When you think about the future, what do you see?

Here at 99U, we believe that creatives hold the ticket to a better tomorrow, especially when they come together and share ideas.

That’s why we asked our global creative community for their take on what’s ahead: what excites them, what scares them, and what they need in order to do their best work. More than 3,600 creatives shared their views with us,* providing an array of valuable, thought-provoking perspectives that form the foundation of this report.

We also tapped key changemakers in design, technology, and business to share their own wisdom. Matt Mullenweg of Automattic, for example, showed us what it takes to run a fully remote company. Dr. Vivienne Ming of Socos Labs enlightened us about the real power of artificial intelligence. Naresh Ramchandani of Pentagram explained the value of not only doing good work, but doing work that supports the greater good.

As we look to the future, it’s our privilege to shine a light on the forces that will shape creative careers in the years to come. We hope the insights here will guide you on your journey.

*A total of 3,641 creatives across the world participated in the Creative Future Survey, conducted online between February 16, 2019 and March 3, 2019. Questions were in multiple-choice and open-answer format.


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Don’t fear the future

When we asked creatives to describe their overall attitude toward the future, 34% said they were cautiously optimistic. In total, just over half of respondents said they felt either positive or excited about the future. Only 2% said they were scared.

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Graphic by Script & Seal

As creatives, we’re in a sweet spot. “Isn’t cautious optimism always the best-case scenario? It is literally creativity and the design process at its best. I have always appreciated Milton Glaser’s thought that ‘Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one.’ As creatives, we need to be—and we get to be—deliberate and passionate regarding all the ways in which we can shift the world to a more preferred state.” —Matthew Richmond, Director of Experience Design, Adobe Illustration

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Working here, there, and everywhere

When asked to imagine where they’ll get their work done in the next 5-10 years, nearly 40% of creatives said anywhere there’s Wi-Fi; another 27% said at home, while 25% said in an office. And even though coworking spots are on the rise, just 11% of creatives see themselves getting most of their work done in one in the future.

How a 100% remote company makes it work. Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic, on the web development company’s fully distributed culture:

  • Who we are: We have 860 employees across 68 countries, all of them remote.
  • Our essential tools: Google Docs for information sharing; Zoom for video conferencing; Slack for real-time chat; WordPress’s P2 theme for group collaboration
  • Why we do it: Access to a global talent pool, a more transparent organization, and exponentially higher employee retention rates.
  • Why others fear it: The obstacles are more psychological: managers are used to ‘seeing’ people around them, ‘appearing’ to work, and they may take pride in managing by walking around. Yet even in a physical office, how does one know someone is doing their job versus just appearing productive? All that matters is output and results. In distributed work you can’t be distracted by variables that naturally influence our perception, but aren’t the actual work.
  • How you can test the waters: As one way to experiment, a company might try to make Tuesday an ‘out of office’ day; it will force everyone at every level to consider what tools and processes they need to improve to allow for a more distributed culture.

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There’s no substitute for real human interaction

Despite many organizations continuing to shift to a remote work environment, the creatives we surveyed said that talking in-person will be their preferred means of communication in the future (37%). Email was rated slightly more preferable to Slack and other chat platforms (20% vs. 17%). Text and phone were voted the least preferred (4% each).

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Graphic by Script & Seal

The power of presence. “It’s become possible to do quite a lot of work without ever interacting with someone face to face. And yet, we still crave it: for the inspiration, the validation, the rich nuance of how we communicate with not only our words, but the sound of our voice and movement of our bodies. And, frankly, for the camaraderie.” —Bree Groff, Principal, SYPartners

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AI is the most alluring emerging technology. Blockchain? Still out of reach

What technology are you most motivated to learn to futureproof or grow your career? 32% of our survey participants said they’re most motivated to learn more about artificial intelligence to futureproof their careers. 3D printing was close behind (25%), followed by augmented reality (23%) and virtual reality (16%). What aren’t creatives eager to dive into? Blockchain (4%).

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Graphic by Script & Seal

The case for AI. “If you want to know how AI actually should be thought of: it’s a tool. It’s a paintbrush. It is part of a whole set of tools to creatively explore the world. Where we begin to fail is where we lose touch with that; when we think AI is intelligent like we are or will solve our problems for us. But if a genuinely creative person has a powerful tool, then they are empowered to do even more.” —Dr. Vivienne Ming, Founder, Socos Labs
The case for blockchain. “The creative industry is due for some major changes in the power dynamics of compensation and ownership. At its most fundamental, blockchain has the ability to pay the creator royalties from secondary sales. But it can also be an interesting creative medium. At Snark.art, we help museum-level artists to adapt their work to the blockchain, which has resulted in beautiful projects rooted in community ownership. It’s a pretty radical change; it gives the artist new creative power and an improved financial position.” —Yng-Ru Chen, CMO, Snark.art, and Founder, Praise Shadows Art Partners

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There’s greater interest in the greater good

72% of creatives said social impact will play an even bigger role in their work over the next 5 to 10 years than it does today. While 20% weren’t sure, just 8% said social impact won’t play a bigger role in their future work.

Why it pays to look beyond the bottom line. “Too often, commercial creativity is self-serving for a corporation and their P&L. Creativity needs to understand that potential outcome and try to do the opposite: put something good into the world. If it can service society or culture as well as service commerce, that equals a different kind of success.” —Naresh Ramchandani, Partner, Pentagram, and Founder, Do the Green Thing

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Adaptability is the key skill of the future

We asked creatives an open-ended question about the soft skill they think will help them stay futureproof. While adaptability was the number one answer (19%), curiosity and empathy were close behind (each at 16%). 

Change really is the only constant. “I have worked in every possible industry as a creative—agency, post-production, TV network, gaming, brand side, media, and startup—so the first skill I’ve cultivated is the ability to pivot without fear. That means the ability to change an idea, a project, or even my career when it’s needed. I never pivot without looking towards the future; I gather a deep understanding of what’s next and take a giant leap forward into the void.” —Layne Braunstein, Founder, Fake Love

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We all want more money, time, and influence

When asked what would have the biggest impact on their work today—more time in the day, more money in the bank, or more influence in their industry—37% of creatives chose more money in the bank. It was a close call overall: 32% said more time in the day, while 31% said more influence in their industry.

On money. “The best tactic for boosting your earnings is simple: negotiate. Whether you’re in the early stages of your career, mid-career, or beyond, discussing compensation can feel uncomfortable or even intimidating. But you have to be your own best advocate. “Arming yourself with knowledge and research is key, and there are numerous sources available to identify your market value based on your skills, experience, industry, and location. Pairing that information with additional research on the creative industry, including conversations with fellow creatives, will help you feel more confident going into a compensation negotiation.” —Paul Wang Creative Director, Glassdoor
On time and influence. “More time in the day represents the freedom to think, dream, and simply be. As creators, we need downtime to feel refreshed, yet much of our days are spent tackling to-do lists. We might believe we want more time to increase productivity, but if we had that time, I would urge us to do less, refrain from filling that space, and, dare I say, allow ourselves to teeter on boredom. “More influence equals a larger platform and more opportunities to create meaningful work. Influence can offer increased autonomy and control over our own creative destinies, and allows us to lift others up. The desire for influence is really about our desire to self-determine our course.” —Tina Essmaker, Creative Coach

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Between budgets and schedules, creatives are stretched thin

People say their creativity is hindered most by budget constraints (24%), followed closely by being overwhelmed with too many projects (20%) and not enough downtime (19%).

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Graphic by Script & Seal

How to work on a tight budget. “In traditional big-budget creative and production scenarios, everything has importance. But when you are working in a small-budget world, the key is to narrow in and prioritize. What about this product can have the biggest strategic impact? What about this opportunity has the greatest chance to break through and stand out? The focus should be distilling down the most impactful element of the narrative and pushing that in wild and exciting ways that allow creative dreams to blossom.” —Christina Cooksey, Head of Creative Production, Red Antler
The realities of pursuing a creative project. “There’s a strain of discussion in the creative entrepreneur world right now that it’s all or nothing. It’s like, ‘follow your bliss, do what you love, everything else is compromise.’ I don’t think that’s true. I know a lot of people who have stable jobs with health insurance and a decent salary that allows them to do their creative work on the nights and weekends. There’s nothing ‘less creative’ about that. If that gives you the creativity and security to take risks in your creative life, even better.” —Grace Bonney, Founder, Design*Sponge

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There’s a lot of noise out there

Creatives say social media (71%) is their number one source for keeping up with trends, followed next by news or trade publications (63%). Other sources include friends and colleagues (57%), YouTube videos (45%), conferences or industry events (38%), and podcasts (35%). Survey respondents were allowed to select multiple answers for this question.

Finding the right balance takes time. “It takes an investment of time and being committed to figure out the role that social media plays for you. It takes time to curate and actively manage the people who inspire or influence you. But it’s not just about what you can get from social media, it’s figuring out what you can contribute–everyone has something they can share that will inspire, provoke, or excite someone else. Committing the time to share will truly unlock the value of social media, sparking meaningful debate, sharing experiences, and making new connections.” —Andrew Shorten, Senior Director, Product Management, Adobe

Recommended reading & listening

  • “I love science fiction. What is so wonderful about science fiction isn’t that it predicts a future, but simply that it changes the conceptual limits of what is possible.” —Dr. Vivienne Ming, Founder, Socos Labs
  • “My go-to is Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast. The dialogues help me sharpen my intellect, ponder my purpose in the world, and refine what I hope to leave behind.” —David Schwarz, Founding Partner, HUSH
  • “I recommend The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. If we aren’t informed and inspired by history and mythology, how will we ever find the strength to fight for a better future?” —Brian Collins, Chief Creative Officer, COLLINS
  • “My go-to podcasts are WorkLife with Adam Grant and RadioLab. I adore how RadioLab uses storytelling to investigate everything from the most mundane to the strangest things in a way we can all relate to.” —Thaniya Keereepart, Head of Product, Creator Experience, Patreon

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Social media is a marketing tool you can’t ignore

When it comes to promoting their work, 52% of creatives say it’s very important or extremely important to use social media. Another 38% say it’s moderately or slightly important to use social media. Less than 10% find it not at all important.

For some creatives, it’s everything. “Social media has evolved over the years; it’s no longer just a trend or a platform for community. It became a business tool, and I’ve seen it become increasingly monetized by corporations in the last few years. “About 75% of my work comes from social media. I think it’s all about collaboration and connectedness. I wouldn’t be here right now if it weren’t for the community; most of my clients have found me from social media.” —June Digan, Graphic Designer, Illustrator, and Letterer


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Creatives get their best ideas… everywhere

Where do you get most of your inspiration? The creatives we asked said they are more likely to turn to the online world (60%) vs. offline (40%) when looking for inspiration, though the topic is up for debate.

The case for online. “I’m constantly looking at what other people are doing online, and I’m continually soaking things up on blogs and social media. Then when it comes to a specific project, I will do project-specific research. The amount of inspiration we have via the internet makes this research phase very easy and productive. I often remember concepts and ideas that designers have used previously that I’ve come across on social media, and then I update, transform, and remix those ideas with my own so that they work for my specific brief.” —Nadine Kolodziey, Illustrator and Adobe Creative Resident
The case for offline. “Looking offline gives you access to inspiration that’s much more timeless, because the physical world changes at a slower pace. Architecture, art, landscapes, industrial design, vehicles, furniture, magazines, signage, film, photography, even nature – these are all great places to be inspired by design. And it doesn’t even need to be current design. Broadening your inspiration to offline sources gives you the benefit of experiencing design spatially, with sound, smell, and other sensory experiences, rather than just viewing images on a screen.” —Benek Lisefski, UX/UI Designer

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What’s getting in the way of entering creative fields? Plenty

The high costs of a college education. A lack of professional connections. Too much competition. Not enough relevant job opportunities. All of these were cited by our community as barriers to entering a creative field today. But if there’s one challenge that resonated most, it was low-paying entry- level jobs (26%).

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There may be hope. “More and more, we are starting to recognize that low-paying entry level creative jobs favor those who have the means to take them—those who have other ways of paying the bills, and/or come from privileged backgrounds. The industry needs to look past the short-term expense of paying a higher starting salary, and into the long-term payoffs of footing the bill for a more diverse creative team.” —Mitch Goldstein, Assistant Professor, Rochester Institute of Technology