What I learnt about mental health

This week we hosted an UNseminar in Melbourne. The topic was mental health in the design industry. As they say in the classics, there was a lot of love in the room – as well as some awesome speakers and great insights.

Our ‘UNseminar’ MO is two guest speakers ‘introduce’ the topic and then the ‘floor’ takes over. That’s where the sharing begins…


What makes nights like that so special is the variety of participants. The room included writers, film makers, photographers, employed designers and designers that employ, all sharing their insights.

Better than that, we had two industry leaders who have both recently conducted (very different) mental health in the creative industry surveys – Andy Wright from Never Not Creative and Jim Antonopoulos from Tank. Both shared findings from their surveys.

Here’s my seven takeaways from the night:

  1. Talk. Have meaningful conversations. You don’t know what you don’t know. If you are the one with a mental health issue, share your challenges with others. If you are an employer and you think someone needs help, don’t just ask RUOK, sit down and have a real conversation. Take them out for a cup of tea and a chat. Talk. Seems Jim Antonopolous is the king of a coffee-meet. Turns out he’d had a coffee with almost everyone in the room. 🙂
  2. Tell the truth. Mental health has traditionally been a taboo subject (right up there with politics and religions, two of my favorite subjects), but history has proven that doesn’t work. Society now understands the value of being honest about our challenges. It means others can help share the load. Cameron Solnordal shared his story, and why the advantages of being open and honest far outweigh the disadvantages. Powerful stuff.
  3. Take time off when you need it. Both Andy and Jim agreed their surveys reported design had a high level of presentism (as opposed to absenteeism). That means designers don’t take sick days. That means that, often, we come to work when we are not well, either physically or mentally and that’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for a small team trying to cope with a deadline and it’s certainly not good for the person feeling unwell. Message is, take the time owed. Aaron Lee from Caramel Creative shared how he, after realising there was a problem, now offers unused sick leave as mental health days. (Aaron has just returned from taking his roaring around Tasmania in an MG but that’s another story…)
  4. Respect. Some of the issues causing mental health problems in a design team can be solved by treating each other with respect. There is so much written about designing with empathy, what about working with empathy? Being mindful of others. Cara Richardson from Saltree Design shared her way of creating ‘agreed behaviours’ for her studio and why that mattered.
  5. Keep healthy. A healthy mind needs a healthy body but that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing for all people. Andy hits the gym. Clifton Daniell from Fluid, a studio in Torquay, hits the surf. Nancy Bugeja of HM Group skips for five minutes (with a rope) every night in her hallway, while she watches the bathtime antics of her two daughters through the open bathroom door. Tessa Pacitti from APR creative takes it one step further. They take advantage of their location in Blackrock, a Melbourne suburb down near the bay. Every day at 11am, everyone gets up from their chairs to take a brisk minute walk to clear the mind. Tessa said it works miracles, even for those in the middle of a ‘thing’.
  6. Devise a joint activity all the studio can do together. Caramel Creative have CC33: they take 33 minutes every second Wednesday to explore something creative, together, as a studio. Sometimes that means watching and discussing a video, or exploring the value of a new piece of software or going on an excursion. Recently they walked down to the local bookstore to explore and discuss publication design. Simple but effective team building.
  7. Finally, do something outside the studio. And not just for the holidays. I have an orchard (on a balcony), and I illustrate. The results of both are shared on Instagram. Greg Branson  dusted off his 1970’s film cameras to shoot, develop and print shots to upload to his Instagram account. Sharon Blance, photographer by day, makes outrageous costumes by night. James Brandis puts down his cams to run – a long way. Doesn’t matter what you do, just matters that you find something that pushes your mind to another space, away from the pressures of work and of clients.

We’re planning our series of unseminars for next year now. If you have something you’d like to discuss in an open forum, do let me know.


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Carol Mackay

This illustration is from a Sunday lunch in the Heide cafe. I couldn’t hear what these two ladies were discussing but it was certainly causing much thigh slapping mirth.


2018 is a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she transitioned from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School. Her design expertise is in making the complex simple. Her special skill is in packaging complicated content into bite-sized chunks of information that can be easily understood and digested.

Carol has just written a new program for the The Design Business School. The Design Studio Management Program is aimed at designers, design graduates and existing design studio managers to help them develop skills to fast track their career path. Contact Carol for more information.

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