Q: New York-based graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister gives his employees a year off every seventh year. You opted for two months out of every year. If the length of the break does not matter, what are the essential conditions for a creative sabbatical to be successful?
The length of time is actually really important. I think our purposes are very different from Stefan Sagmeister’s. Whereas they do an organisational audit, we’re trying to just do a quick check on where we’re at and what we need. For a creative sabbatical to be successful you have to have a project, set parameters for yourself and have someone else hold you accountable. So for me it’s my fiancé Eric who holds me accountable because we’ll usually go on the road together.
Another thing for me during my sabbaticals, personally, has been to remove myself from my context so that I don’t have the option of defaulting to regular behaviours. For me it’s too easy for a sabbatical to look like working part time. I need to leave the city. I’ve had the most success in sabbaticals when I’ve actually removed myself from my usual context and forced myself to recreate spaces that inspire me to do this work. That way I’m forced to relearn how to work and how to set up habits for myself… so it’s about healthy working habits as well. It hasn’t been the case for everyone, but to remove myself has been a huge condition for me.
I think the other piece is to almost treat it like writing a thesis. Don’t do something you should do. Do something you wish you could do if you had more time. The best thesis projects are the things you google. Look at your google search for the last six months; choose something that you’re looking up when you’re sitting on your couch at night surfing the Internet. What are you looking at? It’s a thread you can pull for the kind of thing you want to investigate. Because those are the things that we don’t actually value but they’re the kinds of things that tell us a lot about what we care about and what we’re curious about, and what part of us is unsatiated. So, satiate it! Have the courage to pull on the thread even if it seems ridiculous.
This is the reason there’s no formal accountability when it comes to our office sabbaticals. Because you could pull on a thread and something else could emerge. In terms of parameters or accountability to the organisation, I just don’t feel like that breeds the kind of openness we’re looking for.
Q: If you start pulling on a thread and it leads you somewhere completely different, then that’s OK?
Absolutely. You might have thought you wanted to write more. You were going to take some writing classes or publish a blog, but then you realise that you really like writing haikus and spend the whole summer writing a haiku a day. And that’s great! What an amazing way to spend the summer. And then give yourself the gift of time to enjoy, reflect and do some self-care. I think for us that’s the kind of emergence we’re hoping for.
Q: The first time it happened, was there a particular event or incident that prompted you to close the office down for two months? Did you know this would become an annual tradition?
We went through a big change in 2012. We were six years old and so we knew we were going to survive. We had established ourselves in the marketplace. But there was something about the way we were running our practice that wasn’t quite working for me.
I started archiTEXT to have an impact on society, and also to have the dream job with a balance of work and life. I wanted for the team to be able to investigate the things we were really passionate about and curious about, and by 2012 I was finding that my quality of life was quite compromised. We had a significantly larger team, we had a huge office that required a lot of maintenance, and I was realising – for myself at the very least – that this large team and this preconceived notion of where your design studio should be located was actually limiting my quality of life and turning us into what already existed in the marketplace.
We did a bit of a dramatic shift at that point. We transitioned from a very large staff to a smaller, tight-knit team. We moved out of that space and into a new space, which was embedded in an organisation at the Gladstone Hotel. This gave us a lot more flexibility to build a different kind of organisation and we made a very clear intention of prioritising quality of life as much as we prioritised the work.
We were doing great work, we were having a lot of fun, but the existence of archiTEXT was about trying to break down that whole archetypal model and to rethink it. That’s fundamentally what we were trying to do. So in 2012, all of that thinking really precipitated the idea that, well, maybe we do get the dream job, maybe we do get paid two months off.
The other thing we noticed was that there was a pattern in the summer where, for example, I took a week off and then on the day I came back my partner took a week off and then a few days later a staffer would take off on an extended weekend, and so on. And by the time the summer was out we were just basically keeping our head above water. We weren’t doing ‘work’. The biggest part of the studio was the energy of everyone there, so when you’re just a few people in the studio in summer, the energy is just not there. You can’t do the work. You’re just trying to keep the clients sort of happy so that in September when everyone’s back you can get back into the work. I don’t know if many people would admit it, but I just think it’s a reality in a lot of places.
This combination of factors led us to decide that this would become an annual ritual that we would invest in. It would be something that we would commit to and that we would work towards every year.