Why is it so hard for designers to work less?

Supple Studio creative director Jamie Ellul looks at the benefits and challenges of working a four-day week and asks why the practise isn’t more prevalent in the design industry.

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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 say they 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 smaller 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 led 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. While 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, says: “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.

He adds: “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 Taylor and I are not the only ones who think 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: “[My business partner] 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.

Baxter adds: “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 focused 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.”

Lightfoot also mentions the necessity of a great team: “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 is creative director of Supple Studio and chair of the West of England Design Forum.

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Comments
  • Emily Penny March 23, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Fabulous to hear some dads speaking out on this (sitting here working at the kitchen table while my 4 year old and his dad play lego in the next room…) Important that part-time is not just a Mum thing. And not even just a parent thing. And not even just a design thing. Everyone needs to think about what on earth the rat race is really achieving. Health and happiness are so much more important. And creative too, which is why we all went into this after all.

  • Emma Hopton March 23, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    Great article Jamie and contributors. I agree with Emily though – shouldn’t just be a parent thing, I have plenty of projects that need nurture just need the time to dedicate to them. Let’s start a four day revolution.

  • Lysa Millergill March 23, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    I love the sound of this. We work better when we are happy and content in life. Four day revolution sounds like a good idea.

  • Kim Anderson March 24, 2015 at 10:18 am

    I started working a four day week after my first child and totally agree I also do about 5 days worth of work in 4 with a lot less time wasted and being a lot more organised with my time.

  • Adrian McKay March 24, 2015 at 10:24 am

    Great article wish I’d done the same. Think I missed out a bit. Great pub thou know it well.

  • Johnathan Montelongo March 24, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Great article and comments. Agreed it shouldn’t be limited to parents and I definitely urge Jamie to pursue MusicDay™ in due time!

  • Andy Barker March 24, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    I used to work for myself and that had almost complete flexibility. That was the happiest I have been working, except when it came to getting paid on time! I like the idea and it has crossed my mind in the past. I agree that creativity has low value at the moment, probably because of the recession – everything is about time and budget these days. But we need good thinkers and investment in good design. People like good design. We have been running a campaign called ‘easy is nice’. It’s all about streamlining work and making clients understand that they can do less, shorten meeting times, basically cut the waffle. Then potentially have more time to enjoy the benefits of work. Otherwise what’s the point of it all?

  • Dan . March 24, 2015 at 9:27 pm
  • Jonathan Ryder Richardson March 25, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Sixteen years and counting, on a four day compressed week (40 hours in four days) as a Set Designer at Sky TV. I’ve hung on to it despite a lot of pressure and possibly my career will not take me as far because of it but, it is so worth it to be more involved in my children’s lives, and now they are all at school like you Jamie, my Daddy day can provide some much needed me time too! Good article.

  • Helen Francis March 25, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Love this article. Having just given up a voracious London-based creative job that ate every spare second I had to start up my own agency back down in Cornwall I know I now need to work smarter to create the structure that will support my reduced hours. But the gift of time with my 2-year old is joy beyond measure, and certainly beyond financial recompense.

  • Grant Russell March 25, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Great article, as a designer and hands on dad this is spot on.

  • Martin . March 26, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    Sounds good to me, just need to convince the Boss.

  • Ronnie McGibbon March 27, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Really informative article, as I’m a father of three kids and I value the family first ethic. However convincing the powers that be to move to a four-day week maybe tough bridge to cross. Maybe I might have start my own agency perhaps…

  • Zoe Grimes April 2, 2015 at 11:41 am

    Great article! Absolutely not restricted to Mum/DadDays though – life’s about enjoyment, if you love what you do, do it – be that working or playing, there’s always a way.

  • Carlo del Mazo June 5, 2017 at 11:52 am

    hey is great the idea of the 4 days week, one question here, where you usually put your day off, in Monday or Friday? im thinking about it but wondering what will be the most suitable and recomendable day to leave it for free, Monday seems kind of interesting because looks like really one extra day, but also Friday free because is weekend starts soon, omg so hard, we should had a 3 day week maybe.

    so, Monday or Friday?

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