Creativity at work – an interview with Jon Kolko

June 29, 2018

Read time 6 min

In May, Reaktor Breakpoint brought some inspiring speakers to Helsinki. One them was Jon Kolko, a Partner at Modernist Studio, the Founder of Austin Center for Design, a teacher, and an author. I interviewed Jon after the conference to dig deeper into creativity and what it takes to lead creative teams. I was especially intrigued by Jon’s thoughts on group critique – a method creative teams could use to take their work to a new level.

Q: Creativity has become a hugely popular topic especially in the business media – why do you think there is such an interest in this?

A: Creativity has always been fundamental to business and social impact. Coming up with a streamlined manufacturing process during the industrial revolution was an ongoing, relentless and creative pursuit of efficiency. We’ve seen problem solvers focusing on social problems, like poverty, in creative ways for years as they attempt to operate outside of traditional bureaucratic structures.

I think creativity is discussed more now for a few reasons. One is because leaders have seen the relationship between ”being creative” – thinking differently – and coming up with innovations. Another is because there’s a clear relationship between complexity and creativity, and business problems are increasingly complicated. And, of course, creativity sells: it’s all over pop-business magazines, accompanied by pictures of beautiful design studios and beautiful designers doing beautiful things.

Q: You are also a teacher. Do you believe that everyone is creative? Is creativity something that can be taught?

A: At some level, we’re all everything. We’re all creative, or boring, or inspirational, or musical or sporty. But some people have a proclivity to some things, and often that proclivity is huge. I can kick a soccer ball around the field, and with practice, I can probably get pretty good. But it’s going to be a massive uphill battle to get to be a pro player – massive to the point of not being practical.

I teach both graduate and corporate students to create things. The biggest roadblocks along the way are confidence and craftsmanship, and I can help students become better at both things.

Q: To be creative, you need to have trust in the people around you. What are the first things you do as a team leader to create a sense of trust within a team?

A: I’m laser-focused on the work, probably to a fault. I’m a terrible team leader when it comes to personal growth – things like setting goals, and personal growth trajectory. Instead, my emphasis is on empowering my team to make great work. That means I clear the lane for them to produce, and I’m super critical of what they make. They’re empowered and with high expectations.

Q: You have talked about the importance of group critique. What is a group critique and how does it help take the focus away from the individual?

A: A group critique is a special type of meeting. In a critique, work is presented, but not explained or defended. And then, a group of people identify things that aren’t working and explore how those things can be improved. The person who has presented the work sits, mostly quietly, and takes notes. They don’t explain or justify their decisions, because that acts as a form of defensive posture. Instead, they simply observe, clarify, and listen.

People doing the critique follow some rules, too. First, they direct their criticism at the work and not at the designer. Sometimes, this means being aware of the language that’s used. Instead of saying ”The decision you made here doesn’t work”, simply saying ”This area doesn’t work” begins to change the demeanor of the meeting. And, participants in the critique can’t just point out things that are bad: they also have to propose – and draw – solutions.

Q: Have you faced situations where it’s difficult to get people to comment on others’ work – do you have any tricks on how to elicit constructive critique when people revert to a plain ’yeah, it looks good’?

A: In critiques that I run, I don’t allow positive feedback or comments, and I actively call it out – ”instead of describing what’s working, please focus on what areas can be improved”. It takes some training and practice because most of us have been accustomed to being cordial and positive. But because critique is a special type of meeting, and is constantly described as special, the rules can be explicitly unique.

In some contexts, it’s hard for individual contributors to disagree with a leader. In organizations like this, I recommend leading by example: as someone in a leadership role, present your own work to be critiqued, and don’t let the people in the room off the hook until they identify areas in the work that can be improved.

Q: You are an experienced team leader. Do you have experience in self-organized teams and do you think creative teams should have a leader?

A: Everyone can use a leader, if by leader we mean someone who is inspirational, competent, and supportive. I think a big part of creative leadership is showing that competency – showing that, every now and then, you can still roll up your sleeves and actually do the hard work and display a high level of craftsmanship.

Q: Do you think there is a different approach that should be taken when leading hybrid teams where people represent different fields (as opposed to, say, a team of graphic designers)?

A: I think people earn respect from others in different ways, but in my experience, nothing really beats competence and storytelling. I try my best to tell stories of the future and help my teams understand and believe in what they’re doing and why they are doing it, and show that I’m not all talk – that I can actually do things to help bring that story to life.

Q: Many of those who have creative jobs work as freelancers and might not have a team. How would you advise someone who is working alone and needs to overcome self-doubt and find that creative clarity?

A: I honestly don’t know. I’ve worked as a freelancer earlier in my career, and I didn’t actually have creative clarity. It’s only by working in a team that I gained a sense for how critique, framing, and storytelling help come to that crisp perspective of what to make and how to make it. It’s lonely, being a contractor. Maybe someone else can write a handbook on that experience for other freelancers; it would be of huge benefit.

Q: What has inspired you recently?

A: I’ve been learning to play the sitar for the last half a year or so, and it’s been extraordinarily satisfying for me. I’ve found joy and value in being a novice, of working through frustration, of gaining skill and confidence, and in doing something highly tactile. The freeform structure and grammar of Indian music feels a lot like the constraints in a design project, but I can’t lean on any of my traditional creative skills. It’s all brand new. It feels great – it’s totally inspiring.


Jon’s talk at Breakpoint was titled ”Creative clarity – finding focus in the midst of ambiguity” and you can watch it here. While you’re at it, why not watch the whole series of talks on the topic of Design in changing times? Inspiration boost guaranteed.

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