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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.

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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.


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 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 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

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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

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“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.”

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When you think about the future, what do you see?

Here at 99U, we believe that creatives hold the ticket to a better tomorrow, especially when they come together and share ideas.

That’s why we asked our global creative community for their take on what’s ahead: what excites them, what scares them, and what they need in order to do their best work. More than 3,600 creatives shared their views with us,* providing an array of valuable, thought-provoking perspectives that form the foundation of this report.

We also tapped key changemakers in design, technology, and business to share their own wisdom. Matt Mullenweg of Automattic, for example, showed us what it takes to run a fully remote company. Dr. Vivienne Ming of Socos Labs enlightened us about the real power of artificial intelligence. Naresh Ramchandani of Pentagram explained the value of not only doing good work, but doing work that supports the greater good.

As we look to the future, it’s our privilege to shine a light on the forces that will shape creative careers in the years to come. We hope the insights here will guide you on your journey.

*A total of 3,641 creatives across the world participated in the Creative Future Survey, conducted online between February 16, 2019 and March 3, 2019. Questions were in multiple-choice and open-answer format.

Don’t fear the future

When we asked creatives to describe their overall attitude toward the future, 34% said they were cautiously optimistic. In total, just over half of respondents said they felt either positive or excited about the future. Only 2% said they were scared.

Graphic by Script & Seal

As creatives, we’re in a sweet spot. “Isn’t cautious optimism always the best-case scenario? It is literally creativity and the design process at its best. I have always appreciated Milton Glaser’s thought that ‘Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one.’ As creatives, we need to be—and we get to be—deliberate and passionate regarding all the ways in which we can shift the world to a more preferred state.” —Matthew Richmond, Director of Experience Design, Adobe Illustration

Working here, there, and everywhere

When asked to imagine where they’ll get their work done in the next 5-10 years, nearly 40% of creatives said anywhere there’s Wi-Fi; another 27% said at home, while 25% said in an office. And even though coworking spots are on the rise, just 11% of creatives see themselves getting most of their work done in one in the future.

How a 100% remote company makes it work. Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic, on the web development company’s fully distributed culture:

  • Who we are: We have 860 employees across 68 countries, all of them remote.
  • Our essential tools: Google Docs for information sharing; Zoom for video conferencing; Slack for real-time chat; WordPress’s P2 theme for group collaboration
  • Why we do it: Access to a global talent pool, a more transparent organization, and exponentially higher employee retention rates.
  • Why others fear it: The obstacles are more psychological: managers are used to ‘seeing’ people around them, ‘appearing’ to work, and they may take pride in managing by walking around. Yet even in a physical office, how does one know someone is doing their job versus just appearing productive? All that matters is output and results. In distributed work you can’t be distracted by variables that naturally influence our perception, but aren’t the actual work.
  • How you can test the waters: As one way to experiment, a company might try to make Tuesday an ‘out of office’ day; it will force everyone at every level to consider what tools and processes they need to improve to allow for a more distributed culture.

There’s no substitute for real human interaction

Despite many organizations continuing to shift to a remote work environment, the creatives we surveyed said that talking in-person will be their preferred means of communication in the future (37%). Email was rated slightly more preferable to Slack and other chat platforms (20% vs. 17%). Text and phone were voted the least preferred (4% each).

Graphic by Script & Seal

The power of presence. “It’s become possible to do quite a lot of work without ever interacting with someone face to face. And yet, we still crave it: for the inspiration, the validation, the rich nuance of how we communicate with not only our words, but the sound of our voice and movement of our bodies. And, frankly, for the camaraderie.” —Bree Groff, Principal, SYPartners

AI is the most alluring emerging technology. Blockchain? Still out of reach

What technology are you most motivated to learn to futureproof or grow your career? 32% of our survey participants said they’re most motivated to learn more about artificial intelligence to futureproof their careers. 3D printing was close behind (25%), followed by augmented reality (23%) and virtual reality (16%). What aren’t creatives eager to dive into? Blockchain (4%).

Graphic by Script & Seal

The case for AI. “If you want to know how AI actually should be thought of: it’s a tool. It’s a paintbrush. It is part of a whole set of tools to creatively explore the world. Where we begin to fail is where we lose touch with that; when we think AI is intelligent like we are or will solve our problems for us. But if a genuinely creative person has a powerful tool, then they are empowered to do even more.” —Dr. Vivienne Ming, Founder, Socos Labs
The case for blockchain. “The creative industry is due for some major changes in the power dynamics of compensation and ownership. At its most fundamental, blockchain has the ability to pay the creator royalties from secondary sales. But it can also be an interesting creative medium. At Snark.art, we help museum-level artists to adapt their work to the blockchain, which has resulted in beautiful projects rooted in community ownership. It’s a pretty radical change; it gives the artist new creative power and an improved financial position.” —Yng-Ru Chen, CMO, Snark.art, and Founder, Praise Shadows Art Partners

There’s greater interest in the greater good

72% of creatives said social impact will play an even bigger role in their work over the next 5 to 10 years than it does today. While 20% weren’t sure, just 8% said social impact won’t play a bigger role in their future work.

Why it pays to look beyond the bottom line. “Too often, commercial creativity is self-serving for a corporation and their P&L. Creativity needs to understand that potential outcome and try to do the opposite: put something good into the world. If it can service society or culture as well as service commerce, that equals a different kind of success.” —Naresh Ramchandani, Partner, Pentagram, and Founder, Do the Green Thing

Adaptability is the key skill of the future

We asked creatives an open-ended question about the soft skill they think will help them stay futureproof. While adaptability was the number one answer (19%), curiosity and empathy were close behind (each at 16%). 

Change really is the only constant. “I have worked in every possible industry as a creative—agency, post-production, TV network, gaming, brand side, media, and startup—so the first skill I’ve cultivated is the ability to pivot without fear. That means the ability to change an idea, a project, or even my career when it’s needed. I never pivot without looking towards the future; I gather a deep understanding of what’s next and take a giant leap forward into the void.” —Layne Braunstein, Founder, Fake Love
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We all go through times that deeply challenge us—moments that rattle us to our core, turn our day-to-day reality upside down, and force us to redefine what really matters to us.

For me, one of those moments came when my marriage to my husband ended in January 2017. As co-founders of The Great Discontent, our lives had been enmeshed for a decade—we had lived together, worked together, created together, and socialized together. Work and life had loosely overlapped, free of boundaries.

Compelled to find a new identity outside of my life and business partnership, I chose to transition out of our business, even though I was unsure of what was next professionally. Initially, I was tempted to catastrophize. I imagined the worst-case scenario compounded by feeling groundless and directionless: I would be unable to provide for myself financially and be forced to leave my community in New York. Around that time, my new roommate gave me Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart, and this quote helped me reframe my situation: “When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think that something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.” I promised to stop imagining negative outcomes and remained open to whatever was next.

“What is it really like to finalize a divorce, give birth to your first child, care for an aging parent, celebrate your company going public, or survive a cancer diagnosis?”

My openness led me to freelance for a period of time while I began to rebuild my life. I slowly explored potential career paths, and nearly eight months later my “a-ha!” moment came when a friend told me he was working with a life coach and found the process helpful, but wished the coach had a better understanding of the creative world. In a flash of insight, I decided to combine my social work background with the six years I spent interviewing artists and creators for The Great Discontent to be trained as coach and open my own practice working with the creative community.

Through conversations with my coaching clients—who range from independent creators and entrepreneurs to employees of creative companies and leaders and executives across the industry—it’s become increasingly clear that it’s impossible to compartmentalize our lives into personal and professional. While we may have clear boundaries related to personal versus work tasks or how our time is allocated, we are whole people who bring our whole selves to work and our work selves home. This can be disorienting in the midst of a crisis, or even a wild success. In both scenarios, we may be forced to pause, re-evaluate our work and lives, redefine our metrics for fulfillment, and rediscover who we are. Often, the old frameworks, platitudes, routines, and resources we relied on are no longer enough.

At The Great Discontent, I interviewed creators with a certain level of success and platform about their work and creative ambitions. Now, I’ve launched a new inquiry into the stories of creators whose life-changing experiences have shaped how and why they work. What is it really like to finalize a divorce, give birth to your first child, care for an aging parent, celebrate your company going public, or survive a cancer diagnosis?

With this in mind, in March I tweeted to ask people to email me with stories about how their life-changing experiences shaped their approach to work or their career altogether. In less than 24 hours, my inbox was full.

Here are a few of their stories.

Photographer Andrew Cenci lost his dream job, but found opportunities to trust his voice in a new way.

One individual who wrote to me was Andrew Cenci, who lost his dream job after the agency he worked for pivoted and let go of half the staff. An African-American artist and self-taught photographer based in Louisville, Kentucky, Andrew was unemployed for months trying to make it as a freelancer. He credits his wife for supporting him, noting that he wouldn’t have had the freedom to create without her—she believed in his photography and encouraged him to continue making it.

Now Andrew is pursuing photography as an art form, was selected to be part of a creative residency by the Community Foundation of Louisville, and is creating a body of work for his first book. He says of his experience: “At that moment I would have never thought that I would be here. But that moment really changed not only my resume but my the trajectory of my creative career,” and adds that, “It is a reminder that even out of challenging times good things can grow. I’ve learned to make the work I want to make and trust the voice I have been given.”

Designer Sarah Lawrence began to invest in her future after being treated for a rare medical condition.

Another person who emailed me was Atlanta-based designer Sarah Lawrence who reached out about how her brain tumor changed her outlook on work. In 2017, she found out she had an extremely rare tumor where the spinal cord meets the brain. She said this of the diagnosis: “I’d been going to orthopedists for four years with symptoms that I thought were carpal tunnel and each time was told that I was imagining it, that I needed to take ibuprofen. My right (dominant) arm was going numb, and I was having trouble gripping pens for long. I finally went to an orthopedist who identified the tumor and sent me to a neurosurgeon. I got the tumor removed and was out for a month recovering. They told me if I hadn’t found it when I did, I wouldn’t have been able to walk in as soon as 5 years.”

When asked how her work has changed after her experience, Sarah reflected that she had a nihilistic attitude before diagnosis and surgery because she thought she’d eventually lose her ability to design as she lost feeling in her dominant arm: “I was spending all of my time trying to advance myself and my career as quickly as possible, to essentially work myself out of needing my hands or a computer. I thought if I was able to get to a management role or become a professor, I wouldn’t need fine motor skills to design every day, but could still teach and talk. I was really scared, and just trying to plan ahead.” But after surgery, it was different than she expected. She described the immense relief she felt wash over her and noted that she was no longer racing against the clock—she came out of her shell and began to intentionally invest in herself and her future.

New York-based author and journalist Rachel Hills realized her work couldn’t save her.

And what about life-changing experiences that we aspire to, like publishing our first book? New York-based author and journalist, Rachel Hills, reached out to share her experience of writing her first book and what she learned about a process we may be tempted to romanticize, unlike being laid off or going through a medical crisis. Rachel Hills’ book, The Sex Myth, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015 and received a plethora of press, including a review in the New York Times.

Of her expectations, Rachel said, “Releasing a project you’ve spent the better part of a decade working on is a weird, intense experience. I spent the first few days around publication in a state of fear, bracing myself for waves of social media hate that never really came. I quickly realized that this thing that was all-important and all-encompassing to me was but a small grain of sand in the world of everyone else…The wave of validation I had been hoping for and anticipating never really came.” Rachel chose to accept her reality and said it was freeing—she stopped looking to her work to save her and be the sole source of happiness and fulfillment. Now, she says, her happiness is “contingent on creating and watching people create in return, on building friendship and community, and in finding joy in life even in those moments when I don’t feel like a success.”

It’s an ongoing conversation...

The emails I’ve gathered into a folder called “The Other Side” bear witness to our hunger to have meaningful dialogue about how the personal and professional intertwine. As we forge ahead in our careers, we will all encounter life-changing experiences that lead us to reevaluate, redefine, and reconsider how and why we work. In an age where we are inundated with the highlights of others’ lives that make our own processes look messy, in jobs where we feel pressured to be perfectly put-together, and in a society where there is limited space to be vulnerable, it is vital to make room for conversation that explores the nuances of our experiences and champions the ways we can transform and thrive on the other side.

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At 51, Lisa Congdon is the picture of a thriving freelance artist.  Her client list includes Fortune 500 companies (Facebook, General Mills, Hewlett Packard), tech companies (Airbnb, Sonos), and art museums and universities (MoMA, Harvard), among many others. In addition to her commercial work, she makes, exhibits, and sells fine art, teaches online classes, and has published eight books, including the forthcoming: Find Your Artistic Voice: The Essential Guide to Working Your Creative Magic.

If you’d told her any of this in her early 30s, she would have laughed at you. Growing up, Congdon wasn’t even the creative one in her family (that would be her sister). After college, she went into education: first as an elementary school teacher and then as a staff member at a nonprofit working with public schools. Her life path seemed set.

But at 32, she experienced “a bit of a life crisis” after a long-term relationship with a woman she’d been dating since her early 20s imploded. In a depressive rut, she started seeing a therapist, who helped her begin the the terrifying process of figuring out who she was and what she wanted from life. Congdon didn’t have a lot of answers but, spurred by an unfamiliar urge to make things, she began taking community drawing and painting classes.

In the beginning, art was purely something she did for fun on the weekends. It stayed that way until, in the mid-2000s, she started a blog in which she posted pictures of her work. Congdon met other makers online, some of whom made their living from their art. It was a life she wanted for herself.

The transition wasn’t quick or easy. It wasn’t until 2011, at the age of 40, seven years after she began drawing, that she left her job to focus on her art career. “I did in phases,” she says, seizing opportunities as they came and slowly building up momentum and clients.

Here, Congdon looks back at her unconventional path to freelance success and why she’s glad she found art later in life.


Q. When you started drawing and painting, you did it solely for fun. Looking back, did that mindset help you professionally?

A. To a certain extent, because I wasn’t thinking, ‘I need to make work that’s really conceptual, or totally unique, or groundbreaking.’ I just drew what was around me, and then tried to make it interesting in terms of color palette and how I was arranging and rendering things on the page. My own style developed out of that.

Part of the reason I’m able to make so much work is that I don’t have voices in my head necessarily telling me that this is right or wrong. I just kind of try things.

Lisa Congdon is known for her colorful, abstract designs.

Q. You also started in your early 30s. For creative industries, the perception often seems to be: if you haven’t established yourself in your 20s, the ship has probably sailed. Were there advantages to finding art later?

A. There are probably a lot of artists who are starting out who don’t necessarily have a strong set of interests yet because they are only 22. I’m not saying all 22-year-olds don’t have a developed sense of interests, but I think one advantage to starting later in life is that I knew who I was already. I understood what I was drawn to, and that really helped me not trip too much about the meaning of my work. I just started drawing the stuff I was interested in and I didn’t overthink it. It freed me a little bit.

“Just because someone else you admire has some amazing accomplishment doesn’t mean that your work has any less value, or that your path is any less significant.”

I also think that because I came at this at an older age, I have patience with the art-making and creative process that I wouldn’t necessarily have had when I was younger.  In order to get good at something you have to work at it. I had experienced that in other areas of my life, and that’s how I approached my art practice.

Q. How did the way you thought about your work and process change as people began to pay attention to it?

A. When I started out as an artist, I was really free because I didn’t have any expectations for myself, nor did anyone else. That definitely morphed into more self-judgement, or more, ‘am I doing this right?’

When I’m working, I try to stay focused on my own vision. I think so often now, what happens to people who are trying to make it in the art or illustration or design world is that we get overwhelmed by what other people are doing. You become part of this community of artists online or in your actual community where you live. You are inadvertently bombarded by their work; we all follow people we admire. But I understood early on that I had to tune that out. That I could admire those people and I even learn from them, but I needed to stay focused on my own vision of what I found interesting or beautiful or weird that I wanted to communicate in the work that I do.

Q. What are some of the strategies you’ve developed for finding inspiration without getting overwhelmed by the work of artists you admire?

A. There have been periods of time that I’ve had to unfollow people [on Instagram]. Not because I didn’t like their work, but because I liked their work—I was feeling a sense of competition or jealousy. I do it less and less because I feel more confident in my own career, but there was a time when I had to block out the stuff that didn’t make me feel good.

“Some things we think are going to be life-changing for us end up not being [that way], and other things that we never would have imagined are absolutely transformative.”

I also had to work on embracing this idea that there is room for everyone. Just because someone else you admire has some amazing accomplishment doesn’t mean that your work has any less value, or that your path is any less significant. It’s a really important mindset, and I had to work really hard to get there.

More of Congdon’s artwork.

Q. What has your career taught you about the importance of professional benchmarks?

A. You think, ‘Oh, if I only had this client on my client list, I will have arrived.’ I just announced that I did a collaboration with [fashion brand] Commes des Garcons. Everyone is like, ‘That’s amazing!’ But is my life or my illustration process any better because I’ve had this giant client? No, not really. You learn over time, even when you get these great client jobs, that a) sometimes they are hard work and b) they don’t necessarily make you a happier person or make your career any more or less significant.

The more you do something that you want to do in your life, the more you have perspective about it’s true meaning. Some things we think are going to be life-changing for us end up not being [that way], and other things that we never would have imagined are absolutely transformative. I never imagined that all the personal work I do would have lead to the more gratifying projects that I’ve done in my career. In the beginning, I was like, ‘I want to build this cool client list and do cool projects with clients.’ I’ve done that, and while a lot of it has been really fun, it’s not necessarily where I’ve gotten the most satisfaction and meaning.

Q. You kept your full-time job for years after you started selling your art. Is this a path you recommend for other people who are hoping to break into a creative industry?

A. Definitely. The minute you put all of the pressure on your art career to feed you is the minute it becomes extremely stressful. I talk to people all the time who have part-time jobs either as illustrators or artists who work for bigger companies or as a barista or a social worker because they don’t want that pressure. It allows them to take jobs that they want because they want them, not because they have to have them.

“We have this image of the successful entrepreneur or the successful artist as someone who makes their full-time living doing it, who is thriving and gets all this work. There isn’t one way to be an artist; there isn’t one way to be an entrepreneur.”

If you already have a bunch of work coming your way and you have [multiple] income streams, then quitting your job is fine—do it! But there is this period of time where you need to do three or four different things.

Q. It can sometimes feel like the ultimate goal for any aspiring creative is to do what you’ve done: develop your art career to the point where it sustains you financially. Is that the only option, or can keeping a part-time job work in the long-term?

A. I have a lot of friends who do that to this day. That’s their comfort level. We have this image of the successful entrepreneur or the successful artist as someone who makes their full-time living doing it, who is thriving and gets all this work. There isn’t one way to be an artist; there isn’t one way to be an entrepreneur. There are lots of ways to do it, and to do it well, and to live a happy life, because ultimately that’s the goal. The goal isn’t to have a successful career. The goal is to be happy.

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When we set the theme for our 2019 conference — The Creative Future — we imagined a future where creative skills are more pervasive and prized, and how that might reshape the world around us. As we prepare for the event in May, we’re asking our speakers to share a skill they think is important for all creatives to navigate what’s to come.


For Thaniya Keereepart, head of product experience at crowdfunding platform Patreon, asking “why?” is a timeless skill with huge payoff. Thaniya will be at the 11th Annual 99U Conference taking place May 8-10 in New York City.

Q. What’s a skill or characteristic you’ve cultivated in your career that you find to be futureproof?

A. Curiosity. I ask a lot of “why” questions. I love to get to the bottom of things—to understand what motivates us. Why we come to believe something. Why we choose what we choose. Why some people see the world differently. A big part of what I do is read people’s reaction to these “why” questions. Not just what they say, what they click on, or what they look at, but why. Through listening and observing their articulation, I am able to understand intention more deeply. It makes me feel more connected and more empathic, personally and professionally.

Q. Why will it be so important in the future?

A. We are consumers of information. Algorithms spoon-feed us with the next thing we should read, watch, or listen, where we should spend our time. Someone (a curator, taxonomist, etc.) or something (a machine learning algorithm) is deciding all of this for us. Our worldview gets shaped by what we’re exposed to. If we don’t take a moment to ask ourselves why our attention is spent on something, we stop challenging our own cognition. When we stop challenging our cognition, we starve ourselves of perspective, imagination, and ultimately, empathy.

Q. What’s a time in your career that you’ve seen that skill or characteristic at play in a way that made you realize its power?

A. Last year we received a request from one of our creators to fix our group messaging bug. It was more or less a typical request coming in through our logging channels. When you spend enough years working on consumer-facing products, you have to learn what’s critical vs what’s “nice to have” and prioritize the team’s focus accordingly.

I took time to get on a call with this creator to talk through why this bug was important to her. She shared with me that the bug caused her to miss a few deliveries to her customers, but our system didn’t warn her and so she didn’t know. As a result she began receiving hate messages from her customers which escalated quickly into death threats. She creates art for the 18+ space. In this space, online bullying can get very scary very quickly. She had lost a few customers along the way, which affected her ability to make enough money to pay her rent on time. But more than that, she got scared.

A to-do ticket is a ticket. We can quite quickly forget the livelihood of folks using our products sometimes when don’t spend time asking why.

Q. What advice would you give to anyone looking to cultivate that skill or characteristic?

A. I’d start with something more casual and fun. When you come across a conversation that sparks your curiosity with friends, try asking why five times. See where your conversation leads. See if you can get to their intention. At work, when you come across differences in opinion and you’re needing to justify your decision, try writing down why you decided on whatever. Trace it back five times. You’ll learn so much about yourself and you’ll be more prepared for the future.

Hear from Thaniya and other creatives shaping the future at the 11th Annual 99U Conference, May 8-10, 2019 in New York City.

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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So spoke the character Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. While Montoya was referring to the word “inconceivable,” he may as well have added another word to the list: “visionary.”

As a society, we adore creative visionaries. We follow them on social media, praise them in blog posts, and eagerly listen to them on podcasts. In this influencer-obsessed era, we’ve reached Peak Visionary, creating idols out of people whom we believe can see the future. .

But that’s where we’re wrong. Visionaries don’t see the future; their magic is that they’re able to see the present while the rest of us are busy looking at the past.

While researching for my book, Break the Wheel, I stumbled on a psychological issue which causes most of us to base our thinking on the past instead of the present. It’s called “cultural fluency,” which is your behavior when the world unfolds as expected, based on past precedent. When someone shrugs and explains, “That’s just how we do things around here,” they’ve fallen victim to this form of mindless decision-making triggered by cultural fluency.

On the other hand, those “visionaries” we admire are more willing to question conventional wisdom. They understand that best practices are lagging indicators, and so they ask, “What if we made decisions based on leading indicators instead?”

Sure, an innovative thinker can more easily extrapolate their ideas from today into the future, but it’s only because they start by understanding the present so intimately. Like building a skyscraper, their foundation is strong enough to support the heights they reach. Meanwhile, we’re too reliant on details pulled from a bygone moment instead of updating our knowledge using our present context.

“Despite how innovative a supposed ‘visionary’ seems, we need to embrace the truth: Innovation requires clarity, not prescience.”

We often learn of great artists, builders, and scientists who were rejected by their peers only to be revered today. We conclude, “They were ahead of their time.” But consider that their contemporaries were merely stuck in the past. History shows us that it might take decades, even centuries, for people to look back and say to themselves “Ya know, that fella was really onto something. Maybe that whole ‘clasp him in chains’ thing wasn’t the best move.”

Weren’t people from olden times so silly? Yes. But we’ve only gotten goofier today. It’s easier than ever to base our decisions on the past thanks to the endless amounts of supposed “right answers” shared publicly online. In the end, we need to set that information aside—if only for a moment—to inform our decisions using the present. Despite how innovative a supposed “visionary” seems, we need to embrace the truth: Innovation requires clarity, not prescience.

There’s an old quote often attributed to the great investor Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway fame, which he borrowed from the British economist John Maynard Keynes: “I’d rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong.” This idea is simple to understand but hard to execute: it’s more effective to continually update your knowledge rather than profess to know “the” answer all the time. When you routinely course-correct as you acquire new information, you shape your thinking and thus your work to the present moment. Whereas best practices provide security in their absoluteness, it’s dangerous to base a decision on something that precise. Any mandate or blueprint must be contextualized to your unique and present situation to be as relevant and effective as possible.

“Visionaries aren’t more creative than us. They’re more mindful. “

As Keynes first suggested, we should embrace a more zig-zaggy truth than best practices offer: To succeed in the real world is to admit that the world changes, every day, all the time, and thus we should act like lifelong learners. If we adopt this idea of being “vaguely right” instead of “precisely wrong,” just as Munger later did, we might see visionaries for what they truly are: Investigators. They regularly update their knowledge as the context changes. In this way, I suppose they do possess a kind of “vision,” but it’s not the kind we usually imagine. It’s not foresight at all. It’s the ability to see the world around them more clearly. What if we did too?

I’ve written before on this very site about how to do exactly that. Today, I’d challenge each of us to rethink the absolutism proliferating around the business world. That glut of prescriptions has turned all those “how-tos” into “have-tos,” but the only thing we have to do is find the right approach for our current and unique situation. Visionaries are investigators, not experts. That’s not a gift they were given. It’s a skill each of us can hone.

Seeing the world as it really is—today, right now—can help us make better decisions in our work. It can snap us out of cultural fluency, that tendency to lapse into stale patterns because “that’s how we do things around here.” Visionaries aren’t more creative than us. They’re more mindful. They’re more focused on developing the self-awareness and situational awareness they need to see the world as it really is—then act accordingly.

My challenge to you: Let everybody else place visionaries on a pedestal. Let them agonize over understanding their “secrets” and how they peer into the future. The next time you start assuming that those people see something you can’t, I hope you’ll smile and shake your head. Because it’s inconceivable.

“Visionary.” Ugh. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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Teams have life cycles: they are born with a mission, they grow and sustain themselves, and they dissolve as their mission ends.

But not all of these cycles are happy. Teams go through fights. They get “re-org”-ed and end up with new leaders or changed missions. People get fired or quit.

One of the ways to make these transitions easier is through rituals, deliberate actions that bring higher meaning into an experience. Often thought of in a religious or spiritual context, rituals can be any series of activities that helps connect people to something bigger than what’s directly in front of them. In our work on ritual design and teachings at Stanford’s d.school, my partner Margaret Hagan and I found that rituals can give a safe space for individuals and teams to experiment with new ideas while reinforcing values and connection despite cycles of change.

Rituals, of course, can come in many forms. In researching for my book, Rituals For Work, I’ve seen many that can help teams become more creative, productive, and adaptable. Some of the most common ones are daily scrums, weekly share-outs, and team-bonding events such as shared lunches and retreats. Here are five other rituals that managers and individual contributors can employ for healthier, more adaptable teams. 


1. For improving performance

Research shows that rituals help people regulate their emotions, get closer to their life and professional goals, and live by their values. But emotion regulation is also a fascinating aspect of rituals. Athletes such as tennis player Rafael Nadal use rituals to calm and focus on the game. New Zealand’s rugby teams use a dance ritual called Haka to amp up the team’s emotions for confidence.

“Often times, in the grind of production, teams lose touch with the people on the receiving end of a product offering.”

In our research, we came across the “Moment of Reverence,” a brief ritual to do right before a big event. It’s taken from the operating room, where doctors and nurses, right before they begin a surgery, intentionally stop and take a moment to remind themselves that the surgery they’re about to perform is on a real person who has family and friends and a whole life to live. It’s a moment to reflect on how important the surgery is for this person, and ensures that the medical staff is tuned in and performing with flow.

You can see effective use of this ritual in high-stakes business situations. Often times, in the grind of production, teams lose touch with people on the receiving end of a product offering. To avoid this, teams can take a Moment of Reverence to remember the end user that they are serving before launching a new product or initiative. By taking that moment to connect, it’s a way of gut-checking yourself that the work you’ve done is sound.

2. For creating a deeper sense of purpose

What makes a team a healthy one is connectedness and a sense of belongingness among its members. Community-building rituals can help a manager create a whole that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

The pinning ceremony from Stanford d.school is a good example of a community-building ritual. It is a special ritual when a team has really come together and achieved something. When courses come to an end, the teachers lead a pinning ceremony for students in the class. They pass around a box where there are five different pins, each with a different symbol of the school. Each student gets to choose a pin with the symbol that most speaks to them. Then, the teaching team leads the students in saying a final script that recognizes that everyone is now part of the d.school community and that they have completed the class. The ritual finishes with pairs pinning each other.

When employees upskill their work profile with new roles such as data scientist, or design thinker, they need ways to feel accomplishment and a sense of new identity. At the end of their training, a similar pinning ritual can reinforce their identity and help them build their new role. This can also be applied when you form new teams and in need of a shared identity and purpose. The chosen symbol for pinning can crystallize the identity of the team.

3. For navigating transitions

When your team experiences a reorganization followed by layoffs or firings, anxiety is present. When an employee starts off new position, they often feel anxious as well. 

Create a safe space with rituals. For example, our students created “Crash the Desk,” which focuses on employee onboarding. Crash the Desk, is to welcome new hires with a surprise treasure hunt. When the employee is distracted away from the desk, teammates fill up their empty new desk with personal objects. Then the employee must go on a hunt, talking to all their new co-workers to try to find the objects’ owners, and hearing stories about why they’re special.

4. For getting through conflict

When a conflict happens between team members, you can ignore it, go nuclear about it, or mitigate it. The last option is often the hardest one, however, if done well, it can help a team bounce back stronger than ever.

A conflict ritual utilizes the safe space quality of rituals. Such a ritual usually starts with reflection and continues with the letting-go of negative emotions and ends with a commitment to a fresh start. Depending on the team dynamics, a neutral outside facilitator can help run such a ritual for the team.

“‘The Daily Drawing is a small and easy creative ritual, that comes from designer Ayse Birsel . . . The goal is to wake the brain up, but not to think too much, and not to let the blank page intimidate you.”

“Burn the Argument” is a conflict ritual to deal with a fight that might have broken out on your team. It comes from one of our designer friends. She was addressing difficult emotions that emerged after a conflict between team members. A few days after the argument, a manager ran this ritual with them to help them move past the bitter feelings. The ritual involves team members writing down their feelings about the argument on pieces of paper, then tearing it up, and as a team, bringing it together. It’s a small symbolic act, but an explicit way to call out that conflict happened and that the team is deciding to move past it while still recognizing the emotions at stake.

5. For boosting creativity

In our work, we’ve found creativity particularly challenging as the concept often comes with a baggage of pre-conceived notions of what creativity is and where it belongs. Creativity is almost a taboo within overly bureaucratic cultures. You can introduce rituals into the existing routines as a way to infuse creativity.  

“The Daily Drawing” is a small and easy creative ritual, that comes from designer Ayse Birsel. She starts each day by giving herself a short amount of time to do any kind of drawing at all, as long as the pen is moving across the page. The goal is to wake the brain up, but not to think too much, and not to let the blank page intimidate you. By having this little ritual of just doing any kind of drawing at all, you get yourself into a creative flow and stop anxiety from blocking you.

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