Lyft’s VP of Design: 8 Principles on Scaling a Design Team

When Katie Dill joined Lyft as vice president of design, she had a team of 40. In just over a year, she’s grown that number to more than 100.

Dill, who was formerly the director of experience design at Airbnb, knows a thing or two about what it takes to build a thriving team at a fast-growing tech company. In a recent interview with 99U, she shared her strategies for hiring the right people, executing on a vision, and creating a culture that scales with the company.

Here are her top principles for building a design team.


1. Get designers involved from the ground up.

Lyft’s design team used to operate as a centralized design agency, coming up with solutions when approached by product teams. Today, the team is integrated in every step of the product development process, which Dill says has led to more creative, customer-driven results. “It’s a great example of how design is a part of the product development process at all stages, and how design is partnering with product management, engineering, and data science to determine the right thing to do for our consumers and our drivers,” she says.

“For example, we go on city tours with our product partners which helps us identify opportunities together.”

2. Think of building a team as mixing a great cocktail.

One area where managers tend to develop a blind spot is in who they hire – often, they look for the same type of person over and over without thinking of the overall mix of skills, backgrounds and perspectives needed for the team to thrive. Dill, however, likens her approach to building a team to mixing a cocktail. “You really have to think about the different way that ingredients play off each other – to create a nice comprehensive and elegant composition,” she says. “When I think about building a team, I look at all of that. Do we have people who are going to lead? Do we have people who are going to support that leadership? Are we going to have people to fill the different skills that we need? Having a diverse team not only leads to more comprehensive work, but a greater diversity of ideas and learning opportunities for all.”

Members of the design team conversing in a lounge space accompanied by a dog.

Members of the design team conversing in a lounge space accompanied by an office dog. Photo courtesy of Lyft

3. Look for designers who ‘think beyond the pixel.’

It’s easy for design leaders at tech companies to get swept up in the online experience, but the offline experience is just as important. “Yes, a lot of our work is related to those pixels, but as a customer, your experience of us isn’t just in the app – it’s on a street corner, it’s sitting in the back of a car, it’s riding a bike, it’s talking to someone who moments ago was a stranger,” says Dill. That’s why she looks for designers who pay attention to more than what is on the screen. “Do they think beyond the pixel? Do they think about every moment of the journey and all of the different modalities of that interaction — from a billboard, to an app, to a seat cushion, to the person-to-person interaction? That’s what we want.”

4. Translate your mission into values.

As a design leader, it’s important that you find people who have the necessary skills and experience, but it’s also important that they demonstrate the values that reflect your mission. At Lyft, Dill looks for people who have “humility, strong proactive hustle, and great craft.” All three things tie into the company’s mission of changing the world through better transportation, which requires employees who have a great deal of user empathy, passion and quality standards.

Designers at their desk at the Lyft office in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Lyft

An open and bright floorplan at the Lyft office in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Lyft

5. Remove barriers to productivity.

Look at the way your organization is structured, how people communicate and the systems they’re using. Are there problems that can be fixed to make things more
effective and efficient? “You can hire the best people in the world, but if they have everything working against them, interference in the system, or interference based on the company itself, it’s going to be hard to get the best out of them,” says Dill. “It’s related to my favorite management ‘formula’: Performance = potential-interference.”

Designers collaborating in a common area of the Lyft office.

Designers utilizing a common area of the Lyft office to collaborate. Photo courtesy of Lyft

6. Get creative with the way you communicate.

Today’s 24/7 hyperconnected workplace means people can work from anywhere in the world. While there are many upsides to that, one downside is that people have less of a chance of bumping into each other and discussing what they’re working on. To invite sharing across the organization, for the last 5 years, Dill has been having designers share weekly screenshots of their work in a shared Google Doc — she calls it a “visual stand-up”. “You get to see what 100 different people are doing, which gives you insight into what’s going on.”

7. Recognize that not every tradition scales.

What works in a small group doesn’t always work when that group grows. A perfect example is birthday celebrations – Dill recalls how her team used to have cake when it was someone’s birthday or for a new hire’s first day. It was a wonderful tradition, but when the team size ballooned, it became a bit ridiculous. “It was like that Seinfeld episode where Elaine’s coworkers bring a cake in for some celebration every day,” she says. Instead, Dill encourages managers to think about bringing the organization together in ways that are more scalable. “We do have at least one opportunity every week to bring the whole team together through bi-weekly stand-ups and all-hands. We are constantly sharing information with each other. We’re highlighting people from the team so others get to know them, see what they’re all about.”

8. Encourage a culture where people feel comfortable sharing lessons learned.

Teams, especially fast-growing ones, can benefit when their individual members are open about mistakes they’ve made and the lessons they learned. One thing Dill does is send her team an update every week that often includes some insight she recently learned. “I say, ‘Hey, I did something last week where I accidentally switched off a tool and it didn’t go well. Here’s why, and this is what I learned.’ I do think it helps to set an example with the team, and it’s kind of become part of our culture.”

Jon Burgerman: Dispatches from the Edge of the Burgerworld

Ninety Nine U recently visited the artist known for bringing new realities everywhere, from the Tate Modern to Instagram Stories, for a cup of tea in his new workspace in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It wasn’t only Burgerman in the studio – the space is crowded floor to ceiling with paintings of the creatures who inhabit “Burgerworld,” plus a puppet sidekick he uses in his Skillshare class and a 3-D printed doll of Burgerman that sits next to his assistant’s computer keyboard to make sure she’s working. “I used to have my whole head as the wallpaper on the iMac, but I thought it was a bit much,” Burgerman says.

We asked Burgerman about his early days developing his signature style, what his art has in common with the music industry, and the one thing we can all do to be more creative.  


Q. You started out doing a fine arts degree. What did you plan to do with that degree, and what did you envision your career being?

A. I did start a fine arts degree and finished it in Nottingham. I never fit in any way. For my degree show – people go all out for their degree shows – I really couldn’t think of what to do. So I just collected all of the stuff I’d been making. I had a little cabinet of objects that I’d customized as sort of fake products. One of them was a Pepsi can, and I used a rubber band and a sticker and I put a flag on the top and people thought I was crazy. I remember having a really vivid dream of a toy train with my name, J-O-N, in wooden letters on the carriages of the train going around in a circle. I spent a week and ran to all the toy stores looking for it. Thank God I didn’t do that. I put them all together, and that was my show.

And all the tutors, friends of mine, asked me the same question: “What are you going to do? What are you going to be?” It’s weird when people ask you that. Well, I thought, Isn’t it obvious? Surely, all this suggests a really successful career.

Burgerman dressed in an 8-bit style hoodie working on a colorful ink piece in his studio. Photographed by

Burgerman working on a colorful ink piece in his studio.

Q. What career were you picturing?

A. I had a vague dream of being a painter and having exhibitions. But whilst on the course, I was really into sort of design, sort of illustration – I didn’t know it was those things – like record sleeves, T-shirts, crappy merchandise. I was really torn. I liked going to galleries and museums, but I was particularly fascinated by the gift shops. You know, here are the Van Gogh sunflowers. And now, here they are as a tea towel. It’s so weird, but yeah – that is what I want to wash my dishes with. Even now, I just came back from London and I went to the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. And the gift shops are full of crap: weird toys and things.

Q. Do you think it’s crap?

A. I mean, in a good way.

Q. How did you decide to move to America and why did you give everything away before you did?

A. Not everything. You know Michael Landy? He’s the artist that did Breakdown. It’s an amazing project. He destroyed everything he’d owned. I did a really mini, puny version of that.

Q. So it was an artistic gesture?

A. Not really. I just wanted to live somewhere else. I’d been traveling a lot and I’d come into New York for exhibitions and things, and I was having a great time coming here. And I said, “Well, I could be somewhere else; live another life.” I had a really successful run of it and decided to start again; hit reset. I came here with two suitcases and nowhere to live. If I had known what I was going to do, I would never have done it. I went to see an immigration lawyer in London. I was like, “I want to live in New York.” And she was like, “Do you have a job there?” “No.” “Do you have family there?” “No.” “Are you getting married to someone?” “No.” “Are you going to start a business there?” “Not really.” And then I left her office and I was like, “Shit, what have I done?” I just thought I should challenge myself a little. I’m not normally like that. I’m very lazy by nature.

Q. You are?

A. Yeah, completely. What you’re seeing – this is the least of what I could be doing. I do the bare minimum, which is why I’m always a bit down on myself. I know I could do more, be better.

Burgerman moving around his studio adorned with handmade shelves and doodle covered walls. Photo by

Burgerman moving around his studio adorned with handmade shelves and doodle covered walls.

Q. So how do you manage yourself?

A. I don’t know. I just work. I work all the time. It’s not just that I go home and I take off my hat and I’m done for the day. It’s 24/7. It’s a lifestyle business. I know I am a freelancer, but I don’t really think of myself in that way. I have to be careful not to become President Business. I don’t want to be a company or a brand. I just like being a human being that makes stuff. I have to be a business to stay alive and stay in New York. But I can’t really get my head around it, because a lot of what I do is terrible business. Risks are not great business decisions.

Q. What’s a risk you’ve taken?

A. When I first moved here, I was in a band. That was a risk of time. Time is the commodity that I gamble with the most. Why would you spend all this time rehearsing and writing and performing? The only people who are going to come and see you are your friends, and people accidentally coming to the venue too early or too late. It was a completely frivolous thing. We painted backdrops on cardboard boxes and we’d get people onstage and then we’d do silly things. We’d auction our paintings during a song. I miss it a lot.

Q. Did you write lyrics?

A. Yeah, I would write the words and do sort of a skeleton of the song, like this chord and then this chord. And then [another bandmate] would flesh it out to an actual, real song. I still like making music, but the length of a song I’ll write now is only like 15 seconds.

Q. That’s the attention span we all have.

A. Exactly. It’s Instagram Story length.

Q. Do you remember lyrics from any of the songs?

A. Yes.

Q. Can you tell me?

A. No. It’s too embarrassing.

Q. Please?

A. There was a song called “Salad Ballad,” and I was always proud of the line. It’s…I can’t do it; it’s too embarrassing.

Q. Please do it.

A. A lot of the songs were about heartbreak, and obviously that’s what “Salad Ballad” was. So it’s a song saying to a girl, “You should come over and watch Columbo.” And then, “Don’t be such a dumbo.” Everyone asked us if the band was serious. And the sad thing is, it was. But it was really silly and goofy at the same time.

That problem with the band, I think, relates to my art practice. There are a lot of people who say, “Are you serious? We get that it’s funny or silly, or colorful – playful.” People find it difficult to think about it the way they would if the artwork was about heavier, weightier things. Because it’s casual and funny and weird, they treat it in that way.

Burgerman in New York City.

Q. Can you tell me how you think about color? Thinking about what makes people take work seriously, I feel like there’s pushback when something is brightly or joyfully colored.

A. I can’t make stuff without color. It’s just a gut thing. Look at this paper. Just look at this paper. [Rifling through construction paper] Look at it; look. You don’t need to do anything to it. The yellow is really amazing. I love color. I find it very similar to music. The black and white is like the structure of the work. It’s the rhythm section. And maybe if you do a big swell of black, it’s a bit bass-y, and has some deep heaviness to it. I love drum and bass. I like rhythm and beats. But man can’t exist on beats alone. We can’t live just on rhythm. We need flavor. We need taste. We need sour and sweet. And that’s where all the color comes from. And these are all the notes. These are all the chords. The pink is all the high notes, the highlights, the squeaky voices, and little cheeky details. That’s why a lot of my work is very colorful. Black and white is good. And you’re right – I think people take it seriously because it’s more chic. If you go to an event and you’re wearing all black, people think you’re cool. “Oh, she’s a designer. An architect, maybe,” something like that. If you go dressed wearing bright yellow – yellow shoes, patterned trousers – they’ll think you’re a hippie. I’m getting aware, as I’m getting older, that maybe I should tone down wearing bright colors, because people are going to think I’m some strange-uncle weird guy. Coupled with my googly eyes, I’m not doing myself any favors in trying to be taken seriously. What can I do? I like working with colored paper and Play-Doh. Those are the materials of children.

Q. What is Burgerworld?

A. Burgerworld is the title I gave an exhibition a few years ago. It’s this imaginary place where all this work lives. This is how I explain it to myself, but I never had to articulate it before. All these different things in my practice are connected. Imagine it as a world. In this country, there are these colorful, goofy characters, and they look very clean and well produced. Then, in the neighboring country or village, they’re a bit scrappier, gruffer, weirder. Maybe they’re a bit more liberal. It was a way of thinking, because I really struggle with, What is all this stuff? Where does it all fit together? So I kind of imagine it in that place. And then there’s a Burgerworld book, which is a coloring book.

The cover of Burgerman's coloring book of the intricate land of Burgerworld. Image courtesy of Jon Burgerman

The cover of Burgerman’s coloring book of the intricate land of Burgerworld. Image courtesy of Jon Burgerman

Q. I thought Burgerworld might be your imagination, but it almost sounds like this is a thing that is beyond you.

A. It could live on once I’m gone. A big part of my practice in the last 10 years is getting other people to make stuff and sharing the world. If you love a thing, set it free; that kind of thing. I’m inspired by a lot of stuff, and so it’s really amazing if people are inspired by what you do, right? Rather than try and protect all this stuff, I think you have to purposely get rid of it. And then make something else.

People coloring in a Burgerworld mural during an interactive art exhibit at Hudson Yards in Manhattan

An interactive Burgerworld mural at Hudson Yards in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Jon Burgerman

Q. Talking about the things that you’re inspired by, I’m thinking about your Jeff Koons adaptation or about the Infinity Room adaptation, where you created small models of both.

A. That’s the thing. They put out something, and then you can take it, tweak it to your end, and then put it back out into the world. That’s what music does. “Oh, they sampled this.” “Oh, this sounds like the ’80s.” They’re taking it, tweaking it, and putting it back.

Art does it a lot. I really love the idea of subverting it and playing with it. And I hope it doesn’t really upset anyone. But that’s what we should all be doing. It is kind of funny to see someone reinterpreting what you do. I know Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, used to collect all the fake Simpsons merchandise. Because that’s a huge form of flattery, right? I’ve got folders on my computer of stuff that I know is a knockoff. And most of the time, it’s very innocent.

Q. What advice do you have for people looking to add some more creativity to their lives?

A. One thing you can do: read more. I guarantee you, it’ll increase your creativity. Reading is the number one thing that any human being can do to increase their creativity, because it’s fertilizer for your imagination. You’re reading these little black shapes on a white background, converting them into words, and then those words become sentences and those sentences are telling you something. And then in your head, you’re feeling and imagining things: what it looks like, what they sound like. That’s the best thing you can do for your imagination and your creativity and your general well-being.

Q. Would you like to be more in the fine art world?

A. Fine art seems like the best thing, right? You just make what you want to make and put it in a gallery, and there are no clients or briefs. I’m in a kind of limbo world. Do I want to do more paintings and drawings just for the sake of it? Yes. But I don’t know if I would actually say I want to do more fine art. I’m happier on the edges of things.

Tea Uglow: Shed the Armor of Identity to Embrace Creative and Personal Transformation

I met Tea Uglow on a misty day in New York City, where tourists in Chelsea were braving the threat of rain for sidewalk cafés and city strolls. Uglow herself was coming from the second of two brunches when she met me at Soho House, squeezing in meetings before she flew back to Australia and her role as Experimental Person in Charge at Google Creative the next day. She brewed – appropriately enough – tea in blue china cups.

Perhaps it was the rainy day and comfy armchairs, which dwarfed us as well as our cups and saucers, that gave me the sense of time traveling into a British novel. But maybe what was really transporting me to another world was the feeling of talking with Uglow, who, in an age of glib answers and press-ready catchphrases, pushes at the unfinished edges of ideas like time, self, and creativity. “This perspective would change massively if you interviewed me on a different day,” she told me. Her ideas are shifting and in progress, just as Uglow herself – and all of us – are ever-transforming works in progress, from who we are to our creative output.

In our conversation, we returned often to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Welcome to a transformative cup of tea with Tea Uglow.


Q. Your one bio says, “She writes, talks, arts, geeks, queens, parents, and humans.” What does it mean to human?

A. There are lots of things we are expected to do that don’t make all that much sense to me. Well, they do make sense within the conventions, the values, and the expectations of society. But often you don’t really know where these things come from. We don’t stop and examine them. “Humaning” is where you do all the things that don’t really make any sense to make everyone else understand that you are also human. If you weren’t human and you came to be human, it would be a fairly fundamental culture shock. We see that in sitcoms all the time: “Hey, it’s an alien in a human body. Aren’t humans weird?” And you go, “Yeah, they really are.”

Q. That’s not at all how I expected you define humaning.

A. What did you think I was going to say?

Q. I think people sometimes say things about working to be more human in a more true-to-themselves sort of way.

A. I don’t really buy into the self thing for mental health reasons. I don’t have that solidity of self, that constancy that you’re talking about, that idea of having a set of values or a set of principles. I’m not amoral, but I have assorted value sets, and they’re often in conflict with one another. When I’ve had nervous breakdowns, often what happens is you strip away – especially if you’re transitioning – lots of ideas of identity and self, anything which you feel is being constructed by society, which you’ve been told you have to be. And you find yourself with very little. There is very little. My friends might call it the spirit or the soul. The only thing I really thought I had was certainly not a sense of self; it was the place that ideas come from. It’s why I’m comfortable with the notion of creativity.

Uglow sporting a tropical dress sitting in front of an orange backdrop.

Uglow sporting a tropical dress.

Q. Can you describe that for me?

A. Yeah, sure. We often ask ourselves, “Who do you want to be?” For me, that’s always been a very collaged thing. I am different things for different people at different times, which is difficult – partly because I’m trans. From the age of three, I’ve been assembling myself as a boy to fit in, to get along, and to not get killed. You learn to assemble the self according to what is asked of you, not what you feel you are. I never really had an opportunity to find that idea of true self. As I was transitioning, I assumed that’s what would happen: I would find my true self.

Funny enough, having gotten to rock bottom and stripped of all the things I thought I was to other people, all the things I was scared of losing – Who am I without those things? Will you still like me? Will I still have any meaning? – it’s very like getting naked, but getting all of your invisible armor off as well. It turned out there wasn’t really anything there, apart from this thing I clung to: The ideas were still there. The things that I thought about remained constant. I still think about time. I still think about space. I think about information and how we relate information, culture, and art. So that’s what I had. And all the other bits are quite constructed. So I don’t really believe in self.

Q. It sounds like a very unnerving process to go through.

A. I wouldn’t recommend it. Our idea of self and identity is armor. I think that it’s fundamentally something we construct in order to keep ourselves sane.

Uglow hudled on a sidewalk in New York City

Uglow hudled on a sidewalk in New York City.

Q. You gave a talk a few years ago, and you mentioned that moving from England to Australia and physically distancing yourself allowed you to experiment and think about new things.

A. I don’t have those memories. I remember the talk, but I couldn’t tell you one thing I said in it. Someone else completely gives my talks. I have no idea who they are. They’re very good at it. They just turn up, they do the talk, and then they move on. And every now and again they turn up in emergency situations, like I had to give a little speech at a pronoun party and it was really not going very well, because who likes doing public speaking? I was really struggling and started to cry and all of that. And then someone who was just significantly more comfortable and confident than me turned up and was like, “Oh, get out of the way.” And gave a very good speech. I don’t really know what she said.

Q. Can you describe her?

A. Yeah. She’s about a foot taller than me, and more confident, more present. She’s funny. She understands how to do work with audiences, and she’s watching for stagecraft. I’m not; it’s wild. They’re just more competent and funny. They’re quick on their feet. They know how to move on. And it’s why I quite like being on stage.

But that thing of moving to Australia was really important. You physically extract yourself from a place where people have expectations of you – where you can limit control and access to you. I didn’t realize it at the time, but clearly, based on my work and for my personal transition, that was an essential step: to go find somewhere a really long way away, where we could just cocoon ourselves and get through this.

Q. When you say “get through this,” are you through it?

A. Sort of. The trans bit’s fine. Apart from this weird sense that, every now and again, you forget quite how persecuted trans people are all around the world. And then you forget you’re one of them, which is obviously ideal, because ideally you would forget. It’s like being tall or being Welsh; it shouldn’t really affect your life.

But it does affect your life in these huge ways. Because people kill trans people. And I’m very, very much aware that I am out and proud and public and happy to represent for that community. But I’d rather not have it painted on my forehead.

Uglow in a colorful chevron dress posing by the water and the staircase of a brick building

Uglow venturing around the city.

Q. I read that one of your favorite ways of getting correspondence is via postcard.

A. This is true. I like all the postcards. It is something that gives me great joy.

Q. What is it about postcards?

It’s the physicality of the thing. When we were at university, I had friends around the world, and we used to send each other really strange things through the mail to see if they’d go, like lumps of wood. Or you’d send a T-shirt where the address was on the T-shirt. Someone sent tea bags and those sorts of things. Tea bags were actually very common because it’s like a thing where you’re going, “Oh, tea. We’re having a cup together!” I used to get letters and cards, and my mother has always been a great writer. This is before email. There’s a certain sort of tragedy to the decline of physical mail, because there’s something really lovely about that. I really like it when people send me odd postcards. All of that thought and effort that’s gone into that. It’s quite meaningful. The best ones, obviously, are the ones where you draw something.

Q. It’s ironic, given that your career is so founded in totally new digital concepts.

A. One of the weirdest things about my career is this opportunity to try to make adverts for things that people didn’t know were things. Like Chrome. When we started trying to get people to use Chrome, people didn’t know what a browser was.

Q. Is there a particular project that was fun to work on?

A. It was one of Google’s early adverts. When Google Plus came along, we really wanted to explain to people that all this photo stuff was bundled into it. There’s a setting so that when you take a photo, it uploads to an album that’s in the cloud. The whole idea was really novel, and we were trying to think why this would be useful. Up until that point, humankind had managed fine without phones that automatically upload your photos. And then we found this lovely story of this guy. He had a kid. He took lots of photos of the kid. And then he lost his phone. All the photos of his kid were on the phone, and he thought he’d lost all the photos of his kid. And then it turned out that he had the feature turned on. So he gets back home and finds all of the photos have already been saved.

Q. That’s a perfect little nugget of a story.

A. Yeah. But he didn’t want to use the photos of his kid for the story. And I had just had a kid and I was taking a lot of photos. My partner at the time was like, “What’s it going to be used for? Is anyone going to see this?” “No, no, no; it’s just an online ad,” I said. “No one watches these.” So she said yeah. And we uploaded them. And then it got shown on TV at the Grammys or Oscars or something. It’s had like 20 million views and it got translated into Portuguese. I’m not sure whether the firstborn will be more bothered that we used his photos to sell the company, or whether his younger brother will be more upset that he doesn’t have a video. That’s the lot of the second child.

Q. Was becoming a parent transformative?

A. Oh, it’s astonishing. You’re not aware how much your goals will change, how much your life will require you to take on new value sets, and how hard it is to remember that other people who don’t have children don’t share those values. Every child turns every new parent into a very new being. And it will  – almost without fail – affect relationships and change how you relate to the world. For me it was peculiar, because that whole idea of performing gender immediately became tighter; there was less space for me to not be this idea of masculinity.

We generally don’t talk about it being a difficult time, but it’s incredibly difficult. And we don’t give moms space to struggle, or we don’t give moms credit for doing it in the first place. It’s really difficult for me to talk about because I’m not the mom. I’m not their mom; I’m their parent. And I have enormous love and respect for their mother, who is doing an incredible job.

Q. In a funny way, has Google been one of the most consistent things in your life?

A. Yes. They’ve been incredibly supportive. Their main thing is like, “What can we do?” You read about people who transition or have mental health problems or disabilities or anything. We spend most of our lives at work. The idea that that would be a hostile environment to a challenge that you’re facing just feels wrong. Why would that ever be the case? But it is.

Q. There’s a trope that goes around the creative world a lot, which is the idea of bringing your whole self to work. What do you think about that idea?

A. The idea of bringing your whole self to work should really be understanding that every single person is completely different, which is much more what it is, because there’s no point in bringing your whole self to work if it’s not accepted. “Yeah, maybe not quite that much – perhaps half of yourself. How about these selves? Can you just do these parts?”

If you make sure that the environment that you’re working in is supportive, and that people believe that it’s alright to be in a caring environment when they’re at work, it makes it easier. And I have never met anyone who’s taken advantage of that. You don’t repay that by exploiting it; that’s not what you do. You tend to respond to love with love and creativity.

Erik Kessels: It’s Not the End of the World

From the age of five, Erik Kessels knew he wanted to dress store windows.

Growing up in a small town in Holland, it was the most creative job he could imagine. So when he was old enough, he enrolled in a window-dressing program at a polytechnic school.

Immediately he realized that working in a delicate glass box wasn’t for him. “There are all these lightbulbs in there, you have nails digging into your fingers, you have to use fish wire and little clips to put everything together,” he says. “It was kind of stupid of me to have this dream for 11 years without trying it beforehand.”

It was one of many valuable mistakes he would make in his life. Kessels ended up studying painting and applied art, and ultimately became the founder and creative director of KesselsKramer, an internationally renowned advertising agency based in Amsterdam, with offices in London and Los Angeles.

At 52, Kessels doesn’t just accept his mistakes, he embraces them. And he wants others to do the same. He has even published the book Failed It!, which explores the necessary role failure plays in the creative process. It’s a message he feels is especially important now that technology has made perfection so accessible.

In the interview, Kessels explains the risks of striving to avoid errors and offers advice to creatives on how to keep their juices flowing.


Q. Failure is a pretty broad concept. Are you talking about deliberately going in the wrong direction, or going in the direction you think you should but being open to changing your route?

A. Both. It’s all about finding methods to come to new solutions. Our brains are very much directed to certain solutions, very much colored in certain ways. You need disruptive things to shake those standardized solutions up.

To get to an idea, sometimes you deliberately have to make a mistake in your own head. It’s not like when you’re driving and you know for sure that, without making any mistakes, the navigation system is going to bring you to your destination. For creativity, it doesn’t work like that. You have to go down a wrong street. You have to ignore the voices of people saying, “Don’t go here; please turn around.” That is exactly what you have to do when you look for new ideas.

Nobody is born with the talent to come up with brilliant ideas. You have to work for that. You have to make mistakes and be vulnerable. The moment you find something, that’s great, but the way to get there is not always same road.

Kessels reclining in what appears to be warped metal, but is actually a functioning chair. Photographed by

Kessels reclining in what appears to be a piece of warped metal, but is actually a functioning chair. Photographed by Bert Teunissen.

Q. You say technology has made it easy to perfect things earlier in the creative process. Why is that a problem?

A. I often compare it to the front and back garden of your house. Computers, 3-D printers, and other tools are there to help you finish creative works, and that’s all in the front yard of your house, metaphorically speaking. The backyard is where all of your ideas are hidden; it’s where you have your unfinished messes.

Ideally you have an idea in your backyard, then you go into the house and use tools and technology to bring it to the front garden to show it to the rest of the world. But nowadays people don’t even go to their backyard because it’s so easy to finish something without that. Computer programs are better than ever. People have access to everything. Technology is going toward perfection, which is good, but a lot of creatives use this in the wrong way. They think this is their starting point.

The starting point should be with yourself. What do I bring to this creative discipline? What do I like to make? When you do that and you have an idea, you can use the best tools to create it.

When I do student workshops, often the students immediately start looking at Pinterest or googling some words that were in a project briefing, and that’s how they start to make an idea. Sitting by the computer doesn’t mean you are getting a good idea. It can happen, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to walk around the block and listen to some conversation or look at something that’s not within your discipline.

Kessels sitting under a disco ball in a red room with a large display of cameras

Kessels photographed by Bert Teunissen.

Q. What’s the risk of only existing in the “front yard”?

A. The risk is that, at first glance, the work looks very finished, beautiful, perfect. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when you go a little bit deeper, you see that there’s actually no substance to it or that it doesn’t really belong to the person.

I once met a person who graduated cum laude in graphic design school and had a fantastic portfolio. I mean, I’d never seen anything like it. He was like 20 years old and wanted to work with us. But it was too good to be true. It was almost painful, because as I spent more time with him and was learning more about his ideas, suddenly the work and his personality didn’t fit at all with each other anymore. All of his work had been made in the front yard.

Q. Tell me about a time in your own career when going against your typical thinking led to something wonderful.

A. When we started KesselsKramer in 1996, Hans Brinker Amsterdam Hotel was our first client. It’s a 500-bed budget hotel in the center of Amsterdam. The owner called us and said, “Listen, I’m getting really sick of complaints from people who visit the hotel. You really have to help me. Anything you can do to get rid of the complaints?”

So I went to the hotel a day later and it was a huge shithole. I expected something bad, but this was something quite worse. My partner and I really didn’t have an idea of what to do for this hotel, because anything good would be a total lie.

Then we thought, Maybe we’ll turn it around. We felt like maybe honesty was the only luxury they had.

We promoted the hotel very negatively. People said, “You’re crazy.” We did posters that said, “Now a bed in every room.” We made a hotel brochure where we put the word “Not” in front of everything. For example, “Not with a swimming pool.”

Our “anti-advertising” campaign turned out to be very successful. The hotel had 60,000 overnights when we started. Now they have 160,000 overnights. Backpackers and students really loved the total irony. It was a very risky proposition to call it the worst hotel in the world. And that’s what they got famous for in the end.

A poster by KesselsKramer showing all items not included in your stay at Hans Brinker Budget Hotel.

Poster for a Hans Brinker Budget Hotel campaign. Images courtesy of KesselsKramer

Q. That’s hilarious. What’d the hotel say when you first told them the idea?

A. We still work with them. The manager of the hotel, I saw a twinkle in his eyes and felt that he understood. He had to sell the idea to the owners, who told him he was crazy. But they went with it.

Q. A lot of people might love your approach, but they’re in a position where they can’t take such risks. They might work for a big agency where things are standardized, or where there’s no time or budget for failure. How do you respond to that concern?

A. It’s in people’s own hands. Now more than ever, people can start their own companies. How much investment would you need to start your own company nowadays? Almost nothing. I think that when the frustration is too much and you work in a place where you can’t be happy, then you should leave. You should make a drastic change in your life.

It’s very important as a creative that you take a risk. That is hard work. When I’m at work, it’s not that I can lean back. Nothing comes automatically. When I start with a new brief, it’s as difficult as it was 20 years ago. There is no direct solution on the table.

Q. You started your own advertising firm more than 20 years ago. What were you doing before then?

A. My business partner, Johan, and I were working at an agency in London. Before that, we were working at another agency, where we were eventually fired. At the time, the company was going through a tense period and people were nervous, so they took us on a weekend trip. On that weekend away, we appeared at a meeting in chicken suits. One half of the agency loved it; the other was quite pissed off that we disturbed a meeting like that. Two weeks later we got fired. It’s funny; when we were recruited there, they picked us up in a limousine from the airport. A year later we were standing with boxes on the street.

Q. Why has your firm been successful?

A. From when we started in 1996, we’ve tried to keep certain standards in the work. Advertising is a very optimistic industry. If there’s a client who brings a bag of money, everyone opens their doors. Certain ethics are very far away then. But we’re quite strict about that. We’ve stopped working with clients. We’ve fired clients that are not going in the right direction. I think sometimes more agencies should do that. Sometimes creatives end up working for clients they don’t want to work for because they think they can’t do creative work for them, which is often true. So I think this is an agency where creative work should deliver that and have principles.

We’re not afraid to do things differently. In Amsterdam, our office is in a church. We acquired it in 1998 and built an office in it. At that time, people fell over when they came in. We came from a time when design agencies had a big reception with everything in white. Everything had to be luxurious. For us, it was very reactionary. We had built up quite a lot of frustration over the years. We wanted to be different.

Kessels photographed at the KesselsKramer Amsterdam office. The office is an old church and features stained glass windows and a diving board on the balcony.

Kessels photographed by Bert Teunissen at the KesselsKramer Amsterdam office

Q. What are your views on the future of your industry?

A. In the year we are in now, it’s fantastic that people can make many crossovers with different disciplines. This was something like 10 to 15 years ago, when it was much more difficult for people to do that. Now you see that when students are in art school, before they even graduate, they’ve done two or three different disciplines, like photography, graphic design, and illustration, for instance. I think that in the future there will always be specialists who are very good at something, whether it’s typography, architecture, design, or photography, and they are almost subliminal in that. But there will be more people who can work across different disciplines and do very interesting work. When an architect can do product design or a graphic designer can make a building, that’s very exciting. You’ll see that more and more now.

It’s easy to be frustrated about how things happened in the past, but the future is a clean slate.

Brilliant Ideas That Never Saw the Light of Day

We all have brilliant ideas that never came to fruition: smart hacks and world-changing solutions that don’t make it out of the drawing board stage. Maybe the product was impossible to build. Maybe you got distracted by a summer romance. Maybe your creative director killed it on arrival.

So we asked five creatives to revisit their brilliant ideas that never came to be and judge whether they were genius or madness.


1. A digital bookmark for printed books:
 Wai-Loong Lim, founder of Y Studios

I love reading, but I thought the traditional book experience could be even more enriching. I had this brilliant idea to create a digital bookmark called Lexicus. This was way back before the iPhone and Kindle.

My idea for Lexicus was to make it look like an old-school bookmark with a tiny camera and flexible display. The magic was that when you came across a word you didn’t know, you could use the camera to scan it, and bam! – the display would show the results. You could look up any word, like a hypertext link, without having to reach for a dictionary or – God forbid – a clunky encyclopedia. When you weren’t using it, it would tuck among the pages and not interfere with your reading experience. It felt so right that the digital and analog worlds could work together so seamlessly.

“How hard can it be, right? Turns out it was harder than anyone thought.”

To make it possible, everything about Lexicus had to be supernano. The camera would be tiny, the circuit board and display would be flexible, and the battery would last forever. How hard can it be, right?

Turns out it was harder than anyone thought. It was just too early for its time, and probably still is. These days I read only on the Kindle. I don’t see myself going back to analog, ever. But here’s the thing: There are tons of analog books out there that will never be digitized. So I think there’s a viable market for Lexicus. At the end of the day, I think it’s important to keep having harebrained ideas. As Stephen Hunt said, “If you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space.”

2. A window that tells you the history of what you see:
Alexis Lloyd, head of design innovation, Automattic

A couple of jobs ago, I was working as the creative director of the New York Times R&D Lab. We were tasked with looking at emerging technologies and building experience prototypes that explored how those changes might impact news and media – specifically the Times.

We had a lab space on the 28th floor of the New York Times Building, which had floor-to-ceiling windows. We were right across from the old McGraw-Hill Building, which has this incredible mosaic work that you can’t see unless you’re in a skyscraper next to it. I’m fascinated by New York’s density of history and stories. I would look out those windows and want to know the stories behind all the buildings, those invisible layers of history embedded in the built environment.

I had this idea of that window becoming a transparent overlay, where I could point at a building and get some contextual information about the architecture. How do you take historical stories – stories that the Times might have covered – and situate them in a physical space?

“That idea was well served, even though the actual specific concept was never fulfilled.”

It turned out there were a lot of reasons why that wasn’t feasible to do. Transparent displays are hard to come by, and back then they maxed out at 16 inches. We were looking at those big, metal binocular telescopes they have at the top of the Empire State Building, thinking, Maybe we can use these and hack the display. But there was never quite the combination of the impetus and technological ability to pull it off. The lesson I learned was not to be too literal about your ideas or too attached to one particular manifestation of them. Some of these ideas made their way into other really cool projects. That idea was well served, even though the actual specific concept was never fulfilled.

3. An ad campaign that reminds you you’re going to die:
Ben Hughes, executive creative director, Stink Studios

Early in my career, I worked at an agency pitching campaigns for the Chrysler 300, a.k.a. “the poor man’s Bentley.” People bought that car reluctantly; the mindset was they really wanted a luxury sedan, but for now they’d settle for the more affordable option.

My solution was a campaign called “Live Now,” which asked viewers to consider whether a Chrysler 300 today was better than a Bentley in the future. After all, no one can say with 100 percent confidence they’ll be around to enjoy it. Climate change, avian flu – life is full of uncertainty, and tomorrow (and that Bentley) may never come. 

At the time, I was in love with the idea of a car company dispensing with the clichés of luxury and performance and leveling with their audience. I believed it had the potential to be another landmark in the tradition of disarmingly honest advertising, up there with the likes of VW calling their cars ‘lemons’ or Avis proudly owning their status as the number two rental company.

“Here at Chrysler, we recognize that you will surely die, perhaps sooner than you would like. So consider driving off the lot in an all-new 300 today.” 

I presented it to my creative director with an almost religious fervor. I remember he paused. There was a tic visible on his forehead. He said, in measured a tone, “I’m not sure Chrysler wants to be associated with the inevitability of death. What else do you have?”

Looking back on it now, I must have been radiating a mix of naiveté and madness. My creative director later admitted that he had been worried about my mental state. But if I’m being totally honest, I still think I was right.

4. A set of ‘Disposable Friends’
Safwat Saleem, designer and artist

A few years ago, I was mildly obsessed with the idea of making these small, robot-like sculptures that I wanted to call Disposable Friends. These friends would talk to you if you pressed the button on their head. Basically, they’d cycle through a series of pre-programmed audio recordings. I wanted to make several versions with different personalities. You could pick what kind of personality your disposable friend would have. The choices were: a Muslim friend, a Latinx friend, a black friend, an LGBTQ friend, and your general immigrant friend.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing, even though I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of tutorials.”

I was excited to make a satirical work of art that would speak to the homogeneity of our social circles. The internet and social media held such promise of exposing us to different points of view, but that never quite materialized. If anything, the ideas we are generally exposed to have become even more limited and insular. I wanted the project to encourage the viewer to take stock of their own bubbles and social circles, and think about how they could expose themselves to diverse points of view.  

With Disposable Friends, there was a lot of new stuff to learn – how to program an Arduino microprocessor, which would allow the disposable friend to essentially “talk.” I didn’t really know what I was doing, even though I watched a lot of YouTube videos and read a lot of tutorials. It took so long to make tiny amounts of progress that I eventually gave up on it.

I still think about the project occasionally and I get excited again. But then I think about all the weekends I spent trying to solder circuits. If I did it again, I’d look for a collaborator who excels at the things that I don’t. As the famous saying goes: Every graphic designer needs a friend who is good at electronics. Okay, that’s not really a famous saying, but I could use a collaborator like that. Do you know anyone?

5. A beacon-equipped playground: 
Ruby Steel, senior design strategist, Smart Design

Back in 2017 I was invited to be a “fixer” on BBC Two’s television series The Big Life Fix. The program sees teams of the United Kingdom’s top designers and engineers take on challenges at an individual level. One such challenge was that of 8-year-old Josh, a profoundly blind child in southeast London. His parents had made the decision to send him to a mainstream school, but his disability prevented him from using the playground with the other children at break times. The uneven surface, along with the many kids running in every direction, made it an intimidating place for Josh. He became increasingly isolated at playtime, sitting in a corner listening to Spotify.

Often the best ideas spring from flawed ones.

The biggest barrier to him entering the space was his overall lack of understanding about where he was at any given time. So we set about designing a playground that would allow Josh to navigate the space and feel confident. Our original plan was to use beacons, leveraging Bluetooth technology, to map out the playground. When Josh walked past one of these beacons, it would provide him with a navigational cue. I was excited that it seemed technology could bridge the gap between Josh and the playground.

In our enthusiasm to prototype and rapidly solve the challenge, this initial approach was a blunder on our part. The idea broke one of my fundamental design principles – we were not designing inclusively. To solve for Josh, we couldn’t ignore the needs of the other children. Our solution needed to consider all the children in the playground.

Often the best ideas spring from flawed ones. In the end, we created a network of guidance paved with special sound tiles that would indicate to Josh where he was and also allow other children to make their own games. Rather than stigmatizing Josh by giving him a separate experience, everyone enjoys an integrated experience. The result was amazing. Josh now goes out into the playground several times a week –  a long way from the lonely little boy who sat inside at playtime.

From Embracing Imperfections to Designing Alternate Realities: 99U’s 10 Best Innovative Ideas

The perk of being a creative is that we live in a world of constant inspiration. We gathered up some of our favorite innovative thinking from this year—from emoji emotions to sound logos (what?!)—in the hopes that the unexpected ways other creatives are approaching their work brings a shot of inspiration to your career.

1. Get paid for creativity, not time.

In his recent paper, State of the Digital Nation 2020, FKTRY founder Jules Ehrhardt sees a tough road ahead for the long-standing creative agency model of paying for time instead of creativity, which he says has led to company consolidation, lost jobs, and cheaper pricing. “The only way for us to escape and build a new prosperous place, a new happy place, is to basically break that ‘paid for time’ client service model,” says Ehrhardt.

Matteo Farinella illustrates the new rules for communicating in a virtual world, including use emojis to share current mood status.

Matteo Farinella illustrates the new rules for communicating in a virtual world.

2. Bring emoji intelligence to your virtual meetings.

In the current distributed world of remote work, we need to treat our virtual communication with as much emotional intelligence as our in-person chats. When sitting down for a conference call, don’t dive straight into the agenda. Take the emotional temperature of the room. Are people stressed? Do they have exciting news to share? Start by asking every teammate to send a string of emojis to express their emotional state.

3. Design a set of questions to separate the good ideas from the great ones.

The curators at the MoMA Design Store put their new products through an eight-step “filtration” process designed to cut out all but the best. Their key questions are relevant to anyone launching something new: “Is it useful? Does it solve a problem? Does it use materials or technology in an innovative way? Would the world miss it if it wasn’t there?” And lastly, but most importantly: “Will the customer buy it?”

Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, and Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, filming in the Microsoft office. Photo by Brian Smale.

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, and Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, filming in the Microsoft office. Photo by Brian Smale.

4. Break ground with your job title.

The title “Chief Storyteller” was once highlighted on a Fortune list of wackiest jobs titles. But, as it turns out, Microsoft’s Chief Storyteller, Steve Clayton, was ahead of his time. “What it does is it gets people’s attention,” says Clayton.“I do think we’ll see more Chief Storytellers as we move into the era of brands and companies talking about their mission and purpose—purpose over product. They will be inclined to take on more of their own storytelling.”

5. Recognize trick questions.

Veteran investor Tige Savage always asks the people pitching him who their competitors are. Sure, it might seem cool to say, “No one has ever done anything like this.” But don’t be fooled. He is actually testing your market savvy. “Venture capitalists want to understand your awareness of the competitive environment,” says Savage. “They want to know why you think you have strengths that carve out a reasonable niche versus the rest.”

An empathy kit with VR and candy to help people better understand autism. Photo courtesy of OnComfort.

An empathy kit with VR and candy to help people better understand autism. Photo courtesy of OnComfort.

6. Create virtual-world solutions.

The VR boom hasn’t quite changed the world quite like we thought it would. But it’s certainly changing lives, from drug rehabilitation programs to PTSD therapy, by giving users access to experiences in a safe environment. “From time to time, naysayers will mention VR is dead, only because it hasn’t radically re-shaped the gaming industry in the way it was hyped. But even if all innovation stopped tomorrow, we would be at a sufficient level to continue to do great stuff, clinically,” says Albert Rizzo, director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies.

7. Think beyond color.

Whether it’s a red/green color deficiency or chromatic confusion over purple, one in 12 men and 0.5 percent of women have some kind of color blindness. But our digital world—from to-do list apps to clothing websites—often uses color differentiation to deliver information and wayfinding. “Many designers aren’t aware of this disability,” says UX designer Matej Latin. It’s time for digital design to get over this blind spot. To start, pull texture, pattern, and shape into your design repertoire, not just color indicators.

8. Design with sound in mind.

Joel Beckerman, founder of sonic branding firm Man Made Music, is the force behind the sounds that are as iconic to a company as their logo, like the purr of a Nissan hybrid engine (artificially added to the otherwise silent car), or the iMAX audioscape. But the soundscape he most enjoys redesigning? Hospitals. “Take for example this problem of hospital alarms: Who says an alarm has to scare the crap out of you?” he says. “We believe we can use sound to make alarms and soundscapes much more purposeful.”

9. Embrace alternate realities.

Vince Kadlubek, the co-founder of the immersive art experience Meow Wolf, sees a bright future for creativity—actually, he sees many alternate futures. “In the next 20 years, alternate realities are going to be the biggest product that customers will be seeking,” he says. Kadlubek encourages creatives to start envisioning and building them now, not just physically, but in even more undiscovered territory, digitally. “The world has felt limited by previous infrastructure that we can’t affect. That’s changing.”

Mona Chalabi uses images to provide context in her data sets, like a person practicing yoga, for a yoga data set. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

Mona Chalabi uses images to provide context in her data sets. Image courtesy of Chalabi.

10. A colorful visual trumps a bar graph every time.

Data journalist Mona Chalabi is fighting the false pretense that we all know exactly what we’re talking about. Specifically, she’s frustrated by the veneer of scientific objectivity that comes with traditional data visualizations like piece charts and graphs. “They make it seem like the data is so pure and precise and that’s not the truth of data,” she says. Instead, Chalabi hand-draws her graphs to create a more human-centric way to consume data with the proper context.

From Checking Your Ego to Making Meetings Less Scary for Introverts: 99U’s 10 Best Ideas for Leaders

Being in charge means having a lot on your plate. Leaders juggle everything from managing bottom lines to overseeing top-tier team culture. We’ve heard it said that it’s lonely at the top, so we sourced some words of wisdom from iconic leaders such as Beth Comstock, Scott Belsky, and Tina Roth Eisenberg to help you out. From how to hire more authentic people to how to host more inclusive meetings, their advice will make you feel like you’re not in this on your own.

Wise words from Adobe Chief Product Officer, Scott Belsky. Image courtesy of Belsky.

1. Don’t make decisions out of fear.

We all hit low points in the struggle to get our big idea off the ground. At those times, we’re prone to self-doubt and that is when we start to make knee-jerk decisions. In his recent book, The Messy Middle, Scott Belsky encourages us to put people first by “being empathetic with what the customer is suffering from, and [focus] on doing what’s right for the team.”

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UENO founder Haraldur Thorleifsson

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Ueno founder Haraldur Thorleifsson. Image courtesy of Ueno.

2. Amplify the voices on your team.

The design studio Ueno is vocal about social issues, driven by its diverse team of employees. Rather than fear a business fallout, founder Haraldur Thorleifsson has embraced speaking up on important cultural issues. “I have no idea if it is good or bad for our business,” says Thorleifsson. “But I really don’t think about it that way. If this will be our downfall, then that’s the hill that I am willing to die on.”

3. Build momentum.

Your big, world-changing vision deserves more than a few obligatory head nods from your team. It needs genuine buy-in from everyone working together towards a greater objective. Imagine It Forward author Beth Comstock says that a leader’s goal is to create a movement, not to strong-arm people into saying you’re right. “It can become about my idea versus their idea, and that’s often where things fall down in companies because it gets to be a bit of either turf war, function war, or ego war,” Comstock says.

The creatives at Mighty Oak pose for the camera. Image courtesy of Mighty Oak.

The creatives at Mighty Oak. Image courtesy of Mighty Oak.

4. Check your micromanagement meter.

A series of promotions into management can leave us far from the hands-on work we love. Don’t let that turn you into a micromanager. Mighty Oak Creative Director Emily Collins says, “I fight the inclination to micromanage by highlighting my most important duties for the day—and doing them well—before I consider meddling with someone else’s. If my duties include checking in with people I schedule a couple of check-ins, but I don’t do their jobs for them.”

5. Ask for a joke.

Tina Roth Eisenberg, CEO of CreativeMornings, Tattly, and Creative Guild, looks to hire people who bring their authentic selves to work. How does she find these team members? “When you apply for a job with us, we always ask to include a joke,” says Roth Eisenberg. The joke is the most telling part of the job application. Do people skip it? Drop inappropriate one-liners? Or do they land a stellar punchline demonstrating just the right amount of situational awareness, timing, and tact that will probably make them a great colleague?

6. Educate your clients as well as your team.

In the ever-changing world of work, employee education is important. But training doesn’t stop there. You are your client’s first touchpoint to understanding what is a reasonable request and what is just untenable. Keep your clients up to date on the shifts in your world of work or you’ll be managing a growing disconnect between how you work and what your clients think is going on behind-the-scenes. Pull back the curtain and don’t just explain your deliverables, explain the process that’s going into them.

7. Look for unlikely people creating unlikely value in unlikely places.

Corporate hierarchies don’t tend to surface the secret valuable players who punch above their weight with soft power skills. These are the employees who generate momentum and energy far beyond their scope of work. They’re great at getting to the root of an issue, creating informal connections, and encouraging collaboration. What’s not to love? But, according to the book Talent Wins, their power is being overlooked and underutilized in just about every organization. They’re out there. Go find them. 

Lisa Doberman, the leader of the design firm Doberman, leading a brainstorming session. Photograph by Emil Nordin.

Lisa Doberman, the leader of the design firm Doberman. Photograph by Emil Nordin.

8. Manage by trust.

Lisa Doberman, co-founder of design firm Doberman, invites all of her employees to join management committee meetings and make decisions that impact the future of the company. Doberman sees rich results from the participatory-steering mechanism. “What I get in return is people’s engagement,” she says. “I get their passion. I get lots of ideas. I get their sense of responsibility.”

9. Don’t respond to customer needs, anticipate them.

“The days of just showing data are over; it’s too static,” says Mailchimp VP of Design, Gene Lee. The new goal for leaders, according to Lee, is to combine the tools of AI and data to anticipate what a user needs before they know it themselves.

10. Get the buzzer away from the big talkers.

Todd Yellin noticed that his meetings at Netflix were being dominated by a few bombastic folks, waiting with their hand over the proverbial buzzer for others to finish speaking so they could go next. Yellin, VP of Product, set about rebalancing the power of meetings away from ‘me-first’ talkers. The team experimented first with hand raising, and then went deeper, circulating shared documents before a meeting so introverts could add their comments in writing ahead of time

What We Talk About When We Talk About Design Ethics

It’s hard to imagine a time when creatives had more tools and resources at their fingertips. Today, a website can be built in days, an audio file edited in minutes, an image socialized in seconds. But just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should. That’s the basis of design ethics, a subject that is becoming even more important at a time when technology continues to rapidly open new avenues for creatives.

99U recently sat down with Courtney George, Adobe’s Experience Design Manager, and Phil Clevenger, Adobe’s Senior Director of Experience Design, to learn more about the process of addressing design ethics and how maintaining design standards makes designers good societal stewards.

When we talk about design ethics, what exactly are we talking about?

CG: It’s really about the means that we use to achieve an end that we deem to be good. It needs to be something that is complementary to our own values, or our company values if we’re working at a company. It’s not like legal, which is a lot more black and white: You do something and it is legal, or you do something and it is illegal. Ethics is inherently more gray and flexible.

When we think about design ethics, especially in tech, it’s about slowing down and being more conscientious and intentional about what we are creating and what we’re putting out into the world. It’s thinking about what the impact might be on the people that we’re serving, people that our customers are serving, their well-being, their relationships, society in general, and the environment. It’s never-ending, and in some ways that can be overwhelming, but it’s also extremely important in this day and age.

Why is this such a big focus for companies right now?

PC: These conversations have been around for a very long time, but what makes them immediately relevant are these three issues: scale, velocity, and access. Right now we have the ability for people to push a button and create whatever they want in an instant at virtually no cost, whatever their intention may be, whether they’re selling tacos or they’re introducing viruses, or they’re engaging in political speech. Our actions are immediately impactful at a huge scale, at zero cost, and they’re potentially very, very hard to roll back.

Where do design ethics come into play? Is there a recent example that comes to mind?

PC: A perfect example is a project that Adobe unveiled at the 2016 Adobe MAX conference. It was a technology that enables users to quickly edit recorded speech using only a text editor and, given a large enough sample of the subject’s speech, create strings of speech that hadn’t previously existed.

Do we even own our own voice?

While the narrative that we presented at MAX was entertaining, it became clear that the technology could be used by bad actors. You could imagine the ramifications of something like that especially in the current political climate. There was a considerable amount of blowback, and rightfully so, from the audience and from the community at large.

So Adobe has taken several steps back to examine it. We’ve been looking very closely at important questions: the cases we want to serve, the guardrails we want to put in, the high bars we want to set. What are rights issues around it? Do we even own our own voice? Do we have a remedy available if someone misuses our voice or our speech to harm people? And what if new solutions introduce new problems?

We’ve seen plenty of instances where even products created with the best intentions get used in ways we never imagined. When that happens, do we, as creators, ever have the ability to ever return it to what we thought it was, or is it a lost cause?

CG: You could have the best intentions and do everything right and there are still going to be unintended consequences. They’re  “unintended” for a reason. What is important is to be able to course correct, take accountability, and be mindful of the impact that it has had on people or on society. I think we do a decent job of that in the tech industry. It’s not like what you put out there is final and you never have to touch it again.

We must be respectful of our users’ time, intentions, privacy, and intelligence.

We’re good at iterating and optimizing, and I think that this is an important step, to constantly examine what’s out in the market, examine what you put out there, and keep your eye out for those consequences, so you can course correct in a timely manner.

Adobe Design is putting a lot of effort into getting the whole organization to abide by certain design ethics. What are some of the main principles?

PC: Well, this is a work in progress, but one solid principle is that we should recognize bias, knowing that bias is inherently neither good nor bad, and that bias is omnipresent. Where there are people, there is bias. The trick is to recognize the bias, understand its impact on your efforts, and to mitigate it as needed.

Another example is that we must be respectful of our users’ time, intentions, privacy, and intelligence. This is obvious enough that it shouldn’t have to be said, but important enough that it should be hanging from each of our desktops all the time. We want to make sure that we’re building tools and setting examples for our customers that ensure that we’re enabling them to be respectful of their end users across all those dimensions. If you’re popping up advertisements that get between your users’ intentions and their results, then you’re not being respectful of their time.

What are the questions that designers should be asking themselves?

PG: We are starting by asking designers to be mindful of what they’re doing, and to take stock of what they’re being asked to do. As seen through the principles we just mentioned, are you being asked to design something that perpetuates a negative bias? Are you being asked to do something that’s not respectful of your users’ time and intentions?

We’re here to try to make the world a better place for the people who consume the products we design.

Remember, we are user experience designers. We’re here to try to make the world a better place for the people who consume the products we design. And where those things aren’t happening or where your company’s values are in conflict with your own personal values  – you have to be mindful of all these dynamics. Take some time to articulate an opinion and make that opinion count. Have uncomfortable conversations, if you have to, with the people that you’re working with and the people that you’re working around. If you have to hand the work off, and if you’re uncomfortable with where it’s going, create an artifact to represent your opinion that can travel with the work. Stand up and have a voice.

It’s often said that good ethics is good business. Do you think companies will make this a bigger focus going forward, whether through setting up ethics departments, ethics programs, or something else?

CG: Yeah, I think we’re already seeing that happen, especially in the tech industry. You’re seeing it with Salesforce, which recently hired an ethics officer. You’re seeing it at many large companies, and Adobe is definitely one of them.

Regardless of what our respective companies are doing about this, we are challenging the design community overall to be thought leaders here: make sure you and your teams are stopping and asking these questions, and sharing the findings clearly at every step. Help your teams, your stakeholders, and your employers all develop best practices and principles in any way you can. It’s a huge challenge, and design can surely lead the way.

Interview edited for clarity and length.

Design Debate: Should You Work In-House or Freelance?

In our newest design debate, Gordon Reid, Melissa Deckert, and Mike Kruzeniski weigh in on the pros and cons of designing in-house versus as a freelancer. Ready, set, debate.

“Being my own boss, if I want to do something, I can make it happen.”

Gordon Reid, Art Director and Founder, Middle Boop

I love being my own boss at the studio I run, Middle Boop. I still have bosses, but they are clients. What I don’t have is that extra level of massive red tape that you get if you’re working in an agency or in-house.

As my own boss, whether an idea manifests into something or stays in the back of my head is all up to me. Coming from a long advertising background, one of my main frustrations was that I wasn’t being allowed enough creative input into ideas. At Middle Boop, it is just me and the clients. We’ll come up with a strategy ourselves, and we’ll collaborate. I always feel like I’ve made a difference to a client’s business at the end of a project. When you’re not your own boss, there are many layers of people to try to convince before anything takes off. Great ideas get lost. Probably 70 to 80 percent of the work I’ve done at agencies never saw the light of day.

At the end of the day, freelancing is worth the hassle, struggles, and worries because I get to properly put my own stamp on my work.

While working in an agency context, I would often look at the work and think, No one is going to know that I had any involvement. Except for maybe me pointing to a bus poster while I’m with a friend saying, “Oh, I did some of that.” At the end of the day, freelancing is worth the hassle, struggles, and worries because I get to properly put my own stamp on my work.

This summer, I took two months off to do a self-initiated projected called Weird World Cup. My intern Callum and I commissioned 20 illustrators and designers to create beer mats based around the artists’ favorite weird or humorous moment from a World Cup—then all the money went to charity and we got global press. You can’t do this kind of thing when you’re in a full-time job.

I occasionally take time to freelance as a consultant in agencies or in-house. Right now, I’m in-house at a large tech company, and it’s definitely a breath of fresh air. There are many perks—free food, free gym. The other day, my partner asked me, if the company offered me a full-time job, whether I would take it. I said no. The lifestyle of running your own business is just too good. I couldn’t work for someone else’s vision for a long time. I would get bored and feel like my time was being wasted.

“In-house experience was essential for starting my own studio.”

Melissa Deckert, Designer and Co-Founder, Party of One

I started working at Etsy almost right out of college. During my time there, the company grew considerably. As the brand grew so did our team—my experience scaled from small internal projects to large international campaigns. I became comfortable pitching and presenting work in front of a lot of people. I was able to travel extensively, not necessarily something I would have been able to do at that age. Working in-house was an important part of my growth as a designer and a huge learning experience. Ironically, it fueled my confidence in starting my own studio.

After some time at Etsy, it seemed the only way to grow at the company was by taking on a role in management, which I wasn’t interested in. I wanted to expand my practical skills, as well as experiment with my own style, which was at odds with in-house work.

When you’re working independently, your livelihood is deeply tied to what you produce, which places a heavier association between your work and your self worth.

Eventually, I decided to go freelance, which opened up a whole new world of adjustments. When you’re working independently, your livelihood is deeply tied to what you produce, which places a heavier association between your work and your self worth. There is also the constant fear of never getting another job. At the start of my freelance career, I worked from home which lent me certain freedoms, but ultimately felt isolating and devoid of community. I quickly realized that I thrived from having other people to bounce ideas off and craved creative kinship.

I began collaborating with my friend Nicole Licht, who had hired me at Etsy. She started freelancing around the same time as me, and, while I was leaning towards traditional design with an interest in things like lettering, Nicole was leaning towards illustration and paper craft.

After two years of regular collaborations we decided to form Party of One. By combining our skills, we now have the opportunity to do many kinds of work with a wider variety of clients. Together, we also keep one another from spiraling into thoughts of “I’m never going to get work again” and “I don’t know how much to price for this.” It was valuable to work in a big team in-house—to garner skills and learn what we liked—but, on our own, it is hugely satisfying to have our name behind what we create.

“To do really big, ambitious work takes time and direct connection with a company.”

Mike Kruzeniski, Design & Research lead, Twitter

The entirety of my career has been in-house, except for a short time freelancing. From that brief experience, I found I got to work on a lot of projects, but it never felt like I could get into them in a deep way. I was attracted to the idea of getting very close to products and the companies that make them.

For a handful of years, I was a Principal Design Lead at Microsoft. Since 2012, I’ve been at Twitter, growing with the company over the last six and a half years. To do big, ambitious work takes time. By being in-house, you can get all the foundational information of what a company is trying to achieve and build on that in a multi-year way. You’re directly connected to the people that are building the products with you. If there is something I need to achieve, I can talk directly to our data scientists or to the marketing or engineering teams. I can work with them on projects over long periods of time. This is more difficult to do as a consultant.

You learn leadership and communication skills, organizational management—skills that you might not learn if you’re only working with other designers.

In-house, you learn skills from other people in other departments, too. A lot of time over your career, the things that you learn aren’t always just specific to your discipline. You learn leadership and communication skills, organizational management—skills that you might not learn if you’re only working with other designers. You can learn a broader set of skills by working with a more diverse group of people and disciplines.

One of the myths around in-house work is that there is no variety. In reality though, variety appears in different ways. Quite literally while at Microsoft, I would go from product to product. At Twitter, we also have a range of different products that people work on. We’ll have designers that will spend time on one of those, and then jump to another. Within the product itself, we put so much intense focus into all the different features that people will can move from designing video experiences, to conversations, to profiles, and those will feel like very different projects. Then of course we have products like Periscope and our advertiser products. So there are a lot of different areas to put your energy into.

As well as the product variety, there is also a variety in terms of roles. People will try on different types of roles during an in-house career. We’ve had designers pick up project management skills and then even gravitate over to the product management team. Similarly, we’ve had engineers that join the design team. There is not just a skills exchange, but also a sense of career fluidity. At Twitter, a designer might also help the company design a long-term strategy in a way that’s not typically considered design work—there’s no mock-ups for example. There is a role shift that can happen here, which is very interesting for a long-term career.

From Getting in the Sales Trenches to Being You: 99U’s 10 Best Tips for Trusting Your Gut

Confidence, experience, and your own special brand of authenticity all come together to make that intangible authority: the gut check. But trusting your instincts can be hard. Never fear. We’ve collected the best advice from Louise Fili, Adam J. Kurtz, and other 99U thinkers on how to have confidence in your decisions.

 1. Know how to manage your own clients.

For an up-and-coming illustrator or designer, it may seem like getting an agent is the surest ticket to stardom. But the shrewder move may be to start out by going it alone. Learn the ropes of the business side —from negotiating fees to sorting out licenses—so you know what an agent should be doing for you. “There’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from handling it all myself,” admits Laura Callaghan, an Irish illustrator working in London who’s been freelance and agent-free for the past seven years and counts Adidas and Nike as clients. “I enjoy dealing directly with clients and getting a sense of who they are and what they need.

2. Study the numbers, but trust your instincts.

Data can give us a lot of the answers. But it doesn’t possess every answer because the insight we get from our mysterious subconscious is its own kind of data. “Our guts have a wealth of past experiences and rational decisions that we can combine with digital data to make amazing experiences for our customers,” says Adam Morgan, author of the upcoming book, Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business: Proving the Value of Creative Ideas with Science.

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Jessica Hische

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Jessica Hische photographed in the Bay Area by Jennifer Michelson.

3. Redefine success.

Designer Jessica Hische, author of Tomorrow I’ll Be Brave, has aimed for enough pie in the sky projects to know that the thing to fear when making big plans is your own sense of confidence. To that end, she’s re-jiggered her own metrics for success: “Achieving is great, but the real accomplishment is pushing through the initial fear to actually start doing something,” says Hische.

4. Try a crazy career move.

Sometimes, the fear of scaring big-name clients can lead to safe but lackluster proposals and atrophied creative muscles. That might be the sign it’s time to try a crazy career move. Matt Wegerer, more afraid of another year of risk-averse creative work than of failure, left his cushy agency role to found Whiskey Design. Now, he leads his team with the motto: no mediocre excuses for mediocre work.

Louise Fili photographed sittingon a floral couch in her New York City studio. Photography by Franck Bohbot.

Louise Fili in her New York City studio. Photography by Franck Bohbot.

5. Pursue personal projects to experiment with new skills.

Build spaces outside of work, where your main goal is to develop not only a portfolio you’re passionate about, but also a point of view that is uniquely yours. “I feel very strongly that every designer has to have his or her own personal projects,” says designer Louise Fili. “Because it’s the only way that you really grow and find your design voice.”

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Scott Rinckenberger snowy mountain photography.

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Photographer Scott Rinckenberger captures snowy mountain scenes in Washington.

6. Venture off the beaten track.

Find ways to bridge the great passions of your life with your hunger for creative growth. For instance, adventure photographer Scott Rinckenberger used to practice the high adrenaline sports that he now photographs. The former semi-pro skier bridged his lifelong passion with photography when he felt himself wanting to try something different. “I needed a new creative stimulus to keep my mind sharp and engaged,” he says. “I needed some new input and photography offered that.”

7. Prepare ahead so you can live in the moment.

As a travel photographer for the New York Times, Susan Wright often has only a few scant hours on location to shoot her images. That means there’s no time to ask questions or second guess. To get herself in the right state of mind, Wright visualizes the shoot ahead of time, so she can trust her gut in the moment. “Get in a meditative state and think about a location. Feel it. You get visions in your mind: the image that would be truly beautiful to capture…I give myself a shot list and then time to live in the moment.”

8. Be you.

At the end of the day, a successful career isn’t about talent, connections, or fancy tech capabilities. In the inimitable words of the artist Adam J. Kurtz, “We all have the tools and skills. Being yourself is the difference.”

Big Spaceship CEO Mike Lebowitz and illustrator Ping Zhu talking at an AIGA NY event. Photo by Tony Tailor for AIGA/NY.

Big Spaceship CEO Mike Lebowitz and illustrator Ping Zhu talking at an AIGA NY event. Photo by Tony Tailor for AIGA/NY.

9. You have more options than you think you do.

There are bound to be moments in your career when you feel like there are no good options. Those are the moments to remember you have the greatest power in the world: the power to walk away. Yes, there are real and important responsibilities, like families or employees, that may impact your ultimate choice. But even in the moments when you feel like the least powerful person in the room, remember, you always have the power to say no.

10. Do the worthwhile thing, not just the measurable thing.

“We’ve all been there where there’s a good idea on the table. We know it would improve the experience, but it would be hard to measure. So, it gets killed,” says Lyft Director of Product Design Audrey Liu. Go to the mat for those ideas that you know will have impact beyond the hard numbers. It may be more worthwhile than you ever imagined.