Highlights from the 12th Annual 99U Conference: The Creative Self


Our speakers at the 2020 99U Conference explored the theme of The Creative Self with insight, wit, and compassion. Here’s a look at the keynotes, master classes, and workshops from our first virtual 99U Conference, filmed at a production studio in Brooklyn and in our speakers’ homes across the world.

This year’s 99U Conference was, for the first time, a free, virtual experience with attendees joining us from around the world. From a paper-crafting workshop that investigates the interplay of the physical and digital, courtesy of Kelli Anderson, to Antionette D. Carroll’s blueprint for genuine inclusivity and equity, there is a wealth of ideas from our featured group of thinkers and creatives that engage with this year’s theme of The Creative Self.

All sessions, keynote, master class, and workshops, are now available to stream and we have gathered highlights below. Watch a replay of the livestream and access all of this year’s talks and explorations on demand at behance.net/99U.


Acknowledge the moment

With remarkable honesty and compassion, author Anne Helen Petersen’s keynote talk Rethinking Productivity Culture, takes a moment to recognize the discomfort, pain, and sheer strangeness of the situation we are all living through. Her investigation of burnout and our relationship to work gives her unique insight into the stresses and challenges of career uncertainty, anxiety, and pressure to be productive. Anne Helen’s perspective here gives us much-needed context and a brief respite from the exhaustion of being “always on.” After all, if everything in our world has changed, “so too should our understandings of what’s possible and what we should expect from ourselves and others.”

The creative power of appreciation

Saying “thank you” will take on a new dimension after A.J. Jacobs’ keynote Practicing Radical Gratitude. His talk takes us through the most valuable lessons that he learned from his gratitude project of thanking every person involved in his daily cup of coffee, and how extending appreciation can transform your mindset. It might feel strange at first, but as A.J. can attest, “Your mind catches up with your behavior. So often our actions shape our thoughts, not the other way around.”

John S. Couch’s master class Designing a New Day is also a lesson in appreciation, as he argues for carving out “me time.” Creating this personal space is crucial for mental and creative health, and as John says, “my argument is that for creative innovation, the ability to function better at work, you need time on your own. You need time to sit and contemplate and center.” The simple action of making an hour each day for your personal projects and ambitions will extend gratitude in every direction in your life.

Finding value in healthy tension

Anna Sale’s podcast, Death, Sex & Money, focuses on those questions and conversations that we would prefer to avoid—uncomfortable, thorny topics that stir up fear, anger or sadness. But as we hear in her keynote Let’s Talk About Hard Things, she has found that embracing this discomfort leads to genuine connection, growth, and foundations for community building. Anna notes that this is more valuable now than ever before, “I would argue that the onus is more on us as individuals to skillfully navigate this stuff in conversation with the people in our lives. The onus is on us now in a way that it hasn’t been in previous generations.”

The concept of tension also informed Taeyoon Choi’s keynote, Strategies for Embracing Our Contradictions. The founder of the School for Poetic Computation talked us through the concept of “unlearning,” which is rooted in the notions of reconciliation and mending relationships. How do we recognize each other’s complexities and contradictions and still find common ground to form meaningful connections? Using code and computing as a reference point, Taeyoon guides us through how we can apply the same concepts to our relationships, urging us to “Spend time with those who appreciate your contradictions, who challenge your beliefs, but acknowledge that you are your own person. Notice how you grow in their presence, notice how time slows down, when you’re with them.”

Mapping a thoughtful future

In her prescient master class, Understanding Identity, Power, & Equity in Design LeadershipAntionette D. Carroll offers us a set of strategies for the design industry to examine its impact, clarify priorities, and work towards a shared goal. She explores how thoughtful, genuinely inclusive leadership relies on recognizing accountability and responsibility of those in power. Antionette is instructive, giving us insight into how she arrived at her commitment to creating equity and fair representation, noting that “we need to have a cultural or systemic shift within our actual industry.”

Likewise looking to a more compassionate future, Michael Ventura, the founder and CEO of Sub Rosa, leads Applying Empathy, a workshop that dispels some of the myths around empathy, and illustrates how it is less of a trait than a regular practice, and a muscle that we can all build. He shows us how empathy comes to life, and how we can expand our capacity for connection and engaging with those around us. As he says, “We can start to become aware of the things that have held us back in the past, our fears, our anxieties, and by working through those, we’re able to help others.”

Yancey Strickler’s keynote, A Framework for Your Ultimate Self, illuminates a bird’s-eye view of the future, as he walks us through his concept of Bentoism, composed of “four distinct spaces of self-interest to think about.” Through Bentoism, Yancey illustrates how your assumptions can be challenged, and your time and energy redirected to create a more generous, coherent worldview.

Find your currency of power

Power, in all its forms, shapes our personal and professional lives. In his 99U keynote talk, Understanding Power LanguagesAlain Sylvain, founder and CEO of Sylvain Labs, asks, “how can we manifest that power as creative people in order to truly maximize our potential?” He traces power through history, explains how it is situational, ever-shifting, and present in all our interactions. By being aware of the unique capacity for power that designers hold, we can work towards understanding this as a tool and potential to push for positive change.

Embrace the everyday 

If you’ve spent a great deal of time surrounded by familiar sights lately, a pair of workshops in this year’s conference lineup could spark you to think about the everyday in new and unexpected ways.

Illustrator Octavia Brommell leads Exploring Personal Projects, a workshop that demonstrate her approach to considering creative priorities, centering personal happiness, and creating art driven by gratitude and appreciation for simple joys. As she notes, “Not only has working on personal things improved my general wellbeing and my sanity for small things, it’s also become a great way for me to keep the dreaded artist’s block or creative burnout at bay.”

Jinjin Sun

Jinjin Sun, Adobe’s senior experience designer, talked with Octavia Bromell about the importance of appreciating small joys. Photography by Joey Sun.

And if you’ve ever looked at one of Michelle Rial’s clever, witty charts and wondered how she makes something so compelling out of the everyday, her workshop Chart Your Life, will not only give you a glimpse into her creative mindset, but a chance to tap into the same capacity in your own practice. Through Michelle’s brainstorming session and guided steps, she breaks down her ideas process and shows how her best ideas are sparked. And no need to be intimidated, because as Michelle puts it, “What I found in that process is if you can draw three lines, and write three words, you can make a chart.”  Don’t be afraid to experiment, either, because as Michelle reminds us, “bad ideas can become good ideas if you give them time, space, and love.”

Push against the algorithm

We all know what it’s like to feel as though algorithms can read our minds, whether it’s a just-right playlist, or the product you’ve been thinking about buying popping up on another website. We also have a pretty clear line between the digital and physical worlds set in our minds. But two speakers at this year’s conference challenged our assumptions and encouraged us to look beyond those boundaries.

Most of the time, Nishat Akhtar, creative director at Instrument, embraces the experience of seeing her interests reflected back through multiple digital platforms. But as she points out in her 99U master class Look Around You, we have a responsibility to push back against these patterns and draw ourselves out of our comfort zones to make genuine connections with others. Her two exercises will hone your “power of noticing,” connect you to your instincts, and deepen your relationships. In both activities, she notes how important it is to “Allow yourself to be transported to this new place or a new feeling. Allow yourself to get closer to the people that you do this with. Allow yourself to be yourself in order to find yourself.” Her own experiences with the two exercises have had a profound impact on her, “I fortified my own creative self, I connected with my community, deepened existing relationships, and cultivated new ones.”

Jeannie Huang

Jeannie Huang, senior product designer on Behance, in conversation with Kelli Anderson. Photography by Joey Sun.

Taking a more hands-on approach, Kelli Anderson’s workshop Materials for Computer People will push you to engage with materials in an unexpected, playful way. Drawing from historical examples from designers and artists, and citing her own experiments with paper technology, the artist and paper engineer leads us through thought exercises that challenge us to create new links between analog and physical, and guides us in building a simple volvelle and a paper calculator.

Lead with love

In her 99U master class Building the Love Into Creative Business, creative business strategist Emily Cohen explains how her direct, brutally honest methods are always rooted in the concept of love. She shows us “how to evolve your business through love—and love is all about connections. We’re talking about building connections, one-on-one connections.” She explained how this love shines through in all aspects of the client relationship, from daily company culture to sustainable growth, reminding us that “When you build the love, a lot of wonderful things happen. Clients will advocate for you. They will defend you when you make a mistake, they will promote you when they need to, they will talk about how much they love you and how much they adore you.”

Keep up the momentum

As part of this year’s exploration of the concept of The Creative Self, we partnered with creative coach and 99U columnist Tina Essmaker who wrote an interactive workbook to make space for reflection and self-discovery on your creative path. Tina’s conversation with Jeannie Huang, senior product designer at Behance, walked us through the second of five exercises in the Workbook, which focuses on purpose and how to think deeper about finding your way forward with intention. Their chat also illuminated the core ideas behind both this year’s Conference theme and the Workbook themes, including voice, building community, and taking care of your personal well-being.

You can start the workbook right in your browser (or download a copy), courtesy of our friends at Adobe Document Cloud.

This article first appeared in www.99u.adobe.com

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