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Flexible Working: Health

How to beat imposter syndrome

Ben Longden, Digital Design Director at The Guardian and a freelance, multidisciplinary designer works across websites, apps and designing online features alongside product launches or new developments needed for The Guardian digital product set. Previously he worked for branding agencies and studied a heavily print focused graphic design course at Falmouth University. After he graduated he transitioned from doing brand related work to digital. “I learned how to code at my first job. I then went onto freelance work at a studio and ended up going permanent there and then I actually got the job at The Guardian whilst I was working as a designer there. I was lucky to have a friend working at The Guardian who mentioned the opportunity to me. I sent over my portfolio and on the strength of that I got the job.”

Managing a full time role whilst taking on side projects can be a delicate balance, but one that Longden has refined over the years. “Right now I get the best of both worlds’; being able to explore design in a more free way outside the day job. But I think going to a place is really great; you’ve got the team around you and the support that this comes with to do things in a very different, more collaborative way. My role at the Guardian has evolved now - I am less hands on than I used to be, I’m managing a team so I can delegate a lot of work out. So really I only take on freelance work or extra projects that allow me to have a bit of a creative outlet. So I guess that’s the difference for me.”

Reflecting on a period in his life a few years ago when he was teaching on the Graphic Design Course at Shillington College in London, Longden says flexible working was key to managing the extra workload. “I was doing part time teaching in the evenings, from 5pm - 9.30pm, and leaving work slightly earlier so I could go and do that, and then coming in slightly earlier to counter balance that.” explains Longden, whose employers at The Guardian accommodated the slight shift in his working hours so that he could pursue what he felt was a ‘valuable career development, personal development opportunity’. Yet the experience of juggling this with a full time job eventually became overwhelming. “I got to the end of the second year and the teaching bit was quite intense and I did feel like I needed a bit of a break from it. I was teaching on the 9 month part time course, which I enjoyed - but to actually teach someone to be a graphic designer in 9 months is very intense, because you’re essentially starting from nothing. It’s not easy!”

This idea became the subject of his self published book “Graphic Design is Mental” - an exploration of creativity & mental health inspired in part by his conversations with students. “It’s aimed at young creatives, who like me might have suffered with mental health, anxiety and depression which can manifest itself in many ways. I wanted to try and help people to take the pressure off themselves, and relax a little, and know that if they want it, have an appetite to learn, to channel their creativity into what they love, it will happen.”

Starting out as an exploration of imposter syndrome frequently experienced by those working in the creative industry, the book gradually evolved into a more rounded self help guide to being a graphic designer, as Longden explains. “I had some ideas which I had been writing about, and at the time I was feeling quite burnt out after the redesign of the newspaper. For me it was a cathartic process to get these things on paper.”

For the next generation of designers, the added pressure of social media can make them even more vunerable to burn out. “There is a constant pressure to publish content; to share work and put it out there. Social media and instagram only fuel this idea. Illustrators and designers who are constantly sharing new work; they feel they have to be busy - or be seen to be busy, to build up a following.” adds Longden who has first-hand experience of working with people who feel that pressure of needing to be constantly sharing content. “I definitely saw the other side of it from students who have gone on to work at agencies, and other friends who left London because it was all getting a bit too much. The expectation of always being ‘on’ and always being able to deliver isn’t healthy. I think it’s important we as a creative industry can be forward thinking when it comes to taking care of people’s wellbeing. If you’ve got a creative drive outside of the day to day, actually knowing when to say yes and when to say no is important.”

Having worked in the industry for 10 years Longden has observed that creative people are perhaps more inclined to have moments when they feel alone too. “It can be quite tough sometimes and you do question yourself; ‘maybe I’m not good enough, maybe this isn’t the right job for me’. You’re always trying to please somebody; creating work to make somebody have an emotional response; so you put a lot of yourself into that.” The book also looks at key issues designers face, such as how to manage your time, and how to take feedback without taking it personally - essential to handle the ups and downs of being a designer. Longden argues that whilst working in the creative industry in some ways in a lifestyle choice, it isn’t always a healthy lifestyle. “It should be one that allows for freedom in thinking and exploring ideas which help to nurture the wellbeing of the person - not hinder or affect them.”

Whilst the benefits of flexible working are well established, less known are the potential pitfalls of being in charge of your own time - particularly when you work for yourself. For someone who straddles the line between full-time employment and self employment, Longden has first hand experience. “You can easily say yes to something; because you want to work on a project and it sounds great but actually the client is really intense, or the project is a lot more work than you realised.”

Freelancers have a tendency to overwork and not take regular breaks yet Longden has learnt the hard way that a healthy work schedule is key for a healthy mind. “I do treat my freelance work in the same way as I would if it were paying the rent. For me it’s this: stay on top of the admin, or at least make time for it, as it will pile up and you won’t be able to get rid of it. Send emails, do invoices, all the stuff that maybe we as creatives dont like to do.” says Longden, who also advises on the importance of adequate breaks. “Allow yourself a weekend, even if there is a deadline. Staying up all hours trying to get the work done will only make you feel terrible in the long run, and the work will slip.”

It may sound counterproductive, but the best thing that people can do for their mental health is to stop working, though Longden admits he found this difficult when he first started out. “I didn’t take a holiday, or at least a proper one for two or three years, and whilst I didn’t realise it at the time, that nearly finished me. As soon as you step outside of the working mindset and start to see the world, and go and see places you immediately become more inspired. I don’t think worrying about the work drying up should ever stop anyone from taking a break. If you allow yourself to burn out the work will dry up regardless, as you won’t have the drive or energy to go and find work, make connections and put yourself out there.”

There are a lot of intertwining aspects to being a creative person and managing your wellbeing says Longden. “It’s only graphic design. No-one dies. And I think that pressure of having to deliver work to a client; yes it’s important and there are challenges to overcome, but it is only a piece of design at the end of the day. It’s important to keep perspective.”

Longden understands that designers can sometimes feel isolated and stuck in a job they don’t enjoy, especially if they’re not producing the work they want to make. His advice? Take the pressure off. “It’s easy to get preoccupied with the work itself and get very low. You can feel like you are stuck in one place and like you’ll never do the work you want to do. It happened to me. But you have to believe that at some point you’ll get to a stage where you will balance out that desire and it will all fall into place.”

Graphic Design is Mental by Ben Longden is available for pre-order via his funding page Indiegogo.