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‘Creativity needs a little bit of chaos.’

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Feature by Michael Canning

Also known as the team’s 'experimental person in charge', Tea Uglow is Creative Director for Google Creative Lab, Sydney. Having worked for Google in her native London, UK, Tea took the Sydney role to see if the Asia Pacific region had the same creative energy.

Working with cultural and creative organisations around the world, Tea explores the space between technology and the arts, and what can happen where they intersect. She is also a regular speaker and contributor in the global creative community. We spoke with her about her experience of creative life in a new time zone, communication in 2025 and a few favorite corners of Sydney.


On where you’re originally from

London, UK.

On Google Creative Lab

I’ve been at Google for 12 years. I started in London and moved here at the start of 2012.

On your move to Sydney

We had two reasons. My ex-wife and my boys are Australian; we had a young son and wanted to bring him up in Australia, which felt like an easier place to bring someone up than central London. And for work reasons, Google was becoming structurally much more focused in London. I’d joined this company, which was quite chaotic really, and joyously so, and the creative energy was really extraordinary and tangible and fantastic, and that was closing in a little bit. I wanted to see if I could come to Asia Pacific and if it would be the same creative energy. When a company is young, like when YouTube or Google Docs is young, you can enjoy that very creative space when nobody really knows what it’s doing. When Android is young it’s like, ‘What is it?’ Like any kid, you play, explore and discover yourself and then eventually you become more formal. So in terms of Google, I came here to support the marketing functions in Asia Pacific because we had been through that process in London.

On a new word or phrase in Australia

I love the language. I love all the ‘oaths’ that get stuck on the end of sentences. I’ve fallen in love with a number of Australians so there’s clearly something I find deeply attractive about the Australian culture. I think it’s because I don’t have that lightness and ease of the Australian culture myself.

Tea Uglow speaking at the TED conference at the Sydney Opera House (above), and the Opera House during the Youtube Symphony Orchestra. Images courtesy Tea Uglow

On your relationship with Sydney

I’m very fond of it...her...them...they... but I’m not as emotional about Sydney as I have been, say, London, where I felt very strongly for or against. I love Sydney and I’m very fond of the fact people feel it’s a jewel and are very fond of showing people all the beautiful parts of it.

On how new cultures inspire you

From a creative perspective, what made the most difference was being 17,000 kilometres away from my boss, and not sharing a time zone. When I was moving over here they asked me if I wanted a tethered space walk or an untethered space walk, and I said, ‘Untethered space walk, please.’ And so I was kind of left alone and it was a really interesting period of being unbound. What it did do was give me a freedom of being away. It’s like when someone says they want to go to the woods to write and you’re like, ‘Why?’ It’s not because you’re in the woods and the woods are beautiful and you write about how beautiful the woods are. It’s just because you aren’t hemmed in by everything else that is around you.

‘When I was moving over here they asked me if I wanted a tethered space walk or an untethered space walk, and I said, ‘untethered space walk, please.’

On technology across time zones

There’s some interesting science around acoustics and how important they are. From a technology point of view, one of the problems is that even if you recreate what is happening visually, recreating acoustically what is happening is really challenging, because we haven’t seen as much time on that as we have on 360 video. We have 360 video, and then just two speakers. If something feels artificial, your brain deals with that information in a different way because it turns off a lot of things, because it’s not actually there. This is one of the reasons people like actually being in the room, or having personal conversations or listening to speakers, because our brain is more active when we are in a live environment because of what we hear. When it comes to travel and moving around the world, I benefited enormously from being a long distance away. The timezones made a big difference.

On work and travel

People generally think that distance is a problem but I think it really depends on the relationship you have with whoever you’re working with. Creativity needs a little bit of chaos and I like the idea of getting people out of where they are and putting them somewhere else. Even just the fact that travel and new cultures make time go slower because you’re processing so much more information. Your brain has been working harder because there are a whole load of things that it can’t ignore, whereas doing your daily commute you generally don’t have to process most of that information. That’s why we can sleepwalk our way to work. I think travel is a bit like exercise for your mind.

'Editions at Play' by Google Creative Lab, creating books powered by the magic of the internet that change with the story. Images courtesy Tea Uglow.

On what you hope diversity in creative industries will look like in 2025

Well, it shouldn’t really look like anything. I struggle with the word diversity in a way, because we’re all diverse. You can have more diversity but more diversity just means there are more people. Or more plants or animals, or a diverse array of phones. Yes, it can be more diverse if we add more phones. But on the other hand there is the idea of inclusion. where as long as you’re not excluding people, you have an inclusive practice. And at the moment it’s pretty easy to say, ‘Are people excluded from these conversations?’ English as a second language is an example that I find really interesting because it’s something that is usually perceived as a weakness, but in fact it needs a total understanding of another culture, and it also implies a different perspective. I think what it should look like is that it is harder to find groups that are excluded from the creative process. It doesn’t mean every group needs to be in every company but it means that your channels of communication to those groups should be open and clear, so that they are engaged in whatever it is that you’re creating because it’s meant to be for them or about them.

On a current project at Google Creative Lab

We have a book coming out soon called We Kiss the Screens that I really like, which is about multiplicities of perspective. It’s a digital book where you can move through different points of view in theoretically the same story, but it’s actually wildly kind of weird. It’s a weird way of working through a book. Yeah it’s a very weird book.

‘People generally think that distance is a problem, but I think it really depends on the relationship you have with whoever you’re working with.’

On your favorite corners of Sydney

I love the Boy Charlton swimming pool. And I like the Spit Bridge to Manly walk as well. Sydney has great coastal walks, they’re just so special, you just want to put everyone on them immediately.  

'Midsummer Nights Dreaming', a digital theatre project from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Google+ (above), and Tea speaking with Gigi Gorgeous at Youtube Creators for Change. Images courtesy Tea Uglow.

On creative inspiration

There are loads of interesting galleries, I like White Rabbit and Carriageworks. The Opera House for the most part has quite interesting work going on too.

On something from the UK you need a fix of in Sydney

I do have a jar of Marmite — I grew up on Marmite — but I also have a jar of Vegemite. The things I like are weird things, like the Tour de France, which is on two weeks of the year and I’m totally committed to! So when that’s on I get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and watch cycling. I don’t really care about cycling, I just care about that cycling. I guess that’s not even an English, English thing. That’s European.

‘Travel and new cultures make time go slower because you’re processing so much more information. Your brain has been working harder because there are a whole load of things that it can’t ignore.’

On where your next flight is taking you

I’m off to Auckland for a day trip.

On window seat or aisle

I’ve always been an aisle person, but I’ve actually started to migrate more to the window these days. I think Instagram has actually been a big thing for sitting on the window in the beautiful images you see. I follow Nick Law, who takes these amazing Instagram photos of the window seat when he travels. I didn’t used to have much interest in window seats but have started to think, ‘What am I missing?!’

On Sydney in one word

I once got into terrible trouble for describing Sydney in one word after the first time I’d been here. We’d just been in Bangladesh and came to Sydney and then to New York, and people asked me about it, and the word I used to describe my entire experience was that Sydney was very ‘clean’. That was the impression I had of it. The funny thing is that it still works for me now, in that the air is very clean and the light is very clean. It’s a very visual city. You get this incredible clean light and these wonderful lines. So I just think there’s a clean aesthetic. So yes, I’d stick with ‘clean’ but I’d expand it beyond just ‘not grubby’.


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