Discovering the Art of Creative Rebellion
He’s been a starving artist in Europe, painted for Shugendo priests in Japan, and gotten rip-roaringly drunk with Beat poets. Now John S. Couch wants to help designers everywhere remember how to do the most crucial aspect of their craft: create.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
A bright, young creative graduates from college looking for work and an opportunity to prove themselves. They’re hungry—creatively and, oftentimes, physically as well.
They’re artists, designers, writers, musicians, and poets. Above all else, they’re creators. And they’re ready to leave their own indelible mark on the world.
But let’s face it: Rent, student loans, and the electric bill won’t pay themselves. So they find a job that’s related to what they really want to do.
They blink. And before they know it, they find themselves years into a role that leaves them creatively unfulfilled and unchallenged, wondering what the hell happened to that wide-eyed world-shaker who left school all that time ago?
It’s a stark reality that many of us might face sometime in our lives. How do you carve out space and time to be creative when your job, obligations, and seemingly the world-at-large constantly push back on that idea?
That’s the question John S. Couch, Hulu’s Vice President of Product Design, wants to answer in his book The Art of Creative Rebellion. Drawing on his decades of experience as an artist, writer, and designer, he offers a call-to-action for any frustrated creatives out there hungry for more.
“A job is not a career,” John writes in his book’s introduction. “A career is doing something that you love with passion, without concern for monetary return. And the irony, of course, is that done with truthfulness and courage, most of the time your passions will bear monetary rewards.”
We sat down with John recently to talk about how designers and researchers can champion creativity in their organizations, and how one can take more creative risks—even in times of global crisis.
dscout: Your book tackles an interesting thesis: we live in a world that discourages creativity, or at least encourages a diluted kind of it. As designers, we need to rebel against that and become champions of creativity. What drove you to explore that topic?
John: I think my whole life I’ve been in a state of rebellion against what is. This is primarily because I never lost the sense of connection to that awe that you have when you’re five years old and you can draw, and you can scream, and you can run around, and there’s no consequences. And then as we get older, we’re essentially told all this stuff that we were allowed to do as kids is not what you do as an adult.
I always thought that was really weird because on one level, our schools and our businesses actively repressed creative expression. And on another level, if you make it as a creative—say an actor or a poet or a writer or a designer or a rock musician—then you’re venerated. You go from being treated like total crap to being treated like you’re a god.
That’s a problem for a lot of creative people. They’ve struggled for a long time doing the thing that they love in isolation, with no one paying attention, until suddenly everybody pays attention. It’s weird that we aren’t very good at the care and feeding and nurturing of creative people.
As you mention in your book, that’s an issue that many organizations face as well—especially those that don’t have a culture of creativity. What are some of the dangers of a team or org that doesn’t foster creative culture?
It comes down to control.
Ironically, when you have control, you lack innovation because any kind of control-based environment is a fear-based environment. But an environment that allows creativity by its very nature has to be open and accepting of ideas that you may not agree with.
What happens when you have a fear-based infrastructure at a company is that you end up not working to do things that are better for the company, and instead you’re motivated to do things that help you keep your job. That means you’re pleasing the person above you and the person above you may not have the correct ideas. If they’re not open to new ideas, then you’re in this terrible situation where you may continue to do the same thing that the company was founded on.
And oftentimes, the innovator in most companies is the person who founded it. And then the company takes off, and that innovative person usually gets either fired or bought out or retires or gets pushed out to the door. Then the rest of the people just kind of operationalized the initial energy of the person and the spirit that made the thing.
This is called the “innovator’s dilemma.” Eventually that thing that made them innovative to begin with starts to become irrelevant. And then another upstart comes in and does it better.
So if you’re a large company, you’re going to be attacked constantly by smaller companies that can do what you do better and cheaper and faster. So it’s better to set up a way that you innovate and disrupt yourself. The problem is that it’s counterintuitive for companies making money. How do you then have people who are innovatively trying to destroy the thing that it’s making? Well you can’t.
So you often have to split off and create a safe area for a group of people to go work on a thing that might be the exact opposite of what you’re doing. And you have to have foresight in order to allow that to happen.
John S. Couch
What happens when you have a fear-based infrastructure at a company is that you end up not working to do things that are better for the company, and instead you’re motivated to do things that help you keep your job.
How do you manage creatives as part of your work with designers and researchers?
A huge part of my managing is not managing people. It’s counterintuitive. But my assumption is that, if I hired you into the company, you’re probably pretty good at what you do.
So then then I’m going to allow you to do what we hired you to do. So if I’m looking over your shoulder and assuming you’re going to screw up, you probably will. But if I assume you’re going to do well, you probably are going to do even better.
It’s almost like parenting in a way. If you tell your kid don’t drink and don’t smoke, they’re probably going to drink and smoke. But if you said, “Do whatever you want to do, but here’s the things that I’ve learned,” then they tend to come listen.
There are extremes to both ends, no? On the one hand, you can have that micromanagement style. But on the other, it’s free reign with completely no structure and that can be bad too.
If you tell everybody to just go do what they want, it actually doesn’t turn into pandemonium. What it turns into is apathy.
Generally, people who don’t have parameters get overwhelmed with too much choice and suddenly they don’t know what to do. So a good leader will say, “Here’s the sandbox you work in, but I’m not going to tell you how to play with the toys in the sandbox. At the end of this, we need to have a castle. However you want to make the castle is up to you. I don’t care. But you figure out how to do it.”
That’s the balance. So the creativity is allowed to flourish and open up within the context of the sandbox. I still define the parameters. And what the final thing is we were trying to make metaphorically, which is a castle.
How can team leaders guide their teams to champion the creative process?
It comes down to culture.
If you have a healthy culture of inclusivity and a radical candor—the ability to speak amongst each other without feeling like you’re going to be negatively or punitively impacted by speaking truth to power—then generally you’re okay.
But the culture has to be incepted from the beginning by leadership, all the way up to the CEO. And if you have a strong culture, then it lasts beyond you. If I leave my department and my design team, whatever I laid down for better or worse is going to continue on.
They may forget who I am. They may forget my name in a few years. But the rock that I dropped in the pond will have reverberations over time.
I’ve seen it in bad situations too where leaders have come in and been rather toxic and then left. Then what you have is a bunch of people with PTSD, and they kind of expect bad behavior. So they incorporate bad behavior into the day to day even when there’s no one saying to behave that way.
Conversely, if you lay down a very strong creative foundation of principles, tenets, and guidelines but here’s some principles you should think about when you’re doing your work. That tends to last much longer.
John S. Couch
I think a lot of research teams tend to measure “what is” versus “what could be.”
What can the individual on the teams do if they don’t feel creatively fulfilled?
It really begins with the manager. A lot of the things that we do as managers is look at people as the function that they fulfill in the company. Like you’re a title and stereotyped almost immediately.
Most people just ignore cues about their co-creators that can shed light on their personalities. Whereas when I’m talking to my design team, I know what the emotional state of most of them is. I know the names of their pets. I know the names of their kids. I know, in general, what’s going on in their lives. What I found is that if you come into a job and you’re just delegated down to being a title, then I’m not taking advantage of your full potential as a human being.
And honestly, what needs to be done is to create a Venn Diagram between your personal talents and interests and what the company needs. Where they intersect is the sweet spot that allows me to help you focus on something that’ll make you engage and excited in what we’re doing. It’ll also be a plus for the company at the same time, but most people don’t want to get into that discussion with individuals.
“Your job is to do X, just go do it. If you want to go do something else, go somewhere else.” If you’re in an environment like that, I would say leave.
People talk about “side hustles,” but I think it’s more than that. You should be creatively engaged on things that are not your job. And it can be yoga or it can be playing guitar or it can be going on hikes, whatever it is, but things that are going to fill you up in a way that allows you to have a strong center.
It’s tough though. The idea of pursuing creativity can seem risky even in the best of times. How does one pursue creativity in times of crisis?
The first instinct for humans when the shit’s hitting the fan is to pull in, withdraw, cut, and conserve. You’re basically shutting down, batting down the hatches and preparing for the storm and just hoping you get through it. And that’s partly important.
But in 2008, when we had the last economic crisis, that was the birth of places like Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest, and a multiplicity of companies that came out of the ashes of that destruction. It’s oftentimes the pressure that will turn a thing into something worthwhile over time.
If you’re conserving the whole time, then you’re in a diminishing situation. You’re just hoping that everything just blows by and it’ll be okay. But you should actually take that time of crisis and flip it the other direction. Ask, “What can I do within this time period that will actually expand me?”
It’ll be uncomfortable. But we should look at the way we’ve been behaving in our lives. Are these things serving me? Is my life serving me the way it should be? One of the big lessons that came out of COVID-19 is people realize companies can work from home. The assumption used to be that you had to be in person to get things done.
The irony, though, is people go, “Well, you should be writing your Great American Novel right now,” or “You should be learning another language.” But a lot of that isn’t working because we have this low- to high-grade anxiety of the fact that we’re in a pandemic. There are people dying out there. So this leads to a fragmentation of one’s focus and consciousness.
Instead of trying to be overly productive, then, creatives should reduce it down to what is essential for them. What’s really important to you? To get to that, you can sit down and you can meditate. Get centered. Then literally write on a sheet of paper everything that is important to you. Everything that’s been important to you in the past and in the future. If we do this properly, the whole situation goes from a fear-based, constrict-everything mindset into more of an expansive thinking about what can we do differently?
Coming out of this we may find companies and new entrepreneurial projects that are purpose-based. They’re focused on having a meaningful impact in the world. They’ll be culture-based. And they’ll probably be based on doing things with the lowest impact to our carbon imprint and to our oceans, other things like that. If we’re smart.
What’s a problem that you see a lot of UX teams make creatively—and how should they solve those problems?
I think a lot of research teams tend to measure “what is” versus “what could be.”
They measure the efficacy of things that are already made or in process. What I would like to see from researchers is guidance on what we should be trying out in the future.
It’s typical. If you were to look at the UX design of Snapchat when it first launched, you would say, “Wow, this is impossible. It launches on a camera then what do you do?” And if you were over the age of 25, you could get lost pretty quickly.
But the thing is humans adjust the UX very quickly. Every time we launch a new video game, there’s a UX you have to learn. But it takes just five to 10 minutes going through the tutorial to learn it.
But the question is where are the trends going? Where are people moving? With video streaming, there’s the big ones like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Apple. And that’s one way of consuming information for streaming. But then there’s also Snap, Twitch, TikTok, and now Oculus. These are the evolving ways that oftentimes researchers don’t pay attention to because they don’t seem relevant.
But if you think about it on a very base level, we’re all going after the human attention span. We’re trying to monetize your time. The amount of time you spend with something. So everything that you look at, from a research perspective, should be fair game.
Ultimately we’re doing a transaction in business between our lives, our time, and getting paid. And getting paid is important. Getting insurance is very important. But understand that ultimately you’re giving away the most precious resource in exchange to buy groceries, which is your life and time. And that’s okay. You have to, to some extent.
But out of your 24-hour day, and your eight hour workday, that you can’t allocate one hour to something that you love to do—something that might not necessarily have a fiscal impact on your life—then it’s kind of sad. You really should allow yourself that ability to really work on something that you find important.
People tell me statistically it’s impossible and it’s unlikely that I will do X. Well, the chances of you being alive are so minuscule. You’ve already won the lotto you’re here, right? So you might as well swing. You might as well go out trying.
Be responsible, but take risks. I’m not saying be reckless, but take calculated risks—and you never know.