13 Dec 2019
Posted in Opinion
Running for Mental Health
Posted by Abbas Mushtaq

At Alphabet, we’re a work in progress, just like every other studio. We love what we do, but as time’s gone on we’ve started to realise the importance of balance in life and to separate work from all the other hugely important areas of life. We constantly strive to work as efficiently as possible, our studio culture is not built on those ‘unwritten rules’ so often seen in the design industry of staying until basically your bedtime every day. We don’t believe in this and think more often than not, it’s down to poor time management. But it hasn’t always been this. At least once a year we sit down and discuss how we can become a better, happier, and more productive creative agency. One of the things most important to us at Alphabet is the physical health and wellbeing of our team, and we actively promote and encourage healthy living as much as we can.

One of the ways I’ve tried to improve my health and wellbeing this year is I’ve taken up running. It was tough at first but now I love it. For the past couple of years, I have done a physical challenge for a charity I believe strongly in. Last year, I trekked the Himalayas to raise money for the British Heart Foundation, and this year I decided to run a half marathon to raise money for Mind - a charity that offers information and advice to people with mental health problems.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety and knows family and friends who have too, I believe strongly in the importance of mental health. It’s great that it’s becoming a bigger part of the conversation in today’s society. We’re beginning to realise mental health is just as important, if not, more important than physical health. It seems obvious that we all deserve to be happy and present.

Alphabet Mental Health Design Industry Single

To some, it may seem almost ungrateful to say, and I struggled with this notion at times, but graphic design is hard. It can be highly demanding to be creative every day. It’s not a job involving spreadsheets, and where 1+1 is still 2, even if you don’t feel too great. Poor mental health and anxiety are the enemies of creativity, and creativity is often the currency in our industry. The longer I have spent in the industry, the better I have become at separating work and life, but it’s a learning curve and a continual process.

At first, as one of the founders of the studio, I felt guilty making time for myself. I used to think I could spend those hours doing work, but I didn’t realise there’s a lot more to life than work, and everything is important and influences each other. Taking time out for myself to do something fun, spend some time in nature, see my friends for a drink on a weekend and just generally, you know, being a normal human being, has made me a better creative. It not only gave my mind a rest, but also improved me in other areas, such as mindset, self-worth, and belief in my capabilities. I’m confident anyone reading this who works in the creative industry will relate to the above.

As creatives, we must do our best to find a balance, be more open, and not accept that being stressed, and unfit is just the norm. It’s not. And this responsibility lies not only with us as creatives, but also as employers too.

There’s a great article on The Design Week, that I encourage you to read, here.

Mentalhealth Design Week Quote

So what do we do to try and reach better mental health and happiness in our day-to-day life at Alphabet? The below list is some of the things we do at Alphabet and some of the things that work pretty well for me. It’s by no means a definitive list, but hopefully, one that might get you thinking of ways to improve your own work/life balance.

1. Communicate
If something doesn’t feel right, or if we have any concerns about something in the studio or the way a project is going we let it be known. That applies to members of the team, but clients too. Hopefully, a healthy, productive discussion will ensue. At worst, you might not agree but at least they will know where you stand. There’s nothing to lose.

2. Set Realistic Timelines
Design is something we love, but we also love plenty of other things too, so it’s important to be present and focused on everything we do and getting it done. But that doesn’t mean staying late every day. In most cases, that thing can wait until tomorrow morning. So set realistic timelines, and don’t promise the world if it means doing an all-nighter to pull it off. Get yourself home, eat some good food and handle the rest tomorrow with renewed energy.

3. Hobbies Hobbies Hobbies
I used to feel guilty not doing design, or not thinking about design all the time. Time away from something not only helps you be a better designer but also allows your subconscious mind to connect the dots between loose ideas and form amazing concepts. This is why there’s truth to the old saying about always having your best ideas whilst in the shower. Check out “A Technique for Producing Ideas” by James Webb Young here. It talks about this in great detail. So go out there, and lace-up those old footy boots again, or maybe take up that thing you’ve always wanted to learn. It will not only make you a happier, healthier individual, but also a more creative designer full of kick-ass ideas.

4. Separate Fact from Opinion
It’s easier said than done, but it’s crucial. If a client doesn’t like a concept and says something isn’t “good”, or “not creative enough”, or “needs more pop” that is simply their opinion. Ask them how it could be better, what in their mind makes it “more creative” and try to understand their line of thinking. Seek more constructive feedback. A clients opinion is not a reflection of you as a creative. Which takes me on to...

5. Value Yourself
The transition from education to full-time work is not an easy one. I used to wrestle with a form of “Imposter Syndrome”, where I thought I didn’t deserve or wasn’t good enough to be where I am now. The truth is I am, and so are you. You wouldn’t be where you are right now if you weren’t. So keep your head up, and remember you know what you’re doing. Take feedback on board of course, but also advise clients and work with them. Push back on things if they don’t make sense. Remember, the client came to you for creativity and guidance, or they’d do it themself.

6. Look After Yourself
This is the underlying topic of the whole post, but it goes without saying. Physical health is directly related to mental health, they’re both just as important and blur together. Again, linking back to #2, it’s very easy working in our industry to kind of ‘accept’ that we’ll be in bad shape, eat bad food, and have terrible posture. It doesn’t need to be this way. I was guilty of this myself for a long time. I regularly grabbed a meal deal from Tesco on my lunch and was loaded with coffee at all times, but it’s cheaper and much healthier to prepare your own food. Design is also a very stationary job, so maybe take time to go for a walk on your break, or exercise after work now that you have more time on your hands after addressing #2.

7. Friday Drinks
This seems an obvious one and is commonplace but probably for a very good reason. At Alphabet, we all get on very well, but we also take our work seriously and focus on the job at hand. One of the things that make up our studio culture is we understand when to loosen up and when to knuckle down and get things done. For that reason, we try and do something as a team at the end of the week. It could be going for a team meal, some drinks, or just attending an event or soaking in some culture within the community. Straying away from talking about work and spending time with each other as friends talking about what’s going on in our lives is important. It takes the edge off and it reminds us one of the main reasons we set up Alphabet in the first place. The people.

Mentalhealth Time 2

Going back to the run itself, I chose to do the Royal Parks Half Marathon on October 13th and I set a £500 fundraising goal for Mind. Running is a case of mind over body, which seemed somewhat fitting. At the start of this year, I was absolutely not a good runner, and I still don’t really feel like I am, but most importantly, I’m a better runner. I love going for a run now. It gives me my bit of ‘alone’ time, that I cherish and it clears my mind. As discussed previously, it has taught me things and given me confidence that I can apply to everyday life, and my job as co-founder of Alphabet well. The idea of taking my time, not rushing the process, and taking one step at a time, literally.

Whilst training for this event, I tried to be more conscious and present within my own daily life and to be more of a positive influence on those around me. This way of thinking is also what we strive to uphold at Alphabet. We have made a promise to do our bit for positive initiatives, for mental health and the community around us. We’ve worked with a few charities and community initiatives over the years and it's always something we will continue to seek out.

And if you are interested, the run itself went pretty well. I got a new PB across the board for 5K, 10K and Half Marathon. A time of 2 hours 1 minute is not an elite time by any means, but I’m proud of it and it’s something to build on. I look forward to further improvement and trying my hand at full marathons, and beyond. If I can do it, you dear reader, most certainly can.

Mental Health Youre Never Alone

At Alphabet, we too will do our bit to promote better mental health and will seek to continue to support mental health initiatives and community initiatives for better mental health outside of our industry. We recently worked with Football Beyond Borders who support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are passionate about football but disengaged at school, in order to help them finish school with the skills and grades to make a successful transition into adulthood. You can see this project here.

Finally, for anyone reading this, that doesn’t feel too great, just know you’re not alone. Feel free to drop me a line at abbas@madebyalphabet.com, or call Mind on 0300 123 3393. Maybe we’ll bump into each other out on a run somewhere!

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