Sagmeister Was Right: We Need Time Off

I started my own studio because I wanted the "dream job." I didn't want to wait for the weekend. I didn't want to be obligated to the point where I couldn't be spontaneous, couldn't take the afternoon off on a gorgeous day. I didn't want to be caught in the nine to five lifestyle like others I knew who secured corporate jobs after finishing university.

As a designer focused on strategy and innovation, I've learned that many of our studio's clients and collaborators expect us to be "light switch" creative -- working with us in hope that we'll (almost) instantly offer solutions through our imagination, integrated thinking and inclination to take risks.

But designers aren't light switches.

Just like other creative practitioners -- designers need ample creative time and space to detach ourselves from our existing notions of "good" to discover spaces where we can rejuvenate the right side of our brains.

Since I started teaching at OCAD University five years ago, I have shown my students Stefan Sagmeister's "The Power of Time Off" TED talk. Sagmeister talks about his studio's practice of taking a yearlong sabbatical every seventh year. In sharing this talk, I invite my students to treat our three-hour class, and the remainder of the day (if they can) as a sabbatical. Turn off electronic distractions, turn down the chatter of expectations in their heads and be present in doing an activity that brings them joy and calm. I ask them to explore the prompt: what would you do if you didn't have to do anything?

The negotiation between "having to do" and "loving to do" is something that I have struggled with. Running between our studio and the university twice a week, all the while encouraging the students to be free, to find the space where their "have to dos" and "love to dos" harmoniously come together, I was finding myself neck-deep in my own combination of the two. While our studio was doing well, and I felt that the projects we were contributing towards were a real privilege, I knew that if we continued to work at a 12-hour-a-day pace, both the quality of our work, and our love for its practice, diminish. I was falling into a common entrepreneur's trap: never "clocking off" the job.

Inspired by Sagmeister, we responded to this critical challenge by implementing what we call Summer Sabbatical. If you e-mail our studio during the two-month period when our staff takes creative time off, you'll receive, in part, this reply:

We give our entire team the summer off to go on a creative journey, to rejuvenate, to reconnect to ideas that make them tick. It makes our work better, it makes our ideas richer, and makes our jobs feel more like dream jobs.

Summer Sabbatical runs from mid-July to mid-September and each member of our archiTEXT team is invited to go on a creative journey, exploring something that they've wanted to explore, ideally something far departed from the work that we do, in order to create a connective tissue between other spaces in the world and our practice at the studio.

For this year's Summer Sabbatical, I immersed myself in Chicago's improv community, including an intensive training in solo comedy performance at the Second City Training Centre. The hallowed halls of this comedy hub have been the springboard for such comedic geniuses such as Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, Jim Belushi, Steve Carrell and so many more. My goal was to explore how I could better tell vulnerable, challenging, uncomfortable stories in a constructive, brief, engaging (and funny) way. As a fan of stand-up comedy, I admire how great comedians tell stories about their lives in a way that reaches out to the audience in an authentic, relatable way -- bringing light to even the darkest corners of life.

Through our work at archiTEXT, we get invited to bring design and applied design thinking into often tenuous institutional spaces where morale is low, creative energy is depleted and relationships are tense. My intention was to learn to better use the skills of comedic storytelling to facilitate our clients through a process of revealing truths about the tensions in their spaces in constructive ways.

The incredible faculty at Second City did, indeed, help me do just that. In my time at Second City's Training Center, I took risks, performed solo improvisation, empathized with my characters -- from a struggling gymnast to an abandoned peanut at Wrigley Field -- and parked my notion of good/bad, successful/unsuccessful and dynamic/stale. I created dozens of characters, told countless stories, and left Second City with a notebook full of ideas.

Sagmeister was right. Sabbaticals -- whether they're one year in every seven, or two months every year, or three hours in a week -- offer a valuable (and seldom practiced) part of professional life. As I return to my inbox, its increasing unread message count no longer seem so daunting. As I return to our studio's "to dos," I'm eager to get out the markers and start mapping ideas. As I return my focus to the future of our studio, my brain is illuminated with ideas and inspiration for new spaces to explore and disrupt.

So I challenge those of you who are employers, self-employed or social entrepreneurs: take a sabbatical. We do the work we do so that we get to be in control, and yet we often find the pace of that work controlling us. If you run your own initiative, you know what it is like to take risks. I expect that you're even comfortable in the face of risk. So I challenge you: take the risk of stopping.

And even if you find yourself standing on stage, running with a story about a personified orange peel, to trust that you are exactly where you need to be.