After speaking on a panel in 2018 about the creative courage, vision, and raw determination it takes for designers to “break the internet,” John S. Couch, VP of Product Design at Hulu, had numerous designers, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople ask him if he could recommend any books that would help them navigate the unforgiving environments of contemporary design without compromising themselves. He didn’t, but on his wife’s recommendation, he ended up writing one himself. Part-Letters to a Young Poet, part-Kitchen Confidential, Couch’s The Art of Creative Rebellion: How to champion creativity, change culture and save your soul (in bookstores January 21, 2020) serves up anecdotes of lurching your way forward in a career through screw ups and blunders to ultimately finding the lesson in the wonderful mess of life. A necessary read for everyone from beginning designers to experienced corporate executives, Couch’s book delves into what it takes to successfully create something for people at scale.
To celebrate the book’s release, here is an excerpt from the first chapter:
Creative thinking requires just one thing: contemplation. This means getting beyond the distractions of social media; getting beyond the need to fill up your empty time, between work and taking care of family and friends, with TV, or drinking or eating out too many times in one week. Contemplation requires a form of relaxed focus. And focus is in short supply nowadays with so much vying for our attention.
I’m concerned with rebellion. Not destructive rebellion but creative rebellion. The creative act is initially viewed as disruptive and is often suppressed, even by companies that seek to be innovative—a word that has lost almost all its meaning through repetition. As a creative person you may find yourself simultaneously admired and repressed; considered integral to the company or project you are working on and then unceremoniously discarded after you deliver the goods; celebrated and then isolated. This is the path of all creative individuals or those who aspire to the creative path. It’s tough, but in my estimation, there is no other way to live.
Something interesting has happened to me over time, as I moved into what is commonly considered middle age: I have become more rebellious, more productive, more open to ideas that I would have considered hogwash as a young man. I am more intuitive. As a child, I took in the world with a poetic lens that began to fade over time. I was attuned to the rhythm of the world in a way that came naturally—I didn’t have to force that sense of oneness. Perhaps I am glorifying the past through the backward glance of nostalgia, but it remains real to me.
When I was around eight years old, I recall riding my red and white Schwinn bicycle—the kind with rickety mudguards that clattered as I pedaled along cracked sidewalks that had been pushed upwards by massive oak roots into Evel Knievel cement ramps, slabs of gray glaciers, just for me, don’t you know. The late afternoon light of autumn cast deep shadows across empty brown lawns and the Texas air carried a chill that stung, blurring my eyes and making my nose run. Like all children that age, I wiped it away with the back of my right sleeve, the dark blue sweater’s well-worn nap soft against my raw nose.
I don’t know why I stopped at the old house. And I don’t know how I ended up in the backyard. I was a painfully shy child, so it was completely against my nature to walk my bike up the driveway, push open the faux-wrought-iron gates, the dirty white paint chipping away from lichen-like rust. I found myself in a garden, standing on a path that led to a cottage, a brick guest house. As I recall this, I don’t know if I’ve stepped into the motel art of a Thomas Kinkade painting or the beginning of a Stephen King novel; but I remember being inside the cottage, being fed cookies and hot chocolate by an older woman, who had one eye that trailed to the left when she blinked, and her quiet, I assume, daughter, who smiled and brought in the treats. The older woman, with her gray hair up in a bun, asked me simple questions (my name, my age, my favorite comic book heroes). The room was warm from a small wood-burning fireplace, and eventually, I fell asleep. When I awoke, they were gone, the room empty but the fire still going. I got up, let myself out, walked through the garden to the gate, got on my bike and rode out into the brisk air and darkness of the neighborhood. When I got home, my parents didn’t seem to notice that I had been absent as they talked in the kitchen and took care of my little sister, who would have been around two at the time, so I went to my room. The next day, after school, I rode around again, trying to find the house. The sunlight was different, monochrome and dull, and the maple leaves were wet and flat against the sidewalk. I rode and rode, looping through the streets, crisscrossing them with no luck. I couldn’t find the house. I went home disheartened, walked past the kitchen with its clanking of utensils and hissing discussions about bills that needed to be paid. I went into my room (the converted front porch) and lay back on the thin carpet that covered the hard cement floor. Cold, hard reality set back in.
Whether this recollection is real or not, it activates a sense of calmness, a glimpse of what is referred to in Zen Buddhism as kenshō: seeing, albeit fleetingly, one’s own Buddha nature or original face—the non-duality that addresses the separation between oneself and everything else in the world. This mindset of attaining one’s original face is what I’m referring to as creative rebellion; a practice that requires active mindfulness and the stripping down of the inherited stories that we gather as we move through life: our religion, our nationality, our morality, our ideas of success and failure. Once we are laid bare we can consciously choose what stories we want to propagate, what narratives we want to associate with ourselves.
The creative rebel is one who awakens from the soul-numbing norms of societal and corporate expectations and becomes, ultimately, their true self.
This post is an excerpt from The Art of Creative Rebellion: How to champion creativity, change culture and save your soul by John S. Couch (VP Product Design, Hulu). It is now available for preorder here and will be released January 21, 2020.
John S. Couch is the Vice President, UX and Design at Hulu. Recently, he was the Chief Creative Officer of The Shop and Head of Design and Senior Creative Director for Magento and eBay Enterprise. Couch was formerly an Entertainment and Technology Specialist focusing on cross-platform content strategies and development for television, film, Internet, mobile, video games, and emerging new media platforms. Earlier roles include VP at both CBS Interactive and Digital Kitchen. His many contributions have led to the success of Survivor, Big Brother, The Amazing Race, and the CSI franchise. John is a standing member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Writer’s Guild of America. He is also a screenplay writer, and is fluent in Japanese.