The New Hack

I’ve been listening a lot recently to the Comedian's Comedian podcast. Being a bit of a comedy geek I find the glimpse it gives you into the creative process behind how comedians do what they do really interesting and not a little inspiring in terms of that self-motivated creativity which is required (and the myriad different forms that takes). I'd say it’s well worth a listen for anyone (particularly freelancers) who work in a creative industry.

I listened to a couple of the most recent podcasts first and then decided I was enjoying it enough that I'd go back and work my way through from the very beginning, so I guess some of this is a little old hat in terms of the podcast but anyway...

There's a thing in comedy called Hack, the idea is that it’s stuff you’ve heard before, a million times, but that some comedian is churning out anyway. It’s frowned upon apparently. Stuart Goldsmith who's podcast it is, started a page on his website for people to collect newer examples of this kind of material. Not just the old standards but new stuff which is now becoming "hack".

It’s an interesting read. Some things you recognise and some things you don't. The way it’s presented means that not recognising something immediately makes you feel slightly "out of it", but of course I am, not being a comedian, not experiencing more than a couple of live shows a year (and whatever I can get at from TV/Youtube). And it made me realise that it’s only really comedians who could compile a list like this. Being in and around comedy all the time, they're bound to notice the patterns and they'll be the first for whom this stuff starts to grate.

Of course this all happens within a set of constraints. No comedian walks on stage and refuses to communicate or talks entirely in a language which is incomprehensible to their audience. (Almost) none spout meaningless non sequiturs that have no resemblance to jokes at all. There are some agreed parameters, but within those you're expected to be creative, or I should say, you are respected if you are.

As I said there's parallels here with any creative industry but the key is to understand the difference between the constraints that you work within and the spaces where creativity can and should flourish. Personally I feel like most of my struggles with work revolve around grappling with that issue. Where do the parameters end and where should I be creative? Often I think that’s a very blurry line. Things like affordances and learned behaviour are very powerful things. After all, users who are familiar with a certain way of doing things will breeze through an interface, understand a website, and generally have a better experience. And yet my desire is always to be as creative as possible, and not to have my work become an exercise is connecting existing pieces (like a jigsaw puzzle).

I think understanding the difference between good and hack is a hard thing. Both can appear to the same to the untrained eye. Thinking about that difference though and constantly questioning it is important to keep your standards high and keep you progressing. It might not be a question that can ever really be answered (or ever should be) but it’s worth asking all the same.