08 November 2006
Justine Bothwick
Justine Bothwick

It is not unusual for designers to work long hours: most people in the industry can tell war stories of coffee-fuelled all-nighters. But how wise is this way of working? This summer saw the last call for applications for the Government's new Challenge Fund, set up to help employers introduce flexible working arrangements for staff that also benefit business. And it appears that the rewards gained from rethinking how we work can be considerable for both the individual and the company. So as the work/life balance debate gathers momentum in the UK, will designers need to take more notice of the arguments surrounding this often contentious issue?

Jim Fullalove, a director at Therefore, a consultancy known for its innovative design work for clients such as Psion, agrees that designing demands great commitment and hard work. However, he believes that there are ways you can avoid constant long hours, even when deadlines loom. As he explains, "At Therefore we do try to reduce the workload on the team, through effective planning and organisation. In a consultancy there is always work to be done, you just have to accept that fact. But by anticipating demand and sharing responsibility, we can moderate the amount of work for individuals. A strong sense of team work is important, as is the individual's ability to keep a sense of perspective, so that we don't become stale or tired."

This is sound advice, if slightly obvious, advice, echoed by Ceridian Performance Partners, work/life specialists helping businesses achieve tangible results in this field. Ceridian's advice to people and organisations trying to achieve a better balance stresses the importance of prioritising, collaborating and delegating - techniques that Therefore, as an effective team, appear to be good at. This ethos means a blurring of the boundaries between work and life. As Fullalove states, "A good designer's mind is always working, solving problems. You don't just switch off. That's the reality of making things work."

Creative people who don't switch off the minute they leave the office are a precious and powerful resource; something recognised by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury and Partners (HHCL) - a marketing and communications agency that places great importance on new, flexible working styles. Minnie Moll, marketing director, speaks with infectious zeal as she describes the company's unusual working environment. "Our approach to group work is to make the assumption that everybody involved has a positive intention to collaborate and succeed. This atmosphere of trust means that it is absolutely fine for people to work at home, absolutely fine for people to work in the cafe around the corner, absolutely fine for them to work in the park. Crucial to this way of working is technology, which we have harnessed to make this possible. The office itself is borderless. Instead of having fixed desks we ROMP [Radical Office Mobility Programme, HHCL's name for hot-desking]. This diversity of environments induces different emotional states, exposing people to different ideas and stimulus. You often find out things you didn't think you wanted to know."

HHCL has taken organisation, technology and collaboration beyond the usual limits to ensure that staff work as efficiently and, more importantly, creatively as possible. Moll herself works a three day week so that she can spend time with her twin children; the creative director works a four day week; the strategic director has just returned from three months travelling the US in a Winnebago. The company believes its employees are better, more balanced people, and their experiences pour back into the work they are doing. As Moll says, "Seeing people interacting in daily life, the world we are supposed to be such experts in, gives us really interesting perspectives on our work. It's the mundane stuff that connects you, and it inspires you."

For HHCL, giving their staff the chance to lead balanced, diverse lives is what gives the agency its competitive edge. As Moll says,
"We have to be a talent magnet. Our ability to supply the best talent to our clients makes us competitive. To do this we have to offer a compelling balance of life and work. And the result is an interesting, stimulated team who is happy and willing to work extremely hard and efficiently."

HHCL's approach certainly sounds inspirational. Like designers, the company's work relies on an in-depth understanding of the people who will buy and use products, and the world they inhabit. So designers do need to spend time 'out there', interacting with all sorts of other people and other products. And yet the best products are the result not of the eureka moment in the bath but of long hard slog - a process of iterative development and testing, which takes time and dogged determination. Designers need to work long and hard to turn their great ideas into a functional reality. A design employer needs its staff to be completely committed.

How can this level of commitment be generated without compromising the creative process or overloading employees? Alloy Total Product Design in Farnham, Surrey, believes it has the solution. Founded just over a year ago, it is an employee owned company. Gus Desbarats, chair and co-founder, explains the philosophy. "Being a designer is a very personal thing. It's much more than just a job, it defines to some extent who you are. So as designers progress they often feel the need to go it alone - they form breakaways or move on. At Alloy we hope to build a place where people will feel they will gain more, both financially and personally, from staying. So everyone has the opportunity to take the business in whatever direction they see fit, and build their own custom-fit careers."

Like HHCL, Alloy also places emphasis on the importance of trust. The workplace also becomes a community, and Alloy thinks organisations need to be more supportive of employees. As Desbarats explains, "Design relies on passion: it's difficult to do it nine to five. Some managers take advantage of that. What they should be doing is protecting employees - the jungle out there can be a scary place. Designers need to know that whatever the jungle throws at them, the chiefs in the village are there to look after them, and that they trust them. Of course, a lot of the pressure can come from individuals themselves - they have to learn to be utterly efficient and totally self disciplined. What will help us is technology. With laptops, email, mobile phones and call forwarding designers can go and design in a field or the bathtub, if that's where they feel creative. Or they can pick the kids up from school and carry on working at home. It just requires more planning, discipline and effort to minimise the cost on the rest of the team."

So what are the benefits of providing a more flexible working environment? Research for the DfEE shows that organisations providing life or family friendly working arrangements all saw increased productivity, service delivery and profits. In addition they gained from better recruitment, retention and motivation of staff. This alone, given the widely recognised difficulty of attracting creative, talented people into the profession, should persuade design employers to try out more flexible work arrangements.

Researchers at South Bank University have found that working long hours rarely means increased productivity. A report by the Institute for Employment Studies shows some small businesses save up to GBP 250,000 on their budget simply by using life/family friendly policies, dispelling the myth that only large employers can afford to be flexible. One company in the report estimated savings of nearly GBP 1/4million by reducing staff turnover. Another company describes how introducing flexible working arrangements meant six key members of staff were persuaded to stay - a replacement saving of GBP 45,000. The DfEE website lists numerous case studies of organisations who have gained from implementing these policies. Yet some still see this as a negative debate. Speaking to the Financial Times recently, Ruth Lea, head of policy at the Institute of Directors says, "The phrase itself [work life balance] suggests somehow that work isn't life. For many people, work is the most satisfying part of their life... and the rewards are well worth the hard work and long hours." What this attitude does not take into account are the wider and social implications of a long hours culture. Like it or not, a designer has a responsibility - to the world she or he is designing things for. And apart from the damage to health, to family and to productivity that is wrought by long hours and presenteeism, does this also mean designers are designing for a world they have little time to live in?

Designers are, by the nature of what they do, creative and thoughtful people. They -mostly- combine knowledge of science, art and engineering with sensitivity to people's needs and wants. We all need designers to be fully engaged in all sorts of social situations. Giving designers more opportunity for more flexible working practices is good for the individual, for the company and for the wider community, provided, of course, that people don't see this as a chance to balance their own lives at the expense of the rest of the team. With effective planning, organisation and fierce self discipline, and by working collaboratively; by changing attitudes so that work becomes an activity rather than a place, and by harnessing technology to enable these practices, design teams will reap considerable rewards. Let's see more of them taking up the challenge.

About this article
The above article by Justine Bothwick originally appeared in New Design magazine and appears here with permission.
For more information about New Design or for a free sample copy, visit

About Justine Bothwicks
A contributor to New Design, Justine has worked in the design and manufacturing industry for 3 years, and has been responsible for, among other things, the development of the Dyson Design and Technology education programme.

She is particularly interested in the relationship between design and society, the responsibility of the designer, and in communicating the complexity of the design, engineering and manufacturing process to a wider audience.

About New Design
New Design is the new product and industrial design magazine from the UK that explores the key internal and external design issues facing designers and management today, from new technologies and materials to consumer and environmental trends. It also looks at the role design can play at the heart of business operations in areas such as manufacturing, branding and product development, with interviews and case studies providing ideas and inspiration for management, innovation and best practice.

Regular sections cover design education and design management, in addition to workplace issues, international events and recruitment. The articles are informative and thought-provoking providing combined with high quality product images.