Designers need time and space to create but modern work often fails to meet these basic needs. Our working day has the possibility to be much more generative to the creation of new ideas simply by allowing for more time, space and solitude within our 9–5. Put bluntly, modern work does not work for designers.

Time is experience, we’re lacking both

The job of a designer is to connect things together. Those ‘things’ are essentially experience. Put simply, new ideas are new connections of experience.

The problem for designers is that there is rarely time for new experiences in our working day. The social norms of modern work dictate that we stay in the office for the duration of the day, spend the majority of that time at our desks, leave only for meetings and be sure to rush back as soon as they’re finished. Where in this routine is there time for new, idea generative experience?

Designers, starved of experience as they are, must still seek out inspiration — the building blocks of the next idea. So we find it however we can within the cultural norms imposed by modern work. Essentially, we resign to visiting the same websites as everyone else. Inspiration of this nature, or secondhand experience, is to see the world through another’s eye and not our own.

Designers therefore commit their free time in pursuit of experience. A young designer who has few responsibilities and also considers the job an important part of their identity will see no problem with this. However, when designers gain more responsibilities outside of their 9 to 5, it becomes harder for them to find the time for such idea generative experience.

“The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. They want to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. Because they never know when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six months, or six years down the road. But they have faith that it will happen.”

— Carl Ally

I am of course a designer myself and I struggle with the cultural norms of modern work. Why does it have to be this way? Why aren’t we able to give more freedom to designers and trust that they’ll create better work as a result? Even in modern work we continue to place more importance on measuring inputs rather than outputs — how much time people spend at their desks is more important than the outcome of their work.

There have been many times that I’ve sat at my desk and, for reasons I don’t understand, I have felt an urge to watch a classic film. Of course, taking two hours out of my day to watch a film is tantamount to slapping a fellow co-worker across the cheek — doing either will result in disciplinary action. But what if I had had the freedom to watch, say, Funny Face? What wondrous connections might have formed in my resting and entertained mind by the sounds of George Gershwin accompanied by the graceful movements of Fred Astaire? I shall never know.

Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, Funny Face by Richard Avedon

I heard that advertising creatives get free museum passes and cinema tickets. When they’re between projects they are told to go do those things. Their job is to translate culture into messages that brands can use to convince people to buy more stuff. They connect experiences to form ideas just like designers. But what do agencies do to designers in the down-time between projects? They tether them to their desks, give them monkey work, and kill their inspiration.

At Google there’s this idea that 20 per cent of an employee’s time should be spent working on whatever they think will most benefit the company. Some amazing projects started their life in that 20 per cent of someone’s time. Now, many years after they introduced it, it’s reported that very few people at Google actually split their time in this way. Perhaps they have too much work to do or don’t feel like they have the support of management? Head of Google’s people operations Laszlo Bock and author of Work Rules! explains that the 20 per cent idea “operates somewhat outside the lines of formal management oversight, and always will, because the most talented and creative people can’t be forced to work.”

I can attest to that. In a previous agency we tried to copy the 20 per cent rule. Due to client commitments we had to plan ahead of time when we’d spend our ‘free time’. But we found that when that day came around we simply weren’t inspired. Creativity cannot be contained and scheduled, it happens when it wants to happen.

Modern work is a distraction

Feeling like there is enough time is one problem, but space and solitude are also key. In modern work the desks that we spend each day tethered to reside in an open-plan office. From our desks we may be able to see 40 or even 100 people and hear a handful of conversations at any one moment. In the 21st century office, space is a luxury and headphones are the new privacy.

Up to a certain point I can work fine with the hum of the office as my backing track. I mostly struggle with the lack of solitude. In the modern office the feeling of being observed is ever-present. It doesn’t matter how many times I’m told that no-one is watching my clock, until there are four solid walls between me and my colleagues I will continue to feel some level of anxiety. We may have experienced this workplace anxiety if we’ve ever been assigned a desk next to our boss. Can I really sit here and watch this 20 minute TED talk about the connection between cerebral tissue and the mind? Who’s to say whether it’s relevant to the project? We may never know until we take the time.

With constant observation our job becomes less about doing whatever we feel will result in good work and more about maintaining an image of high productivity. It seems that I’m not alone in this. Lila MacLellan writes, “Knowing that others are watching us limits the degree to which we might creatively solve a problem, and therefore be more productive.” This phenomenon, known as the Transparency Paradox, was revealed by Ethan S. Bernstein as he secretly embedded five Chinese-born Harvard undergraduates in a factory based in China and had them report on what behaviours their colleagues expressed in times with and without the watchful eye of management.

Bernstein and his Chinese ‘embeds’ observed that “In this particular environment, and perhaps many others, what managers were seeing wasn’t real. It was a show being put on for an audience. When the audience was gone, the real show went on, and that show was more productive.”

Designers are far from factory workers but what I know to be true is that when I’m alone I’m least anxious. Anxiety is the enemy of creativity, it creates irrational fears that distract from clear thought. Add the hum of a 100 colleagues and a myriad of device notifications and we begin to see what little chance we have of generating truly great ideas.

Part of my motivation to go freelance was to reclaim some of this lost solitude and eventually have a place of my own to work from. Everyday I’m driven by a distant vision of my own private oasis. A white room bathed in natural light, each wall a blank canvas with which to unroll my mind onto — an immersive collage of thoughts, ideas, and experience. I expect it may be years until I get my white room but the thought keeps me going.

Hans Hartung in his studio in Antibes, France. Chances of getting something like this in London are slim.

Should it really require such extreme measures, such as going freelance, to get even some level of personal space in our working day? Where in our offices can we go now to escape the distractions and anxiety? I walk past people taking personal calls in corridors, stairwells, and fire escapes. I guess the fire escape is as good a place as any.

Stepping away and mindful downtime

A critical part of James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas is to put the problem completely out of your mind. He suggests that once enough research into the problem has occurred it is important to let the subconscious mind do its work in forming connections. Young proposes a number of ways to achieve this including doing something unrelated that excites you and energises you. Sleep and meditation can do the trick also. I once had a tour of an office that had a meditation room. I wondered if that was where all the good work was done.

“This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them, and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.”

— James Webb Young

Modern work fails to give us the restorative and mindful time needed for this critical part of idea generation. Again, we’re expected to do that part at home.

I often hear “I was thinking in the shower…”. Some of my most valuable thoughts have come to me in the shower. So why do I continue to shower at home? I should be showering at work, for three hours.

Or we’ll hear “I dreamt this crazy idea!” but where is there to nap in our offices? There have been many studies that show improvements in creative problem solving right after waking from REM sleep. Right now I’m working from the office of a mattress company and there is still nowhere to sleep. When I get my own studio, my first purchase will be a day bed. How wonderful a day bed sounds.

Only someone like Don Draper would dare take a nap during work hours. Copyright AMC.

Nature is important for creativity too but it took me a long time to realise why. It’s easy to feel like being at the centre of it all is the right place to get inspiration. I’ve found the opposite is true. The city is noise, it stretches us. An elastic band when pulled too far for too long loses its original form and struggles to serve its purpose thereafter. Stay too long in the city and that’s what it does to us. Nature helps us get back to our original form. Nature doesn’t pull or stretch, it simply lets us be. And when we return from nature we feel ready to fulfil our purpose. In the modern office the closest we get to nature is the image on our desktop wallpaper.

South Coast, summer, before sunrise. Reset.

Only we can know

The people with the power to change our work cultures and redefine the cultural norms of modern work don’t know what designers need. Neither, it seems, do the architects who were hired to design the spaces that we inhabit each day.

We can’t leave it in the hands of others to recognise what we need. We must demand, or design for ourselves, an environment that helps us do great work. An environment that’s both more productive and better for our creative minds.

As designers we are hired for our creativity, we are hired because we think in ways that others don’t, only we can know how to nurture that part of ourselves.


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