Weeks before the June 7 opening of the #99Uconf, $1000 tickets were being scalped on Twitter. People sounded desperate to attend — at any price.
I spent three packed days and evenings — making my way between the kickoff party at The Vine event space to the main conference site, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, to the Behance Popup Gallery at Red Bull Arts, to the closing party at MoMA — learning why.
Even as a veteran design conference–goer and –speaker (various HOW and AIGA conferences, Design Thinkers, Icograda), this conference introduced me to a whole new cast of characters. And a whole new way of thinking. Almost everyone I met was not from the USA. More than a thousand young designers had come to New York from dozens of countries around the world. The oldest person I spoke with was 38. Almost all spoke unaccented, American English. Some founded or worked at digital agencies, but many worked in-house at companies including Hulu, eBay, AirBNB and Uber. None were print or identity designers. Their companies invested in them because this conference is that important.
It was a whole new cast of characters because it’s a brave new design world. (If you’re still hoping that you’ll find the perfect client who’s eager to spend $50,000 on a beautifully designed/ photographed/ printed brochure, dream on.) My takeaway: Most clients who hire designers now — either in-house or as consultants — are interested in one thing: UX, user experience. The co-sponsors of the conference, Adobe and its Behance online portfolio site, were there to introduce attendees to the brightest, most influential thinkers, especially in UX design, and to subtly show that Behance is the right platform for international exposure.
Alice Tully Hall itself was transformed, and even the posters that usually advertise Mostly Mozart and the Metropolitan Opera were transformed — into examples of digital art featuring the number 9, designed by Behance brand director Mark Brooks.
Here are a few of the main stage speakers. (You can see all of them here.)
Disability advocate Liz Jackson woke up the audience and shattered conventional thinking about how to depict and design for people with disabilities.
Raconteur, humorist and author Mike Perry entertained attendees with drawings that demonstrated how he got hundreds people to “get naked in public.” He advised, “It’s so easy. Just go for it” (which could be applied to lots of things in life).
Entrepreneur, investor, author and Behance founder Scott Belsky chronicled the ups and downs of product design. “It’s all about getting liked,” he reminded the audience. “Look good, and quickly. It’s as much about seeing who saw your content and getting your content liked.”
Later, he explained the meaning of the conference name, 99U: “It’s from the quote from Thomas Edison,” he told me. “‘Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.’ We’re about helping people learn the best ways to expend that perspiration.” As a contributing editor of PRINT, I was fortunate to have access to the speakers, but I found myself focusing on the attendees. I asked some of them to send me selfies with a summary of their main takeaway from 99U. Here goes, in alphabetical order:
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Digital Media Marketing Manager, Adobe Systems Europe Ltd., London
“This isn’t exactly a selfie. I shot the photo. We brought a group of 11— four staff and seven top-performing students pictured here — from all across Europe. The students are (standing l–r): Kerstin Hampusson, Sweden; Nelson Yanowitz, France; Chris Chatzisavvas, U.K.; Jonas Leupe, Belgium; Frank Lin, Germany; Beatriz Ibeas-Martinez, Spain. Kneeling: Christian Lunde, Sweden. This conference was a fantastic experience for all of us, and the things we learned were invaluable. From pairing creativity with data to the need for critiques during the design process, we’ll be getting started with our newfound knowledge straightaway.
“It was my first time to New York and nearly all of the students’ first time too. Every one of us fell in love with the city: the buzz, the style. The students never had their cameras down. They were constantly finding great shots and moments of inspiration. I personally would love to live in New York; maybe Adobe’s NY office needs a new marketer ;).”
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Filmmaker, documentary photographer, Dominican Republic
Recent Pratt Institute graduate in film, now living in the Bronx
“The biggest takeaway for me from 99U is that we creative individuals need to master our own craft and intentionally [choose] our clients. We need to prepare ourselves for the best and expect the worst. If a project does not work out as planned, we can take a break, a moment to rethink, and rebuild accordingly to feedback. It is never too late to start creating what you love.”
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Creative Director, BlueCross Blue Shield, Chattanooga, Tennessee
“In the age of ‘human-centered design,’ speaker Liz Jackson brought new light to the subject of how we should look at people with disabilities. It should really be called ‘disability-centered design.’ If products, including digital products and the web, are not designed with the disabled in mind, then whom are we designing for? Liz’s talk opened a new perspective that I hope to bring to BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. We are a healthcare company, and we’ve always shown images of healthy, happy people. Why not people in wheelchairs, with walker, casts or canes? As head of design, I hope to bring new insights to the use of photography and thought process within design.”
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Product Designer, UX/UI designer at Zendesk, Copenhagen
“I’m here looking for new ideas, improving methods, not being in the box we are in every single day. This exciting and inspiring conference left me with the warm feeling and a bunch of good ideas that are hopefully here to stay. The list of speakers was one of the main reasons why I decided to use my yearly budget and come to New York. To hear how Ian Spalter thinks, to see Debbie Millman in the flesh, and to be inspired by Mike Perry was something I could not miss. But there were also a few very pleasing surprises.”
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“We are an agency/studio/team that runs design sprints, which are an extremely effective, structured four-day process of coming up with solutions for problems of all kinds of companies. It doesn’t matter if it’s an app, a website, a physical product or a virtual-reality thing. I wore a crown throughout the conference because I am The King of Product Design. As such, The King was very delighted meeting so many new people at the 99U and made a lot of friends. The conference taught The King that design is not just about making things pretty, but actually making them useful and making people happy. The King will now consider spending less time being pretty and more on becoming good on the inside. I knew that already, though.”
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Founder & CEO, SkillsCamp, Ontario, Canada
“I do soft skills training with corporations and higher education institutions. We help them build their emotional intelligence. Old-school thinking is about designers being right. The new thinking is about collaboration. I actually wrote a detailed Twitter list of my takeaways, which you can find here.”
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Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Digital Surgeons, Milford, Connecticut
“As someone who speaks at and attends conferences across multiple industries, I must confess my love for 99U. Everything from the venue to the volunteers to the design of the conference has been amazing. I’ve attended the last four years and plan to continue. In our FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) world, we don’t stop and think enough about the impact (or lack thereof) that we [as] designers make on the world. 99U creates that space for me. I find myself walking away inspired, and the only thing I wish I could change was that it didn’t end so quickly.
“As for the tinfoil hat (see photo below of studio session participants making ‘superpower’ headgear using tinfoil during Damon Nelson’s session on rapid prototyping), I think it goes much further than that. As designers and creative technologists it’s easy to get stuck on the ‘tool du jour,’ getting caught up in the tools we use to create, instead of why we are creating in the first place. What I’ve always loved about 99U is it isn’t about using Sketch versus Adobe XD (software or tool thinking), it’s about the way we’re thinking and working differently to achieve better and more meaningful results, faster.
Below, Pete Sena’s sketchbook, which may give a better overall view of the conference than words or photos could do.
And then there was the Behance Popup Gallery event. As just one example of the art shown there, these looping animated illustrations by New York illustrator Minji Moon fascinated the attendees (who were sipping wine and nibbling exotic cheeses, which seemed to be everywhere).
And then there was the goody bag, which contained a Metrocard, eco water bottle, Parsons School of Design eraser, tin of New Museum colored pencils, free MoMA admission … and a folder of illustrations made with Adobe mobile apps. I studied them. Here is where the big story might be for the rest of us, whether we’re fine artists or we design for print or web. Especially with last week’s launch of Apple’s iPad Pro, advertised as “more powerful than most PC laptops,” it looks like we will be able to work anywhere, much more seamlessly and with less shoulder strain.
“What do you know about how the new iPad Pros will work with Adobe software?” I asked an Adobe spokesperson. “Let’s say I use InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop on an MacBook or iMac. Can I work on the same files my iPad. Or is the mobile software for sketching only and then exporting or ‘saving as?“’
The answer: “Creative Cloud subscribers can work on a project in Photoshop CC on their MacBook or iMac, and then open up the project in one of Adobe’s mobile apps: Photoshop Fix, Photoshop Mix, Photoshop Sketch, Illustrator Draw and Capture CC and continue to work on the go without having to export any files. Once their work is saved to their Adobe Creative Cloud, they can access it on their iPad Pro (if they download the mobile apps, of course). On the flip side, you can also start a project in one of those apps, and then using CreativeSync technology, open it up in Photoshop CC to further refine it or use it in other creative projects. The same goes for Illustrator CC with Adobe’s Illustrator Draw, Photoshop Sketch and Capture CC mobile apps.”
Peter Sena concurred: “Adobe is continuing to improve workflows for seamlessly moving between the iPad Pro and computers. It isn’t quite there yet, but it’s certainty getting there.”
Stay tuned for more news about the next “tool” revolution.
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