Design Advice for Your Personal Life

There’s a good interview with Erik Spiekermann over at the design blog Ideas on Ideas. Spiekermann, the famous designer, typographer, co-founder of Meta Design and now principal of Spiekermann Partners always has something interesting — often divisive, frequently inspiring — to say about our profession.

There’s one quote from the interview that caught my attention: “I have a bad history of neglecting my private life. One of the main reasons my first wife divorced me was the fact that business always took precedence over anything else. I have often had to leave her and my son in the middle of a vacation and go to see a client.”

Personal v. Professional

After I read that I thought to myself, that’s horrible! And then I wondered, is that what it takes to become as internationally renowned as Erik Spiekermann? Does it really require an almost maniacal and certainly self-destructive impulse that prioritizes commerce over intimacy at all times?

I don’t write about my personal life a heck of a lot here at, nor do I talk about it when discussing design in general. But I do contend that it is important to maintain a satisfying, diverse personal life alongside a satisfying, challenging professional life. For me, anyway, these two elements are dependent upon one another; I couldn’t do my day job without regularly spending time close to the ones I care about. I’d break down and cease to function creatively if I didn’t have some kind of release for all the frustration that also accompanies the rewards of professional work.

Other Work

Admittedly, I take on a fair amount of extra-curricular work, whether it’s this blog, events for AIGA New York, or miscellaneous other design projects I cook up from time to time. My policy on that, if you’re interested, is to commit only to work that can be easily set aside for personal matters given a reasonable amount of notice, and to take on only as much work as will still allow me to waste an afternoon on something completely unproductive, if I so desire — all without guilt. As a rule, I also don’t take on freelance work. The last thing I want when I get home from the office is to have another boss pulling my financial strings.

In no way am I suggesting that I’ve achieved the ideal balance between the personal and professional. I’ll admit, things skew a bit towards the professional in my life right now. If anything, though, I’m aiming to tip the scales towards the personal, especially going forward. I’m better at achieving this balance today than I was ten years ago, and I certainly hope to be better at it in ten years than I am now. I don’t want to find myself, in a decade, running out of a family vacation to make a business meeting. Even more to the point, I don’t want to find myself still working at the office at 6:30p when my children are growing up without me.

Secrets to Success

Still, what are the costs of this approach? Spiekermann’s quote comes tinged with regret, but there’s no denying that he’s scaled to the very top of his profession as a result of that otherwise ill-advised habit of personal sacrifice. Over the past few decades, it seems as if design has become increasingly more labor intensive — or time intensive, anyway. Young designers are typically working fifty hours a week or more in all corners of the globe. Is that what it takes to achieve success in this field?

Looking back, I certainly paid my dues with overtime, and there’s an argument to be made that that’s part of the reason why I’ve made whatever modest progress I have. But I wonder too if I’m effectively arresting further career advancement through my unwillingness to continuing living the ascetic design life. Does major, sustained success in this field really require an obstinate, selfish disregard for the people who matter to you most — or even a continual deferral of personal priorities? It would be depressing if that’s the case.

  1. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. When it comes time to check out of this world NOBODY says, “I wish I would have spent more time at the office.”

    The only things we really have in this world are our relationships with loved ones and friends. IMHO, no career is worth sacrificing that.

  2. I’ve thought about the same thing too, time after time, and it seems like the easiest way to answer this question is to make a list of all your heroes — that is, people whose work you respect and admire and wouldn’t mind being mentioned in the same breath with — and figure out if their personal lives have been minefields. For all my heroes, unfortunately, the vast majority of them have had personal lives that have suffered (divorces, very late marriages/long-term relationships, etc.) at the expense of achieving some sort of professional greatness.

  3. Great post, Khoi.

    Personally, I probably don’t do as good a job today at the personal vs. professional thing as I should. I’d like to do better in the future. I’ve actually just affectuated a change I my life (that I haven’t mentioned publicly yet, but will soon) that I hope will help facilitate this to some degree.

    The funny thing about designers — good ones, anyway — is that our work truly is our passion. So, many times, what I actually *want* to do when I get home from the office is something design-related. Working on design in my “spare” time actually sometimes leads towards that personal-life satisfaction. I’m sure this is true in a lot of professions — but it seems moreso in design than most.

    But is this sort of relentless passion for work required in order to achieve the upper echelons of sucess? I don’t know. But if it is, I have to wonder if that level of professional sucess is even what I want. I want a good job with good, challenging work I can be proud and great people around me, a great family that I can spend quality time with, a nice home in a great place, and my cat.

    To me, *that* is sucess.

    BTW, Khoi — I’ll see you in a couple of weeks (part of that change I was just referring to). 🙂

  4. I think it has to be a fine balance between personal sacrifice and personal reward. Some how we have to learn how to fuel our ambition, pursuit, and dedication.
    We always have to take care of ourselves, we can’t expect to take care of anything external, if internally we are a mess.
    great article

  5. “It’s a cliche, but it’s true. When it comes time to check out of this world NOBODY says, “I wish I would have spent more time at the office.””

    True, but people do regret not achieving what they wanted. People often look back and wonder where their dreams went, or why they aren’t as wealthy or successful as they thought they would be when younger.

    People need to set their priorities, and decide what they want out of life. I realised awhile back that if I want to achieve certain things I’ll need to be more dedicated and strict about my time and there will need to be sacrifices. The question is whether I’m willing to sacrifice short term happiness and fun, for long-term professional goals.

    For me, I think I’d rather do a good solid job and have a decent career and a happy normal life than aim for the stars and lose day-to-day happiness.

  6. I think it’s reasonable to be passionate and strive for a successful career. But it becomes problematic when people live a unhappy and unhealthy lifestyle, because they feel they have to do that in order to be very happy sometime in the future.

    You see that quite often with extremely rich workaholic people. What good are millions in the bank, if you work insane hours and spent 95% of your energy and your lifetime on making sure that sometime in the future you are well well off and have the resource, which you think are required to live a really happy life.

    To say it with Stefan Sagmeister’s words: “thinking life will be better in the future is stupid. i have to live now”

  7. I think that to rise to the top in any profession requires a dedication to your work that definitely has an impact on family life. Look at all the industry leaders that have been divorced, or had ‘unhappy’ home lives -happily married ones are, imo the exception rather than the rule.

    I imagine that anyone who’s risen to the top has, on at least a couple of occasions, put work before family/partner/whoever. It’s the drive and passion for what you are doing that will lead to success, and I think all you can hope for is an understanding partner who will let you get away with it every now and then, but also know when to put their foot down.

  8. I’m reminded of an old maxim: “Life isn’t fair.” We learn this as we grow old, maturity and the scars of life lived burning themselves upon our psyche.

    Here then, is another maxim: “To excel one must devote.”

    That is true regardless of the pursuit or the profession. Look to anyone, in any field, and examine how they reached the top. Through toil and sweat and many, many, many long hours. How many long years in school and at the operating table do top surgeons spend? How many countless hours, every single day, do our sports stars practice? How many millions of words do our revered novelists write every year?

    The same is true with design, with programming, with cooking, with anything. Modest success is possible without such drive, but the top most certainly requires it. One then must choose: singular passion to reach the top, or full roundness & balance.

    Spiekermann chose the former. Sounds like you’re choosing the latter. To each his own.

  9. For me, my success in my field doesn’t really matter as much as my relationship with God and then family. If I’m sacrificing fame and fortune because I’m not willing to work 80 hours a week then so be it. I would rather work on my relationship with God that is eternal than riches and fame here on earth that I can’t take with me when I die (Colossians 3:1-2).

    Like Steve Jobs said about Bill Gates in the All Things Digital interview, “Bill Gates doesn’t want to be the richest guy in the cemetery.”

  10. Agree with Mike G. I love my career and I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am but no way in hell does my job get in the way of family. Impossible for that to happen. Sure there are times when you have to stay late or cancel the romantic dinner with the wife, it happens, but I make sure it’s a very very rare occurance and NO WAY IN HELL would I EVER leave my wife and son while on vacation for a client. I’m just not that type of person. I see it all the time at the agency where I work. People cancel doctor appointment, dinners with friends, family outings cause of work all the time. I just can’t understand that. I’d sacrific my job for my family anytime. Family is too important to me.

  11. Freud says that the desire for success in society or work is essentially a desire for greatness. And this desire for greatness, to Freud, is a manifestation of a deeper, primate desire to dominate. He says there are “higher” desires that we should seek to fulfill, beyond domination.

  12. Thanks Khoi.

    I just wanted to agree with you. I am a designer living in a developing country with a bad reputation and a struggling design community. But I chose this route because I wanted to do something more meaningful than be the most famous guy in the cemetary. (Not that I could be that anyway.) Even more important should be someone’s family and friends. Kiss the design job goodbye (however much you may love it) if it compromises family time.

  13. “To excel one must devote.”

    I wholeheartedly agree. And I would far rather excel at being a husband and father, than at laying out web applications or managing others who do the same.

    I do not condemn those who make the opposite decision, but I am very comfortable with my choice.

  14. Looking to other fields you also see evidence that the very successful people of those fields often have had to tip the balance in a direction that may not favor their private lives.

    Success is different for different people. Once you know what you want, the most rewarding challenge, IMO, is to balance it all in a way that gives you your success. If Spiekermann’s quote does come tinged with regret, then perhaps he didn’t know what he really wanted?

    In any case, both in design and web development people are being stretched pretty thin, I think. There is so much changing and evolving that simply keeping on top of it all can be time consuming!

  15. My field is software engineering. I have seen this, but not too extensively… I believe my father was more of this sort, and still is … I still have little of a relationship with him. However, I am trying my best to my family first and my job second. Jobs where there was significant push-back on that (maybe not explicitly, but in terms of traveling frequently or understanding when kids get sick, etc.), I have quit and found a better job.

  16. As I have aged to the ‘older age’ of 36, I have discovered that my design sensibilities and drive must be applied to all aspects of my life for me to enjoy it all. To be a great designer and employ those that I feel are great designers is a goal I have to work hard on every single day. But I apply that to my personal life. Sometimes it is in literal ways – wall designs for my children’s rooms, books I have created for my kids, cards and gifts for my wife. Sometimes it is a little more abstract – choosing well designed toys and books, furniture or vacationing in stimulating environments or simply designing a romantic or exciting weekend. Heck – I get excited about composing and arranging flowers in the front of my house!

    Ultimately I think that, for me, I am designing for a much more important client than a hotel or car company or even more important than the design community – I design for my family and those I care about.

    But that doesn’t work for everyone and it is not everyone’s definition of success or pinnacle. It may not be as creatively satisfying for some as well. I know – when I was a young designer, my drive was focused solely on career-oriented design. Now my career design and personal design both have to feed each other.

    I’ll also add the ultra-cheezy but ultra-true observation that my children are my greatest design. But they never stop needing a little bit of kerning!

  17. I should also mention that sometimes the ‘career’ side muscles into the personal and personal plans rearrange or I end up working ridiculous hours and my family has to deal with that. But it also goes the other way – I will try to take off time with my family, do a day for myself, make plans with my wife for an extended lunch. But I would not be bailing out of a vacation. Well, maybe once I did, but no more!

  18. At heart, I want to be happy. Feeling good makes me happy. I don’t feel good when prevented from pursuing my desires, only one of which is doing good design work.

    Pursuit of my fulfilled life also involves painting, taking great care of my diabetes (eating well, exercising regularly, resting sufficiently, affording good medical care), and sharing time with those I value. In my case, parenting and being a spouse are not included.

    Early in my career I realized that insistence on feeling good (and all that goes into maintaining it) presents an obstacle in pursuit of professional stardom, not least of which includes willingness to take significant risks. Perhaps this awareness contributed to recognizing that I’m probably not star material anyway, but at 45 I live a good and happy life, including 25 years as a designer in New York City.

    Have I mentioned I am female? Is that a factor? I don’t know, though I admit to assuming that women more readily accept the 3-dimensionality implicit in a full life (personal and professional). It is satisfying to read some of these responses from men who have done the same.

  19. My web career was my fourth career, and I threw myself into it to the detriment of my health and happiness. My obsessive work habits did not make for a joyous relationship with my then-girlfriend; they contributed to the rift between us that eventually led to a break-up.

    Today I enjoy a more balanced life; nothing comes before my family. But my career is at a higher place than it would have been if I had begun it with a balanced, healthy attitude.

    I’ll add that I did not embrace web design with any thought of having a great career. I just wanted to be good at what I was doing, and I wanted to make a difference. I would feel much worse about what success I’ve achieved, and its emotional cost, if ego or cash had been my motivations.

  20. There will always be those who are willing to make such sacrifices, and those who aren’t might not be able to compete for the top jobs. I’d much rather earn a reasonable living and still have the time to spend with my daughter, and go surfing, than work 60+ hours a week, burn out, and miss out.

    I guess we also need to look at the employer who makes unreasonable demands of their staff. It’s refreshing when your employer recognises the benefits of a healthy work/life balance, and the productivity this fosters.

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