I went to 99U and all I got were these amazing gauchos (See above. Not pictured: two additional pairs. Thanks, Uniqlo!)

OK, I got some conference wisdom, too. But I’d be lying if I said it was the most amazing conference I’d ever attended (it wasn’t). But while some of the presenters were ho-hum, the attendees were the most polite, inclusive, and inspiring I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending a conference with. What 99U lacked in creative inspiration, it made up for with community and hospitality.

As for the conference content: It often failed to dazzle me. And as a visual person, I really like presentations to be a little bit dazzling. Seeing a beautifully composed deck inspires me, motivates me, and makes me a little (harmlessly) jealous.

But, the 99U experience this year was less about pizazz and more about process. Phrases like “self care,” “design thinking,” “f#ck design thinking,” and “iterate” abounded (often earning a pretty serious eye roll from my general direction).

But thankfully, there was some insight buried beneath all those buzzwords. And instead of going back to my room and not talking to anyone (as I usually do when conferencing solo) I was able to discuss how that insight could be put into practice with actual people—really nice and thoughtful people.

After a lot of conversations with folks from places like Toronto, Brazil, and Topeka, I determined that my single-biggest takeaway from 99U was the importance of PLAY. In short, we don’t incorporate enough of it into our processes. Or at least I don’t.

We creatives are delicate folks. In the agency family, we’re often the needy and sometimes petulant children. We need time and space to make ideas happen. We need a certain environment. Lights off. Lights on. Music playing. No music playing. Endless supplies of Sharpie markers. Moleskines for miles.

Our attitudes (and tendency to push back) are feared by many an account executive. We ask for more time. We don’t always get it. Our process gets truncated. Our process gets wiped completely away. We feel misunderstood. Our design souls get moderately crushed. We cry in our wine glasses and go back to do it all again the next day.

And here’s what I think happens: The process becomes such a “process” that play gets totally lost. We take ourselves—and the process—too seriously. Hitting deliverables and coming in under budget become the only goals that matter. And, as automation continues to advance and timelines get shorter, play is relegated to the sidelines.

This all leads me to one of the most memorable quotes from the conference from James Victore:

“The things that made you weird as a kid make you GREAT today.”

What made me weird as a kid? My imagination. My personality. That football jersey, presumably purchased at a flea market or the local Kmart, that I wore everyday until my mom sold it in a garage sale and broke my 9-year-old heart.

Yes, I use my imagination for work on a daily basis. But it’s a bastardized, grown-up version of it’s youthful counterpart. It’s too often not even close to the version of itself that made me weird as a kid. It’s compromised and beaten down by time and scope and budgets and grown-up stuff.

So here’s the question I’m asking myself now: Can I put the play back into process and still hit deliverables, be profitable, and have time to work on the next project?

I sure as hell hope so. I mean, look at those gauchos. I’m at least dressing for the occasion.


Other 99U wisdom nuggets:

99U Conference Photo 02

Left: The Design Gym’s Ed Cha talks Design Sprints. Right: Debbie Millman…she’s freaking Debbie Millman!

Speaker: Liz Jackson, Founder, Inclusive Fashion & Design Collective
Nugget: You can’t have truly good design without both form and function working harmoniously together. (Liz spoke specifically about designing for the disabled. She walked on stage with the most magnificent purple cane and challenged us all to think deeper about how we design for people with disabilities. Disability is nothing more than a brand,” she said. “The world’s ugliest brand.”


Speaker: Scott Belskey, Founder, Behance
Nugget: Making and staying simple is f*#king complicated, but f*#king necessary. Enough said.

Breakout Session: “Why Design Sprints Will Change the Way You Work”The Design Gym
Nugget: This was one of my Studio Sessions, which is similar to a workshop. We were teamed up with other attendees to do our own mini-design sprints. Although I’m still wrapping my head around the details (currently reading this), I’m curious how implementing design sprint could help slow down and improve the initial part of my process.

Speaker: Debbie Millman, Host, “Design Matters”
Nugget: “Busy is a decision. You don’t find the time to do things—you make the time to do things.”

Speaker: Steve Selzer, Experience Design Manager, Airbnb
Nugget: Design for friction. Design for interaction. So many objects are being designed to take out any direct communication, but what if we design for quality human interactions? How does that enhance our experience and our day-to-day lives? Because, let’s be honest, we don’t want to end up like this:

Design for Friction