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John S. Couch

99U Conference 2020

99U Conference Speaker Spotlight: John S. Couch Questions the Status Quo

The author, artist, and Hulu's VP of Product Design shares the surprisingly simple philosophy that drives his restless creativity.


What does it mean to be a creative? This year’s Adobe 99U Conference is an examination of “The Creative Self.” When we set about curating speakers, we looked to people taking an individualistic approach to their work and careers. Ahead of the event, we’re asking them how they nurture their own creative selves.

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John S. Couch leads many lives, each informed by his uncompromising belief in the transformative power of storytelling. As the VP of Product Design at Hulu, he spearheaded the redesign of the Hulu Experience, the company’s first major update in a decade. As an author and artist, he is driven by a punk spirit that holds the exhilaration of creative work as its own reward, and values rebellion and collaboration. He spoke to us about how to create a workplace that inspires genuine engagement, and how he finds space to maintain mental and physical wellbeing. 

 

Q. When do you feel most purposeful?

A. For me, purpose derives from being positively impactful on others. In the workplace, a creative, non-fear-based culture is extremely important as it allows for engagement with the work and for the designer to express their true self. I remind my team that even though they get paid every two weeks and get health insurance (no minor thing), that in exchange, they are giving away eight to ten hours of their lives to the work—time they do not get back. So if they are not engaged, I will then help them become engaged or even find a more fitting job. I feel most purposeful when I can help alleviate suffering and empower others to create and express themselves to their fullest. The world needs creative thinkers more than ever. Creativity is freedom. Freedom allows for innovation. Innovation brings forth solutions.

 

Q. How would you describe your creative voice?

A. My creative voice is rebellious. Innovation comes from questioning the status quo, whether in a corporation or society. To make a musical analogy, I’m more punk than prog rock. However, this is tempered with a Stoic-Zen sense of humor that allows me to radically accept how things are (no matter how messed up) and then seek solutions without getting mired in anger or depression, neither of which is creative or constructive. And recently my creative voice and thoughts have been captured in my book, The Art of Creative Rebellion. I wrote the book as a Letters to a Young Poet for aspiring designers and artists but it ended up also reading like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential for executives. Making a living as a creative person is messy, lonely, exhilarating, and frustrating. But for me, there’s no better way to live.

 

Q. What are your most important work/life boundaries?

A. After decades of eating badly and working too much, I finally realized that my machine (my physical body and mental state), needed to be cleaned up. Work had worn me down and at one point I had chronic fatigue and was overweight. I had to set boundaries up to allow myself time to work out, eat well, get a good night’s sleep and, most importantly, spend time with my wife and daughter. I’m fortunate that I get to drive my daughter to school every morning and spend quality time with her. And I’m also fortunate that my wife is my creative collaborator on everything from art to writing. She’s my first audience, my editor, my critic—and my biggest cheerleader. As long as that’s stable, I can slay dragons during the workday.

 

Q. What is your ideal creative environment? What are the circumstances that let you thrive and do your best work?

A. When I was previously head of design for Magento, I had street artists come in and paint the office walls with enormous murals. Amazing artists that my wife found for me: Zio Ziegler, Cryptik, David Flores, Yoskay Yamamoto, Andrew Hem, Mtendere Mandowa (Teebs) and others. Initially, there was resistance (especially from developers), but within a week, I saw the C-level execs proudly giving potential clients a tour. The space was filled with natural light and the artwork really inspired the employees, no matter what their role was. You see, an office tells an employee how to think: a gray office with cubicles and flickering florescent lights says one thing and an office with high ceilings, natural light, plants, and open workplaces to commune and private creative environments for contemplation, says another. It’s been my experience that people need both private spaces (used to be known as an office) for deep thinking and focus, and open environments for community and collaboration. My ideal environment would incorporate these elements.

 

Q. Describe a creative breakthrough that’s had a lasting impact on how you think about your life and work.

A. Interestingly enough, the biggest creative breakthrough for me was the realization that the role of a creative person (i.e. any human) is to simply create. There is no competition if you really think about it. Billions of people were born and died before your birth and billions more (if not trillions) will come after you are gone. You can’t do much about how your creative work will land once it’s released to the world. You can try to control the narrative a bit through marketing and press and maybe Instagram, but in reality, the work you do will either go out and make an impact or it will go into the void. Either way, it doesn’t matter. If you did the work in the right way, with the right intentions, then you got “paid” already. The making of the work, being in the flow of the creative process itself, is the reward. If you happen to make money from it, then bravo. Another thing that helps me is perspective: I remind myself that we are here for just a short while as we rotate around the sun at 67,000 mph, with our solar system itself hurtling through the infinite universe at 490,000 mph. So, as Bill Murray so eloquently stated in the classic 1979 comedy Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter.”

 

Q. For this year’s 99U Conference, we have invented a menagerie of “creative specimens,” each with a unique personality. Which one do you identify with the most?

A. Innovato Ideatis.

[Ed. Note: Few specimens have contributed to innovation in the creative kingdom more than the Innovato Ideatis, known for swimming (and flying) well outside of most creatures’ comfort zones.]

This year’s Adobe 99U Conference is going virtual and free to creatives worldwide: join us June 17 on Behance. Registration is now open at be.net/99u


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