Men­tal health is­sues per­vade the de­sign world. Tom May speaks to the cre­atives try­ing to re­solve this

Computer Arts - - Contents - WRIT­TEN BY: Tom May

Imag­ine you were in a car ac­ci­dent and had to spend time re­cov­er­ing in hos­pi­tal. You’d ex­pect your friends and fam­ily to rally around, and your em­ployer to cover your work­load while you con­va­lesce. Your col­leagues would send flow­ers and sign a card, rel­a­tives would help out with the kids. It would be an un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence, for sure, but at least you could count on ev­ery­one to do the right thing.

Con­trast that with a sce­nario in which you suf­fered a se­ri­ous men­tal health prob­lem. Now things get a bit mud­dier. The reme­dies would not be so ob­vi­ous or straight­for­ward; in fact, you might not know what to do at all. When you try to ex­plain your prob­lem to peo­ple, they may not un­der­stand. They may even be un­sym­pa­thetic. Or per­haps you wouldn’t tell any­one at all, and just keep try­ing to sol­dier on.

If this were the case, you wouldn’t be alone. Poor men­tal health af­fects half of all work­ing peo­ple in the UK, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey of 44,000 peo­ple car­ried out by the men­tal health char­ity Mind. Only half of those who’ve ex­pe­ri­enced prob­lems with stress, anx­i­ety or low mood have talked to their em­ployer about it. And a re­cent poll by the In­sti­tute of Di­rec­tors re­vealed that fewer than one in five firms of­fered men­tal health train­ing for man­agers.

Al­though there’s no hard data on men­tal health prob­lems in the de­sign pro­fes­sion, there’s plenty of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence that many suf­fer from anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and the like. And that’s not sur­pris­ing, be­lieves

Sara Lopez, a grad­u­ate de­signer in London who — fol­low­ing her own neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences with men­tal health ser­vices — has de­vel­oped a self-as­sess­ment kit called Mind­no­sis to help peo­ple fig­ure out the kind of as­sis­tance they need.

“I be­lieve as de­sign­ers we have cer­tain sen­si­tiv­ity and em­pa­thy that makes us more vul­ner­a­ble to men­tal health is­sues,” she says. “We of­ten see our cre­ative selves strug­gling to fit into strict pat­terns driven by pro­duc­tiv­ity and prof­itabil­ity. So­cial me­dia, while it has a good side, can also have a bad in­flu­ence on our well­be­ing when it cre­ates un­nec­es­sary ex­pec­ta­tions of liv­ing other lives, and be­ing a dif­fer­ent per­son. Com­bin­ing that with dead­lines and pres­sures that may af­fect our per­sonal life can be dam­ag­ing to the point of burnout.”


Jes­sica Christina, a graphic de­signer work­ing for an agency in Jakarta, In­done­sia, tells a typ­i­cal story for those first en­ter­ing the in­dus­try. While at uni­ver­sity study­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­sign, she ex­pe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant anx­i­ety is­sues caused by im­poster syn­drome. “In a nut­shell, it was the fear of be­ing not good enough,” she says. “When­ever the lec­turer was about to present my work to ev­ery­one, even though it was for con­struc­tive feed­back, the an­tic­i­pa­tion of hear­ing that crit­i­cism was driv­ing me crazy. I was used to the in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic na­ture of high school, and wasn’t re­ally used to the col­lab­o­ra­tive sys­tem in de­sign school where ev­ery­one could see my work and com­ment on it.”

The prob­lem con­tin­ued when she started her first job. “The cre­ative di­rec­tor saw me as an ‘en­ti­tled mil­len­nial’,” she ex­plains. “Plus I was a women and from a mi­nor­ity, so I had it pretty rough. The cre­ative di­rec­tor didn’t care about my feel­ings of anx­i­ety, and brushed them off, as­sum­ing I could just ‘get over it’. Af­ter deal­ing with this shit all day, I found I just couldn’t switch off in the evening and for­get about my day job. Even­tu­ally, the en­vi­ron­ment be­came so toxic, I handed in my res­ig­na­tion. Now things are much bet­ter; I work at a brand­ing agency in a job I en­joy, and I’ve kept the anx­i­ety and self-doubt some­what un­der con­trol.”

While Christina found her line manager dis­mis­sive when she spoke up, oth­ers don’t even get that far. Matt C Stokes, a de­signer and il­lus­tra­tor based in Brighton, strug­gled with anx­i­ety and low mood for years with­out ever be­ing able to tell any­one at his work­place.

Even­tu­ally, things came to a head. “It was get­ting quite bad,” he re­calls. “I was wor­ry­ing about things a lot, and it was af­fect­ing my day-to-day life and work. So I went to see my GP, and I was re­ferred to a well­be­ing ser­vice and did CBT (Cog­ni­tive Be­hav­iour Ther­apy), which helped me think dif­fer­ently about things.”


That in­cluded think­ing dif­fer­ently about how he ap­proached his de­sign work. “Things can go im­me­di­ately to DEFCON 1 in my mind,” he ex­plains. “And I re­alised I was im­me­di­ately catas­trophis­ing things if I got a load of emails and sud­denly some­thing new had to be done. I was go­ing through the worst-case sce­nario, dis­pro­por­tion­ally so.”

Go­ing through CBT helped to al­le­vi­ate this trig­ger. “Re­cently I’ve been able to com­part­men­talise a bit more,” he says. “So now if I get a bunch of emails about some­thing then I can tell my­self: ‘I don’t need to read them yet, there’s other stuff I need to get done first’. So I’m get­ting much bet­ter at just deal­ing with the day-to-day.”

He’s also been able to take a step back and con­sider how other as­pects of work­ing in de­sign can af­fect his mood. “In this pro­fes­sion, we get into this habit of be­ing ever so crit­i­cal about ev­ery­thing,” he points out. “And I don’t think it helps, be­cause I’m so crit­i­cal about de­sign all day, and then at home, I’m overly crit­i­cal about other as­pects of my life. Con­se­quently, it’s so easy to be­come anx­ious about ev­ery­thing, and then you don’t stop think­ing about it.”

Stokes con­tin­ues to seek help for his men­tal health chal­lenges, but he’s still not told any­one at his com­pany about them. “I re­cently got pro­moted to line manager,” he ex­plains. “So I didn’t re­ally want to men­tion that I’ve been re­ferred to a psy­chi­a­trist!”

He makes it clear, though, while he hasn’t spo­ken to his em­ployer, he’s not ashamed to open up about his chal­lenges in gen­eral, and if they end up see­ing his name in this ar­ti­cle then so be it. In­deed, he has no spe­cific rea­son for doubt­ing his em­ployer would re­spond pos­i­tively. “Ev­ery­one’s dif­fer­ent, I guess. I’ve just de­cided not to bring it up at work.”


Oth­ers, how­ever, re­port pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences when they’ve opened up in the work­place about their men­tal health prob­lems, in­clud­ing Ol­lie Aplin, a de­signer based in Brighton.

He had a ma­jor men­tal break­down less than a year into his first free­lance con­tract, when he was work­ing in a three-per­son stu­dio, es­sen­tially as its fourth team mem­ber. “They com­pletely un­der­stood and were re­ally cool about it,” he says. “They were like: ‘if you want to come in and you just want to chat, we can do that. Or if you just want to stay at home and work, you can do that. Or if you just don’t want to do any­thing, you want to just chat to us in a cou­ple of months, or when­ever you feel bet­ter. We won’t find some­one else and we’ll just wait un­til you’re ready.’ They were just to­tally sup­port­ive.”

Aplin’s ex­pe­ri­ence is a telling one, and worth ex­am­in­ing in some de­tail as it re­flects pre­cisely how com­plex and var­ied men­tal health is­sues can be, and how cause-and-ef­fect is not al­ways what it might seem.

Aplin had a dif­fi­cult child­hood. “My mum was bipo­lar and that led to a chaotic home en­vi­ron­ment, and I had panic at­tacks and anx­i­ety is­sues as a re­sult,” he ex­plains. He be­came keenly fo­cused on be­com­ing a de­signer from the age of 14, and his de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed in this was es­sen­tially a cop­ing mech­a­nism. “I would have latched on to any­thing, purely be­cause I just needed a goal; a car­rot to fo­cus on,” he ex­plains. “I could bat­tle through all the mad­ness at home, be­cause I had this ob­jec­tive, this big­ger goal in my life to fo­cus on.”

When Aplin was at uni­ver­sity, his mother died. “But I didn’t al­low my­self to pause or breathe,” he re­calls. “I’d been on this path to be­com­ing a de­signer for so long that I couldn’t let her dy­ing take me off the path.” Then around nine months af­ter he got his first free­lance gig, and two years af­ter his mum’s death, he had a break­down.

“I stopped func­tion­ing,” he re­calls. “3am in the morn­ing, I just sat bolt up­right, hav­ing the most in­tense panic at­tack I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced,” says Aplin. “And it didn’t shift, it didn’t dis­si­pate. It lasted for about three months and I was in a com­plete state. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t func­tion, I couldn’t do any­thing.”

But rather than be­ing trig­gered by dif­fi­cul­ties at work, Aplin be­lieves his break­down was caused by ev­ery­thing go­ing well. “It was just some­thing in


my sub­con­scious that said: ‘You’re now ready to deal with this stuff, from the past. Ev­ery­thing else is se­cure. You’re in a sta­ble re­la­tion­ship, you’re in your own house, you’ve got money saved up. You’re in the best place to go ‘pop’.”

About a year later, Aplin came out of ther­apy and re­turned to work with rel­ish. “I was more fired-up than ever,” he re­calls. “I moved to Brighton, started free­lanc­ing for ev­ery agency I could, tried to climb the ranks, dab­bled in side projects — it was just work, work, work, let’s re­ally go for it.”

Then around six years later, at 29, he had an­other break­down. “It was nowhere near as in­tense as be­fore, but it was an­other mo­ment of: ‘What the fuck am I do­ing?’” he re­calls. “Be­ing a de­signer and the way I was work­ing wasn’t mak­ing me happy. I had this mo­ment where I could con­sciously go, ‘What do I ac­tu­ally want?’”

This led to Aplin halt­ing his full­time free­lanc­ing to launch his own prod­uct, MindJour­nal, a ther­a­peu­tic jour­nal for men, filled with ques­tions, prompts and tech­niques he learned from his own ex­pe­ri­ence.

Launch­ing MindJour­nal has been a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and helped Aplin turn all his ex­pe­ri­ences into some­thing pos­i­tive and help­ful to peo­ple. But his se­cond break­down points to an un­com­fort­able truth; that it’s not just strug­gling young­sters try­ing to make their way in the de­sign world who can suf­fer from men­tal health prob­lems. Suc­cess, at least suc­cess on pa­per, can be the cause of stress, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion too.


One suc­cess­ful CEO who’s been open about his men­tal health strug­gles is Radim Malinic, de­signer and founder of London de­sign agency Brand Nu. On the face of it, Malinic was a shining ex­am­ple of pro­fes­sional achieve­ment. But as he puts it: “This is an in­dus­try full of glory hunters, where peo­ple look strong and brave — but we all break un­der­neath.”

Four years ago his agency, which is or­gan­ised on a sys­tem of scal­able free­lancers, was a com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess. But be­hind the scenes, he was putting in 18-hour days, and swiftly burn­ing him­self out.

“I was try­ing to please clients on var­i­ous con­ti­nents si­mul­ta­ne­ously,” he ex­plains. “So I’d start speak­ing to Aus­tralians at mid­night on Sun­day, then I’d carry on with London clients and then pick up projects from North Amer­ica. I was work­ing ev­ery wak­ing hour of ev­ery wak­ing day.”

While oth­ers may have col­lapsed with ex­haus­tion, adrenaline kept

him fu­elled. “When you try to build a busi­ness, it’s ex­hil­a­rat­ing be­cause peo­ple like what you do, peo­ple pay you and it keeps you busy, so your dopamine’s go­ing crazy,” he ex­plains. “And that is se­ri­ous: dopamine ad­dic­tion is quite some­thing.”

Like any ad­dic­tion, though, you end up pay­ing for it in some way or an­other. And in Malinic’s case, it was the loss of any­thing peo­ple would nor­mally con­sider ‘a life’.

“I was more than en­joy­ing the work; I loved and adored it ev­ery day with a pas­sion,” he re­calls. “But I didn’t go out that much, I didn’t ex­er­cise as much as I needed to, I didn’t drink enough wa­ter and was over-caf­feinated.”

But in a spi­ralling sit­u­a­tion, he wasn’t fully aware of that. “I would wake up, I wouldn’t feel that well, but I would just get a cof­fee or what­ever and just keep go­ing. I would work past mid­night, which is a lot of hours.”

Even­tu­ally, he had a break­down. “One day I just couldn’t walk down the street. It was so hard. I was hav­ing a panic at­tack on my way to a post of­fice and they kept on coming for a while. I was like: ‘What is go­ing on?’”

But fac­ing up to things was tough. “You feel like the loneli­est per­son in the world, even though I’d been with my girl­friend, now my wife, for a few years then, and she’s since been one of the key com­po­nents of my heal­ing.”

Malinic was re­ferred for be­havioural ther­apy, and says he’s learned a lot about him­self since. “I’ve learned that it’s not prob­lems in my cur­rent present, it’s prob­lems that are deeply rooted in my child­hood and up­bring­ing,” he says. “And the re­al­ity is that you don’t go to ther­apy to get rid of the fears and anx­i­eties for­ever. It’s more about: how do we man­age, how do we deal with it?”

Part of deal­ing with it has in­volved a new at­ti­tude to de­sign work. “Part of my burnout and why I was work­ing all the time was, you’re never fin­ished as a de­signer,” he says. “So if you’ve got any amount of time on any par­tic­u­lar day you can eas­ily go on for­ever. And I was al­ways try­ing to outdo my­self, partly be­cause of feed­back from so­cial me­dia. If I didn’t get praise, or I didn’t have enough fol­low­ers, I was like: ‘Why is some­one more pop­u­lar than I am?’ It was a very fool­ish thing to do in ret­ro­spect.”

He’s since taken up med­i­ta­tion, but the big­gest turn­ing point, he says, was when his wife bought him a dog, and he started to take it for long walks with his phone turned off. “And af­ter do­ing that for a year and a half, I feel like a dif­fer­ent per­son,” he says.


He’s also made big changes in his work­ing life, al­low­ing him to achieve a bet­ter work-life bal­ance. He hasn’t needed to drop clients or take on less work, he stresses; it’s all been about ap­proach­ing work with a new at­ti­tude and find­ing ways to be more ef­fi­cient.

He’s col­lected to­gether all his ad­vice and tips in this area in the Book of Ideas series. Of­fer­ing ad­vice on ev­ery­thing from in­box con­trol to beat­ing cre­ative block, il­lus­trated with some of his most im­por­tant and res­o­nant port­fo­lio projects, it’s all about “find­ing a bet­ter way of work­ing that’s more en­joy­able,” he says. “Ev­ery de­signer would say they do this be­cause it makes them happy, but it’s not al­ways the case.”


So what can these sto­ries tell us about men­tal health in the de­sign world?

Firstly, that it’s a real is­sue, with se­ri­ous con­se­quences, and not some­thing that can be treated lightly or dis­missed with a few empty clichés about ‘pos­i­tive think­ing’. And sec­ondly, that ev­ery­body is dif­fer­ent, and the causes and symp­toms of men­tal health prob­lems are var­ied, com­plex and of­ten un­clear — even to the per­son ex­pe­ri­enc­ing them. Their is­sues may largely be rooted in work, but they may equally be un­re­lated, so it’s im­por­tant not to pre­sume.

And that’s per­haps the most im­por­tant les­son; that talk­ing is al­most al­ways the key to ad­dress­ing peo­ple’s men­tal health chal­lenges. And so, col­lec­tively work­ing to cre­ate an open en­vi­ron­ment where peo­ple feel com­fort­able talk­ing about their prob­lems is the most im­por­tant thing that col­leagues and man­agers can do.

De­pend­ing on the size of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, it can help to have a spe­cific pol­icy on men­tal health that spells this out. One or­gan­i­sa­tion to do just that is 3Sixty, a dig­i­tal agency based in Bris­tol. And as founder Jon War­ing ex­plains, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s good busi­ness.

“We’ve cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment that is sup­port­ive of peo­ple with men­tal health chal­lenges,” says War­ing. “But re­ally, that’s only a byprod­uct of de­sign­ing a work­place that brings out the best in peo­ple.”

As part of the pol­icy, em­ploy­ees are free to take a ‘per­sonal day’ or work from home when­ever they need to. “I much more care about out­put than I do per­sonal hours,” War­ing ex­plains. “There is a rather dam­ag­ing as­pect to all in­dus­tries, not just ours, where un­less you look pro­duc­tive, peo­ple as­sume you’re not. I just think that’s toxic, es­pe­cially in a cre­ative en­vi­ron­ment. You don’t get your best ideas sat in front of a screen in a stu­dio all the time. So for me, I don’t care how you get it done. I trust you: you’re an adult, you’re good at your job. You de­cide the hours you keep, the places you work from. What­ever it takes to get the job done is fine by me.”

And when­ever any­one needs to talk, that’s en­cour­aged too. “We have a fairly can­did con­ver­sa­tional en­vi­ron­ment here, and I think peo­ple feel safe enough to dis­cuss or dis­close stuff that they per­haps might not in a nor­mal en­vi­ron­ment,” says War­ing. “In par­tic­u­lar, one of our staff dis­cov­ered some time ago that ac­tu­ally be­ing vo­cal about her men­tal health chal­lenges helps — and re­tain­ing it and sup­press­ing has the re­verse ef­fect — so that’s def­i­nitely some­thing we en­cour­age.

“In de­sign, there is that no­tion of con­tin­u­ing to work hard and im­prov­ing all the time, which of­ten comes with a cost. It is great to have am­bi­tion and feel chal­lenged at times, but be care­ful not to fall into a con­stant loop. Work­ing long hours, be­ing stressed and not hav­ing time to re­flect is dam­ag­ing in the long run.”

Aware of this, Lopez re­cently joined Uscre­ates, a ser­vice de­sign agency fo­cus­ing on health and well­be­ing. “They are an ex­am­ple of pro­mot­ing good men­tal health,” she says. “Part of their mis­sion is to make it a bril­liant place to work by in­clud­ing things like flex­i­ble work­ing, per­sonal bud­gets for de­vel­op­ment and so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties. These are sim­ple mea­sures that can make a real dif­fer­ence in the workspace and, par­tic­u­larly in the de­sign field, help make it a safer space to grow and im­prove your work, by tak­ing care of your well­be­ing.”

Above: De­signer Sara Lopez worked with char­i­ties, so­cial en­ter­prises and in­di­vid­u­als to de­velop an easy-to-use men­tal health self-as­sess­ment kit, as pic­tured be­low.

Above: Jes­sica Christina didn’t al­ways get the sup­port she needed for her anx­i­ety is­sues.

Above: Ol­lie Alpin’s MindJour­nal is aimed at men seek­ing to op­ti­mise their days, in­crease their life sat­is­fac­tion and change their lives.

Above: Radim Malinic’s Book of Ideas in­cludes a whole sec­tion on mind­ful­ness and men­tal health, based on his own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences.

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