Making Ideas Happen: 11 Takeaways from the 99% Conference

May 11, 2011 | Business, Design Basics

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Last week I went to New York to attend Behance’s 99% conference. The conference gets it’s name from a quotation from Thomas Edison:

Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration.

The conference is focused on getting creative people, those who generally don’t have problems generating ideas, to be able to bring the ideas to reality.

I truly enjoyed the variety of people I met and spoke with at the event. There were definitely a large number of graphic designers in the audience but there were also web and software developers, educators, film makers, industrial designers, business coaches and more. The line-up of speakers was unconventional, but well curated and motivating.

Whenever I take time away from work and family to attend a conference or networking event I find myself evaluating whether it was worth my time. It’s usually my time that I miss more than money when I feel that an event was not worth it. The 99% Conference was definitely time well spent. I came away both inspired (which is motivating, but can be fleeting) and armed with some new ideas to be more creative and more productive.

11 Takeaways

Here are my takeaways from the conference. Some of these are directly from a speaker’s presentation. Others are my interpretations and thoughts after hearing different threads that went throughout the conference.

  1. Show more of the process that goes into a design solution, rather than just revealing the final designs. Showing the process can take many forms: sketches, trials, explanations, failed attempts, etc. While I currently try to walk a client through some of the thoughts that are behind the design choices I present, I often am too brief in my explanations. Also, I rarely spend time presenting ideas that didn’t work, or rough forms such as sketches. However, I need to remember that while I’m a designer and can rapidly go through talking points that make the basis for a design decision, my clients are not designers and I need to take them step-by-step through the process in more detail. But the point is not just to showcase all the time spent on a project, the reason is to have them understand that there were many considerations and options examined, even if they all do not appear in the final design. This builds trust. I’ve found that with email and PDFs it’s very tempting to just send off a final design with little explanation and then cross your fingers that the client understands what they’re seeing and knows how to give constructive feedback. I need to break that habit, especially for initial design presentations.
  2. When tackling a large design project, work on different iterations each day (or week) and share them with team members. Feedback from other designers (and non designers) before getting too far is critical to generating more and better ideas. Also, forcing oneself to pace and make daily progress on a creative project is a great way to overcome procrastination.
  3. Evaluate how I can stop the gerbil wheel of email/twitter/social media/phone interruptions. One of the things that shocked me while being away at the conference was just how hard it was to avoid the avalanche of email. During the conference we had a break every couple of hours or so, and during that time I’d use my iPhone to check my email. Every time I had no less than 30 emails waiting for me. Seeing all the crap that got quickly deleted makes me realize how I need to manage my spam, my e-newsletter signups, and my social media notifications better. I don’t have a complete solution for this problem, and I need to devote some time and come up with some fixes. I will unsubscribe from some e-newsletters, and I will create some additional email addresses to accept some other notifications and feeds. I am considering setting up a new, clean email address to only give to partners and clients. Anyone tried this, and does it work long term?
  4. Plan for uninterrupted time for focused creative work. This is something I’ve done in the past, but then I let it slide. I used to look at my week and figure out when the large blocks were going to be. Then, I looked at my to do list and figured out what to work on during those blocks. Lately, I’ve just been too short-sighted and too reactionary with my schedule. I need to return to the practice of focused work blocks.
  5. Find a way to visual goals and progress. This is for both personal items and company/team goals. I heard about, and really liked, the idea of posting goals and progress so that everyone can understand priorities and timelines and encourage others to focus on what’s important. I like all my online tools such as Google calendar and Remember the Milk but they stuck in my computer and not very visually inspiring.
  6. Bring my junior designer to more client meetings. This, in some ways, is the counter part to point #1. Clients need to get a fuller picture of the design process, and young designers need to get a better understanding of the client perspective: what goes into a presentation; how to listen and ask questions; how to speak, look and act professionally; how to read a client’s understanding of the design process; etc.
  7. Give more specific, appreciative feedback that emphasizes the positive. I know this is general terms and I try to always lead with a positive statement before giving critical comments, but I know the balance is still off. I learned about how emphasizing the positive can reinforce and grow the ideas, or elements that we want to foster to the point of squelching the less desirable traits without ever mentioning the negatives.
  8. As a leader, I’ll talk last. At Visible Logic, I’m the owner, the president and most experienced designer. That means that I’m usually the one who should know best. But I need to give all my employees and partners better opportunities to express their ideas so we can all benefit. When the leader gives their opinion first it can often stifle other ideas, so when we’re brainstorming I need to wait for others to go first.
  9. Remember the humanity. Don’t make people bored, wow them. Be nice. Don’t talk about user experience, just talk about how it works and how it makes you/me/us feel.
  10. Find other entrepreneurs or business owners to connect with on a regular basis. I’ve been part of a small group of business owners who try to help each other, but I need to take this commitment to my business more seriously and find a more focused venue for this type of learning. I’m ready to put more effort, time and money into a group that does this.
  11. Create an action plan for my two orphaned ideas. They are not quite orphans, but I have two projects that are basically complete, but no one knows about them. The first is Mail On The Mark, our custom-branded e-newsletter service; everything is ready to go for this new service, but I need to market it. The second is my report on the importance of having domain-based email addresses. Some of you were kind enough to make my survey many months ago; now I need to release my findings.

I hope some of these ideas help you think about how to focus and be more creative and productive. If you are not familiar with Behance and their 99% group, I suggest you look at their articles, tips and tools. I also highly recommend this conference!

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