What we learned at Adobe Design Summit 2023

The ideas and insights that, days later, continue to resonate

A photograph of a dark room with a cameraman and monitors on the left and a well-lit stage on the right. A white man with glasses, wearing a dark button down shirt and jeans, and a Southeast Asian woman, wearing red pants and a sleeveless black top, are seated next to each other on the stage.

Photography by Myleen Hollero

Adobe Design Summit is a biennial, multi-day celebration of Adobe’s internal design culture. It’s an opportunity for our 700+ person team—in multiple time zones, countries, and regions—to share experiences and design perspectives with each other and our partner teams inside of Adobe. This year’s theme, Coalesce, was a chance for us to examine our connected present while envisioning our collective future alongside our colleagues across Adobe.

The summit opened with Eric Snowden, VP of Design, Digital Media and Archana Thiagarajan, Senior Director of Design, Experience Cloud reminding everyone that Adobe Design is responsible for the product experiences that land in our customer's hands. As Adobe’s products reach broader audiences, we must be staunch advocates for research, for co-designing with users, for better collaboration, for craft, for beauty, and for all the aspects of design that help make the experiences we put out into the world better.

Over the next two days we heard from speakers from inside and outside of Adobe via a virtual broadcast. From how discussion can uplevel design and the steps to launch an equity practice to how to be careful creators of generative AI and the power of designing with a love of craft, these are the ideas still coming up in conversations days after our event ended.

Debate surfaces possibilities in our processes and builds conviction in our outcomes

Scott Belsky, Chief Strategy Officer and EVP, Design & Emerging Products urged everyone to create and contribute to a culture where we “take each other on a bit.” Because conversation is the only way to cover ground and really put our minds to a task, he suggested looking at meetings as opportunities to break things down and cut through barriers. We can’t assume that people presenting work will have all the answers and we can’t fix problems if we’re not willing to openly discuss them. Figuring out why something might not be working, trying to understand where we might be compromising, making sure we’re advocating for customers, and leaning into hard conversations helps uplevel design. When the full surface of possibility is explored, designers can be confident that the product experiences they create are the best they can be.

Equity is a team effort. It’s also a journey that everyone must take alone

Timothy Bardlavens, Director of Product Equity, explained how each of us can contribute to making more equitable products by using three steps to start an equity practice:

Make a decision. Make a conscious choice to be a more inclusive, more equitable designer. But also understand your reasons for wanting to do the work and have an idea of the results you’d like to see.

Start somewhere. A lot of people want to do inclusive design work and make products more accessible, but they get so caught up in a cycle of what ifs (What if other people don’t join me? What if my ideas aren’t good?) that they never actually start. Instead of worrying whether you’re doing things right, just move forward with a first step.

Commit and persist. Commitment and persistence mean continuing, with no end date or specific outcome, despite roadblocks and setbacks.

Don’t be afraid to rethink process and approach

Principal Designer Brooke Hopper and Experience Designer Kelsey Mah Smith, both on Adobe Design’s Machine Intelligence & New Technologies team, continue to adapt their processes and approaches to design. They had some reminders for the team:

Engineers are creative too. Engineers approach problems differently than designers and collaborating with them inspires viewing problems and solutions in new ways.

Talk to people who don't use your product. We all know the value of talking to people who are using our product. It’s equally important to talk to those who aren’t, to try to understand, in a deep and empathetic way, their concerns and fears.

Use your product. As the designers of our products, we know best how to test and explore them.

Be open to new ways of working. Don’t be afraid to rethink your processes, your approaches to design challenges, or the way you work with other people and teams.

A slide from a presentation deck that reads: Rethink the process. Talk to people who don't use your product.

Guidelines for being careful creators of generative AI

Ovetta Sampson, Director of UX Machine Learning at Google focused part of her talk on the responsibilities of designing for the large foundational models of generative AI. These natural language processing models are trained to predict the next words and phrases to fill in a blank and will fill it with just about anything they know. It's important when working with them to understand that they must be taught right from wrong. Some of her guidelines for being good creators of generative AI:

AI has no moral center. Because we’re human we expect truth from AI. Don’t.

Establish the seven deadly. Because generative AI has no moral center, teams need to be explicit about establishing what it won’t be allowed to do (like generate racist or sexist content or incite violence).

Create harm modeling scenarios. Actively imagine what could go wrong and how it could affect humans (physically, psychologically, economically, environmentally).

Perform adversarial testing. Present the model with things it's not supposed to do and see how it behaves.

Establish the bar of goodness. Use qualitative evaluation to explore and understand nuance.

Do heightened model performance. These models can drift quickly because all inputs become outputs.

Assume everything that you put into one model can end up in another model somewhere else. These models love data and there's no guarantee that the data will remain private or that it won’t show up in the output of a model someplace else.

Minimize anthropomorphism. Don’t refer to these models as he, she, or they because they’re so good at replicating speech and communication that people will tend to think them human.

Build in “self-destruct” content, actions, and outputs. These will stop the model from responding to those trying to exploit vulnerabilities.

Ingredients for successful design and product partnerships

Mili Sharma, Senior Design Manager, Document Cloud understands that design is often perceived as a responsibility to implement plans laid out by product managers. But she sees design’s role more broadly: Designers don’t have to stop at designing product experiences, they can partner with product managers to help shape both strategies and roadmaps. A few of the ways designers can show their product partners that they can provide value, a healthy challenge, and make them shine:

1. Ask for product data and dig into it so you can understand and challenge it.

2. Reframe business priorities as user goals so your design solutions connect with user needs but also help drive business.

3. Learn the language of business to better communicate design rationale in a way that resonates with product teams.

4. Product owners are accountable to their users so voice your opinion and speak up for what you feel is best for the people who use the product.

5. Lead with empathy when working with business partners… at the end of the day, we all want to be understood.

How best to create narratives from numbers

Experience Cloud, Principal Designer Alan Wilson instructed designers, asked to throw numbers into a presentation, to consider what they can do to transform them into a narrative. His tips for using data to tell stories:

Visualizing data is design and requires creativity. Push your tools and your creative process to tell your story.

Visualizations are opinionated. Understand the specifics of your data and use that knowledge to tell the stories you want to tell.

Be consistent in your use of color. Don’t force people to continually reorient themselves to the meanings of colors.

Use words. A key part of visualizations is creating context for the data. Use language to do that.

Use the same chart again and again. Don’t be afraid to express data in a series of small, simple charts instead of a single large, complex chart.

Accuracy doesn't need to come at the cost of design. Charts can have both form and function. It’s not often that you’ll have to choose one over the other.

Explain your visualization. Don’t be afraid to incorporate other media types if it will better explain your data.

Know your audience. Tailor your content to the expectations of the people who will be viewing it.

The power in designing with a love of art and craft

Design Director, Experience Cloud, Jessi Rymill reflected on a recent solo trip to a theme park where she noticed the small details (the back side of a sign painted with love, a pattern of tiles in a less-traveled bathroom, a utility box painted to blend into a brick wall) that create the “magic” for park visitors. It reminded her of an anarchism concept that has always resonated with her: One of the things that's keeping us ensnared in capitalism is the fact that the practice and joy of making art and the joy of experiencing art are kept separate from our everyday lives as workers and as consumers. When someone who's getting paid to design stroller parking signs decides to flip the signs over to perfect their craft beyond the point of peak engagement or marketing goals because they believe it matters, what should we call that? Is it art? Is it design? Is it anarchy? Or is it magic? And does the word used to describe it even matter? Or is it how it makes people feel that’s important? Designers who are creating the future get to make the choice to pay attention to detail, to think beyond what's expected, obvious, already measured, or measurable. Whether that means creating delightful user experiences at an optimal level of detail for the people who use our tools or using our access to tools to push ourselves to think bigger, those choices are things that each of us has the power to make.

A close-up photograph of the back of rectangular sign in. a flower bed. The sign is divided into six quadrants each painted (clockwise from left): green, yellow, orange, red, indigo, and blue).
Photography by Jessi Rymill

When the key to honing your craft is failing

Verna Swehla, Senior Design Manager, Adobe Express Growth asked the question: What if the key to getting better at your craft is creating more imperfect things? While core product designers create value and flawless feature experiences, growth designers actively run experiments in products to better understand what makes experiences meaningful or frustrating. The thing about experimentation though, is that sometimes experiments fail. But when we give ourselves the room to test, learn, and, sometimes, lose, there's freedom to completely rethink our next steps. As designers, most of us are probably not as open minded as we like to think because our hearts and souls are in the work we make, and losing can feel personal. But losing is not only universal, it can also be transformative:

We learn more. When we win, especially when we win easily, how much do we really learn? Our confidence grows, but we don't always continue to question things.

We pay attention. Losing helps us prevent complacency. We're more aware that we might be supporting bad habits or mistakes that others just haven't picked up yet.

We reflect. We ask ourselves what we did to contribute to the loss and what improvements might result in a different outcome.

We diversify losses and encourage discussion. Deep creativity comes from looking at complex problems from different angles, and multiple viewpoints can uncover things we didn't see or might not know.

Finding a sense of purpose and accomplishment at a large company

Gabriel Campbell, Principal Designer, Pro Products talks about how he found a sense of purpose and accomplishment by focusing on his passions and things within his control (like the quality of his work and how he treats other people). Although everyone’s journey to finding purpose in their work is unique, some of what he’s learned might help guide that journey for others:

Set boundaries. Don’t sacrifice the things that are most important to you for any job, no matter how great it is. Belonging doesn't mean selling your soul and disappearing inside of a large organization. Always try to find mutual intersections between your values and the things the company wants to achieve.

Cultivate authentic relationships. Relationships and connections can be difficult in the current work landscape, but they’re critical to the sense of belonging that holds us together and allows us to rally behind a common mission. Just remember that inclusiveness is the house that belonging lives in—none of us should feel comfortable if we're the only ones who feel like we belong.

Be positive. It’s not always easy and sometimes requires pushing through a first reaction (or a second or third) to find those things that fall within our influence and control, but they are what can make the biggest difference.

Try to be comfortable in your own skin. True belonging doesn't require people to change who they are, so bring your authentic self to your career. We should always be willing to change, grow and evolve, but that shouldn’t mean sacrificing the things that make us unique.

Create the stories you aren’t seeing

Artists and designers have the power and the social responsibility to collaborate with communities, to co-create the stories we aren’t seeing and to show up in spaces where we can manifest care and radical joy. In her talk, Afro-Latina, disabled artist, designer, educator, and activist Jen White-Johnson questioned current narratives about disability present in design and media. A lot of misrepresentation is rooted in disability being seen as a disease and a burden. But what are the consequences of those narratives? And what are the consequences of marginalizing and isolating alternative stories? When her son was diagnosed with autism at age three, she didn’t see disability and disability justice reflected in art and design in a way that would uplift his voice and knew that she had to say something special and different. She began creating work that uses language as a tool for transformation and for empowering action—graphics that tie into the joy being taken away from Black disabled designers and artists looking for community and cultural amplification. When in one image she combines the words “autistic” and “joy,” she’s using language as a tool to piece together words and phrases that aren't typically used together to break unjust stigmas and ensure that autism and autistic sensibilities don’t always have negative connotations.

From using your voice and uncovering personal passions to embracing new ways of working and persisting through challenges Adobe Design Summit conversations coalesced around our culture, our vision, and our shared passion.

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