How to balance life and work

Only co-founder Matthew Tweddle

Only co-founder Matthew Tweddle

Achieving a balance between work and life is something I’ve always struggled with. At every stage of my career I’ve made the next creative challenge the most important thing in my life. But was I losing something in the process?

Last September, I went to the Brand New conference in Chicago and heard Tosh Hall, creative director at Jones Knowles Ritchie, speak about his relationship with design. He talked about the need to strike a balance - for the sake of his sanity and to the benefit of his creative output. The message got through and I knew it was important to make a change... but old habits die hard.

Those habits were initially forged during my first professional job out of university: artworking nightclub flyers and their promotional materials. This normally involved, at the behest of clients, using bright neon lettering to communicate a not-to-be- missed ‘£1 a shot’ offer. It was by no means a dream job, but I was determined to create the most elegant cheap drinks flyer the industry had ever seen. 

Ever since then, I’ve continued to throw everything at my work, and remain convinced that hard work is necessary to becoming a good designer. But this is complicated by the fact that as you progress through your career, you get less and less time to actually focus on design.

What's your idea of success?

As the creative director and co-founder of small branding agency, Only, progression for me still means carving out time to consider new challenges that push me beyond my comfort zone. But design is increasingly fast-paced. Very often clients don’t have the luxury of time — to develop an idea, to allow it to incubate, to experiment, and fail in the way that’s necessary to create truly wonderful work.

I believe now that the key is doing all you can to manage your time effectively. One tactic I have learnt is to set your own achievable targets, and ways of measuring success that are within your own control. And that can mean taking a step back and reassessing exactly what you consider ‘success’ to be. 

It’s not as straightforward a question as it might seem. In the creative industries, there are many ways success can be quantified. As well as the ever- increasing number of awards, there are showcase sites and blogs, plus the constant pursuit of traction across social media. Then there’s the other kind of feedback; the increasingly negative commentary from other designers surrounding the release of new work, particularly new brand identity projects. 

I now accept that there will always be other people who enjoy greater success, who have more D&AD Pencils on their shelves, who receive greater critical acclaim, or who just have more followers on Instagram. The nature of creativity means there’ll always be projects that aren’t as well received, and even those who are highly regarded will always be open to subjective commentary and negative opinion. Accepting this and defining your own measure of success is essential to moving forward and remaining focused on the things that matter most.

Quality not quantity

I’ve also learnt to rely more on those with talents and interests different to my own. When the pressure is on, I’m always tempted to take on too much responsibility, in the belief that retaining control is the only way to resolve the problem. But all too often, that tactic falls down. As the hours get longer, productivity starts to fall. The jobs list begins to grow, emails go unanswered and project plans start to slip. As a way of working it’s unsustainable, and as an agency owner, it can stifle potential for growth.

As a small team, we now hire on the basis of contribution and look for people who’ll bring something beyond the existing strengths in the studio, and contribute to our collaborative process. We also spend time seeking out creative partners who can bring their own expertise to the process.

It’s always important to keep perspective and make sure work doesn’t completely take over

Taking the time to collaborate is essential. Working through a problem with a talented team is much more rewarding, and different perspectives always improve the solution. Crucially, it’s sustainable and enables a far healthier work-life balance.

All of this gets muddied when you consider design to be synonymous with life. Away from the office, my hobbies are all closely tied to my job and my favourite people are all in similar industries. It’s important to remember that most people don’t get to do something they love every day for their job.

It’s a real privilege to work as a designer with people who trust you to help steer and define the direction of their business. As with any other craft or discipline, good work comes from caring about what you do. It’s always important to keep perspective and make sure work doesn’t completely take over. But being completely enthralled by the work in front of you can itself be enormously rewarding.

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Matthew Tweddle
Matthew Tweddle is co-founder and creative director of award-winning branding agency Only, based in Manchester. He has previously led transformative work for Design Council, Channel 4, Printworks London and Goldsmiths, University of London