Photo: MACKME.COM

99U Conference Recap 4: The Best Way to Complain Is to Make Things

In a continuation of our 2014 99U Conference recaps, we bring you more insights from our yearly gathering focused on idea execution. The speakers in today’s edition all hail from the design world, using their keen eye for the details to build some of the most interesting creative businesses around.

Design is more important than ever: more startups have designer founders and design is the best competitive advantage for most products and services today. As John Maeda said, “better tech is no longer the reason to buy.” Three designers are tackled the ideas behind what design is, how to take it to the next level, and how the little details we build into our lives and businesses can make all the difference.

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Robert Brunner

Photo: MACKME.COM

Photo: MACKME.COM

Founder & Partner // Ammunition

Robert Brunner is the founder and partner of Ammunition Group, the design firm behind products like the Beats By Dre headphones and Polaroid’s C3 camera. He gave us his main four tenets behind a life of being design-driven, especially at a time when, Brunner said, “tech enables, but design establishes.”

  • You don’t own your brand. A brand isn’t what you put out there, it’s a “gut-feeling about you that your audience has. You can’t control how people feel, only influence them.” Design is your biggest asset here and is “your interface to the outside world,” said Brunner.
  • “Not taking risks is the riskiest thing you can do today.” Risk isn’t a four-letter word, it is a necessity to creating quality products. We’re never going to come out ahead if we’re following the rest of the herd.
  • An object is only the idea behind it. Beats By Dre have done well, Brunner believes, because they redefine what “good” headphones are. They’re high-performance headphones affordable enough for the younger market, while also fitting the specific sound profile of the kind of music its customers are listening to. The big bulky headset that is unavoidable in high-performance audio was turned into something to flaunt, that was fashionable and able to be customized. The headphones themselves stand for an idea, a feeling, and inclusion. 

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John Maeda

Photo: MACKME.COM

Photo: MACKME.COM

Chair, Design Advisory Board, eBay // Design Partner, KPCB

John Maeda focused his talk on a simple question with an incredibly complex answer: “What is design?” He looked through his career experience, an interview with the legendary Paul Rand, and his new adventures in venture capital to try and provide an explanation.

  • “All artists yearn to struggle, when they struggle they know they’re alive.” Paul Rand once told John Maeda that the secret to becoming an iconic designer is to outlive your competition. More seriously, he added, you need to ruthlessly differentiate yourself from the competition. If your stuff looks like everyone else’s, you can’t make a name for yourself. That means you also have to embrace ambiguity and discomfort
  • It’s okay to fail at first launch, or even your second. In the venture capital world, it’s okay if businesses fail. They’re treated more like the satellites and rockets at NASA: just taking off from the launchpad means that they’re headed in the right direction. It shows investors that with some further backing and tweaks, the next time they launch could be enough to get them into orbit. What’s important is that you get back in the sky.
  • Design is now what’s powering consumerism. It used to be that we were more concerned with the finer tech specs of each product. But now, Maeda says, we’re at a place where the playing field has leveled out a bit, and “better tech is no longer the reason to buy.” Design is more important than ever to make a product succeed.

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Tina Roth Eisenberg

Photo: MACKME.COM

Founder // Swissmiss, Tattly, CreativeMornings, TeuxDeux, & Studiomates

From the popular blog swissmiss, to four side-projects-turned-businesses, Tina Roth Eisenberg transformed her most common complaints into the solutions she was looking for all along.

  • “What’s your super power?” The most successful people, Eisenberg tells us, know the answer to this question right away. Being able to recognize your own greatest asset means that you’ll also be able to use that to your advantage and capitalize on it. Eisenberg’s own superhero would be Captain Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, she believes, is better than confidence: ”Confidence is impressive, while enthusiasm is infectious and fun. Fun wins.”
  • The best way to complain is to make things. ”If you complain about something long enough … do something about it, or let it go,” Eisenberg explained. Both of her side-projects-turned-wildly-successful-businesses started out this way. Tattly was born from her annoyance at how prevalent bad design was in her kid’s beloved, but horribly ugly, temporary tattoos.  main priorities at Tattly: artists receive huge cuts, everything is made in the USA, and it stays authentic, right down to each package being mailed with real stamps and not from a distribution center. These things might cost money or cut profits, but “at the end of the day, running a business comes down to doing what’s right.” 
  • Choose wisely who you hang out with. You can quickly change your outcome by changing your inner circle. We don’t realize how much the people around us effect us. In order to be our best, we need to surround ourselves with those who challenge us accordingly.
  • Don’t forget to play. The little details that make you smile matter, and so does fun. “Sometimes you need a Viking hat to reply to certain emails,” said Eisenberg. She believes that success is not to be measured in numbers, but in the personal growth and happiness of those around you. ”I’m hoping for a new measure of success, that goes beyond money and power.”
  • Push to be better. You should always be striving to be your best. “It can be liberating to get into something you know nothing about,” Eisenberg said when describing getting into business ventures that were entirely foreign to her at first. Challenge yourself, have more heart, more kindness, and keep play in your life.

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: Innovation, Motivation

Sasha Van Hoven

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Sasha is the Assistant Editor and Community Manager of 99U. You can watch her tweet or find out more at her personal website.
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