Many designers I know live as though the industrial revolution was still in its infancy: 14and 16-hour days are the norm. Sixand seven-day weeks are common. They often work, clicking in front of an eye-bleachingly bright screen, surrounded by darkness, until the early hours, sometimes all night. Any union would protest vociferously about these working conditions, yet we all consider them to be usual.
The physical cost that comes with this – an appalling diet, consistent illness, hair loss, withering tiredness – is what degrades all those pulpy bodies in black suits that mill about at lectures and award ceremonies. After the first beer, the first confession from any designer is “I am so tired”. Is the work better for all the effort? Bruce Mau writes a telling passage in his book Life Style. “The first decision I made when the studio was starting up was that if I was to continue to work 18 hours a day (which seemed inevitable), the projects had to be stimulating,” he says.
What he goes on to recommend is a way of working that is even more time-consuming than the design most of us practice. He sees design as needing what he calls “research”, which means “going out into the world and grappling with the forces directly shaping our working context”. This sounds overwhelmingly ambitious if the job is already under time pressure, as so many are. What motivates Mau to slave 18 hours a day seems like a very modest pay-off. He gets excited about a piece of design: “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants”, as he puts it.
When I worked for Alan Fletcher at Pentagram he had a very strict routine. He arrived at 9.45am, got a coffee and opened his mail. He would write out brief responses to each letter with a pin-sharp propelling pencil and give these to his secretary to type. Then, one by one, each of his designers would step up to his table for a review of progress on each project. Lunch was at noon. More design discussion and thinking and sketching through to 4.30pm and then an hour returning the day’s telephone calls. Downstairs at 5.30pm for Martinis. His weekends were just as regular. It sounds ruthless, but there were plenty of thrills on a huge number of projects.
One of the most famously organised lives was that of Benjamin Franklin, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. This is his advice on how to spend a “natural day”: “5am: rise, wash and contrive the day’s business; 8 to 11: work; 12 to 1: read, overlook accounts and dine; 2 to 5: work; 6 to 9: put things in their places, examination of the day, supper, partake of diversions, music and conversation; 10pm to 5am: sleep.” This was a man who was rich, shrewd and witty. He earned enough money to retire at 42, he had the largest private library in America, invented bifocal glasses, was a respected scientist who flew kites during storms to test the nature of electricity, and self-deprecatingly wore a coonskin cap for a portrait painted of him as Ambassador to France.
We know that an hour’s planning can easily save eight hours spent working. But what is it exactly that we chase with so much anxiety and personal sacrifice? Money? Awards? Passion? The first two are rarely the direct rewards of hard work, and passion is all the more intense if it is harnessed. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
It is careful observance of structure that has given Fletcher such an amazing career, with enough energy left to respond to the world about him. Even though he still works a seven-hour day, he is just about to publish a huge book about everything, from Chinese philosophy to Dada poetry, that has taken thousands of hours to compile, write and design.
As designers grow older, brakes are applied. Children usually bring about a transformation in working hours that ought to have happened years earlier, but replacing unreasonably demanding clients with unreasonably demanding children does not necessarily make for a better quality of life. I bought a dog to bring to the office to force myself to take a walk at lunchtime, and her mournful brown eyes compel me to go home during daylight. The key phrase for me is Franklin’s “natural day”. We can all imagine it, one in which there is time for what matters: contemplation, conversation, shared passions. Some room for spontaneity and diversions.
After all, you are not going to tell your family on your death-bed, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”, however much seltzer went down your pants.
Please e-mail comments for publication in the Opinion section to firstname.lastname@example.org.UK