Insights and Experiences from the 99U Conference

This summer, Abby and Jenna, two members of the Uncorked production team, attended the 99U Conference in New York. Below is a co-written piece that takes a deep dive into their insights and experiences.

Place to Be

Waking up in my tiny Airbnb to the increasing sounds of honking horns and people chatting on the stoop, I check my phone and realize it’s time to drag my jetlagged body out into the city. Connecting with my colleague Jenna and navigating our way to Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, an architecturally inspiring building seemingly comprised only of glass and mesmerizing angles, we quickly realize why the six hour flight and groggy morning are worth it.

Stepping out we are immediately upon a sea of yellow badges, gorgeously designed 9’s, and well-spectacled design types milling about and queuing up. We’re all about to enter the building to receive our best-in-class conference tote, immaculately designed program, and complementary “artisanal New York water.” For a moment, this felt like the place to be.

Despite a momentary feeling of chaos, it became immediately obvious that the whole experience had been expertly designed–from the beautifully typeset subway directions to the wifi enabled benches and ubiquitous power stations—even the physical space the conference is held in.

The Conference

At 99U, attendees are asked and able to do many things, including what you’d expect from your average conference: listening to industry figures, like Ian Spalter, head of design at Instagram, and Debbie Millman, host of the iconic podcast ‘Design Matters.’ In addition to that strong base, conference goers navigate the city, visiting design-forward companies to learn about their practices and tour their spaces. All of this in an effort to learn how to design better experiences and execute creative ideas.

Throughout the conference a common theme emerged, one the Uncorked group of designers and producers naturally gravitated toward: Space is a critical yet underlooked part of design.

Public Space

Kicking off the sessions we hear from Liz Jackson, founder of the inclusive Fashion + Design Collective. Jackson is forced to look at public space differently than most because of her disability, but is expertly poised to design for it given her background and unique perspective. As a result, she’s able to create products with both utility and personality in mind. And rather than tacking fixes or attachments onto the end of a product, she designs with these essential elements at the forefront, and ultimately creates products that can be used not just by people with disabilities, but by anyone.

“We are disabled not by our bodies but by the world around us. It is a social construct. Disability is nothing more than a brand, the world’s ugliest brand.”

Supporting this thought, Jackson points to the example of how people are never shown in cycling signage, yet for disability signage there is always an illustration of a person using the tool or space. This plants the idea in the viewer’s mind that unless you are disabled, this space or tool is not for you. And when you flip that idea on its head it becomes a simple thing to keep in mind when creating anything: if you design something with intent, it won’t need to be adapted.

As a self-described fashion conscious New Yorker, her disability makes it extremely important for her to be a forward thinking force in her community, but also the design space in general. She maintains a strong commitment to elevating the disabled voice through design, and it shows through her presentation, product creation, and general ethos. With a goal of innovating systems that simply don’t work, she is designing with purpose to help inspire an era of profound innovation across many spaces, public and private, exterior and interior.

Work Space

As the first round of main stage talks come to a close, we make our way from Lincoln Center to Lower Manhattan and the headquarters of Refinery29, a 23rd floor office with a stunning view of One World Trade Center. Refinery29 describes itself as a digital media company focusing on empowering women through original content, storytelling, and diversity. So it comes as no surprise that its physical space is just as inspiring and creative as its brand.

At Refinery29, we hear from founder and creative director, Piera Gelardi, about how she took inspiration from the city of New York to initially create the company, and continues to use her own way of working to incite creative courageousness and foster physical and mental conditions for creativity.

This is best exemplified in her approach to brainstorms, and how she encourages open minds and big ideas. In her brainstorms Gelardi asks everyone to:

  1. Join her in “The Peach Pit”: Piera’s cozy peach-colored office is riddled with glasses of rosé and adorned with vases of peach candies.

  2. Shake it out: Activate your body to get out all the wiggles before any brainstorming happens, to ensure you are your authentic self.

  3. Refrain from naysaying, or prepare to be buzzed: Any talk of budgets, constraints, or why the idea would be difficult to execute is met with the harsh sound of her bedazzled Taboo buzzer.

Connecting with each other on this level means Gelardi’s team is able to laugh their way to brilliance, and produce amazingly creative ideas that quickly build momentum. And although she admits not everyone agrees on everything, she reiterates an idea that permeates her approach: friction creates sparks.

Product Space

Back at Lincoln Center on the second day of the conference, we’re lucky enough to hear a powerful talk by Scott Belsky, founder of 99U’s parent company Behance, focused on product space. Specifically, Belsky hones in on the importance of making products simple and accessible, but with the right amount of innovation to solve a problem or disrupt a status quo industry.

Similar to Liz Jackson’s thought about designing in a way that is accessible for everyone regardless of ability, Scott states, “Products can be powerful enough for professionals, but accessible to everyone.”

Taking that further, as product makers, it can be easy to fall into the trap of making decisions based on what’s rational. But, people aren’t rational; they work on emotion. So by deliberately pushing new behaviors and patterns for ideas that create a unique value, and acting on people’s innate behaviors for the rest, we can gain buy-in and disrupt at the same time. A simple way to keep this in mind: Products that are truly transformational are 90% accommodating, and only 10% re-training.

Process Space

To round out the conference speakers, we hear from Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram and self-described designer, thinker, and educator. In her talk she focuses on the fallacies of traditional design thinking, and how we can improve the widely-adopted approach.

According to Jen, design thinking “packages a designer’s way of working for a non-designer audience by codifying their process into a prescriptive, step-by-step approach to creative problem solving, claiming that it can be applied by anyone to any problem.”

And to her, this prescriptive process is missing some critical elements for successful design: critique and collaboration. She explains how we learn from our failures just as much as we do from our successes, and we need to be able to identify those throughout the process of creation. Specifically, when we allow for critique throughout the design process, we’re able to evaluate whether or not something is good or valuable, and therefore worth pushing forward.


As the two-day conference comes to a close, we try our best to absorb all of the knowledge and experiences that have been shared with us. And although there is not one main takeaway to point to, we come away with an incredible amount of inspiration and new ideas for how to tackle creative work, with amazing examples of the many spaces within the industry.

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