From Scrappy to Scale—A DIY CEO Explains Why Creatives Should Embrace Capitalism

From Scrappy to Scale—A DIY CEO Explains Why Creatives Should Embrace Capitalism

If you’re driving down a road outside of Santa Fe, don’t resist Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.

The immersive art venue housed in a former bowling alley is a cornucopia of disarmingly innocent appliances that lead to an otherworldly land of phosphorescent trees, musical dinosaur skeletons, and mysterious ruptures in space and time.

The House of Eternal Return welcomed its millionth visitor this summer. New venues are opening in Las Vegas and Denver. And, following the devastating fire at the DIY space Ghost Ship in 2016, Meow Wolf launched The DIY Fund to share resources with fellow DIY venues.

We asked Meow Wolf’s CEO and 99U speaker, Vince Kadlbuk how an art space can mean big business, navigating creativity and capitalism, and how to go from scrappy to scale.


You’ve been working on Meow Wolf for a long time. When did you first think there is a business here?

About three years after we started, we did an immersive exhibition in a space called The Center for Contemporary Art. We put up this giant ship that had crash-landed in a fictitious sci-fi world. And there was a moment when a mother came up to us and said, “Thank you for creating this project. It’s the only thing that’s pulled my son away from video games all summer long.” And we had the realization “What we created was more entertaining and significant to this kid than video games, which means that there’s a business there.” That’s when the gears started turning: How do we do this full time?

Vince Kadlubek Meow Wolf

Meow Wolf is an immersive art installation that bridges the real and imaginary world.

Has there been a time when you’ve struggled with whether to make a decision as a business lead versus as a creative?

I can justify creative value as our business value. Meow Wolf is a maximal creative company. We go above and beyond what is normally considered to be the minimum viable product. So, I’m not beholden to cutting corners or maximizing profit margins. We’ve proven that above and beyond creative work has value in it. A project like Denver, for example, is incredibly high tech and we’re working with hundreds of artists. It’s a really expensive project and we’re going to keep the tickets prices reasonably affordable. That might seem like it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective, but it’s my job to justify why such a massive creative project gives more value than what we can see in the ticket.

Does that mean you have a lot of difficult investor conversations?

There are difficult investor conversations with people who are interested but not totally sold yet. My job as the CEO is to make sure that the money we bring in is aligned with our character. We’re lucky to have a team who are investing for the right reasons: because of who we are, not because of what they want us to be. Our investors have been our biggest cheerleaders.

Vince Kadlubek Meow Wolf

Meow Wolf is born from the community of DIY artists in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

You have a DIY Fund that gives resources to other DIY venues. Why does that fund exist?

We were on the outside, looking in at the creative economy for so long and we remember it. It’s still a fresh taste in my mouth. The only way we’ll become a successful company is if we’re impacting the creative economy at large. We want to makes sure that, if we’re going to grow, it’s a rising tide that lifts as many boats as possible. We want to grow the pie as big as we can so that other people can be a part of it. Right now, we create immersive experiences, entertainment, and merchandise, but the biggest goal is to influence the creation of a global creative economy platform that opens up the possibility for artists to be paid in a radically different way.

What’s your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is raising money. That sounds so superficial, but you really have to believe in a vision and convince people whose job is to be skeptical that it could be a good investment. Once money is raised, a lot of the other difficulties fall in place. It’s difficult to get artists to collaborate and work together and believe in a big project like the one we’re doing in Denver, for example. But when you have money to pay people, they don’t have to have a giant belief in the whole project. I have a lot of issues with capitalism, but it’s been an incredible vehicle for productivity and the ability to build remarkable things.

Vince Kadlubek CEO Meow Wolf

“We were on the outside, looking in at the creative economy for so long,” says Meow Wolf CEO, Vince Kadlubek.

Does that mean that creatives should embrace capitalism?

A year and a half, before we were opening our doors and bringing in hundreds of thousand dollars a week, we were delivering food at ten dollars an hour. There are creatives out there who, with just the smallest amount of support, can create incredible economic successes. They need to think: How do I, as a creative, participate in a capitalist structure? End this narrative that there’s such a thing as selling out. That’s what keeps creatives broke and powerless. That none of us are participating is what allows capitalism to be so shitty. If we were, we could all make impact on how capitalism evolves. There’s a bridge that needs to be built between the creative world and the business world: it’s a two-way bridge. Both people need to build it. That’s the biggest thing that I’m hoping comes from Meow Wolf’s success: that that bridge is built.

When you say ‘global creativity economy platform’, what does that mean?

Look around—every square inch, every cubic foot of the world is an opportunity for creativity. And every person is a potential consumer, buyer, or supporter of that creativity. Right now, the venue for creativity is limited to brick and mortar buildings; performers have to have a place to perform; artists need to have galleries to show. We’re in the midst of a digital revolution that is allowing for new infrastructure not just based on just physical buildings. Uber does digital infrastructure creating opportunities for any driver to become a taxi driver. Airbnb created a digital infrastructure for any house to become a hotel room. This is the same type of thing: How do we create as many venues and opportunities as possible for people to compensate artists for their work. It’ll takes a lot of collaboration: a lot of creative companies coming together. It can’t be done by just one.

from 99U99U

How Can We Make Design Better for the Color-Blind?

How Can We Make Design Better for the Color-Blind?

Editor’s note: Matteo Farinella, who created the header illustration for this article, combines his PhD in neuroscience with his artistic skill to visualize complex scientific concepts. In his words, “This image maps the ‘perceptual confusion’ of colorblindness to a ‘geographical confusion’ that we can all relate to. The three colors here are represented as three hills, covered in photoreceptors. While the blue hill is clearly visible, the paths leading to the red and green hills are not as easy to follow. It’s in that forest of red-green midtones where colorblind people tend to get lost. So designers should try to avoid those tones.”

The plight of the color-blind designer seems like a daunting one. It’s a fairly common phenomenon. Out of necessity, the condition is often hidden from employers and colleagues by a large swath of artists and designers seeking to protect their professional reputations and keep their livelihoods from peril.

“I don’t want my colleagues to second-guess every design decision I make,” asserts Stan*, a graphic designer of 15 years. Color-blind, he prefers to remain anonymous. “I’ve learned to work in this industry despite having color issues, and it’s never once presented me with a professional hurdle I couldn’t overcome,” he says, referencing past digital and print work for top-tier brands such as PetSmart and Mars Candy. “The truth is I am color-blind and know several other designers who are as well, but we don’t publicize it.”

Were these designers to come forward, however, their potential contributions to the worlds of teaching, design, and general awareness would be considerable.

A ‘colorblind designer’ sounds strange, but there’s a lot of us out there.

Color blindness is an inherited condition that limits a person’s ability to distinguish between color shades, most commonly reds and greens. Our ability or inability to recognize color is dependent on cells in our eyes called cones. There are three, each triggered by different wavelengths of light that send complex messages to the brain, which combined produce the appearance of color.

How to design for the color-blind.

Image courtesy of EnCrhoma, which notes “Image colors are simulated. Red-green color deficiency varies by individual.”

A common misconception is that color-blind people can only see the world in black and white, a separate condition called monochromacy. In reality, color blindness works on a gradient, from difficulty discerning specific shades to an inability to recognize more than three or four colors. This neurological quirk is the result of a mutation on the X-chromosome. Since women have two X-chromosomes, one acting as a backup to counteract potential defects, they’re less likely to inherit the disorder, which typically manifests in three specific ways.

The most common is red/green color blindness, protanopia, where subjects have difficulty viewing red light and often confuse blues with purples. Deuteranopia works similarly but affects the ability to see green. Tritanopia, the least common, affects the ability to distinguish blue and yellow. According to statistics, while only one in 200 women worldwide is color-blind, one in 12 men, or approximately 8 percent of the global male population, have varying degrees of vision impairment.

Potentially eight out of every 100 visitors to a site or an app may be seeing and experiencing content differently than intended.

For UX and graphic designers, this means that potentially eight out of every 100 visitors to a site or an app may be seeing and experiencing content differently than intended. For the color-blind, daily tasks like reading an onscreen message at the gas pump, with its green and red buttons, may be an exercise in confusion and frustration. Informed designers, on the other hand, have the power to meet this challenge head-on.

Most well-executed examples of color-blind-friendly design are so subtle you’d never even notice them. It’s the websites that indicate a clothing item’s color in the title, or the designer who utilizes texture instead of flat pigment in a pie chart. The most forward-thinking design companies have begun to create mobile games that contain a special color-blind mode to ensure inclusion, the most popular of which is Dots, a puzzle app aimed at matching colored dots. On the other hand, many productivity apps rely solely on colored labels to relay critical information and are next to impossible for the color-blind to navigate.

“Many designers aren’t aware of this disability, and even the ones who do don’t see it as important enough to consider adapting their design processes,” explains Matej Latin, a UX designer living in London. Latin initially kept his condition a secret, but emboldened by support from past and present coworkers, he now promotes color blindness awareness and accessibility on the web and social media. “A ‘colorblind designer’ sounds strange, but there’s a lot of us out there,” Latin explains, mentioning a blog post he wrote a few years ago titled  “A tale of a colour blind designer.”

Designers are terrified of coming forward because they’re scared they’ll lose their job, or be seen as less capable.

It quickly became popular, with designers writing in to express their own reluctance to come out as color-blind. “I still get at least one email each month. Designers are terrified of coming forward because they’re scared they’ll lose their job, or be seen as less capable,” says Latin. He can’t emphasize enough how wrong this is. If anything, he believes color-blind designers tend to do a better job of designing with users in mind, since “they can experience these issues themselves.”

His advice has been to stay quiet if you’re afraid of losing your job but has discovered it’s rarely an issue. “In most cases, they’ll find it fascinating,” he says. He believes color blindness helps him to make more deliberate choices and view what others can’t. “I can see immediately if the contrast in a user interface isn’t right,” he explains. “It’s jarring for me but not for non-color-blind colleagues. Being on the receiving end of a disability forces you to think more about the person who will use your product. And that’s essential for all good design work.”


Dots game colorlind mode

In DOTS colorblind mode, colors are represented by symbols, allowing players to follow gameplay by connecting dots of the same symbol. Image courtesy of DOTS.

Multiple public resources also exist to better design for the color-blind. Founded in 2009, Usabilla was created to help marketers, designers, and UX practitioners generate more-accessible sites. Today, they offer tips on making websites easier to read for the color-blind. “Just like we wouldn’t exclude people who use a certain browser or device, we shouldn’t exclude those [who need] special accommodations,” Usabilla marketing manager Kathleen Hickey tells us. “Designing with inclusiveness and accessibility benefits everyone.”

She maintains that incorporating features that benefit those with special needs must be seen as an opportunity to embrace the core principles of the web, offering an improved experience for as many users as possible. “In the case of designing for color blindness, websites aren’t just meant to look good – they’re meant to be easy-to-use for everyone, including the color-blind.” Usabilla’s site contains easy-to-follow instructions and tips on designing for the color-blind, including directions for using both colors and symbols, limiting the color palette, utilizing different textures and contrasting patterns rather than multiple colors (especially for graphs and charts), and avoiding problematic color combos like green and black or blue and purple.

They point to Facebook’s easy-to-identify form fields and error messaging as an example of a particularly successful site. It’s rumored that the site’s iconic blue color scheme was specifically chosen to accommodate founder Mark Zuckerberg’s red-green color blindness.

People with normal color vision underestimate how much we depend on color for information.

Researchers are also working on gene therapies to help “correct” color blindness, most notably Jay Neitz, Ph.D., a professor of ophthalmology and a color vision researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 2009, Neitz successfully administered an injection of cells into two squirrel monkeys lacking a gene known as L opsin, which provides information for the cones in the iris that perceive long wavelengths and red colors – the same cause of red-green color blindness in humans. Neitz’s team injected a virus carrying altered genetic information supplying the missing L opsin gene directly into the retina, and over the course of 24 weeks, the light sensitivity of the cones in the monkeys’ eyes shifted, permitting newfound color sensations. So far, the monkeys in this ongoing study have yet to exhibit any side effects. Beyond its importance to the study of colorblindness, the project is linked to larger research into gene therapies that may someday restore light perception to people afflicted with degenerative eye disorders. But we are still far from “curing” color blindness itself.

“People are desperate to find some solution,” Neitz told us, explaining that this condition leaves sufferers open to all kinds of “basic quackery.” He mentions EnChroma, a popular set of glasses that promises to enable viewers to “see” greater color ranges, citing its fundamental inability to change the neurological makeup of an individual.

While the glasses can filter out particular wavelengths of light and change the intensity of colors, they don’t permit you to see a new range of colors. “Some have tried on the glasses and say they like the way the world looks better,” he laughs, “but are they making people’s color vision better? No. The only way to make a significant improvement is to replace the photopigment that’s missing.” Ultimately, he says, people with normal color vision underestimate how much we depend on color for information, from witnessing fall foliage and viewing a beautiful painting to following critical directions.

The doctor, trying to cheer him up, joked that this would only be an issue if he wanted to be “an electrician, a dermatologist, or an artist.”

Loren Long was in junior high when he had his eyes examined by an ophthalmologist and failed to pass the color test. The doctor, trying to cheer him up, joked that this would only be an issue if he wanted to be “an electrician, a dermatologist, or an artist.” Unfortunately, he had already discovered his passion, and talent, for painting.My mom really helped, strongly affirming, ‘Hey your art is beautiful. Don’t let anybody say you can’t be an artist.’” Today, he’s an illustrator, writer, and New York Times best-selling picture book author. “I often talk about this moment when I give keynote speeches.”

“I realize my color blindness is an obstacle, but certainly not a disability,” he says. “When I’m making my color paintings, yes, it’s something that I have to deal with. But I’ve learned you can ask someone who has color vision to help.” Unable to use art supplies without the colors listed, for much of his career he kept his color blindness a secret. “I was always afraid they wouldn’t hire me. But those of us who are color-blind, we see most color – we just don’t see it the way you do. I see value, and it heightens my art. I see a fuller range. It’s given me an underdog mentality, which has served me. I’ve never taken anything for granted and always felt like I had to work hard and prove myself. I think for a person who’s creative, that’s a good mentality to have.”

from 99U99U

The Best Colors Named After People

The Best Colors Named After People

Worried about your legacy? Curious how you’ll go down in history? Forget about chasing money or power. Instead, you might consider adding your name to the ranks of chroma celebs. We played a round of “How did that color get its name?” and found a cast of characters that made us stop and stare. From bubblegum battleships to Yves Saint Laurent’s design inspo and the Roosevelt who pushed the limits of the unprintable, these creatives took a seriously nontraditional path to get into the history books. Keep an eye out for their namesake colors in the wild. And, hey, maybe you’ll have one named for you one day, too.

Majorelle Blue
Artist and Morocco-based expat Jacques Majorelle sacrificed any chance of being remembered for his watercolors when he painted his new Cubist villa to resemble a deepwater electric eel. The bold blue entranced and enraptured many a visitor to Marrakech. One of its most well-known devotees was the designer Yves Saint Laurent, who purchased the Majorelle property in 1980. The signature vibrant blue began to make bold, graphic appearances in YSL designs – a potentially expensive move, as Majorelle patented the color before he died. A few manufacturers have developed a close-to-perfect alternative for those hankering to paint their patio, or you can buy your own tiny can of real Majorelle blue in the Jardin Majorelle gift shop. Be warned: It likely won’t meet the liquid restrictions for your carry-on.

That bubblegum blaze from your corner Instagram bait pop-up experience actually got its start in a naval correctional facility in rainy Seattle.

Mountbatten Pink
Mountbatten pink made its dusky rose debut during World War II, when Lord Louis Mountbatten premiered the paint job on the hulls of the Royal British Navy. Perhaps hoping to make a splash with the same color camouflage philosophy that had launched the Dazzle ships of WWI, Mountbatten believed that the pink could make his Navy disappear at the hours of dawn and dusk. He may have been right. But the blush was hardly a needle in a haystack at midday. The invisible sub program may have been scrapped but God help me, I don’t think I can unsee it.

Veronese Green
Paolo Veronese moved to Venice in the early 1550s. As one of the greatest painters of the Renaissance, he might have sewn up a legacy as Venice’s greatest prodigy if that city, with its filmy light and vibrant colors, hadn’t attracted so many creatives warring for supremacy. Veronese created a family enterprise, a studio workshop assisted by his brother and sons, which produced portraits of Venice’s opulent feasts and ceremonies masquerading as biblical storylines. Since Veronese Green and its sibling emerald tones are copper-based, many of his colors have faded to brown, cloaking the original hues in mystery. But if you stop by his former home in Venice, you might notice that the current downstairs tenants honor the building’s former inhabitant with an awning in his namesake green.

Baker-Miller Pink
That bubblegum blaze from your corner Instagram bait pop-up experience actually got its start in a naval correctional facility in rainy Seattle. After catching wind of a psychology study that claimed the color could weaken anyone who looked at it, two prison officials, Gene Baker and Ron Miller, painted one of the cells the color of Kendall Jenner’s bedroom to watch its effect on the incarcerated. The results have been…irreplicable in scientific studies. But that didn’t stop tales of the enervating power of pink from spreading. Soon, it graced the walls of psychiatrists’ offices, dentists’ waiting rooms, and overnight cells for the intoxicated. So next time you snap a selfie against the pink backdrop of your local Museum of Marshmallows, think of Baker and Miller. Are you putting yourself in a pop-up prison of your own making?

But karma’s a you-know-what, and they accidentally trademarked the wrong color.

Payne’s Gray
William Payne hit upon the perfect meta color for himself. The drawing master innovated by splitting paintbrush hairs to create foliage, blended his paintings with bread, and created this neutral tint that some even grayer member of his circle found ahead of the curve. Many of his landscapes were, perhaps unsurprisingly, of slate quarries. In the damning-by-faint-praise words of a 1922 biography: “That Payne was a great artist can hardly be pretended…In the treatment of sunlight he was perhaps rather more successful than most of the artists with whom he had at first to compete.” To be fair to his legacy and memory, that same biography did refer to Payne gray as “useful.” As a great creative once said, some are born gray, and some achieve grayness.

Alice Blue
Like a bolt out of the…well you know, when the 17-year-old Alice Roosevelt swept into her dad Teddy Roosevelt’s White House, she created the modern paparazzi. From her pants and her Dorothy Parker–esque one-liners (“If you can’t say something good about someone…sit right here by me”) to the snake she toted around in her purse, press coverage of the first daughter was a hot topic for sassy women of all ages. And also for men of all ages who like to criticize sassy women of all ages. Whether the icy-cold-shoulder blue originated with Roosevelt’s signature wardrobe or her eye color, it quickly became a celebrity brand and a favorite for women’s dresses. In 2001, Alice Blue was trademarked by a U.K. company trying to ruin everyone’s fun. But karma’s a you-know-what, and they accidentally trademarked the wrong color.

from 99U99U

Bullet Points, Visuals, and OXO Peelers: Three Experts Advocate for Inclusive Design

Bullet Points, Visuals, and OXO Peelers: Three Experts Advocate for Inclusive Design

Are you designing inclusively? You might be and not even know it. White space, bullet points, plain English—all these elements make your work accessible to whole demographics of potential users. But you might also have blind spots that unwittingly exclude whole audiences.

On World Interaction Design Day, IxDA and Adobe hosted more than 90 events around the world in 37 countries to continue the conversation on how designers can bake inclusive design into their practice from the beginning,

At the event 99U attended in New York City, designer Marie van Driessche, Smart Design technology director, John Anderson, and author Liz Fosslien shared the following ideas on how to use design to make products, teams, and information accessible to everyone.

Good design for the extremes means good design for the masses.

Often designers are asked to create for a user persona; a specified, highly-targeted audience. Smart Design technology director, John Anderson, suggests casting a wider net: think of the range of your potential audience and design for them. On one side there are the early adopters who preorder new tech and will happily set up a trial account. On the other end of the spectrum are the users who will be the last to try out new technology because of lack of access, or because they’ve been overlooked in the design process.

Everyone takes in information in different ways. Make sure your product or website includes multiple options for how to engage.

According to Anderson, by designing for both those extremes, you’ll create a product that also captures the entire spectrum in between—the general mass of users. To illustrate his point, Anderson referenced Smart’s storied OXO peeler, initiated to be comfortable and accessible to those with arthritis, but designed with the high-performance needs of professional chefs in mind. The result? An award-winning, iconic design that is a staple of household kitchens.

Designer Marie van Driessche; World Interaction Design Day; Photo by Joe Anastasio.

Designer Marie van Driessche presenting on World Interaction Design Day in New York City. Photo by Joe Anastasio.

Your copy should be accessible.

There are basic tenants of good writing—make a clear point, one point per paragraph, and avoid jargon. But there are equally codified tenants of writing for accessibility. Designer Marie van Driessche advocates for:

  • Short sentences
  • Abundant white space
  • Visuals, diagrams, and images
  • A glossary of specialized vocabulary
  • Bulleted lists

Van Driessche notes that English is a second language—after signing—for many deaf people. So written wordplay like puns and synonyms can be hard to follow. Plus, there’s a larger audience that can benefit: the 50 percent of U.S. adults who are not able to read at an eighth grade level.

Provide choice.

The community of users who need accessible design is incredibly diverse. Just within the Deaf community, van Driessche says that there is a massive range of capabilities. Some are born deaf, while some may only be experiencing hearing loss temporarily. Others are fluent in many languages, including sign and written languages.

Everyone takes in information in different ways. The solution? Make sure your product or website includes multiple options for how to engage. For instance, when posting a video, include transcripts, video captions, and additional video of a person signing. That way, users can select the option that’s best for them.

Marie van Driessche; Smart Design technology director, John Anderson; author Liz Fosslien; World Interaction Design Day. Photo by Joe Anastasio.

From left to right, Marie van Driessche, Smart Design technology director, John Anderson, and author Liz Fosslien speak on World Interaction Design Day in New York City. Photo by Joe Anastasio.

An inclusive workspace requires constant vigilance.

Liz Fosslien, author of No Hard Feelings: Emotions at Work (and How They Help Us Succeed) maps out guidelines for creating inclusive environments at work. One of the biggest problems she sees? People hired to bring diverse experiences feel—ironically—that they have to blend in to succeed. “Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice. And belonging is having that voice be heard,” says Fosslien. Only with belonging is diversity realized.

Inclusive design is dynamic, never static.

Just as each human capabilities change over time—as they learn sign language, or lose mobility in their fingers—so too must accessible design evolve with them. Even if you come up with the perfect product for one person, that person’s condition will change. Design must exist in dimensions and must take time into account. Van Driessche advocates for thinking of design processes in an ongoing alphabetical A-Z loop, where you reach the end and then start over and start iterating again. That way designers will engage with their products, not just across finish lines, but across time as well.


from 99U99U

How Global Design Studio UENO Maintains Its Creative Soul While Growing Rapidly

How Global Design Studio UENO Maintains Its Creative Soul While Growing Rapidly

UENO founder and Iceland native Haraldur Thorleifsson had a strong reason to move to San Francisco three years ago—80 percent of his company’s business was coming from the Bay Area. “There was no second option,” says Thorleifsson. “We were actually losing work because we weren’t there.”

Four years into its life, UENO now has agency offices in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Iceland and its counts Google, Uber, and Slack among its clients. He recently spoke with 99U about how UENO maintains its creative soul while growing rapidly, why the agency speaks its mind on social and cultural issues, and and why the company promotes employees based on how they collaborate.


You’ve grown exponentially since moving to San Francisco? To what do you credit the rapid growth?

We’ve invested a lot internally, both in our culture and in our branding. That has resulted in people staying for a long time, and us being able to hire the right people, which ultimately leads to good work. Then people start to recognize when there is consistency in good work. Getting the first few big clients is the tough part. The big clients want to work with people who work with big clients! But once you have a few of those and can prove to people you can work with a company that has all the strengths and weaknesses of a big client and still produce good work, they can see your potential.

Let’s talk about “good work.” What, in your opinion, is needed to create it beyond good design and development?

Relationships. It’s about knowing who to talk to and having the right foundation to have the conversations that matter. The relationship really starts before a client even talks to us, and it starts with our brand. When they talk to us, they need that same experience to carry through. There are a lot of people who can produce nice things, but you don’t really get the impression through the work that there is any kind of enjoyment in it. If the experience is good, the work is going to be better.

UENO; Cowboy bikes

UENO’s work for the electric bike company Cowboy.

What is the hardest part about building a quality team?

We look for people that are interested in becoming members of a team and understand that it’s the team that does the work and not the individual. For the first couple of years, the biggest critique we had from our internal team was that we felt just like a bunch of freelancers working together. So we’ve put a lot of time into course correction.

We used to have labels for our people, such as creative director, and I removed those because I thought it was limiting.

We’ve also done our best to promote people who think collaboration is important. We’ve put structures in place internally that value collaboration as a function of the company. It’s behind how we set up teams, who leads the team, who gets promoted, and what kind of feedback we give people who are not able yet to work in those ways.

Ueno, as a company, is outspoken about social issues. Has this hurt business at all?

I don’t know if I would know if it was negative. But I also don’t really care. I don’t want to work with people who are fine with kids being detained, for example. In the beginning I didn’t do this. The reason I started doing it through the business was because I was thinking about the fact that I could have a bigger impact and a bigger voice as a company. There are social things that matter a lot more than money. I have no idea if it is good or bad for our business, 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. There are a lot worse reasons for losing a company. We have nearly 25 different nationalities throughout our 65 employees. There are people among us who are actually personally impacted by Trump’s policies and hurt by the casual racism that is happening. So it all comes back to the impact of our voice. Going beyond that, we have raised money for good causes. We donated about $20,000 to the migrant children support groups.

UENO; ESPN Body issue

UENO’s digital design work on the ESPN’s 2017 Body Issue won a D&D award in the website category.

Has being in a wheelchair had any impact, either positive or negative, on your journey as a designer or as an entrepreneur?

Probably. I have a hard time naming it though because I don’t know what the alternative would have been. I go all in on whatever I am doing. When I work, I am a workaholic. Partly that’s because I have fewer options than a lot of other people. So when I find something I can do and that I am good at, I will just do that.

UENO founder Haraldur Thorleifsson

Part of team UENO with Thorleifsson at the center.

You recently shared on social media that you have been on antidepressants for 13 years, while you have also publicly spoken about having been an alcoholic. Why did you choose to share that information so broadly?

The public consciousness was becoming focused on mental health at that time. Anthony Bourdain had just committed suicide and those things are triggers. It’s like a suicide wave typically happens after a public suicide. I thought it would be good as a flag to anyone who was afraid to try medication for whatever reason, because it actually worked for me. It’s good for people to know there are people going through the same thing, and that there is a solution.

UENO Haraldur Thorleifsson

Figurines of members of the UENO team.

Ueno creates a great deal of content, especially for new designers. Why spend so much effort giving advice?

Historically, we have built a lot of our success on word-of-mouth through platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Most of the people active on those tend to be on the younger side and they don’t really have access to good, unfiltered content from people who have been in their shoes. The content they consume is usually driven by some kind of a product or financial goal.

If you aren’t able to do strategy, you aren’t able to do any good design. If you’re not able to do brand design in some way, then there’s no way you can be a great product designer.

If you are like me and didn’t study design, this content is hugely beneficial but, once again, it’s not all altruistic. A lot of the emails we get for new business are because somebody asked the design staff, “Who should we work with?” A lot of agencies have access to big networks, and that’s how they get their work. We’ve never been that way because we don’t have those connections. Also, we do the personal stories because it’s important that people understand that these are real people making these things. A lot of brands are faceless…not human.

What’s the best thing someone can do to advance their career?

I have a hard time with the word “best.” But some good advice is that if you want to be good at something you are going to have to be bad at it for a few years but still keep doing it. One of the words I dislike the most is the word “talent” as it implies that it’s something you are born with, not something you have to work for. It excludes people who, for whatever reason, aren’t as good as someone else right out of the gate, when in fact hard work will overcome anything. And I’m talking about decades here. I think everyone is very impatient, and that’s healthy because they want to progress fast and get good fast.

But I try to talk about this when I can. It’s important to understand that this is a complicated industry and we are working on complicated projects, and it’s going to take people a long time to get good at what they do. We used to have labels for our people, such as creative director, and I removed those because I thought it was limiting. I think it’s important that people have responsibilities but that they are not specific to a particular discipline. So we don’t have a “brand designer” or a “marketing designer”  and so on.

If you aren’t able to do strategy, you aren’t able to do any good design. If you’re not able to do brand design in some way, then there’s no way you can be a great product designer. We work mostly with people who are really good at what they do and so they understand the difference between O.K. and great.


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From Designer to Founder: Two Entrepreneurs Share Lessons From Building their Businesses

From Designer to Founder: Two Entrepreneurs Share Lessons From Building their Businesses

From Airbnb to Pinterest, more and more designers are launching and leading companies, and many are doing it without traditional business experience or backgrounds. Instead, they’re learning how to build a business while building their businesses. Two such entrepreneurs are Design Army co-founder Pum Lefebure and Jesse Genet, the CEO of product packaging company Lumi, who will share their experiences during an October 15 Adobe MAX session hosted by 99U.

Ahead of the panel, we’re reflecting on the lessons Lefebure and Genet have shared with us about becoming savvier entrepreneurs.

Don’t quit your day job too soon.

Lefebure started Design Army with her husband Jake at their kitchen table with Lefebure also working her full-time job, so they could maintain their health insurance. Both regularly stayed up until 3 a.m. to get Design Army off the ground. They anticipated it would be two years before Design Army took off enough for Lefebure to leave her day job. It took four months. The takeaway? Even if your company takes off at the rocket speed that Design Army did, that still means you’d have four months without a consistent income and the related benefits. Get your business up and running before making the jump to it full-time.

Pum Lefebure; Design Army; At Yolk

Lefebure and her fellow creators are photographed at Design Army’s new creative space, At Yolk, in greater Washington D.C. Image courtesy of Design Army.

Your first idea might not be your actual business idea.

In 2009, Genet met her co-founder Stephan Ango and they launched Inkodye, a fabric dye they invented that develops its color in the sun. Through selling their product via e-commerce, they soon realized how difficult it was for start-ups to find high quality product packaging in the smaller sizes they needed. “That planted the seed to launch Lumi,” says Genet.

Lumi CEO Jesse Genet

Genet photographed in front of her Airstream trailer where she lives just steps from the Lumi office in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Lumi.

“Business” isn’t a scary word.

“I think that designers often put business in this separate category,” says Genet. “There is creativity, and then somewhere off in the distance there is business. I never viewed it that way. My mindset is that business is this tool for getting my work out in the world. For getting people to use it, see it, and pay for it. If you think of business as a tool for your creative effort, it becomes less intimidating. It leads to a healthier relationship that you have with the business side, as opposed to something you dread. I would encourage people to start there, your mindset.”

Don’t just create revenue opportunities; create reoccurring revenue opportunities.

How does Design Army stand out against world competition to win contracts with clients like The Ritz-Carlton, Bloomingdale’s, JW Marriott, and Pepsi? Lefebure says it’s the mix of strategy and execution that her firm brings to their design packages. Once, a real estate developer came to her to rebrand an emerging D.C. neighborhood and asked Lefebure to create a full page ad to put in the local magazine, The Washingtonian.” To which she replied, “I think you can make a better use of time creating your own Washingtonian.”

Get a client hooked on the benefits of producing good content.

Lefebure pitched the developer a recurring print periodical called D/CITY. The publication features mom and pop shops, lists community events, and surfaces local creatives for sartorial spreads. The back page? An ad for the developer’s condos. And Lefebure’s team runs the editorial and social media operations. D/CITY illustrates one Lefebure’s business strategies: get a client hooked on the benefits of producing good content.

Pum Lefebure Design Army; Hong Kong Ballet

Design Army provided design and art direction to the Hong Kong Ballet. Image courtesy of Design Army.

Ask for the order.

“I have a pet peeve when I watch a Kickstater video, and the person tells me how incredible everything they’re doing is, but at no time in the video do they say, ‘Here’s why I need this money, and I hope you contribute,’” says Genet. “Just endlessly talking about why your heart is in this is important, but it’s only half of it. If you spend 100% of you time talking about that, you will find yourself having great conversations and no one will give you money.”

Choose your clients wisely.

When you’re launching your business, you might need to take on anyone who wants to give you money; that’s understandable. But as you grow, the types of clients you take on can have a direct impact on the work you produce, so Design Army avoids ones who are risk-averse. Cosmetic fixes don’t interest Design Army. They takes aim at the underlying psychology of their clients’ problems.

My theory is you cannot do epic stuff with basic people.

If a client came to Lefebure to redecorate a bedroom, Lefebure says to illustrate her approach, Design Army would not repaint the colors in the room. “I’m going to knock down the whole wall,” she says. “We are about architecture. We are not a painter.” “My theory is you cannot do epic stuff with basic people,” says Lefebure. “You are only as good as your client allows.”

Lumi and Cotton Bureau

Lumi’s client list includes Cotton Bureau. Image courtesy of Lumi.

Spot “hidden in plain sight” entrepreneurial openings.

“A powerful question to ask yourself when you’re about to start a business is ‘What do other people find unsexy?’” says Genet. “Usually, people starting businesses, and entrepreneurs in general, are very interested in looking cool and being cool people. There are not a lot of entrepreneurs gravitating towards packing tape and boxes. What doesn’t sound cool at first blush is a good way to uncover opportunities.”

Diversify your investments.

Lefebure has a thriving business in Design Army, but she has also invested beyond it. She and Jake now own four Washington D.C.-area properties, including the Design Army office and their new 10,000 square-foot studio “At Yolk” a 10-minute drive from downtown. As Washington D.C.-area real estate prices rise, this allows them to develop stable, long-term passive income.

Catch Pum and Jesse’s session on building their businesses at Adobe MAX on October 15 at 5:15 p.m.

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The 3 Psychological Reasons We Cling to Conventional Wisdom (and How to Break Free)

The 3 Psychological Reasons We Cling to Conventional Wisdom (and How to Break Free)

“You need to sit still up there.”

I panicked. It was years ago, and for 30 straight minutes, I’d been listening to a veteran public speaker tear apart a video of my latest performance on stage. As a newer speaker on the circuit, I’d asked him what best practices he could share with me. His biggest and most poignant yet was the idea of “blocking,” or intentional movement.

“Try to establish one side of the stage as the place where bad stuff happens in your stories, and the other side where good stuff happens. Then walk there, stop, and make your point. You need to sit still more.”

Uh oh. Understand: I’m Italian-American. I’m also kinda, let’s just say, “enthusiastic.” (That’s how you’d describe a squirrel after six espressos, right?) “Standing still” ain’t exactly my thing. It may not even be physically possible. I speak so much with my hands that if they stopped moving, I think I’d just stop talking. But I thought, okay, that’s the best practice, and so that’s what I need to do to succeed. As a result, I started doing something awkward and terrible to try my hardest to sit still: I’d stick my hand in my pocket in an effort to stop the movement. It looked sloppy, as my true personality warred against my desire to fit myself into the tried-and-true convention.

Instead of using my own energy to my advantage, I tried to fit someone else’s mold for what “success” looks like, even though I’m so clearly not him.

Today, I kick myself just thinking back to those moments on stage. Why did I do that? This guy was a TED speaker, and a steady kind of personality. Instead of using my own energy to my advantage, I tried to fit someone else’s mold for what “success” looks like, even though I’m so clearly not him. Why?

I had Pike Syndrome.

Pike Syndrome is just one of three different psychological barriers I uncovered researching for my new book, Break the Wheel. These barriers prevent us from contextualizing a best practice or new idea to make sense given the specific details of each new situation we encounter. In other words, when we fall victim to any of the three, we prioritize conventional thinking instead of thinking for ourselves. Rather than act like investigators who look for evidence to make the right decisions for a given case, we act like, or seek out, experts, preferring absolutes in some theoretical sense. We want to be right rather than try to get it right. Even better if you can quickly search or tap your way to finding “the” answer from an expert.

What if we acted like investigators instead? What if we stopped obsessing over the “right” answers of everyone else and asked ourselves the right questions? We might overcome each of these psychological barriers.

1. Pike Syndrome

Pike Syndrome is a feeling of powerlessness caused by repeated negative events. Maybe you’re a designer whose boss keeps shooting down ideas, or a marketer frustrated by surprise algorithm changes on a social network, or a podcaster whose dream guests just keep ignoring your outreach. Or maybe you’re a young public speaker continually told to “just sit still up there” by someone you admire. Whatever the case, when we suffer from Pike Syndrome, we feel powerless. There are so many “right” answers out there, and so much wisdom bottled up in the minds of experts, that we assume we can’t possibly make any better decisions when left to our own devices.

As I learned as a speaker, just because something is common, doesn’t make it the best approach for you.

So why “pike” syndrome? Imagine a pike swimming around an aquarium. He’s a lithe, ruthless hunter. If you drop some minnows into that tank, the pike will immediately snap them up. However, if you lower those minnows into the water surrounded by some glass, the pike can’t see the glass, and so he just starts smashing up against it in a hopeless pursuit of his prey. He’ll do this for hours until he finally decides that minnows aren’t prey.

Then, a funny thing happens: You can remove the glass, set the minnows free, and they can swim all around the tank undisturbed by the pike. Tasty little morsels are swimming right in front of his nose, but this perpetually pissed off predator doesn’t move so much as an inch.

This explains a concept called “learned helplessness,” and I think we all suffer from a degree of learned helplessness in our careers. From the moment we’re taught in school that there’s a “right” and “wrong” answer, we treat every task in our work like we have to find the “right” answers, even the most complicated and creative things we do. Making matters worse, in the era of Advice Overload, everybody on the internet seems to have the “right” answer for us, no matter what we’re doing.

What could we possibly offer or do to find our own path or make our own decisions? And so, there we go again, removing our self-awareness and situational awareness to instead hunt for our answers “out there.” We look for whatever works in general or on average, or, as the business world likes to call them, “best practices.” However, tasty little morsels of detail swim right in front of us everyday, if only we’d use that information to inform our decisions.

As I learned as a speaker, just because something is common, doesn’t make it the best approach for you. (For what it’s worth, I do incorporate blocking techniques into my speeches today, but they’re fast-paced, organic, and not restricted to two points where I stop and sit still. As with anything, there is no “right way” to deliver a great speech.)

Would it matter if that path had no precedent or best practice or case study to say it’s the “right” path, if it’s the right path for your customers?

How do we combat this feeling of helplessness? We let the customer be the guide. In the face of endless advice of what we should or shouldn’t do, the only thing that matters is we do what works for us and for those we serve with our work. What if we found better, more fundamental insights about our customers? What if little tests that trigger big, emotional responses from them led us down a different path? Would it matter if that path had no precedent or best practice or case study to say it’s the “right” path, if it’s the right path for your customers?

Ask yourself: Are you spending more time talking to customers, or reading about best practices? What if the customer was the guide?

2. The Foraging Choice

The foraging choice is the decision between exploiting your current position and exploring other possibilities. In a 2018 study from New York University, researchers stated, “Many decisions that humans make resemble foraging problems in which a currently available, known option must be weighed against an unknown, alternative option.” As a result, they tested the effects of chronic and acute stress on our decision-making behaviors. Sure enough, when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to cling to our current position, i.e., exploit what we’re doing now. This explains why, when we find something we know or assume will work in the business world, we beat the everloving crap out of it.

Today’s “exploited” tactics that annoy many of us include people posting walk-and-talk career lesson videos, so often void of any actual lessons, and tag-spam, wherein a social media user @-mentions tons of people, whose passive likes mimic engagement, which then flags the algorithm to promote the post higher in the feed. Yes, there are many hucksters out there, but for those well-meaning people who still shrug and use spammy tactics, perhaps they’re experiencing chronic and acute stress and thus start exploiting. It may not be right, but it is, apparently, science.

So what happens when we want to do something better? What if we’re sick of redundant, tired approaches or commodity junk? What might cause us and, more importantly, those around us to go exploring? According to the New York University study, it all starts by understanding your environment first.

Because we can know our existing position so easily, it can be tempting in times of stress to continue to cling to it and explore it.

“The average reward rate of the environment serves as the optimal leaving threshold because it effectively sets the opportunity cost of time spent exploiting the current option. When the instantaneous reward rate of the currently depleting option falls below this level, an animal’s time would be better spent during something else.”

You just got Scienced, I know, so let me translate a bit. Basically, we need to spend more time understanding our context as a precursor to the foraging choice. Because we can know our existing position so easily, it can be tempting in times of stress to continue to cling to it and explore it. However, if we knew what was happening in the real world around us, we could more accurately and confidently make the decision to try something else.

Here’s an easy example: In a world where everyone obsesses over sending short round-ups as newsletters, you realize that something about your audience’s work or sensibilities plus your own skills make it more logical to write long-form stories each week instead. Another example: If you’re not sure whether to leave your job, and you can understand the opportunities available in the broader job market (as one example of your “context”), then that can help you leave your existing position with more confidence.

Aspirations combine two powerful things: an intent for the future and a hunger you have today.

When we’re nervous because of that foraging choice, we don’t take the time to understand our environment. We revert back to the current position. But we can combat that by more clearly articulating our own aspirations. Aspirations combine two powerful things: an intent for the future and a hunger you have today. Saying, “Let’s show the world how fun our team really is” makes for a better anchor than, “Let’s grow our followers 50%.” If you create an aspirational anchor, you’ll look at the current position you’re exploiting and realize, “Uh oh. Gotta go! Let’s explore…”

3. Cultural Fluency

Cultural fluency is your behavior when the world unfolds according to the expected norm. We hear all the time about mindfulness today, right? This is the opposite. It’s mindlessness. The psychologist Jim Mourey from Chicago explains this well: “When there’s a cultural fit, people don’t really think. But when there’s a disconnect, for automatic behaviors, we do them less. We hesitate a bit.”

Mourey studied this idea of cultural fluency, and that idea of the “disconnect” or cultural disfluency, by experimenting on his family at a Fourth of July picnic. (Yanno: Picnic stuff!) He broke the group into two and gave one half white plates and one half festive plates. Then he weighed how much food each group took at the buffet. The group with festive plates took significantly more, because it’s culturally fluent to gorge yourself on the Fourth!

Later that year, on Labor Day, he again ran the experiment at another family gathering because, yanno, picnic stuff! Half the group got white plates and the other half got Halloween plates. The group with the very out-of-place ghosts and pumpkins took less food.

“Taken together, we get at least initial support for this idea that, when there’s a cultural fit, when things are as they should be, people don’t really think,” Mourey told me. “They tend to go with the flow. But when there’s a disconnect, suddenly things are strange. They’re not so strange that consciously we think, ‘Oh, I should take less food.’ It’s just that, for automatic behaviors, we do them less. We hesitate a bit.”

I like to ask, “How did that make you feel?” It’s open-ended. It prompts reflection and investigation on their part.

If we can get out of our comfort zones at work, even in slight ways like redesigning the office or taking a new route into work tomorrow morning, we become more mindful. We can even do this on-demand: Simply ask “Why?” or other similarly open-ended questions more often. (When I interview executives for my podcast, I like to ask, “How did that make you feel?” It’s open-ended. It prompts reflection and investigation on their part. It disrupts mindless, PR-approved answers.)

In our work, we simply can’t afford to make decisions when we feel helpless, nervous, or mindless, at least not if we hope to push beyond conventional thinking to be more creative. These three psychological barriers explain our tendency to cling to the general wisdom and favor absolutes, rather than act as we should: like investigators. The change is simple to read but hard to execute: To make better decisions, we need to ask better questions. Because remember: Finding best practices isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for you is.

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