Designing the Future: My Experience at the Adobe 99U Design Conference

by The Campaign Workshop

rainbow colored pattern

This Year’s Adobe 99U Design Conference Highlighted the Power of Creativity

I (Tracy Wood) traveled to Manhattan in May to attend the Adobe 99U Design Conference. I had never attended this type of conference before, so I was concerned it could be very brand forward and salesy. Luckily, it was not. In fact, it wasn’t anything I expected at all. Speakers were very philosophical, and workshop sessions were inspirational rather than technical. To be honest, some of it went over my head, but that was the point. To get us creatives to look up and into the future.

The common theme running throughout the conference was a look into the future and creativity’s role within it. Human connection is something we all seek and tapping into that desire is critical in storytelling. There is no creativity without humans, and that’s how they get to the idea that the future is human.

My 5 takeaways from the conference are:

  1. Data is a tool, use it to direct design.
    1. Getting to know your target audience is essential to effectively communicating with them. Make sure your creative has the capacity to connect with the people who will be seeing it.
  2. Creativity is necessary, without it we can’t move forward.
    1. People are moved by real stories and powerful imagery. If you want someone to care about an issue, find a way to make the stakes around that issue visually clear and compelling.
  3. You need mental space to foster creativity.
    1. Look for inspiration all around you in the world as you approach design. If you’re stuck or feeling uninspired (and if you have the luxury of time), take a step back and revisit your design with a new perspective.
  4. Human connection is the key to empathy. 
    1. Show the human consequences of policy issues in design. If you want people in North Carolina to care about an elected official’s votes on water quality, make it clear that polluted water hurts families—show that everyone deserves safe water, don’t just tell.
  5. Incrementally, we can make the world better.
    1. You’re not going to win every person over with any single piece of direct mail or digital advertising, but being consistently thoughtful about how you present issues and engage a target audience can make all the difference in the long run.

In my 15+ years of experience as a political marketing graphic designer, there hasn’t been a better time to receive this message. The 2020 elections are upon us. Our creative helps move the needle in America toward a brighter future. We need to look at all perspectives, collect data, and use empathy and imagination to do this effectively. Getting to know our audience will be essential to making a connection and, therefore, an impact.

For a detailed recount of the conference, read on!

Wednesday night was lovely, so I chose to walk to the first event from my hotel, The Watson. I took the High Line and was dazzled by the gorgeous view of the city. The registration and kick-off party was in The Caldwell Factory, an industrial yet modern warehouse space in West Chelsea. Registration was quick and easy; I simply picked up my badge and workshop tickets as well as a large swag tote. The party had several hands-on activities and a few artists showing off their craft. There was a small letterpress machine with palm reading drawings (to go with the future theme) to print and a digital artist projecting on a large screen in real time. Adobe also had a sneak peek of a new tool in development that they are calling Project Gemini. It isn’t out yet, but attendees got to take it for a spin. A large square bar in the center had an assortment of craft beers and canned rosé, while food vendors lining one wall included Shake Shack, a falafel place, and an ice cream cart. There was a DJ pumping music and the lighting was a bit dim. I was anxious to meet people and get a conversation going. Many other attendees were there alone like me, which made it easier to meet people. It seemed like everyone was looking for someone to chat with. I made my way through several groups of people learning what their design specialty was and where they traveled from. It was a big mix. I met a young woman from Malaysia who does retail marketing. I met a young man from Dallas who does real estate branding/marketing. I met employees from big name companies like Google, Stitch Fix, and The New York Times. There were freelance designers, agency designers, UX/UI designers, as well as a few people who work with designers, but aren’t designers themselves. I didn’t want to stay too long since the first activity on Thursday started at 8am, so I headed back to the High Line to stroll back to the hotel. I stopped to marvel at the Vessel and then decided to take a cab the rest of the way.


On Thursday, the main stage program and workshops all took place across the Lincoln Center campus. Breakfast took place in Alice Tully Hall where there was a cafe-like vibe. There was a Herman-Miller sponsored lounge featuring the latest office furniture line. There was also an area for Adobe Live to broadcast live streams throughout the conference. Topics included “60 Second Storytelling” and “Photoshop Daily Creative Challenge.” The first main stage event had a great line-up of speakers:


Vivienne Ming, Co-Founder & Executive Chair, Socos Labs

Dr. Ming’s specialty is theoretical neuroscience, and she spends her time developing AI to help professionals in education and business. Her overall directive is to be courageous in your creativity and to do things now to make the world better for future generations. “You want an amazing life? Then give it to someone else.”


Zach Lieberman, Co-founder, School for Poetic Computation

Zach Lieberman studied fine art and printmaking, but he ended up using computers and technology to make art. His goal as an artist, researcher, and educator is for you to be surprised. “…Creativity is finding a way to listen to yourself.”


Kyle T. Webster, Design Evangelist, Adobe

Kyle Webster considers himself a design evangelist. In today’s modern, connected world, we are all overly stimulated. We should set aside time for boredom. Creativity can grow in times of idleness. “This is where a new idea could be lying in wait for those who are open to discovering it, and it’s the space between, it’s just that beautiful blank, unexplored space we will probably lose altogether, if we’re not careful. We need to seek it out, need to bask in it now and then, because I think it’s a very important place to be.”


Tim Brown, CEO & President, IDEO; Courtney E. Martin, Co-founder, Solutions Journalism Network

Tim Brown did an interview style chat with Courtney Martin of the Solutions Journalism Network where he discussed his long career in the creative industry and how things have evolved. “...things don’t stay in the same state that we designed them in, as I just said. They continue to evolve. So that mindset has to shift. We have to find new ways of staying engaged with things over much longer period of time.”


Kat Holmes, UX Design Director, Google & Founder,

Kat Holmes talked all about inclusive design and making the world more accessible to everyone. She examines barriers in the world that either shut in or shut out individuals and she works to remove those barriers altogether. In 2001, the World Health Organization redefined disability as “mismatched human interactions” rather than a personal health condition. Rethinking designs based on ability can extend help to many more people. “And so when I think about inclusive design, the definition that has always been my favorite, and it doesn’t mean that we’re designing one thing for all people. It means we’re designing a diversity of ways for people to participate in a place with a sense of belonging. And that goal beyond access, access is absolutely the fundamental and the starting point, but that shared sense of contribution to one another in a place itself is an outcome of design that starts with recognizing mismatches.”


Joel Beckerman, Founder, Composer & Producer, Man Made Music

Joel Beckerman explores how essential sound is to everyday experiences and should be considered in the design of creative projects. “Sound-focused design, sound-first design IS human-centered design … Research shows that the right sound actually raises overall brand impression by up to 53%, and it also raises consideration by up to 50%.”


On Thursday and Friday, I attended a few workshops. Some of them were:


Ivan Cash - The Art of Human Connection

Ivan Cash advocates for more interpersonal interactions and less time on our devices. Cash believes there is value in opening up to strangers and making yourself vulnerable.


Forest Young - Future Design: Creating an Equitable Tomorrow

Forest Young imagines designing a better future where everyone benefits.


Sahar Yousef - How to Stop Draining Your Brain’s Resources, Accelerate Your Creativity, and Get More Done

Dr. Sahar Yousef says that multitasking is a myth and proves it with quantitative tests for attention. She advocates that creatives should protect our most precious resources: time, focus, and energy.


Thursday evening we were invited to visit creative spaces across the city. Here’s a sample of the options provided: Adobe Color, Adobe Photoshop, Doberman, Doblin + Market Gravity by Deloitte, Herman Miller, Method, NeueHouse, Pentagram, Shake Shack, and the WeWork US HQ. I decided on two that were fairly close to each other, Doberman and NeueHouse. Doberman is a design firm that transforms brands and organizations. They recently had an internal retreat to refocus their organization. They still had some remnants of the activities they undertook on their retreat to delve deep into their own identity and explained how the activities helped them with self-discovery. NeueHouse is an upscale coworking space for small businesses and entrepreneurs in creative fields such as design, film, and fashion. It not only provides a workspace, but also a meeting space to facilitate the collaboration of creative minds. I connected with several new designers and learned about their passions and work life. We ended up staying late and a few of us went out for dinner at Xi'an Famous Foods for delicious Western Chinese spicy noodles.


The Friday main-stage closing presentations were:


Merrill Garbus, Musician, Tune-Yards

An interesting vocalist and musician, Merrill Garbus integrates technology into her music in an intricate web of sound. Her performance was like nothing I’d ever seen.


Giorgia Lupi, Partner & Design Director, Accurat
Giorgia Lupi is an information designer who spoke of putting humanity in data. She uses data as a narrative tool for writing and design. Her data-driven design approach has the ultimate goal of making design more human.


Anna Pickard, Head of Brand Communications, Slack

Anna Pickard gave a hilarious talk on Slack’s Voice and Tone in the app. Her insight gave Slack a more human feel to help connect with users. Everything is well thought out to help users communicate in a more natural way with each other and with positive intent.


Michael Ventura, Founder & CEO, Sub Rosa

Entrepreneur and author of Applied Empathy, Michael Ventura has dedicated his career to exploring how empathy can make us better leaders, collaborators, and contributors to society. He says that empathy is not about being nice, sympathetic, or compassionate. Those are side effects of empathy. It’s when we apply our empathy that we make changes in the world around us and in design. Looking at other perspectives is the key.


Thaniya Keereepart, Head of Product, International, Patreon

In Thaniya Keereepart’s 99u Talk, she discusses the evolving economics of creative work and how we should design using human instincts to drive behavioral change. 


Ashley C. Ford, Writer & Speaker

The title of this 99u Talk is “Imagination is a Creative Superpower.” Ashley Ford’s closing remarks were immeasurably inspirational. I saw audience members tearing up and it ended in a full standing ovation. Her message was one of changing the world, one step at a time. Ashley delved deep into topics of politics and racism, but in a tangible way that motivates you to make the world you live in better by doing better in all things.


After the presentations ended, there were several hours to kill. I went to dinner with a few other attendees and we discussed how we thought the conference went and what we were taking away from the experience. It was a diverse mix of designers and creators, each looking toward the future in a positive way with renewed energy. The closing party at the MOMA was fantastic. It was Friday night from 10pm to 1am and featured a DJ set by Merrill Garbus, who performed on the 99U stage earlier. It took up two levels of an atrium in the museum, with several bars and food stations, serving creations like banana based ice cream and truffle popcorn, positioned all around. There were also two special “future themed” activities for the dedicated few. The lines were incredibly long as we could choose to see either the modern divination duo of Larry+Raven to have our tarot cards read or HALO Auragraphic to have our aura photographed and read. With the group of new friends I made, we chose the aura reading. We waited in line for what felt like hours, while some would hop out of line to refill snacks and drinks. It was an interesting experience to say the least. The rest of the night consisted of dancing until they kicked us out. It was a blast.