Chris Murphy on web design and mental health

This prominent web designer shares his thoughts on mental health for professionals in the web design industry.

This article was originally published as part of Geek Mental Help Week in 2014.

Christopher Murphy is a writer, designer and educator based in Belfast, whom Adrian Shaughnessy has described as 'a William Morris for the digital age'. Author of numerous books, collectively covering a multidisciplinary approach towards design, he has written for a wide variety of publications worldwide.

We caught up with him to find out why he's recently been speaking out about the mental health issues faced by web design professionals...

You've written about mental health issues a great deal, recently. Is there anything you've learned you'd like to share?

I've learned a great deal. Mostly, about rediscovering the need for a more considered balance between work and life. We work in a relentless industry, where change is constant. If you're not too careful, you can get sucked into a pattern of working constantly; that's not healthy and is, in fact, counter-productive.

One of the simplest things I've learned is the fact that it's fine to focus on what you core skills are, and there's no need to know everything. We work, for the most part, in teams. Find the right team members and you don't need to do it all. That's the beauty of collaboration.

It's important to take time out to just enjoy life. Although I have a very busy schedule, I'm trying to focus on that more.

Why is this conversation around mental health surfacing now?

I think it's to do with the relentless pace of change we're all facing, both as an industry and as a society. Technology is evolving at an alarming rate. Whilst it's incredible – there are things we can do now that would have been unimaginable before – it's also intimidating.

Keeping up with change can be a challenge. A year ago, in my journal, I wrote: "I believe, as an industry, we focus all too often on the headlong excitement of endlessly moving forward. That's fine, but there's a flip side. Relentless progress brings with it relentless pressure. It can be difficult to keep up, and the pressure to stay on top of everything can at times prove debilitating."

I believe the conversation is surfacing now as a result of this. Designers and developers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up, which is leading to worrying work patterns.

We used to work, as Dolly Parton memorably reminded us, 9-5. Before long, however, that was 8-6, and then it became 7-7 (or worse). The edges of our work and life are blurring, and this burgeoning workload leads to a great deal of stress.

This is why we find this conversation bubbling to the surface. It's hard to keep up and everyone is worried they'll be left behind if they don't spend increasing hours at the coalface.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about mental health within the industry?

I think our industry is growing in awareness about the issue of mental health. I've been encouraged by audience's interest in the topic, there's certainly a great deal of empathy. Occasionally, however, I'll get a comment on Twitter that alarms me, including one recently, following a talk I'd given that: "This kind of material is inappropriate."

To be fair, that was one comment that ran counter to hundreds of others. It did, however, make me think… there is more work to be done here.

Where are the best places for web designers to get help with mental health problems?

Steve Peters' The Chimp Paradox comes highly recommended

I've found books to be the most helpful. Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety is excellent, as is Viktor Frankl's incredibly moving Man's Search For Meaning. Both are well worth owning.

If you can only afford to buy just one book, however, get Steve Peters' The Chimp Paradox. Peters' ideas on mind management are invaluable and, if he can help athletes win Olympic gold medals, he can most certainly help you.

Finally, if you're running a conference, and you'd like someone to speak about the challenges we all face keeping up with the pace of change, please do drop me a line.

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