Why is it so hard for designers to work less?

As I write this I’m sat in the Garrick’s Head pub in Bath on a sunny Wednesday enjoying a lunchtime pint and fish and chips in solus. Not because I’m a functioning alcoholic, but because I find it enriching and beneficial to get away from my desk as often as possible. And it’s part of my flexible approach to working. 

The design industry is built on solving problems, innovation and new ways of thinking and doing things. Yet to my mind it’s an industry slightly trapped in the dark ages when it comes to working practices. Most designers you speak to work long hours, hardly take holiday and find it hard to switch off from the day job. (Partly, I suspect, because we all have a rather nice creative day job that most of us like. Or if you’re lucky like me, love.)

Five years ago you could have lumped me in the long hours, love what I do, never stop thinking obsessive designer camp. But then a life changing event happened — I had my first child. All of a sudden my priorities had to change. I won’t bore you with the details of parenthood, but fast forward one year from that momentous day and my environmental lawyer wife needed to go back to work and someone needed to look after our little son Joschka. Neither of us wanted him to be at nursery five days a week so we had to get creative with how we juggled work. At the time I was Creative Partner with my other baby — Magpie Studio. So I broached the subject of a four day week with my business partners Ben and Dave and got a positive response. It would allow me to look after Joschka one day a week — with both parents working a shorter week he’d only need to be in child care two days a week. The guys were very supportive and we agreed that eventually when we all had kids we’d all have the option to do a four day week (which true to our word we all did — Thursdays got known as DadDay at Magpie Towers).

This is where it gets more complicated — I’m not saying making a four day week work is easy but it is possible. You have to agree a lower wage, a lesser dividend at the end of the year if you’re a director (unless you’re all four day weekers) and above all, you’ve got to be bloody organised. But all this is more than worth it for the benefits. 

You get to spend more quality time with your children. But you also get some much needed perspective on work. Working flexibly works — it keeps you fresh. Plus your other half will love you even more. For me this flexible way of working eventually lead to us moving to Bath for a better quality of life. But that’s another story. 

Just after I left London I went back to attend a design dinner — a room full of the great and the good of design (and me). I was sat next to a design legend from an older generation — we were having a lovely chat, then my four day working week came up and he couldn’t quite believe it. He thought I was slightly nuts and regaled me with stories of how he was still so passionate that he frequently worked through the night on pitches and whatnot. Whilst it was inspiring to meet someone still so in love with design after a long and illustrious career, it hammered home to me the deeply ingrained culture of designers working constantly. 

As Tommy Taylor from Alphabetical, a fellow four dayer comments — In an industry filled with people like me, whose work is also their hobby, I feel proud to have made a decision which puts my family first. Making it work isn’t easy. The most important thing to me was that my decision to reduce my days in the studio should not affect colleagues or clients. I feel extremely fortunate to have an understanding business partner and design team who help me make this work. And it’s actually been a revelation for me in running projects with more forethought and efficiency.”

Luckily Tommy and I are not the only ones who thinks a four day week is a great thing (neither am I the first designer to do it of course, I’m not claiming to have invented the four day week here). The directors at Magpie have kept the four day week alive and it’s a practice shared by the partners of Together Design, Baxter & Bailey and Here Design to name but a few. As Matt Baxter of Baxter & Bailey says Dom and I decided to work in a flexible way to better suit our lives. We’re both dads and we wanted our working lives to accommodate that responsibility in a way that worked for our kids, our other halves and our work. We’re supposed to be a creative industry, yet the lack of creativity and imagination regarding the manner in which we work is staggering. What an old fashioned and inflexible bunch! The key to making this work is planning. Knowing where everyone is on any given day, what our deadlines are and what we expect of each other is crucial.”

Of course it can’t be a hard and fast rule — design is a deadline driven business and very occasionally the demands of a project mean I need to work on my DadDay. But in general, with a bit of good organisation, I’ve pulled it off for four years. I’d argue I get five days work done in four by remaining focussed and organised, never wasting so much as a minute of my day. And clients are open-minded about it too — I’m very transparent about it and I think most of my clients actually see it as a positive and progressive approach — particularly for a man (there I said it).

Heidi Lightfoot from Together (someone we contacted for tips on a four day week when we started it at Magpie) says If you are intending to start working four days a week, and your colleagues agree, then commit to it whole heartedly. Don’t think When work allows I’ll take a day off’, because, when there’s always more to be done, it’ll never happen. And there’s no surer way to annoy your colleagues than changing plans week by week.” Heidi also mentions the necessity of a great team &mdamdash; Our four days in the studio are intensive, but we get everything done. We get organised and forward plan. There’s nothing like a deadline, when you have to run out the door, to concentrate the mind. But the benefits of having that extra day with our families is worth any amount of lost lunch breaks. It’s the bonus day of a long weekend. And one we’re very grateful to have.”

Last year Joschka started school and next year my youngest Ruby will too. It’s made me think about whether to keep the four day week thing going or not. But writing this piece has made me decide that my DadDay will become my MusicDay. A chance for me to pursue my other passion in life. Why? Because I think it will keep me sane and give me the much needed perspective I need on my design work. So maybe we should start a four day revolution in the design world — one not just for parents but for everyone.

Jamie Ellul
Creative Director of Supple Studio and Chair of WEDF