How to stay sane as a designer

We’re a sensitive bunch, us designers. Imposter syndrome, whether real or not, was I’m sure invented by a designer. We hit lows hard and always look for reasons why we shouldn’t celebrate highs; perhaps it’s the problem-solvers in us.

With that in mind, we’re at higher risk of burn out or working ourselves to the bone and seeing our social lives pass by. Not only does working too hard (something we can probably all align with) cause us to stay indoors more, it pushes every other major aspect of our lives to the side, health included.

We struggle to switch off.

Small steps, big rewards

Switching off is hard, but we can incrementally make small changes to our work–life balance and see big benefits to our creative output.

How to stay sane as a designer — Work elsewhere

Work elsewhere

Do you spend every working hour rooted to your desk, staring at the same monitor, same coffee cup and same backdrop? Naturally, this will limit our creative thinking. No matter how many times you walk to the kitchen and back for a fresh cuppa Joe, you’re still going to be trying to draw inspiration from a limited set of external variables.

We can shake things up by working from home, or that hipster coffee shop downtown. Now I’m not suggesting a permanent out of office state, but even one day a fortnight is enough to freshen up your perspective.

If you work in two week design sprints, perhaps you schedule Monday briefings and work elsewhere on Tuesdays. This will allow you to think creatively in a quieter area, outside of the distracting office environment. When you’re back in the office on a Wednesday, you’ll be feeling fresh and pumped to start honing your ideas, soak up the buzz of a bustling office and have the opportunity to work through any questions or points with colleagues.

Working from a different location will freshen up your environment to stimulate your creative thinking, it’ll make you appreciate your desk and colleague interactions more.

How to stay sane as a designer — Side projects

Side projects

This may sound counterintuitive, seeing as I initially said that we work too much, but bear with.

It’s our job as designers to think up creative solutions that solve problems, yet we are rarely encouraged to solve our own.

No doubt you’ve had dozens of ‘billion dollar ideas’, yet never pursue them. This is enough for a separate post in itself, but the problem with starting with the end goal is that we struggle to see the steps along the way and are overwhelmed by the mountain of todos.

When I started my weekly newsletter Milk, No Sugar, I didn’t kick it off because I wanted to publish a newsletter, I started it because I wasn’t writing enough and needed to force myself into a habit. It’s this step towards a bigger goal that has encouraged me to ensure I publish it every week.

The same goes for my project Junior Design Jobs. I’ve come to realise that junior designers struggle to see where and why to focus and when starting the journey to designer super stardom. With that in mind, I wanted to create a place where juniors can find resources, tutorials and ultimately jobs that will help them on the way. That’s a lot of things to check off, but the first (and easiest) way in for me to start this project was finding junior jobs. I didn’t find another website focussing just on juniors, so decided that as a first step that will push my over the edge to start going.

Now that’s enough about me, how can side projects help you? Well, they enable you to get over the same issues —

  1. How can you extend your skillset outside of the office environment?
  2. How can you network?
  3. How can you learn about social media and marketing?
  4. How can you actually ‘launch’ something?

Side projects, no matter how trivial, will enable you to become that rounded full-stack developer you know you want to be. This, in return, will level you up on the career spectrum and lead you down the path of indispensability.

How does this keep you sane? It comes back to our environment and being inspired by different projects and contexts. Working on something that isn’t your 9–5 will push you in ways you’re not ready for. Start your own ‘Uber for X’ and see how far you can get. Who knows, you might learn a skill that you can introduce at your regular work and see tangible benefits in the long run.

How to stay sane as a designer — Take a vacation

Take a vacation

You know that word, right?


I know, I know, you’re reluctant to take it because you love working so much, but we need to switch off.

Do you save up your vacation days at work, because you’re scared of disrupting projects? Or maybe you’re even scared that your company will go out and ‘find someone better’? This isn’t a healthy mindset to have, but one that is unfortunately common for designers.

Wellness and mental health are incredibly popular trends at the moment, and in particular activities such as meditation and yoga. Looking after ourselves is important and unless we do that, not only will we suffer internally, our creativity will drop off a cliff.

Looking at the Epicurrence events is proof enough that designers, even when parting with big bucks, still need to be grounded in some aspect of work when on vacation.

Vacation doesn’t even have to involve stepping on a plane. Sitting at home in front of the TV for a few days in a row instead of the laptop will make a difference to our sanity. Not thinking about that Trello board for a day or how the features list on your website should be designed is something that will actually improve the end result. Taking a step back will open up creative solutions.

How to stay sane as a designer — Listen to music

Listen to music

This one is a nice to have, but something I firmly believe in. I sit with my headphones on, at the office, for a few hours a day to try and find inspiration from music.

Music production is in itself a creative exercise, and listening to it can allow us to appreciate how building up the layers of a track is related to the layers of a product. Treat your designs how a music producer approaches a track and build up those individual, equally important, layers.

There’s a reason why Spotify’s Daily Mix is so popular — it inspires through differentiation. We’re addictive, and are always on the search for that new fix, and this feature feeds right into that addiction. Hearing a new track will boost our optimism, which has a direct effect on how we approach problem-solving.

It’s not just about finding new music that’s beneficial, finding comfort in our favourite album can create that relaxed atmosphere to stimulate creative thinking. This is why you’ll find my listening to Frank Ocean’s Blonde probably once a week. I find serenity in the familiar and can deep dive into a creative solution with this mindset.

How to stay sane as a designer — Ask questions

Ask questions

This might be an English-specific problem, but I’ve always struggled with asking for help. There’s a certain crisis of confidence that designers collectively go through when finding that we cannot do something.

Struggling to work out why your design feels incomplete? Does sitting and staring at it until something hopefully pops in your head sound familiar?

There’s no harm in asking for help, even from non-designers. In fact, asking non-designers for their opinion is arguably more valuable, because they will be the real customers of your product. Designers are hyper critical, yet real users just want to achieve their end goal in the easiest way.

Asking for help is beneficial in the way that it strengthens your collaborative skills, increases your ability to accept criticism, and pushes you in different directions.

Who knows, you might end up learning a new skill.

How to stay sane as a designer — Join communities

Join communities

Backing up my previous point of being more collaborative, it’s paramount we push ourselves to participate in growing the design community. Aside from making new friends, it enables you to pursue all of my previous points. Got a side project idea, but don’t feel like you could accomplish it alone? There will be someone who wants to join the ride.

This might sound easy for someone that is comfortable doing so, but I’m not suggesting you need to go all out. Joining a designer Slack channel, or retweeting your favourite designer is a way to contribute through numbers.

Here’s a list of Slack channels you can join right now to start your journey to community excellence.

How to stay sane as a designer — Cook


Yep, you read that right. Cooking is an underrated exercise to push creative thinking and relaxation. I’m also not talking about following recipes, I’m suggesting taking the time to learn how ingredients and flavour combinations work to realise your own recipes.

My summers during university were, mostly, spent sitting with my dad and watching cookery shows. This taught me not how to read recipes (and ignore my friends), but how to judge ingredients and cooking techniques that come together to create meals.

In the same way that designing involves myriad components:

  • Navigation
  • Imagery / illustration
  • Forms
  • Tables
  • etc

Cooking is made up of its own, and it’s this measuring and mixing that allows you to continue thinking creatively in a different environment.

What a ride that was. I hope I’ve inspired you to take away the importance of stepping away from the laptop, focussing on different challenges and building yourself as a designer and person.

Enter your methods for staying on track in the comments, I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles to switch off.

Enjoy this post? I run a weekly newsletter, Milk, No Sugar, where I’m trying to remove small talk one newsletter at a time. I share great articles, videos and galleries every week, from the eye of a designer.