We probably don’t need to give Tea Uglow much of an introduction. She’s the creative director of Google Creative Lab in Sydney, after working at the tech behemoth for more than a decade and founding Google’s Creative Lab in Europe. She’s been dubbed a “tech celebrity”, and describes herself as “proudly transgender, faceblind and neurodivergent.” She’s also no stranger to the design conference circuit, a deliberate move in her ongoing efforts around trans and queer visibility in the creative industries and beyond.
Her talks at these events are often gloriously tangential meanderings, yet Google Creative Lab and their workings remain something of a mystery—entities that are ever fascinating, yet enduringly hard to describe. Many of the projects are internal, meaning the ones we hear about are the wide-ranging collaborations with cultural organizations and practitioners. The Creative Lab’s overarching aim is to use Google tech and resources “to enable artists, writers and performers to look at new ways in which we can use all these remarkable digital tools to make art, theater, and music.”
The lab has three outposts—London, New York, and Uglow’s Sydney—staffed by a nebulous bunch of creators, developers and filmmakers. Uglow says she believes that by “experimenting with digital tools in existing cultural practice, we can explore new possibilities without losing the tradition, values, and intangible qualities that make the arts so valuable to us.”
As such, the breadth of the Creative Lab’s output is sprawling and vast; and perhaps not always what we’d expect from a brand we know best as a primary-colored search engine. We’ve seen theater productions with the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Punchdrunk and interactive displays at sites like the British Museum, as well as a ton of book-based work, such as the innovative Editions at Play series, launched in 2016. One recent project from the publishing initiative is the blockchain book A Universe Explodes, authored by Uglow, the concept of which is just as fascinating and complex and tricky as blockchain itself.
Uglow recently led a brilliant and freewheeling talk at Pentagram London, covering everything from Socrates quotes (which weren’t actually Socrates quotes); the difference between perfectionism and criticism; how “authentic creativity can’t rely on a process-driven approach”; the dangers of “creative directing”; building a culture of inclusion; and a whole load more. We spoke to her after the talk to expand on just a few of those things.
You’ve previously described your work as having “a lack of definite outcomes.” I guess that’s true of a lot of creative roles, which are more concept or strategy driven. They’re obviously harder to talk about than tangible things like packaging design, or a poster. How do you think we can communicate those sort of projects better?
It is amazing because you go to an awards shows and watch case studies of apps being used, or quite conceptual work, and I understand why that’s the case. They’re basically abbreviations—using a poster is a perfect way to communicate a 2,000 word idea, and that’s why they’re so effective and valuable. But it is very hard, and part of the reason is that we’ve had this history of 1,000 years of visual culture, and only a 20 year history of digital culture. It’s not a solvable problem and I don’t expect people to solve it. It’s a time problem, and over time culture will be richer and people’s understanding of that will become richer.
It’s very interesting to see ideas that were once seen as radical become not just acceptable, but nuanced.
What sort of things do you mean?
Ten years ago we auditioned a symphony orchestra through YouTube, and every news outlet in the world was interested in it. If you look at the press around creative work from a decade ago, it’s very, “oh my god! There’s a site that knows where you are using maps!” People went ballistic. Then it opened up much richer questions about personalization and what it means. There’s a nuanced appreciation of things that comes in time; just as the generation coming up now seems not only comfortable talking about notions of gender, but curious about it.
The distinction you make between “diversity”—pointing out that we’re all inherently diverse—and “inclusion” is really interesting, and makes total sense. How then can we work towards more inclusive workplaces in the creative industries?
I know we’re trying, and what precedes action is visibility and conversation. That’s one of the reasons I’m very visible—who wants to be talking on stage? I know from anecdotal evidence how important it is. Several queer people came up to me [after the Pentagram London talk] and said “it’s so wonderful to see someone who’s in a leadership role, who’s openly queer and trans, open about mental health conditions, and openly neurodiverse.”
It has to be inspiring, and that involves being visible and saying “it’s possible.”
I’d rather it be fashionable to have anxiety than stigmatized.
The openness about mental health is interesting, as while it seems a lot of people are “talking about it,” it’s in a very “safe” way, and even sometimes exploited by certain brands or agencies for brownie points, as a sort of new #feminism. Yet there doesn’t really seem to be a culture emerging where people feel comfortable disclosing those sort of issues in the workplace when they need to.
You see language being co-opted until it loses its significance. I have a major issue with the word “triggered.” People use that as if it’s like a slang for “I’m gonna say something that might cause someone to have a fit.” You’re going to put someone in danger, you could change someone’s life.
But time is on our side and there’s progress being made. I’d rather it be fashionable to have anxiety than stigmatized.
I’m sure there are people who are unbelievably self confident and have complete conviction and make good creative content, but my practice involves acknowledging there’s another way.
How can workplaces improve how they address and deal with employee mental health?
People don’t want to have open conversations about mental health, but it’s less about active inclusion and more about checking your assumptions. People’s assumptions about how others respond are based on how they’d respond.
I tend to respond very quickly—sometimes well, sometimes badly—and I have some colleagues who need time to stop and think. Our meetings can have ideas flying around at such speed, and I’ll assume everyone’s loosely following. But you have to learn that some people like to take a day to process something, then come back with their view. Even if that might slow the process down, both styles of doing something have their place.
The title of your Pentagram talk was Creative Leadership for the Terminally Insecure. Is it possible to be a good designer without being insecure?
I don’t know! I always say I don’t know. I’m sure there are people who are unbelievably self confident and have complete conviction and make good creative content, but my practice involves acknowledging there’s another way where you don’t have to [be that]. The language of our industry is all “young guns,” “new blood,” “fast thinking,” “hard hitting,” “super outgoing.” That’s not helping us, to be so narrow in our understandings of where creativity comes from. We’re just as responsible for generating a culture which makes it harder to change internally our patterns of thinking and interaction.
A lot of what you do at Google Creative Lab is based around the team being able to “play” and experiment, and you’ve spoken about how that element of play is so important to the creative industries more widely. How should studios without the infrastructure you have at Google work to incorporate those sort of processes in their day-to-day?
We obviously have an extreme example, but I actually have a very small team—for the last five years it’s been no more than three people, though we bring in interns from our Fiver program so I have new, fresh-thinking brains coming in from radically different places. But the budgets are relatively small–it’s quite a low input, high-impact exercise. But it can be very hard for companies who are straining, and every company is straining.
But, at a conceptual level and individual level we hide the other four hours a day at work when we’re larking about. We don’t consider that to be constructive, and pretend we’re not doing that. About 50% of the time people are chatting or mucking about or playing. If you can turn a quarter of that time where people are working with people who they shouldn’t be—gossiping, flirting, playing on Instagram, doing what we all do—if you can allow a fraction of that to be called “self-initiated” or dress it up however you want, it becomes a creative space to play.
It’s not like that’s all we do here, but that’s where we do our most effective work. It’s not about whether what we create is effective, but the culture we create is effective and allows the rest of the company to feel more creative and inspired.
There’s no point having people who think the same way as you.
So how does that way of working affect how the team is built?
When I get juniors in, it’s hard to tell them they’re really good at what they’re doing, and I want them to do that thing. I don’t want them to do “work,” which they feel is hard so they deserve to be paid for it. If I don’t have someone who enjoys the production or legal side or client side, I need to find them, as they’re just as important in the creative process. It’s just weird, you see this thing with creative directors who are increasingly boxed into small rooms and put in places where they have no creative output, yet that’s the one thing they didn’t sign up to do.
I love those people who might be developers but they’re also great people managers, those people who grow.
You’re obviously really into literature, philosophy, theater and so on. Is it important for you that the other people on your team have interests outside of purely design?
Not really, it’s not terribly important. But we do have a great developer who’s an astrophysicist, so that means he can explain the formation of meteors by drawing it on a napkin. For me I thought “thank you so much for caring that I’m interested in that!” Another person we’ve got is someone who’s a natural ad creative, and she’s come in despite that not being a natural fit. It’s brilliant watching her bring more of an agency mindset and bring that creativity and structure. We’re very fuzzy about how we talk about things and she molds them and pitches them.
There’s no point having people who think the same way as you.
How does a project typically come about?
It’s important to remember we do a lot of product or marketing focused stuff as well as the sort of stuff I talk about! The ones that people like to hear about, or that are interesting to me, generally come from conversations over coffee. For the Midsummer Night’s Dream project the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) originally asked me to write an essay, and from there it became a fully fledged production and conversations that continues to this day.
There’s a bit of product stuff, but it seems very apparent that a huge amount of where the tech comes from is less about direct input and more about the inferred input. So, working on cultural projects perhaps, but allowing the machines to do the heavy lifting along the way.
Ideas normally come from people’s interests and passions.
What sort of things are you interested in at the moment?
I’m really interested in audio, so we’re doing a lot of sound stuff. I was thinking, “why does it make a difference if you put a piece of glass between people? You lose information, but we don’t know why.” I’m really interested in audio and I love the way that people don’t hear all the things all the time. We’re forever recalibrating.
I love that we’re getting close to having wearables that interact with and understand your body, and consumable, swallowable tech. There’s a whole world of information and user experience information that we’re not exploring.
Creativity maybe has a very narrow remit. We need to show the possibilities and potentials. It’s about putting flags in the sand and saying “go past this.”