I needed a new name for this blog once I knew it would no longer be about designing healthcare. “Plot 47a” sounds a bit like a graveyard plot, but it is actually the section of a community garden that my husband and I had when we lived in Surrey a few years ago (our allotment). We were 24 years old, pulling up weeds and watering the raspberry bushes every other day after work. Most of our friends lived in London, spending evenings in the pub. We did plenty of that too, but we are still romantic about our garden and the handfuls of strawberries, green beans and potatoes we got from it. It was something Mark and I built together that was completely different from the websites we built together at work. The garden certainly lasted longer than some of those websites.
Gradually, Mark and I began pushing harder in our careers until we were spending all our evenings coding and designing. New opportunities came for us to work on projects outside of work, and as those opportunities became more exciting and more lucrative, they were harder to turn down. A couple grand here and there paid for travel to see our families in Florida, Luxembourg and England. We weren’t making anything more than a few thousand, and we weren’t doing it solely for the money. We felt lucky that people wanted to work with us, and it was a chance to take the kinds of risks that were harder to do in our day jobs.
The other thing is that we were supposed to be doing as much work as possible in order to be great, advice I’ve heard from industry heroes over and over again. Working evenings and weekends on side projects or even work-work projects is the accepted standard in this industry. If you aren’t doing that, it’s easy to feel like you aren’t at the top of your game. But there’s another side to this I haven’t seen until recently: Working really really really hard outside of hours – with sleepless nights, poor nutrition, slouching in desk chairs – maybe that is the way to get something started, but it certainly isn’t the way to keep it going. It isn’t sustainable.
For me, when I step back, a lot of the work I have done is so ethereal; I’m lucky if what I build lasts a year. And that is part of what makes it seem less and less worthwhile to spend more than my forty hours a week on digital doings. If I could take back some of those evenings I spent hunched over a computer and instead build a sheet fort with my nephews and read stories by flashlight, or watch a really inspiring, artistic film, or sit on the roof and look at the moon – those memories may not last long either, but at least it’s an investment with an outcome I know. I believe those memories contribute to a much richer life than a harddrive full of projects no one will look at or care about in a year or two. There needs to be time for play. For movies. For going for walks in the hail and cherry blossoms. For sewing projects. For paintings. For theatre. For friends and family. These are all things I have sacrificed time toward because I wanted to be a “good” designer.
It’s not that I regret my hard work, but lately I’ve been questioning the proportionality of it. The truth is, I’ll never be as good a designer as I would love to be, no matter how many hours outside of work I put into it, and I’m probably already as good as I need to be. That doesn’t mean I work any less hard, but I’m beginning to feel that my work is more concentrated, more focused, more deliberate. I feel like that should have been the goal all along: Quality over quantity. This is arguably a difficult strategy to take when you’re young and feel like everything you produce is crap, when you just keep making in hopes that something good will come of it. I guess that does happen eventually, but I hope the natural progression is toward a point where young designers can stop, reassess, and make sure they’re still doing the thing they love and loving the things they do. This is what I aim to do now.
All this said, I currently do work more than my forty hours a week, but I hope to get to a point where I can gradually stop coming in early and staying late and be strict with myself about how I divide my time between the things I value: yes, I need to do a good job at my work, I need my life to have some value beyond consuming, but it’s also super important to me to be a good partner, a good friend, daughter, sister, cousin, niece and an overall creative, well-rounded person. How can I be that if I spend all my time at the computer?
These are just a few thoughts to justify why Mark and I are giving up freelance, at least while we have full-time jobs. It’s almost crazy that I feel we have to justify it. We’ve been closing off projects and telling people we’re not taking any more work, trying to be strict about saying “No” (it’s really tough!), turning down family members and friends. A couple weeks ago, I finally refunded an initial deposit paid to me two years ago by an incredible client for a project we never really got off the ground.
I’m excited to see what doors this opens for us – not doors to new and better work, but doors to relationships and experiences (which may or may not improve our work). And hopefully, Plot 47a will become a place to document those creative thoughts and ideas, whether work-related or not.