Lessons from the 99U Conference

Last month Julie and I jetted over to New York for the annual 99U Conference.

Julie and Matthew in New York | Custom D

Most people will know Adobe as the makers of Photoshop, but they also put on a cracker of a conference with a great line up of speakers talking on leadership, creativity and startup inspiration.

There were many nuggets of wisdom shared during the conference, but here are just a few highlights we came away with.

You Don’t Need Permission…

The slide below came from Scott Belsky and was a great reminder that those who go above and beyond what they're required to do will be the game changers. Whether it’s going the extra mile on a design to exceed customers’ expectations, or working after-hours on a side project, this is work that nobody “tells” you to do.


Make Data Memorable

Traditional and generic methods of visualising data through charts and graphs fail to engage and can sometimes even be misleading.

Mona Chalabi from the Guardian uses creative illustrations like those below to tell the story of the data visually. The result is something far more engaging and memorable.

Constraints are Good for Creativity

Constraints force you to focus and come up with creative solutions. Having more time and resources isn’t necessarily better. “Comfort breeds complacency”.

Encourage Risk Taking and Welcome Failure

“Innovation happens at the edge of reason”. New and bold products often come from what seemed like crazy ideas at the time. AirBNB is a great example, where early investors never thought people would allow their homes to be rented to strangers.

Success often comes from many little failures along the way.

Empathy before Passion

The passion for a start-up idea doesn’t necessarily leave enough room for empathy for the customer/user whose problem you are supposed to be solving. If your product needs users to be successful, then put them at the center of your mindset and design process.

Get Ideas from Everyone

Too often the loudest voices overpower others, even though great ideas may come from anyone in your organisation. By creating an environment where anyone can submit ideas, you can get more diverse input.

Do Less and Achieve More

Sometimes in an effort to get stuff done by doing it all yourself, you stunt others’ growth. Others may be quite capable if you just let go and relinquish control.

Delegate to deliver more.

Walk in your Customers’ Shoes

Don’t just research your customers. Really get to know them face-to-face and understand their pain points. When she started working for Lyft, Audrey Liu spent time as a new Lyft driver herself. She learnt more about the fears, needs and expectations of the people she was designing for than a user persona would have ever supplied.

Photo from Adobe.

Today’s Branding is Bottom-Up and Connected

A brand is something you experience and today’s brands have more touch-points than ever. Therefore today's branding now comes from the bottom up as opposed to campaigns that are only pushed out in advertising from the top down.

R/GA explained how modern branding needs to take into consideration digital systems and interactions in order to be truly connected and consistent across touch-points. More on that here.

People want Transformative Experiences

There is a common need that people have to be taken beyond normality and routine, for something that changes their perception and has a lasting effect.

Vince Kadlubek, Founder of Meow Wolf talked about how their art space turned fantasy realm provides this, and the message was clear: the future is wide open for immersive experiences and the opportunities are growing with the likes of AR and VR improving all the time.

Fulfilment > Fun

Tech companies have prioritised “fun workplaces” to the point where perks become more important than purpose.

Getting back to basics: what we really need is a shared passion for the problem we’re all trying to solve as a company. And being onboard, invested and passionate about that is ultimately more fulfilling and rewarding than “Kombucha on tap”, ping pong tables and free massages.


The #99U conference was well worth the trip and we’d highly recommend it. We came away full of motivation and jam packed with ideas. Hopefully we’ll be back in NYC for the event again in the future.





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