3 Leadership Lessons from Top Designers

Last week we were at the 99u Conference in New York. Each summer, Adobe gathers a community of designers and business leaders to hear from top minds in the creative industry. Surprisingly, this conference has almost nothing to do with pixels or brand strategies, and everything to do with sharing tools for leading an inspirational career and life.

Here are our top 3 leadership takeaways from the conference along with actionable steps to make your work more meaningful.

Design for Friction like Airbnb

The future sounds lazy. You’ll go on a vacation in a VR headset while you sit in back of an autonomous car as your food and dry cleaning are delivered to your house by drones. Designing to remove all friction from our lives could end up turning us into the gelatinous humans featured in the movie WALL-E. Luckily, companies like Airbnb are realizing that the best and most rewarding experiences involve other humans and a little tension. Steve Selzer, Design Manager at Airbnb says they focus on making the right things frictionless, while also intentionally designing moments of human interaction and collision into their experiences.

"Design for skill-building. Design for self-reflection. Design for collisions. Design for confrontations." - Steve Selzer

It’s these collisions that often give us experiences we talk about long after they’re over. As we design businesses and employee experiences, it's important that we don’t strive only for ease, but rather create moments that bring out our most human qualities even when facing them may be uncomfortable.

Try this: Strike up a conversation with a stranger in the coffee line. People who end up interacting with strangers report higher levels of joy in their experiences.

Avoid the Bottleneck like Refinery29

Fashion and lifestyle company Refinery29 churns out some of the most compelling content on the internet. With 500 million readers across multiple media platforms, how do you keep generating interesting content without sacrificing quality or speed? Creative Director Piera Gelardi says she had to learn to stop being a bottleneck. As Refinery29 grew, she continued reviewing everything that went out the door. She wanted to make sure creative maintained tight control over the brand and content direction. Her team soon became frustrated as work was delayed and they found it harder to ship timely and relevant content. To sidestep the bottleneck, her team began using stock photographs in place of the artistic images they were accustomed to. Piera realized that being the bottleneck was costing Refinery29 not just speed, but also lowering the creative bar for the whole team. She decided she had to let go and allow her team greater autonomy.

Try this: Here are some tips based on Piera's approach for fostering autonomy without sacrificing creativity, speed, or ideals.

Work Transparent like Dropbox

Tech companies like Dropbox often rely on a network of freelancers and agencies to stay flexible and maximize their skillsets. So how do they make sure everyone is aligned while working with a variety of partners across different office locations and disciplines? They work out in the open. Each employee regularly shares project updates and work samples with the entire company, gathering feedback even at the earliest and most fragile stages of a project. All levels of leadership and employees participate, making everyone equally vulnerable. No one gets to say “this isn’t ready for feedback.” This process of working transparently allows everyone to weigh in on projects early, often, and ensures all team have a view of all the work happening at every stage.

Try this: It turns out that Dropbox has also created one of the best tools we’ve seen to help your office work with more transparency.

Overall, 99u Conference offers the best mix of creativity, inspiration, and party we’ve encountered from a conference. We encourage you to check it out and come have a cocktail with us next year.

Did you visit? What did you learn? We’d love to hear. Get at us here...