Graphic Design is Mental: Tips for looking after your state of mind as a designer
Ben Longden is the digital design director at The Guardian where he has helped to shape the title’s digital experience, working on some of the biggest news events of recent years, such as Cambridge Analytica and the Paradise Papers. Reflecting on his route through graphic and digital design, he has recently written a book, Graphic Design is Mental, which he is currently funding here.
As someone who is passionate about design, design education and mental health, I wanted to write down my thoughts, which have culminated in a book, Graphic Design is Mental. Below is an extract from this book, reflecting my career experience from my role as digital design director at The Guardian, teaching at Shillington College and running a shop, RoomFifty, with Chris Clarke and Leon Edler.
The result is a sort of self-help guide to being a graphic designer and an exploration of creativity and mental health, which I hope might be useful to someone like me. Someone who is creative but often frustrated, sometimes nervous, but always looking for ways to be better and improve what they do, and what they love.
Be kind to yourself, learning is hard, design is easy
Learning new skills is one of the most satisfying and frustrating things you can do as a designer, but if you give yourself the time and space to do this, design will soon feel like second nature to you. When learning a new skill, like a software or a way of thinking which is new to you, it’s really easy to beat yourself up when things aren’t going the way you think they should.
I guess there are two points here, the first one being that learning is hard. If you are a creative person who needs to learn by doing, there is no linear structure. The best thing you can do is to get stuck in and play, and view learning like playing with a new tool. For me I learned through play, by using my hands to create marks and bringing them into design, or by experimenting with software. The frustrating side to everything will come when you are in this play stage, when your ambition to create and your technical ability doesn’t quite match up. This is where the frustrated creative can rear its head and you often feel as if you can’t do it, or that you aren’t very good. Know this: your ambition and your skills will soon match up, and the thing you see in your head will soon be possible to bring to life.
I remember when I first started designing, I could always see where I wanted to get to from the start (even during the briefing I knew what I wanted to do) but by the end of the project it looked nothing like it. This is partly the process you go through, and partly because my ambition was greater than my skill set, but there was a click, at a certain point, where I felt “yes that’s what I saw when I started thinking about this project”. That’s satisfying and if you stick at it, it will come.
The second point is about the way you think it should go. This is an expectation that should be left at the door; no project will ever be the way you expect. This is where the joy lies in being a creative – your eyes and mind need to be open to looking and thinking about the possibilities, and not setting expectations for yourself or your work. This can be a freeing and liberating approach, and can feel much less stressful. Whenever I was struggling with a brief, either as a student or a junior designer, I would keep saying to myself to trust the process that I know: sketch, write, try, expand and really search around for ideas. They are there and you will find them. You have to trust in the process and not let moments of “this is not going the way I thought it would” creep in. Ideas are there and you just have to catch them.
It’s not about you, it’s about them
Whenever anyone gives you their opinion, know that it’s their opinion of the work, don’t take it personally. Critique is a good thing, and you should always give it too. Don’t say “that looks nice” as it won’t help anyone. Expect the same for your work.
Clients can be mean when things go wrong
You are basically working on their baby, and it’s a precious baby. If a client sees that even a small thing goes wrong, or isn’t quite working (especially on a website), they will probably freak out, and blame you. But it’s really not your fault. Take a breath, know that no one has died and deal with it in a calm and considered way. Everything can be fixed in this way.
Whenever something goes wrong, it always feels like the end of the world but in reality it’s obviously not. Mistakes happen, it’s just the way we are, and mistakes always happen when you are learning. I always remind myself that it’s not what happened, it’s how you deal with it now that matters. You can’t take back past mistakes, all you can do is learn from them and not repeat them.
Confidence comes in many forms
For me confidence comes from the work I do. I get more confidence from showing my work than hiding it, from being open to critique and change. Sharing your ideas and challenging yourself to do something new and different will bring you as much confidence as you let it, as long as you listen and take on board what people are saying to you.
How to deal with the big projects
A big project is just another project, with the same process as the smallest ones. Whether it’s going to be seen by one person or a million people, the route is the same. The only difference is when you launch a big project you will only see the negative comments and never the positive ones. The internet is a horrible place when it wants to be and those with positive opinions generally stay quiet.
In January 2018 we launched the redesign of The Guardian’s website, app and newspaper all at the same time. It was something that, from what we could remember, had not been done in that way ever before. It was the biggest project, and most prominent project, that I had ever worked on and we knew that if we did it in this way, with a big bang, we would cause people to take note. It’s not the way you do things in digital these days – especially with established brands and platforms where you iterate, iterate, iterate so that the change is less dramatic for the audience, and less for the business. But, as we’re The Guardian and it was a big moment for the organisation, it felt right to launch with a big bang. Surprise! Your daily newspaper looks different. This safe zone, of iterating and iterating did not exist and we were putting our proverbial design necks on the line. We had shown it to a select group in user testing and we knew that the design wouldn’t get in the way of their reading experience, in fact it was going to enhance it. But people don’t like change, especially when it comes to a brand that has been by your side and looked familiar for 15 years.
We hit the button to go live at 6am on the morning of 15 January 2018. For the first time, in about three months we had little to do but wait for our Twitter feeds to start chirping, and this is what it said: “This is the worst decision you’ve ever made.” “Bright red heading though. Seriously hun?” “Was it designed by your unpaid intern?”
As I said, the internet can be a horrible place and – if you let it – you could spiral into a whole world of pain thinking that the last three to six months worth of work was a waste, and that you had ruined one of the most loved brands in the world. Forever.
But given less than 24 hours you will see that change can be a positive one. For us, we saw more people reading and for longer, no drop in ad revenue and a positive change for a brand that had been using the same design for a long time. This reader sums it up well with his series of tweets: “Looks a bit messy and cluttered” to “Edit: Changed my mind, just took a small while getting used to it.”
Nuff said. Don’t be shy with your ideas, they are your ideas and no one is judging you. Put them out there and see what happens.
Don’t take on work you can’t do
You will burn out. This for me, as a designer who always wanted to push themselves and be the best at what they do, is the most important lesson I have learned. Throughout my shortish career, this has manifested itself in a couple of ways. The first was when I was starting out and I took on a project outside of my day job which was building a website for a small photography studio. I had built a couple of very simple websites at this point, and so I was feeling confident! But it soon became clear that my knowledge and ambition were misaligned. The stress that it added to me personally was not worth it, not to mention that in the end I had to give it up and tell the client that I couldn’t do it. I don’t beat myself up for trying, and having the ambition to want to do the extra work. Had I taken a step back and said to myself that it was too soon, that wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world.
Hindsight is wonderful for that, and even though it was a bad decision to take on the project, of course, you learn things, whether it be something about yourself or a new skill. This is not to say you shouldn’t push yourself and find your ‘discomfort-zone’, but don’t merely throw yourself into the deep end unnecessarily. Know that your time will come to be able to take on those challenges and do them well.
The second moment was not too long ago, when I was a fully fledged designer, working at The Guardian but also juggling side projects while teaching, all of which I could do, and do well, for a while. As time went on, and I was stretching myself too thin to the extent of feeling exhausted and it became a chore. The advice to not work too much might sound obvious, but sometimes, if you are in any way inclined to get excited by creative work, it’s really easy to say yes.
I believe that creative work gets inspired by other creative work you are doing, and the work others are doing around you. Although this is a natural cycle, it’s still one to approach with caution. Bear in mind that clients often don’t care too much about the other stuff, and that’s pressure you will feel. I love taking on creative work, but I know that love for the creative work can often take precedent. You have to take care of yourself, and your mind, to make that work the best it can be.
It’s a job for some and not for others
I have worked with some people who think that design is design and it’s just a job, 9-5 and that’s all. That is ok, and it is a job, but for others it is a passion as well as a job. Working with people who don’t share the same energy and passion for what they do can be frustrating as you don’t always feel you can generate ideas and bounce them back and forth. It’s ok that for some that it’s just a job, but find someone you can have those ideas with and share with them. Don’t take it personally, you haven’t lost your edge.