do the same thing over and over again and you expect a different result.

Don’t expect that promise to come back to you, because it won’t. I don’t know anyone who has had a return client who has said “Okay, like we said, we didn’t have a budget for the last one but here’s more money.” Generally, things end how they start.

2. “Let’s start off with this ‘rush’ project.”
Pum Lefebure, Cofounder, Design Army

I think everyone hears this phrase at least a few times in their career. For us, it was in Design Army’s early days. Our instinct is to help the client out. But we learned that when you take on a rush project for a new client it’s setting you up for a disaster. It’s not organized. You don’t know each other well. There’s zero time for mistakes or exploration.

It’s also a red flag for a constant flow of rush projects. By jumping in, you may never get out of the rush relationship. Now, if it’s a new client, we almost always say “no.” You never want to promise and not deliver for any client; that’s bad business.

3. “Just…”
Dalit Shalom, Product Designer, The New York Times

Anytime you receive a design request prefaced with the word “just,” stay alert. People often try to compress their requests in ways that suggest there is less effort involved. It’s not always intentional, but it can be extremely misleading.

Imagine these two different scenarios:

(A) “Hi Jane! I’m reaching out because I recently opened a new business and need a logo – just something small, nothing too complex.”

(B) “Hi Jane! I’m reaching out because I recently opened a new business and need a logo — can we set up a time to talk about your process and cost?”

In the first version, Jane is casually being manipulated by the writer belittling the effort entailed. Would you ever tell a doctor how to approach a medical problem, or suggest the complexity of it?

As the professional, you are in the driver’s seat. You know how much time, effort, and resources will be devoted to the work. Therefore, you decide how to quantify the request. Clients should feel that you are the expert and know how to tackle the request appropriately.

If people persist with their “justs” to lure you to taking the work? Just say no.

4. “It really shouldn’t take too long”
Gail Andersen, Creative Director, Visual Arts Press

I have fallen for the low- or no-budget project so many times over the years that I am embarrassed to reflect on what is always inevitably a mistake. We’ve all been sucked in by a sweet or flattering email: a friend, colleague, or the eventual relative whose wedding invitation we can’t bear to see being designed at Vistaprint.

In my own head:

“It’s such a good cause, so…”

“It’s her first book, so…”

Or the ever popular:

“It really shouldn’t take too long…”

Be polite, but firm. Say “no thanks.” It is inevitably a less than rewarding experience with no cool final piece as the payoff.  It’s not worth it, and it always takes longer than anticipated. Much longer. And there is always more than one round of changes. Whenever I’ve said no, a wave of relief washes over me and there’s no backsplash of regret. Our time is valuable. Why is it so hard for designers to own that?

Of course, I need to follow my own advice first before doling it out.

5. “Will you work in trade?”
Michael Dolan, Senior Creative Director, Quartz

Anytime a freelancer sees this, they should take off. I remember first hearing this phrase when Craigslist became a popular place for hiring freelancers. It was common to see people who have a “brilliant idea for a business” but needed design or web build work. The “trade” was that when their brilliant idea paid off, they would give you the opportunity to do more work for them. You can assume that the person asking for work in trade is making money on the back of what they are asking a freelancer to create. If that’s the case they should be trading you money (i.e. paying you). If what you are making generates revenue, you should get a piece of that.

6. In a design contest, nobody wins.
Joel Evey, Creative Director

Design contests, where lots of people compete to be the chosen one, are super problematic. Not only are you doing free work but you’re doing free work with no guarantee that it will get used at all. Sometimes the terms and conditions say they can use the logo even if they don’t pick it, or that they can keep the rights to your creative and you wouldn’t be able to share the speculative work on your own website. Your work goes into a black hole and is never seen. It’s a pretty exploitative practice.

If you do decide to enter one anyway, against all our advice, make sure you read the terms and conditions really well. Always read the fine print.

7. “We are reviewing proposals before choosing an artist. Would you provide a few concepts?”
Jing Wei, Illustrator, Brooklyn

I have seen many emails that sneak in language that basically translates to a request for spec work. There is an intentional ambiguity on the topic of payment, which bothers me to no end. Clients who ask for sample sketches usually rely on the fact that the artist either doesn’t know any better or wants the job badly enough to do the work. On top of that, there’s the threat of competition from other artists, which makes some people think this is the norm or if they don’t participate, they could automatically lose the job.

In the early years of freelancing, there were definitely times when I gave clients the benefit of the doubt and provided sample illustrations. It’s easy to be wooed by the prospect of getting a big project, to the point where you may be willing to take the gamble. However, you deserve to be paid for the time you’re putting in, regardless of whether or not your work is ultimately used. It never hurts to ask for what you believe is fair. If they say no, you’re probably dodging a bullet.

8. “We can’t offer you [fill in an adequate hourly or project rate here], but we can give you exposure”
Willa Koerner, Creative Content Director, The Creative Independent

This hints that the person seeking to hire you thinks their own product/idea/team is so great that you should want to work with them, regardless of whether or not they can afford you. This is bad for two reasons: 1) they will never pay you what you deserve, and 2) it demonstrates a narcissistic attitude to doing business. This sets you up to be taken advantage of Every. Single. Time.

In the tech world, people often fall victim to “drinking the Kool-Aid” of their own idea. That extreme level of buy-in helps them press on and convinces others like investors (or you) to take a risk on them. When a company or person approaches you assuming you should be willing to expend your time and energy in service of their idea for inadequate compensation, there are narcissistic forces at play. These types of people don’t see a problem in co-opting your time for their own benefit. Steer clear of anyone who assumes their vision is so great that you’d be lucky to work with them, even if they can’t pay you what you deserve.

On top of that, if you say yes to gigs that don’t pay fairly, you are doing your peers a disservice by prolonging the misinformed idea that the type of work you do can be offered for free or cheaply. I can’t believe there are still so many people/companies out there trying to get away with not paying people for their honest work. If someone offers to pay you something other than a fair rate for your work, let them know you are unable to take the job. And, if you’re up to it, tell them you don’t think anyone else will either.

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/30EJOsD

How to Launch a Creative Project on Little to No Budget

How to Launch a Creative Project on Little to No Budget

Whether you’re looking for a side hustle, hoping to find a new career, or just want a way to de-stress after work, there are many reasons to launch a creative project. Of course, the task of actually starting one can be daunting. One of the largest obstacles? Money. Investing a lot of it into an unproven creative venture isn’t always wise or even possible.

That said: there are ways to launch an ambitious project on a shoestring budget. Below, we spotlight three people who started creative projects without spending a lot of money, at least initially.

In addition to the cost, it’s important to consider how much time you are willing to dedicate to a project. This, of course, will depend on what your goals are: a creative project done purely for enjoyment requires a different level of commitment than a side hustle you hope will launch a new career. So before you begin, it’s helpful to define for yourself what you’re hoping to achieve.


The creative project as a hobby

Medium: Ceramics

Creative: Nikita Richardson, staff writer at New York Magazine

Last summer, in search of a new creative outlet, Richardson stumbled on ceramics. She took her first pottery class in June 2018 and was instantly hooked. The act of shaping clay on the wheel—of using centrifugal force to make it do her bidding—made innate sense. Richardson started visiting the studio between classes to practice new techniques. “I would be up late at night on Instagram watching an entire subculture of pottery videos,” she says.

That first eight-week class, which met from 7:30pm to 9:30pm, cost $390 and covered all the materials, including clay, glaze, wheels, and tools. She’s taken four or five additional classes since then. Altogether, she estimates she’s spent around $2,400—of which she’s made $1,000 back through sales on her online shop, which she started last year after her ceramics threatened to take over her small Brooklyn apartment.

Blue glazed ceramic pot by Nikita Richardson

Ceramics by Nikita Richardson.

She loves that people who appreciate her work can purchase it, but photographing and shipping everything—she does both herself—is time-consuming. At its most intense, she was spending 10 hours in the studio each week and a few additional hours sending pieces to buyers.

Richardson is taking some time off from classes so she can, as she puts it, have a social life again. Ceramics is something she’ll continue to pursue in the future—but deliberately as a hobby, never as a career. “If you turn something you love into the way you make money, it can become really stressful,” she says, morphing from an activity that brings joy to “an albatross around your neck.”

The creative project as one revenue stream among many

Medium: Newsletter

Creative: Ann Friedman, freelance journalist and co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend

It was spring 2013 and Ann Friedman has recently been laid off. Thrown into freelance writing, she was publishing articles but didn’t feel as if they had a cohesive home. And so she started a newsletter, which could serve as a place to collect all her bylines and allow her to project an editorial point of view to anyone who was interested. “It seemed like a fun medium to experiment with,” she says.

At first, Friedman’s ambition was modest: publish the newsletter every week. In the best-case scenario, she figured, assigning editors would subscribe and maybe send more work her way.

In the beginning, the costs were non-existent. She used TinyLetter, a newsletter service owned by MailChimp, which was free for newsletters with fewer than 3,000 subscribers. Within a year, she’d hit that threshold—but TinyLetter, which liked to showcase her newsletter as a success story, let her continue to use the service for free.

By late 2014, however, it was clear she had to upgrade to a platform capable of reaching a larger subscriber base. For the first time, the newsletter was going to cost her more than the uncompensated time she put into it. “I am not going to provide this service at a loss,” she remembers thinking.

Ann Friedman in chambray shirt and jeans with a fuchsia background

Ann Friedman turned her creative side project into a revenue stream that makes up a third of her income as a freelancer. Photo by Jorge Rivas.

Making the switch from a newsletter as a hobby to a newsletter as a money-generating project wasn’t very fun; it required researching available email services and revenue streams. In the end, she settled on keeping the newsletter free but allowing fans to pay $5 a year for access to premium content. Brands, meanwhile, could pay to be featured in the newsletter via text-based ads. “There were a lot of hours figuring out the best way to make it easy for people to buy those ads,” she says.

Friedman was transparent about the number she needed to hit in order for the newsletter to pay for itself—$2,880 per year, at the time—breaking the number down for her followers. Between ads and paying subscribers, she quickly exceeded that benchmark.

As the newsletter has continued to grow, the percentage of paying subscribers has consistently hovered at 10 percent. Her user base—37,000 and counting—is now large enough that this alone represents a significant revenue stream. Add advertising revenue and the newsletter accounted for around “a quarter of my income last year,” she says. It’s more than enough to pay for all the tech-related expenses and the help of a part-time assistant, while compensating herself for the work she puts into the newsletter (three hours of actual writing, although that doesn’t include the time she spends scanning the Internet for inspiration and links).

Friedman still enjoys writing the newsletter each week. It’s work, of course, but it’s satisfying, often enjoyable work — a time in which she gets to reflect and process the events of the week by highlighting work she admires.

The creative project as a career

Medium: Graphics and illustration

Creative: Lisa Congdon, fine artist, illustrator, and author

For most of her life, Lisa Congdon, 51, didn’t think of herself as creative. As a child, she was a tomboy who loved sports and had no interest in art. After college, she went into education: first as an elementary school teacher and then at a non-profit working with public schools. Following a breakup, however, she signed up for an art class and fell in love with the creative process. “When I started out as an artist, I was really free because I didn’t have any expectations for myself, nor did anyone else,” Congdon says.

She continued to take a variety of local drawing and painting classes—the prices ranged from $30 to $325—and eventually began posting photos of her work online. Opportunities slowly began to present themselves, including friends asking if they could buy her work and stores showcasing her pieces, to the point where she began to consider, ‘what if I did this full-time?’

The transition wasn’t quick or easy. She continued to work—full-time and then part-time—for seven years after she first began drawing. It wasn’t until 2007, at the age of 40, that Congdon felt ready to leave her job to focus on her art and illustration career. Since then, she found success, through both personal and commercial projects (clients include General Mills, MoMA, Airbnb, and Harvard, among many others).

Lisa Congdon Peace to All Who Enter Here print

Print by Lisa Congdon.

For those who are looking to turn a hobby into a career, Congdon recommends going about it in stages. “If there is a way in the beginning to work a couple of jobs, one being your illustration or art career and the other being something that can pay your rent and buy food—that’s really important,” she says. “The minute you put all of the pressure on your art career to feed you is the minute it becomes extremely stressful.”

She also believes firmly in the power of multiple revenue streams. Today, Congdon’s income comes from working with commercial clients, selling her art in galleries, teaching classes online, and publishing books (her eighth, Find Your Artistic Voice, comes out in August). Coming to painting and illustration later in life has perhaps made her less precious about using art to make money. “There are so many ways to monetize your art; there isn’t one right way,” she says.“If I enjoy it and people are interested in paying me for it, I’ll do it.”



from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2EBKR3h

Weighing the Risk: Be Open to the Outcome, Not Attached to It

Weighing the Risk: Be Open to the Outcome, Not Attached to It

One of the truest markers of adulthood is that you can come up with a plan and stick to it. It’s a sign that you’re thinking ahead, that you have a good sense of what you need to do to get where you want to go.

The problem for many of us is we become so obsessed with the plan that we fear any derailments and distractions that might happen along the way. It’s a problem because those unknowns are where we, as creatives, tend to gain the most value.

My business partner and I learned this firsthand in 2013 when we set out to travel the country on a two-month speaking tour of the U.S. At the time, we had just completed graduate school and we had mutually decided that GFDA, then our midnight-oil-consuming passion project, deserved to be more than just a fling. With butterflies in our stomachs, we upgraded our commitment level to promise ring.

To cement our vows, we bought a van on eBay and began figuring out what the trip would consist of (in that order). As with most unframed problems, we had a tight deadline, no budget, and the misguided desire for a high ROI in the form of pop, pizzazz, and whiz-bang. At times, we were our own worst clients.

Once we committed to the idea of the trip, we found ourselves staring down the inexhaustible list of barriers between us and the alluring road-warrior lifestyle. Where were we going? Who would have us speak? What about the condition of our 1972 Dodge van: would it make the entire journey? Where would we get the money? How would we continue to run the business? Who would ship orders? What about our client work? The list went on and on.

“Good creative work is nearly impossible if the journey starts with insecurely clinging to what the final product must be.”

We got to work trying to answer as many of these questions as we could. But we also knew that anything could change in a moment.

And that’s what ultimately made our trip a success.

The most important part of the experience was embracing the unexpected. As we drove state to state, we often found ourselves chatting over drinks into the wee hours with creatives of all types, from students to design legends in their own times. Most of them were just like us, soldiering on without having a clear view of the finish line.

In the face of ever mounting obstacles, it’s common for people to sit down and not-so-patiently wait for the muse to reveal herself. This is a catastrophic error.

The 9-5 of the muse is to inspire creativity, and nothing inspires creativity more than obstacles. Obstacles frame the problem and define the path. Her job is done, you’ve been given everything you need to show the world how brilliantly you can thrive in limitation. She’s gone home for the day to catch up on Game of Thrones.

This is the spirit of being a creative, and ultimately it was the spirit of our tour. Good creative work is nearly impossible if the journey starts with insecurely clinging to what the final product must be. Risk and uncertainty are the key ingredients of the design process, and without them, the best one can hope for are stale approaches, rehashed concepts, and meager improvements to someone else’s ideas. Innovative, long-lived, and thought-provoking never starts as easy, safe, and expected.

To truly be creative pioneers, we have to go and entertain all of the possibilities that are to come—especially those that are unpredictable. The obstacles will help to define the path and new and refreshing rewards will unfold along the way, seemingly of their own accord. You can’t force the answers at the outset; go out and explore the unknown and the answers will reveal themselves.



from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2VP26sp

More Than Ever, Creativity Demands Courage

More Than Ever, Creativity Demands Courage

This year, the 99U Conference theme was ‘the Creative Future.’ Groundbreakers, creative thinkers, and design leaders shared their thoughts on where we’re at and what we’ll need for what lies ahead. The theme permeated conversations among attendees and sparked unexpected connections. As speakers dug into the future of creativity, it became apparent that something else will be necessary for our creative lives ahead: courage.

From fearless drive in the wake of faceless tech, to taking a leap into our unknown skills and untrammeled spaces, here’s how 99U speakers encouraged creatives to brave the unexplored as they tackle their own work and our collective creative future.


Vivienne Ming

Dr. Vivienne Ming underscored the role of courage within creativity in the context of creating AI/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Right now, artificial intelligence is fundamentally a tool and you’re the artists. It is a huge mistake to think AI will solve our problems. But taking creative people that know how to explore the unknown and have the courage to do what they think is right, that is fundamentally what creativity is about—Dr. Vivienne Ming, Co-Founder & Executive Chair, Socos Labs

The key to creativity is finding a way to listen to yourself— Zach Lieberman, Co-founder, School for Poetic Computation

The superhero thing has never really gone away from me. There’s always a part of me that is really, really hoping that I’m going to be able to save the day—Ashley C. Ford, Writer, Editor

Giorgia Lupi

Giorgia Lupi spoke on data and how to embrace and channel chaos/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Boredom is the beautiful, blank, unexplored space we will probably lose altogether, if we’re not careful. We need to seek it out. We need to bask in it —Kyle T. Webster, Design Evangelist, Adobe

What if there was no such thing as normal? How would we proceed in our design?—Kat Holmes, Director, UX Design, Google & Founder, Mismatch.design

That confidence to leap into the unknown is a form of mastery—Tim Brown, CEO & President, IDEO

Michael Ventura

Michael Ventura told the audience that commitment and bravery are key to see change/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Our world is random and messy. Collecting data does not make it more perfect or more controllable—Giorgia Lupi, Partner & Design Director, Accurat

Listen very closely to what’s not being said—Jessica Orkin, President, SYPartners

If you can be brave enough to imagine past your understanding, you can change everything, and not just the world, but the people in it—Ashley C. Ford, Writer, Editor

Ashley C. Ford challenged the audience to look past the constraints of how we typically see the world and those in it/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Words have never mattered more. A single word can elevate something or it can change your perception. Even if it’s just your own perception—Anna Pickard, Head of Brand Communications, Slack

Empathy requires attention and commitment. Be brave, because this isn’t something everybody’s willing to do. But if you are willing to do it, you will see change—Michael Ventura, Founder & CEO, Sub Rosa

The opposite of courage is conforming—Brian Collins, Founder, COLLINS

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2Vu1mDM

The Best Ideas from the 11th Annual 99U Conference, Part II

The Best Ideas from the 11th Annual 99U Conference, Part II

There were so many bright ideas and inspiring moments at this year’s conference, we had to break this article into two parts. You can read the best ideas of 99U, Part I, here.

Read on to see why we’re so convinced that, in the hands of creatives, the future is bright.


The shortcuts you develop will define your style

Is creativity about starting from scratch, or finding new ways to do what you’re already doing? Zach Lieberman, co-founder of the School for Poetic Computation, says it’s the latter. In a humorous presentation, Lieberman talked about how making daily code sketches and capturing all of his work in a giant folder on his computer have led to a richer creative process. “If you have to do something again and again, you will make shortcuts,” he said. “And as an artist, those shortcuts will become your style.”

Mismatches are the building blocks of exclusion

Citing the World Health Organization’s definition, Director of UX Design at Google and Founder of Mismatch.design, Kat Holmes said that what we call disability is a mismatched interaction between the features of a person’s body and the features of the environment they live in. Designers must seek to break up the exclusive ‘shut in/shut out’ model by pausing at each step of the design process to question: ‘Who stands to lose their independence, their engagement, their participation in society?’ Only by deeply questioning who designs products, why we’re creating them, and who we think will use them, will designers be able to bust the cycle of exclusion.

Think about what compensation means to you

Thaniya Keereepart, head of product at Patreon, thinks it’s an incredible time to be a creator. At the same time, she thinks the ad-driven business model of YouTube and other online media platforms fails to adequately compensate creators. In her 99U mainstage talk, Keereepart raised important questions about what it means to transact, consume, and advertise in the modern world. “Advertising, in general, is not a bad thing,” she says. “But maybe there should be alternatives.”

Merill Garbus of Tune-Yards during her multi-layered performance/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Make the world your symphonic space

Tune-YardsMerrill Garbus brought the audience back from lunch and to its feet, creating loops and beats by turning the space around her into an instrument pit; stamping the stage and thwacking the sound equipment, all paired with the rollicking sound of her ukulele.

Own the power of vulnerability

In a masterful look at a few creative ways to make human connections, Ivan Cash led attendees in sharing proud moments, personal struggles, and finally—generating lots of laughter—the most recent photo on their phones. Cash believes there is massive power in vulnerability and opening up, even to strangers. “The fallacy I hope to break today is that it’s hard to make a connection,” said Cash.

Find your north star

Creative coach Tina Essmaker opened up on her time founding and then unraveling the publication The Great Discontent, and her experience of feeling burnt out and unfulfilled. With templates and mission statement prompts, Essmaker coached attendees on how to find what fulfills them and wrestle the feelings they want from the work they make, even at times of stress. “Cultivating gratitude is especially important when you don’t think you have a lot to be thankful for,” she said.

Use simple memories to evoke strong emotions

In a dive into how to use nostalgia in creative experiences—99Uers got hands-on by labbing ideas for children’s playthings—Layne Braunstein asked the attendees to dig into their past and share cherished memories. “The memories that you have when you’re growing up are always stuck in your subconscious,” Braunstein explained. He encouraged designers to trust that sometimes those simple remembrances and nostalgias can unlock the strongest human emotions.

Forest Young of Wolff Olins at his master class/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Design the future like you mean it

Wolff OlinsForest Young points out that designing for the future is like walking backwards—blindly pushing forward with your eyes on where you’ve come from. Young’s goal is to make sure that designers forecast inclusion, equitability, and impact, not just bright, shiny innovations into that unknown space. “Future Design at its worst is about chasing novelty,” he said. “Maybe the things we should focus on aren’t so glamorous.”

Replace data driven design with design driven data

Accurat Design Director, Giorgia Lupi, is a master of numbers, but that doesn’t mean she thinks they’re perfect. “Data is an instrument that we humans created to observe, record, and archive our reality,” she said. While data itself is an abstraction, Lupi explores what very real truths data can tell by asking unexpected questions about things like emotional health, moments of negativity, and intimate fears. “There is a world of unexplored, small, and intimate data that we never see,” she said, looking forward to a time when data-driven design is replaced by design-driven data.

Find space in the information overload

Jasmine Takanikos issued a call for us all to find space to cultivate our creativity. To that, she advocates for private safe zones where inspiration can find you, keeping some ideas to yourself so they can multiply within you. Be careful what creative content you put into your system, and respect your own process and pace.

Push your ideas into the deep end of the pool

WeTransfer may be expert in sharing massive ideas across the internet, but in their masterclass, Global Head of Music Jamal Dauda and Senior Designer Karen van de Kraats shared wisdom learned from launching a content platform. One of their biggest learnings for launching a new idea? Go to an extreme with ideas in order to remove negativity at the root. “When in doubt, push it over the cliff,” they advised. “Going far with your ideas makes it easier to tone it down.”

Anna Pickard of Slack “does words” but also good slides/Ryan Muir for 99U

Recognize what it means to give your brand personality

What does it mean to make your brand human? As head of brand communications at Slack, Anna Pickard faced the nuances of this question firsthand and shared a few of her personal findings with the 99U audience in a fun, lighthearted presentation. The core of her argument: make people feel seen. Don’t underestimate the value that a heartfelt error message or a “You’re doing great!” tweet might deliver. Says Pickard: “It’s not about pretending to be human; it’s about finding the moments when you can connect with people.”

Let your research live beyond you

Paige Bennett, a design researcher at Dropbox, knows that sometimes the hardest part of research can be figuring out how to share what you learned (particularly with a design audience). But giving our research a life beyond us is a skill we all have to develop. “Your findings must be able to live on without you as their guardian,” she said. To get attention and buy-in from design-savvy listeners, she suggests using multiple formats like workshops, brown bag lunches, collateral like stickers and flip books, and pop up galleries and exhibits. Don’t stick to paper and PowerPoint.

Design for better business, not better brand

For decades, we’ve been saying that design belongs in the boardroom, leading companies. The fact that we have to keep repeating it, said Mike Rigby and Saneel Radia of R/GA, means that philosophy hasn’t stuck yet. As evangelists of how design can transform business, they argue that creativity drives companies to outperform competitors and deliver outsize employee satisfaction and should be used to regiment the whole business, not just the brand, from top to bottom. “The size of the boardroom doesn’t matter,” said Radia. “It’s the mission of the boardroom that does matter.”

Design for one

From creating a special Alexa device for the needs of a woman with MS to the experience of a single woman about to become a mother, the Smart Design team drilled down to the possibilities that lie in designing for one: experiencing the nuances of one journey, versus mapping out many. The team opened up about their original motivations for becoming designers and engineers: they wanted to do something to help people. Now, the design for one focus keeps them locked in on the real motivation: to avoid “failing a design challenge vs. failing a real person.”

Ashley C. Ford closed the 2019 99U Conference on a high note/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Dare to imagine beyond what you think is possible

When she was in 7th grade, Ashley C. Ford kept falling asleep in class. The teacher could have written her off as lazy and unmotivated; instead, he asked her questions that unearthed the real reasons, ultimately changing her life. Ford–a writer and speaker–shared this story and others in a heartfelt talk that showcased the power of being able to imagine more than what you see before you. That, she says, is the key to moving society forward. “If you can be brave enough to imagine past your understanding, you can change everything,” she says. “Not just the world, but the people who live in it.”

Apply ethics to your entire design process

IDEO design leads sat down with 99U attendees to discuss AI bias by building a sample algorithm together. As biases seeped into the AI outcomes, the audience was warned that biases always start with us, not the data or the model. So, create your own personal code of ethics as a designer and apply it at the start of your process, don’t just do an ethics drive-by at the end. The goal, design research lead Ovetta Sampson says, is “to amplify the beauty of humanity with design while avoiding practices that exploit its fragility.”

Play buzzword bingo

From blue jeans to glasses, Alain Sylvain unpacked the history of products that were truly ‘innovative.’ But now, he says, that word has become a buzzy piece of slang that gets thrown around in pitches and meetings (and numerous headlines). We’ve diluted the true meaning of innovation through the mass consumption of the idea, said Sylvain. He advised everyone to hold themselves more accountable to precise language, including playing buzzword bingo in meetings to call attention to bad jargon habits.

Take your client’s brain for a walk

In a high-energy session, Disney’s former Head of Innovation, Duncan Wardle, got attendees on their feet to explain why his favorite client pitches involve putting his presentation up on all four walls of a room. Taking the client for a walk turns a pitch into a conversation. In the same vein, Wardle encouraged attendees to playfully break out of their usual habits, whether its taking a different route home, or listening to a new radio station. After all, he said ‘No fresh stimulus in? No new ideas out!”

Conference-goers buzzing around the lobby at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2vYPZJT

The Best Ideas from the 11th Annual 99U Conference, Part I

The Best Ideas from the 11th Annual 99U Conference, Part I

“There are events around the world where creatives like you are told about technologies coming to take your jobs,” said Will Allen VP, Community Products at Adobe. “This isn’t one of them.”

From why Socos’ Labs Dr. Vivienne Ming thinks creativity is useless without courage to IDEO President, Tim Brown’s assurance that this is the greatest time to work in design, the ideas from this year’s 99U Conference were groundbreaking and thought-provoking. They pushed the envelope on how we can use new technology and reminded us of the ways in which we are deeply human. In fact, there were so many incredible ideas from 99U this year, it took two articles to capture. Our coverage continues in Part II, here.

From AI to empathy, from boredom to bravery, here is Part I of the top takeaways from 99U 2019. 


Creativity is useless without courage

Dr. Vivienne Ming, AI expert and co-founder of Socos Labs—she prefers the title ‘mad scientist’—electrified the 99U audience with her forecasting of inventions like brain patches to stimulate creative thinking, and brain hardwiring to make you smarter. It will be an amazing experience, she assured the assembled creatives, for those that survive the surgery. But, she warned, her AI inventions and technological advancements are nothing if we do not use those tools courageously in the service of a greater purpose. “Taking creative people that know how to explore the unknown and have the courage to do what they think is right, that is fundamentally what creativity is about,” she said.  

Aim empathy in all directions

Michael Ventura isn’t quite the grandfather of empathy, the concept sweeping the design industry, he’s more like the really cool high-school empathy teacher you make sure to visit every time you’re back in town. His talk encouraged the audience to break away from the notion that empathy is about being nice or compassionate or that empathy is only something aimed at others. “It’s important that empathy goes in all directions. We have to go inward to figure out what’s up with us. We have to go external. We have to look into the past and see what we’re bringing with us. And then we look through the windshield to see where we’re going.”

Boredom is a blessing

Artist and illustrator Kyle T. Webster started his 99U talk by boldly getting bored. Supine on the floor of the stage, he invited the audience to experience a feeling that’s only getting rarer as we fill our lives with ever more screen time. Webster called for creatives to make space to space out in order to unlock the place where creative ideas come from. “It’s a beautiful, blank, unexplored space that we will probably lose altogether if we’re not careful,” warns Webster. “We need to seek it out and bask in it.”

Kyle T. Webster let the audience empty their minds to fill it with new ideas/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

First: self-discovery. Then: fulfilling career

Do you feel unfilled at the end of the work day? Meg Lewis suspects it’s because your job only asks you to utilize one of your many skill sets. Your real path, she said, may be paved with a lot of small, unique skills nested together to form a career made exclusively for you. Lewis doesn’t encourage attendees to walk away from their desks. Instead, she advocates doing the work of defining our distinctive qualities, our best skills and the activities that bring life joy and purpose. Then, she said, use that uniquely-you information it to fill your current career with purpose.

‘Intelligence’ is not a technology

Tech education consultancy Decoded works with large companies to demystify machine learning. Their thought-provoking workshop challenged attendees to confront and complicate their idea of intelligence. “AI is a goal, not a technology,” the team said. Currently, AI requires models and big data to learn. There can be no machine learning without big data.

Don’t fight the future

At any moment, there are multiple parallel futures fighting for dominance, said Brian Collins. And all too often, we’re in there fighting too. We shouldn’t be fighting or proofing against the future, Collins told attendees. We should be creating a chosen future with maximum love.

Brian Collins in his master class ‘Designing Tomorrow, Better’/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Know the essentials of teamwork

From outlining roles and accountability to figuring out your coworkers’ pet peeves (aka ‘landmines’), DLW Creative Labs brainstormed the core tenants of powerful multi-disciplinary teams. Most of all,  know that we’re all human. Emotion is one of the most powerful levers for connecting a team. “It takes work to create good habits around sharing emotion,” they said. “Empathy is a practice. Committing is essential.”

To communicate your complex world, doodle

Lisa Rothstein draws on the human tradition of storytelling through pictures to encourage creatives to share their thoughts in doodles. “When you’re drawing, you’re in the world of ideas,” she said. “It’s the visualization of thinking.”

Hearing is believing

So much of design is geared toward the visual, though sound may have even more power. In a dynamic presentation that included a chills-inducing performance by a children’s choir from the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School, Man Made Music founder Joel Beckerman explained how sound is not only helping hospitals, electric car companies, and other organizations enhance their branding, but also improve the customer experience. What if, for example, alerts for hospital equipment created a soothing symphony instead of a cacophony of stress-inducing beeps? Man Made Music is working to solve this and other sonic challenges.

Joel Beckerman and 99U’s first sonic keynote/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

When you’re looking for inspiration, go analog

Magazines, yarn, and scissors helped attendees get down to basics in an exercise of analog inspiration. Attendees left with weird and wonderful posters and collages, made under the watchful eye of Adobe Creative Resident, Temi Coker.

The goal of collaboration isn’t projects. It’s relationships.

Chronicle Books executive publishing director Christina Amini moved the audience with stories of her past collaborators, and how she carries the work of lost friends into the future. To make a collaborator of lifelong value takes trust, time, and purpose. “Not every project will have commercial success,” she admits, “but the magic of collaboration is that over time it will create a generative relationship.”

Ask how to create safety as you embrace creative chaos

How we structure creative organizations will determine everything about our future of work. So, the team at co:collective posed the question of whether chaos or structure promotes more creativity? And, if you commit to blue sky thinking, to swimming in the deep end of the pool, and to standing on the lip of the cliff—aka, chaos—how to do create psychological safety at the edge of the unknown?

A participant in Temi Coker’s analog mood board workshop/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

To be a great public speaker, embrace silence

At the top of their terrors list, public speaking. Next in line? Death. From physical activities to puzzles, Anton & Irene worked with attendees on how to boldly present ideas from confident body language to powerful slides. One of the most important tools of public speaking? The ability to embrace silence.

Create at scale

Sure, channeling your latest idea is a wonderful exercise in personal creation. But what about creativity at scale? This was what was at play when the Adobe Design team sat down to work on their newest product, Project Gemini. In their 99U conference workshop, they discussed how to build a visual system. Inspired by Egyptian wall painting, attendees considered how to build consistent design solutions using visual systems with layers of icons, line drawings, shapes and textures. “Instead of chasing a design trend, we want to come up with a more timeless solution,” the team said.

New ideas need time to fly

A lot has changed in the world since Tim Brown published his landmark book, Change By Design, in 2009. Of course, in a world where tech is transforming nearly every industry, the IDEO president and CEO (he’ll step down from his role in August but stay with the company) says it’s the best time in history to be a designer. It’s also a time when designers must increasingly consider the ethics of their work, though Brown cautions against any sort of knee-jerk reaction to risk-taking. “The thing about new ideas is that they’re like a fragile new species. They have to live for awhile before they flourish. If they get killed before that, they don’t have a chance to flourish,” he says.

Tim Brown of IDEO in conversation with Courtney E. Martin/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Practice using your negative imagination

We all want to make something that will change the world for the better. But the harsh reality is that an optimistic group of designers are capable of creating something that can be used for ill. In a framework workshop on design ethics, Silka Miesnieks and Phil Clevenger of the Adobe Design team asked designers to practice negative imagination—imagining how every design could be used for bad, to anticipate use cases and prevent them. “We are experience makers,” the team reminded 99Uers. “We’re responsible for the things we’re putting out there.”

Listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear

SYPartnersJessica Orkin took attendees through a meditative experience to click their brains into the overlooked power of deep listening. To listen deeply, Orkin says, is to seek new perspectives instead of resisting differences, to lead with curiosity instead of jumping to conclusions, and to quiet the ego instead of believing you have the answers.

Music is a key tool for branding

In a workshop designed to build on Joel Beckerman’s sonic keynote, Man Made Music encouraged designers to embrace sonic branding as a necessary tool for any creative working in communications and branding. Sound creates experiences that are more identifiable, memorable, and evoke all sorts of emotions around an organization’s personality than visuals alone.

Local Projects interactive workshop for institutional design/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

Stand in place and context

From holograms to kinetic sculptures, Local Projects designs platforms for narratives within cultural institutions like museums, churches and libraries. Their biggest tip for powerful experiential design? Have a sense of presence. “There’s a unique, highly irrational, but real link for humans between architecture and history: the space and the lives that were lived. You know that space holds these memories.”

Stop kidding yourself about multitasking

When Dr. Sahar Yousef said we should examine succumbing to the dark side of constant connectivity, she knows what she’s talking about. The cognitive neuroscientist worries that the world of work has evolved while our brains have not. She issued a call for creatives to strategize deliberately to protect our most precious resources: time, focus, and energy. That includes turning off phone notifications, automating decisions like eating the same breakfast or wearing the same outfit, and to stop kidding ourselves about multitasking. As we cut distractions, hone focus with short sessions of intense concentration. “Don’t run a marathon,” coaches Yousef. “Run a marathon of sprints.”

Zach Lieberman had a hands-on approach to making a point/Photo by Ryan Muir for 99U

from Adobe 99UAdobe 99U https://adobe.ly/2Q75h8G