A message on the archiTEXT website clearly says that the team will be ‘away’ for July and August. The reason? “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.”

Zahra Ebrahim is principal and founder of archiTEXT, a design think tank and consultancy located in Toronto (Canada). Her multidisciplinary team uses design and design thinking to engage communities and come up with creative solutions to what can be messy problems. In 2013, she wrote a piece for Huffington Post outlining why she gives her team a two-month holiday every year. We spoke to her as she prepared to go on her next journey and found out how this approach has been paying dividends.

Q: You literally use the term ‘creative journey’ when talking about the two-month summer sabbatical you offer your team at archiTEXT. What does the word ‘journey’ represent to you?

For us, doing design work, in a design practice, is about evolving. The values stay the same but the practice really changes. Summer sabbaticals offer us a chance to basically do an audit of our processes and our methods. It allows us to reflect on the way we work and the things we wish we had done differently, or that we wish we knew or that we wish we had time to learn. Not taking that time to audit actually robs us of the opportunity to deepen and enrich our practice. It’s just impossible in the course of the regular work year to do that.

For us also the journey is about immersion. We go so deep with clients and we are getting into some of their organisational vulnerabilities, whether they’re struggling to figure out how to be in the marketplace, or how to best serve their community. It can be exhausting work! And for us part of the journey is about sitting down on a rock and resting for a few minutes.

So part of it is about auditing our practice and finding new methods and new processes, but the other part is all about nurturing ourselves and doing a lot of self-care. We’re multidimensional people, and we bring all aspects of ourselves to this practice. We’re people that like to cook and like to hike and like to read and we need time to dedicate to that.


So part of it is about auditing our practice and finding new methods and new processes, but the other part is all about nurturing ourselves and doing a lot of self-care. We're multidimensional people, and we bring all aspects of ourselves to this practice. We're people that like to cook and like to hike and like to read and we need time to dedicate to that.

Q: It’s partly about self-care, about taking a break, but in 2013 you chose to do an intensive training programme in solo comedy performance at the Second City Training Centre in Chicago. That sounds like a lot of hard work!

And that’s the thing. Traditionally sabbaticals were for tenure track faculty at universities to work on their research. For me sabbaticals are not a vacation. We’re very careful to position it with our team that it’s not a vacation. It’s not just days off. It’s a time to extend yourself and to try the things where you always say “oh, if I had more time I would do this”.

Q: If it’s not just about going home and sitting on your couch for two months, what parameters, if any, do you put on team members’ projects?

There aren’t any parameters. I think that’s part of the trust we have in the team. It’s not going to be audited; it’s not a project where you’re supposed to advance at a certain pace. You’re just supposed to do something. If for your sabbatical you intended to find the best macaroon in the city – which was one team member’s goal a few years ago – and you only found a couple that were really good but then you actually ended up deciding to learn how to make them… then that’s a journey in itself!

It’s the kind of thing we’re trying to tease out of clients. How can you increase your impact by thinking about the experience of people, by putting people first, as a way of working from a design mind-set. It’s almost like practicing empathy on ourselves. How hard is it to actually commit to doing these types of things? So it’s an exercise for us. It’s less about the project itself and more about the learning journey of the individual. What did I learn in trying to do comedy? It isn’t a matter of whether my comedy was funny, or if I did one class or six classes. It’s about how difficult it was for me to put myself out there. How difficult is it for us to think from a design mind-set? Because design in so many ways is about being creative, vulnerable and exposed. So how do I handle it when I do it?

Q: How have sabbaticals benefited the team, and by extension, the clients? Are you learning to empathise more with how the client is feeling when they are going through the design process?

For sure, I think learning to empathise with the client is a huge part of it. The other large part of it is that every September we come back and we’re raring to go. We have much more clarity around the problem we’re trying to solve, what our value proposition is to these organisations. As a result we do better, we offer better work to clients and more people end up wanting that work.

Q: Do you sometimes think about ongoing client projects during the sabbatical?

Because we work in three very distinct sectors – we work in philanthropy, with charitable organisations and with government – it’s less about how one client will trigger thinking over the sabbatical and more about how we have the opportunity to identify patterns within different client groups. We use that time to build up pattern recognition and reflection around sectors, rather than about specific clients. Our observations might lead to an intervention with a specific client project, but it’s more about the patterns we are seeing within a given sector and about the way that they use the design mind-set.


Don’t do something you should do. Do something you wish you could do if you had more time.

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.


Don’t do something you should do. Do something you wish you could do if you had more time.

Q: Is it hard to stop after two months and come back to the office? 

I’m going to say no. I just feel like at the end of a sabbatical we’re just itching to get back. We’re very keen about our work, we’re very invested in our work. It’s not so much that we’re saying to ourselves “uh, I need a break, thank goodness I get to go do what I want to do”. The underlying piece is not that you get to go do what you want, it’s about the need to regenerate so we can do what we do better. I’ve actually found that every year we’re all pretty eager to get back. There’s a lot of energy and sometimes the difficult part is harnessing it and prioritising what we want to invest in. I would say that’s probably the hardest part about returning from sabbatical.

Q: Of course we’re very curious to find out what you have planned for your two months this year.

Well, this year I have to write a book. It’s the first summer that I’m not actually going abroad or to another city. The first summer I went to Italy, the second summer I went to Chicago, the third summer I went to Portland, Oregon. This summer sabbatical is without destination; my fiancé and I are getting in the car, and we are going to drive as far east as we possibly can. We are going to adventure along the way and find opportunities for me to write. Hopefully we will hit the Cabot Trail, and I will bring a notebook and try to write a book in a notebook. That’s my goal. I want to see if that facilitates writing because I find writing really difficult. So for me this summer is about getting comfortable and confident writing and trying to do it in an unstructured environment.

The location is going to be many places from here to the east coast and all the way up and down in the maritime provinces, but my goal is to end up on Fogo Island, a very small island off the north coast of Newfoundland. It’s a corner of Canada that those who know are a bit obsessed with and those who don’t fall in love with very quickly. It’s this amazing little place with a magical history that has traditionally acted as a sort of artists’ residence.  But it’s very hard to go to because accommodation is either incredibly expensive or incredibly limited. So we’re hoping that our destination will be Fogo Island.

This is the first time in all our sabbaticals that I haven’t had a fixed plan. I just know that we are going east and I am taking a notebook and I will write a book in that notebook.

Q: That sounds truly like a journey. How do you feel as you prepare to set out on this trip?

It feels like a journey because I feel a little anxious about it. I almost always know that our sabbatical plans are good when I feel a little bit anxious. When we went to Chicago and did the comedy training I definitely felt very anxious. The year before when we were in Italy and did some work with the Venice Biennale, it was a bit nerve wracking because it was so out of the space that we usually work in. When it’s a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit anxiety-inducing, I know it’s the good stuff. I mean, I’m getting a little bit of anxiety in my stomach just talking about it! But it’s a productive anxiety.


About Zahra Ebrahim
Zahra Ebrahim is a change driven, rule-bending creative, deeply invested in using design and design process to explore community engagement, institutional innovation, and participatory city building. Her practice is notorious for bringing unlike people, institutions and industries together in an effort to improve both the human and the designed experience. As the Principal of the design think tank, archiTEXT, she has led innovation projects with some of Canada’s largest charities and governing bodies. For the past six years, she has taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and has been the co-lead on the Community. Design. Initiative., a legacy project engaging some of North America’s most marginalized youth in architecture and design.

Zahra spent two years serving as Innovator in Residence at Canada’s National Design Museum, is the co-founder of the Design Walk-In, and a contributor to the Huffington Post.  She is Chair of the board of Jane’s Walk, serves actively on the board of St. Stephen’s House, and is a visiting instructor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her work has been featured in Luminato, Come Up To My Room, Nuit Blanche, Toronto Design Offsite, TEDxTalks, as well as on CBC, The Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star. She was recently nominated as one of CBC’s 12 Young Leaders to Watch and included in Toronto Life’s 2014 issue of the “50 Most Influential People in the City”. She also was a review panelist for the World Design Impact Prize 2013-2014 cycle.

Tags: ,