How does one protect their fragile creative ideas in the face of constant media bombardment and pressures to conform? In “The Art of Creative Rebellion: How to Champion Creativity, Change Culture, and Save Your Soul,” John S. Couch answers the question through his experience as Hulu vice president of product design and previous leadership roles at CBS, eBay and The Museum of Contemporary Art. The result is a call to practice radical candor and get comfortable with being uncomfortable in the name of pursuing creativity without having to arbitrarily please higher-ups.
We spoke with Couch about his tips for leveraging creative rebellion in the age of coronavirus, how marketers can imbue the creative spirit within their teams and how introverted marketers, designers and creators can confidently share their ideas in meetings and beyond.
You believe creative thinking requires only contemplation: how can marketers and creators today ensure they’re not getting sucked into endless screen time/work/social life and actually take the time to contemplate? What are some best practices that have worked for you and your teams?
What I have implemented heavily within my own team at work, when I was physically there, was every year I had a mindfulness meditation teacher come out and do a workshop with the whole team. We also put stand-up desks in place to make sure that people are not just sitting, like out of a scene from Wall-e where they’re just sitting there and getting fed information but not really getting any nutrition out of it.
One of the things that I found is I don’t know what I think until I am silent until I have a moment to move away from the bombardment of information coming in. When you have nothing but information bombardment, you’re in a reactionary state and you’re reacting, but you’re not acting.
If I can stay quiet for even just 10 minutes and allow the noise to settle, then that’s where creative ideas come from. I think that’s one of the reasons why people find most of the best ideas when they’re in the shower or they’re doing something which doesn’t allow them to be distracted by media input or work demands. Then that muddy water of the mind is able to settle down into the bottom of the cup and the clarity of the water reveals what you really think.
Another thing that I do is I write, not just books, but I write down in a journal all the stuff that’s bothering me as a way of clearing out my head. And I don’t know what I think sometimes until I’ve written it down.
You have to up-level out of the momentary sense that you’re being productive into slowing down, paradoxically, in order to think strategically so you can go faster in the long run.
I find in design, whether it’s communication design or product design, there tends to be a reaction to the competition. Well, the competition is doing X so we need to react to that and do X, too. A typical example: Ten email newsletters seem to work. Let’s do 100. By increasing quantity you’re not addressing the core issue. The problem you’re trying to solve is probably four or five levels up, which is, I’m trying to communicate with my customers or I’m trying to reach people. And how do I do that? So instead of doing newsletters, maybe there’s a different way to do it.
What do you predict will be changes that will affect creatives in the coming years?
I think creativity is probably the one area that’s going to be even more important and powerful in the future and not just because it’s my business. But because with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), any kind of non-creative work is going to be systematized to machines.
That will require people who are used to functioning on a certain level of creativity or maybe complete lack of creativity to suddenly realize that in order to remain relevant, they need to start thinking in a creative way. And this is not a bad thing. This is actually what humans are most geared towards—is actually being creative.
We make creativity the thing that you either have or you don’t have and I would argue, as I wrote in “The Art of Creative Rebellion,” that it’s intrinsically how you’re born. You don’t tell a kid to be creative. They’re just naturally making games and drawing and making music and banging on things. For whatever reason we downplay that as we get older and we start to move into systems which are mechanized. My armchair philosophy is that essentially, humans since the industrial revolution were put into roles in relation to a machine or assembly line. If we take away the dehumanizing effects of that kind of labor and allow human beings to be more creative, that’s the one thing that will separate us from AI in the short term, because AI will take a long time to catch up to the non-linear thinking of the human mind.
How can marketers imbue the spirit of creative rebellion within their teams?
The interesting thing about a lot of businesses and not just marketing but in general is that they tend to be hierarchical in their structure. Whoever is at the top of the heap becomes the person that everybody on the lower levels of the pyramid are trying to please on some level. It’s dangerous because on one hand, if you’re lucky then the person in the very top is a visionary and has the ability to guide things. But if you’re not lucky, then you have someone at the very top who is limited by their own biases in the way that they see the world, which sometimes can be really good if it advances you.
In reality, the best environment for being creative is a flatter one where you practice radical candor. This isn’t a free-for-all, there’s still structure in that, but there’s the ability to speak openly without fearing that whatever you’re saying could have a negative blowback on yourself.
Within my organization, I have interns and associate designers who call me out on my bad ideas all the time, and I encourage it. This is not a license to be critically mean to somebody—it should be a stress test to the actual ideas. If the idea doesn’t survive the stress test within your company, it’ll die when it goes out into the public. So what I try to do with my team is allow them the ability to be themselves completely and truly allow an environment which is safe to speak openly and speak truth about any idea.
In one of your blog posts, you mention being an introvert. What advice would you give to introverted marketing executives, designers and creatives who struggle to share ideas in a meeting or throw them out into the world?
I actually had this problem with my team as a whole because not only am I introverted, but designers in general tend to be introverted. A woman on my team came to me and said that she felt that within the construct of a tech company that it’s difficult sometimes to have her voice heard. As I dug into it, I realized it wasn’t just a female thing, it was a designer thing. It was people who felt terribly uncomfortable explaining what they’re doing to a larger cohort.
For me personally, at one point the thought of speaking in front of large groups terrified me, but I realized that if I didn’t get above it that I wouldn’t be able to represent the work of my team well.
At first I tried to take public speaking on like an actor in a role. That way I could hide behind it. But what I found that was really useful was that in order to address the introversion was to get in front of people and say, as an experiment, I’m actually going to be just me. When I encouraged my designers to go through the same thing, what I realized is that you can fumble your way through it, but if your story is solid, then it tends to get you through. Just know your story and speak truthfully to that.
You spearheaded Hulu’s first redesign in a decade via Hulu Experience—how, if at all, do you strike a balance between innovative and familiar when undertaking such big and strategic creative endeavors?
Thinking of how much influence Apple had on me—when the iPhone first came out everybody was using a BlackBerry or some sort of keyboard-based phone. And the immediate reaction was, no one’s going to use a glass screen that’s flat.
People are going to tell you that they want more of the same thing that they’ve always had, not realizing that there’s another thing. Steve Jobs up-leveled the whole question of what a phone is and how one interacts with it. So anything which is truly original is always ugly on first experience.
The problem for a creative director or a marketer or anybody who’s trying something different is that they have to say, yeah, I see the data, but I have up-leveled the problem and mitigated it by doing prototypes and testing.
When acting on your ideas, you have to be able to stomach the drop from underneath your feet and be okay with putting it all on the block. If you don’t then you spend your whole life professionally trying to arbitrarily please somebody above you. Whereas if you at least believe in something that you’ve done and it goes sideways, at least you went down with the thing that you believed in versus going down with the thing you felt was a compromise. And you can always bounce back really fast from a problem like that because you’ve maintained your principles.
Can you recall the first time you deployed creative rebellion in the corporate world and what you learned from the experience?
About seven years ago, I was at a company called Magento, which is an Adobe company now. The founder Roy Rubin asked me if we can do something to affect the environment, which I thought was very forward-thinking of him.
My wife connected me to a few street artists in Los Angeles and I had them come into the offices. They made these amazing murals. I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it, I just had it done. But the rebellion part of it was I remember there was this one mural near my office featuring a giant dragon and tiger. And I had this engineer come over and get freaked out and angry about the mural. Instead of getting into a conflict with him, I said, well, tell me, what do you think about it? As we talked, he explained why it concerned him and I explained to him what the meaning was behind it and the reason why I did it. Within about fifteen minutes, it was all okay. It was really a confrontation with the unknown or the new that threw him off. Ironically, the first week or so, there was a lot of complaining about it and questions like, why does this tech company have giant murals and what do they mean? And then within about a week, the executives were coming through with groups of people and showing off the art.
I realized that part of creative rebellion for me was learning how to be very uncomfortable for a short period of time. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not growing. I believe in risk, I don’t believe in recklessness. There’s a difference. And you shouldn’t do things which are reckless that can affect people adversely. But you should do things which are calculated in the risk.
I think part of creative rebellion for leaders is the ability to be extremely yourself, tell the truth and to borrow from Brené Brown, be vulnerable. The more that you expose what you don’t know as much as what you do know, it’s not a weakness and people come to help at that point, helping alleviate the strain of whatever huge endeavor you’re doing.
If giving an idea to “a group of engaged individuals who can take the ember of the idea, add fuel to it and turn it into a bonfire” is so important for breeding creativity, how can marketers/teams be proactive in this process while teleworking?
While working from home, keep a notebook and write down ideas and Post-it notes and put them on the walls because no one’s looking.
In a weird way, this coronavirus can help stabilize a lot of connections that people have been missing. The virtualness of it may, in a weird way, allow people to get centered around what is important. A lot of the embers that I was talking about are hard to find. When you go into a conference room and you try to say, hey, let’s have a brainstorming session around something, it almost never works. It almost becomes a one-upmanship.
I believe ideas are so delicate. This really delicate ‘ember’ of an idea, if you bring it in too quickly into a corporate environment, it can be dismissed suddenly. What’s important is to have a non-fear based environment, a sandbox, so to speak, that you can then bring the ember into. And then there’s a ceremony within your team plus the idea of what you’re doing. It’s a “yes and.” Not being in an actual physical environment with someone can alleviate some of that stress that you would feel by being in physical proximity to them. And I find that I can more easily exchange ideas that way.