Working as a designer is rewarding, but it’s also demanding and unpredictable. Because designers define ourselves very much by the work we do, the pressure to succeed—whatever that may mean—can be almost unbearable at times. So when I found out this year’s AIGA Design Revival was going to focus on mental health and stress relief, I jumped at the chance to go.
Are We Resources or People?
Design is a paradoxical profession: Although we do our freshest, most creative work when we can relax, ponder and brainstorm, deadlines are often tight and design can come to feel like an on-demand commodity. Put a quarter in the slot, get a new logo.
The tension between the fast-paced needs of clients and a designer’s instinctive sense of the best way to work can create an internal battle: Do you push back to protect your process and advocate for your ideas, or do you follow orders and resist rocking the boat?
Crowd-Sourcing Stress Solutions
As I sat with other designers for table discussions at the Design Revival, I realized how incredibly widespread anxiety, stress and depression are among creative professionals. My peers and I were encouraged to seek (and share) advice on questions such as, how can we stay motivated in the face of heavy workloads? How can freelancers combat loneliness and create community? How does the pursuit of perfection affect our mental health? And how can we hear criticism without letting it affect our wellbeing?
Lots of us find inspiration and reclaim our creativity through non-design-related hobbies when we’re off the clock. For me, the physical intensity of roller derby gets me out of my head; it’s impossible to brood over a creative block when I’m literally blocking another player. I also love to garden. Seeing tomatoes, cucumbers, beets and peppers lush and thriving in their pots on my patio gives me a creative boost that sustains me through work stress. Other designers at the table mentioned cooking and working out as stress relievers that offer the little, measurable wins we all crave.
The wonderful keynote speaker, illustrator Gemma Correll, nailed it when she said self-care “carries the connotation of comfort, but it’s more like meeting basic needs. It doesn’t necessarily mean something that’s comfortable, but rather something that’s medicinal.”
It’s a cliché, but you really do have to find time to sharpen your axe. And that can mean something as little as getting away from your desk at lunchtime—no more working through lunch when you’re on deadline. Not keeping work email on your personal cell phone, and going “off the grid” during vacations.
Your “Spirit Squad of Bad-Asses”
Whether you work in an office or on your own, the support of a team can make the difference between flourishing and burning out. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, and make time to be a cheerleader for other designers and creative professionals—especially those just starting out in their careers. If you freelance or work from home, AIGA Liquid Courage happy hours and other events are great ways to meet and stay connected to your tribe.
In Praise of Boredom
Early in the day at the AIGA Design Revival, we were led in a refreshing seated meditation. Meditation and yoga can be excellent stress relief as well as tools for allowing your mind to wander freely. But don’t underestimate the poor man’s meditation, AKA boredom. Simply turning off your phone and putting your brain in idle can reset your creativity and bust through creative blocks.
Gemma Correll mentioned that—as opposed to trying to use sheer willpower to bust through a creative block—meditation can cause ideas to flow more freely. When she needs to solve a problem she meditates, goes for a walk, plays piano, or “stare[s] at the pug like a creep.”
Just Get it Done
As it turns out, the famous quote from Andy Warhol—“ Don’t think about making art, just get it done”—is much easier said than done. It’s funny that, often, not thinking about it is exactly what you need to do in order to get it done.
In the end, we all have to find our own tricks for balancing the stress of a design career with the thrill of getting to do art for a living. Thanks to the AIGA Design Revival, I have a few more resources—and a few new bad-asses on my spirit squad.