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99U Conference Recap 1: What Are Your Creative Values?

After attending too many conferences that focused purely on inspiration, we decided to create an event that’s all about the creative process — and the grit it takes to execute on your ideas. And thus 99U Conference was born. For the sixth year in a row, over 1,000 creatives joined us in New York City to explore the “99 percent perspiration” that Thomas Edison thought was the true driver of creative genius. Whether you are an entrepreneur, a designer, or a student, the struggle to make ideas happen is universal. Here’s what we learned…

Over the course of two days, the 99U Conference played host to over 24 speakers, nine studio sessions, six master classes, and a couple thousand hallway conversations. So what did we learn? We invite you to follow along as we share some of the most profound insights from the 99U braintrust. 

First up are lessons learned from three artists, who were each asked to address the topic of “Creative Values.” Why do we do what we do? How do we fight for our work? How do we get our voices heard? From an international photographer to the head of a global fashion brand, they offered varying perspectives on the core philosophies that guide their work.

Shantanu Starick

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International Photographer

What happens when you remove money from your creative practice? Photographer Shantanu Starick has been traveling for nearly two years bartering his photography services for travel and lodging. Along the way he gained added perspective on what value means in regard to our creative work:

  • Question rules. “Question life. Not the meaning, but why we do things a particular way,” said Starick. A lot of what we do is based on preexisting assumptions or “tradition.” By taking a step back and rethinking why we do what we do, we can view the world with entirely new perspective and surface results we never thought possible. 
  • Money can force us into boxes. The creative marketplace rewards specialization: Most of the best wedding photographers only shoot weddings. By relying less on money, it can free us up to explore and draw from a wide range of fields, thus improving our overall creative output. Maybe you can’t go completely cash-free like Starick, but consider how and where you can remove money from the creative equation. You’ll be surprised at how it changes the creative relationship and the outcome.
  • Seek to go beyond a client relationship. In his travels Starick shared how his barter partners didn’t treat him like someone they hired. His clients invited him into their home and cooked him meals as if he were a long-time friend. By exchanging something other than money with your clients, you can change the tenor of the relationship.

Hank Willis Thomas

Photo: MACKME.COM

Photo: MACKME.COM

Conceptual Artist

Hank Willis Thomas thinks a lot about identity, history, and symbols. In his 99U talk, Thomas shared what he’s learned from creating his provocative body of work, including the repurposing of iconic brand imagery as a commentary on race and class, particularly in regard to African-American males. He also shared videos from the Truth Booth, a inflatable confession booth that he toured around the world asking locals to complete the sentence “The Truth is…”

  • Logos are our generation’s hieroglyphs. We all may speak and write and differently, but we all have a common recognition of the world’s most popular logos. Thomas used this common perspective to cut through the preconceived notions of language and offer his perspective on how these brands affect African-Americans, and us all. 
  • Identity is a matter of perspective. Through his interactive project Question Bridge, Thomas asked African-American men to ask and answer questions ranging from “Why don’t more us surf?” to “How does it feel to see someone lose their life?” The result was a revealing look at the varying identity and diversity among its participants (and an addictive interactive media project that will fascinate you for an entire afternoon). “There’s something that no one can refute—what’s true to us,” Willis said.

Marc Eckō

Photo: MACKME.COM

Photo: MACKME.COM

Founder & Chief Creative Officer // Marc Eckō Enterprises

Fresh off his latest book, Unlabeled, designer and entrepreneur Mark Eckō offered takeaways for creatives looking to make their way in the business world with tales from his decades of building media properties, clothing lines, and video games.

  • Stop counting. Now that our lives are online, it’s easy to keep track of our likes, hits, followers, and friends. “Stop Counting!” pleaded Eckō. Instead we should focus on the humanity behind our work and the face-to-face interactions that make each brand special. The wealth that matters can’t be counted. 
  • Perception isn’t reality. Reality is reality. It’s easy to categorize others, and it’s even easier to seek categorization ourselves. “Be an un-label,” advised Eckō. There were times in Eckō’s career when he realized he was just placating the gatekeepers. Stop giving these people power and your time and energy. No one has a monopoly on validation.
  • Embrace the mess. “Genius is related to one’s ability to manage the pain of the grind,” Eckō said. And the grind can get messy. Inspiration dosed carefully is the fuel for all creative work. ”Qualitative excellence can’t be hacked,” and takes a lot of false starts, messy rooms, and thinking. It’s rarely a straight and orderly line.

More 2014 Conference Recaps:

Part One: What Are Your Creative Values?
Part Two: Rethinking the Way We Work
Part Three: Rethinking the Way We Lead
Part Four: The Best Way to Complain Is to Make Things
Part FiveCreating a Business That Withstands the Test of Time

Part Six: Innovation Lessons from the Trenches

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Self-Marketing

Sean Blanda

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Sean is the Managing Editor and Producer of 99U and is a co-founder of Technically Philly and Philly Tech Week. Email him: blanda@adobe.com or find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
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