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7 designers on how to stay creative and prioritize mental wellness

May 18, 2023May 18, 2023

wellness | Jun 6, 2023

Being many things to many people may put designers at risk of putting themselves last. Here's how to cultivate practices that nourish your mental health on and off the clock.

When Laetitia Wajnapel founded her Los Angeles–based firm Cinquième Gauche in 2019, entering clients’ homes (and lives) quickly took its toll in an unexpected way. "During my first project, I forgot to set boundaries," she recalls. "I gave everything, worked late and found myself drained. I’d taken on all of my clients’ marital problems and stress, and was spending more time trying to manage that than actually designing. After that, I was like, ‘OK, how do I go about not doing this?’"

Boundary-setting has proven important for Wajnapel as a self-protection mechanism. "I feel things very intensely," she says. "This is not constructive in a business where clients are often emotional and stressed. Moving is stressful, construction is stressful, working with a designer for the first time and trusting them with a bunch of your money is extremely stressful. I receive all this as a human—and as a designer, I receive that on top of the pressure to do a good job for them and make them happy."

Often, she's found that the challenge is to make an emotional connection with clients without veering into oversharing territory—a tricky line to toe. "Yes, I want to know what's deep inside your brain, but I don't want to take it home with me," says Wajnapel. A few texts here and there? Totally fine. A torrent of late-night messages? Not so much. For texting clients, she uses her iPhone's Do Not Disturb function, which prevents pop-up message notifications during off hours; for emails, she's implemented an out-of-office auto reply to signal the end of her workday: I’m not picking up my emails right now, but I will respond to you when I get back in the studio tomorrow. "That's been quite useful to put a boundary up without having to say anything," she says. "Most people get the hint. And when I come home I feel more relaxed because I don't have this extra luggage—stress or worry or vague resentment because clients have unloaded on me. Creatively, it's been quite an epiphany."

After 15 years in corporate America, Sia Varh had put up with a lot at work. "You deal with microaggressions as a person of color, and you don't always realize how that takes a toll on you over time," says the former HR professional. "You bring some of that stress into your marriage, and back home to your kids." Varh now runs Minneapolis-based firm Simple Finesse full time with her husband, Roderick, a military veteran turned architectural designer. But in their firm's early days, when she was stuck in a frustrating office culture by day while raising a family and launching a business by night, she turned to a therapist for help.

"Therapy has helped me process some of the toxic experiences that I’ve had at work, but it's also helped me understand myself better and put a plan in place for when I feel triggered by those old emotions," says Varh. "Reacting and responding are two very different things. It's a skill to not react right away, but to take a step back, recognize your emotions and choose how to respond."

Now working full-time for their firm, those processing skills continue to serve her well. "When I feel frustrated with a client, I’m able to pause and get to the root cause," she says. "Is it due to a timeline issue? Did the client go down a different direction that we didn't agree on that's going to impact the design? Is it because I’m stressed by things happening at home? Often, being quick to react is what causes friction. But ultimately, beneath all of that emotion, there's a need that's not being met. Once you get to the core of that, you can approach the problem more logically."

The shift also wrought changes in her personal life. "I took a leap, and when my husband saw my journey and how it helped me, he was much more open to giving it a try," says Varh. They began attending sessions together as well as apart, creating a shared framework for processing the trials of entrepreneurship. More than a year later, their experiences continue to affirm the decision to launch their design business. "You spend the majority of your life at work, so we wanted to feel like we could show up as our authentic selves," she says. "I didn't ever want my kids to say, ‘I’m just going to suck it up in a work environment that's not healthy for me.’ We wanted to live by example and show our boys that they can dream big without putting themselves in a toxic environment. It has been rewarding to see the fruits of our labor in therapy, and then to see that play out in our business."

"This is a very high-stress job—sometimes I talk to other designers and we’re like, ‘How many times have you cried this week?’" says designer Abigail Horace, the Connecticut-based founder of Casa Marcelo. Therapy had been an important resource for Horace long before she launched her business. But now, several years into her journey at the helm of her own firm, that personal outlet has also become essential for professional success. "There are times when I’m talking about the stresses of motherhood, but 80 percent of my sessions are about work," she says. Hard conversations with staff or clients, orders that come in incorrectly, damage issues that need to be resolved—it's all fair game.

That support system has also emboldened Horace to seek out work that brings her joy and to cut clients loose if they’re no longer a fit for her firm. When she recently stopped offering consulting services to focus exclusively on virtual or full-service design, one indecisive consulting client lingered in her inbox. "It's not like we purchased everything and are waiting for the purchases to come in—that’d be totally reasonable—it's that we’re still making decisions on things and it's been over a year. We went back and forth for 50 emails about one sectional sofa," says Horace, who was exhausted by the extensive correspondence and lack of trust. After several days of deliberating with her husband and her therapist to get the wording just right, she finally cut the cord. "I sent an email that said, ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to close out this project. I can give you a list of all the items that we’ve selected, and you can purchase at your own pace.’ I felt such relief once that project was gone. I’m losing a commission on those products, but protecting my mental health."

Having the confidence to enforce boundaries when clients overstep has not always been a linear path. "When I worked for other people, I’d be like, ‘You need to stop taking their calls and texts,’" she recalls. "It's so easy to say it when it's not your client. But when it is your client, you want to keep that relationship positive." Horace has found that one way to do that is to set expectations about her availability: "I tell clients to expect up to 24 hours for an email response, and no texts or calls unless it's an emergency—and I tell them what an emergency is." She's also diligent about keeping work within her office hours. "I take Mondays off, so if a client writes to me over the weekend or on Monday, I say, ‘This is my day off, but I’ll get back to you tomorrow,’ and that's it."

North Carolina designer Marie Cloud used to lurch awake to the sound of her alarm, grab her phone and start scrolling. "I’d open my email, and it’d literally be this pressure that gave me anxiety," she says. "I was starting my day with the very feeling I was trying to prevent." A new routine has helped shift that experience—she now wakes up at 5 o’clock, before the rest of her household has stirred, to savor a moment by herself. How she uses that time has evolved, but the thoughtfulness of her approach has not. "Originally, it was like, I’m going to get up, sit by the window and read—yeah, right," she says with a laugh. "Now, I give myself grace and allow that time to be what I need it to be in that moment. Sometimes that's just sitting down uninterrupted, sometimes it is reading. No matter what, I don't touch my phone."

Routines that fuel a sense of well-being don't end once her family wakes. Cloud starts a diffuser in her home office before taking her daughter to school each day; when she returns, she makes a cup of coffee or tea, puts on a vinyl record for background music, then steps into an essential oil– scented workspace, ready to dive in. "Even if Jada is moody on the car ride to school, or I’m irritated—at least my office is going to smell good when I walk in, and that's something I can hold onto that will make me feel good," she says. On Wednesdays, she heads to the roller skating rink rather than straight to work. "I’m an introvert, and by midweek, I don't want to talk to anyone—I have nothing left for you," she says. "I love skating, and I make sure I get out and do that on Wednesday because it recharges me. By the time I’m done, I’m motivated all over."

Through trial and error, Cloud has found other helpful ways to disconnect from her phone while remaining active on social media, where she frequently posts about her projects and industry topics. "My best-kept secret is that I rarely post live," she admits. "The video that I posted on my Instagram story today? If you saw me right now, that is not what I’m wearing." Instead, she captures photos and videos throughout the day and saves them in folders on her phone, then revisits the content when she's ready to post. "It's the pressure to post it right then and there that drains me—that feeling of, ‘What am I going to write?’" she says. "I’ve given myself the freedom to let that go, and I’ve realized that doesn't mean I’m not being authentic or genuine. It's me using a business tool, period. It allows me to feel like I’m in control."

Two years ago, Tina Ramchandani signed up for Tuesday night pottery classes with a neighbor friend. What started as a passing interest has become an essential outlet for the New York designer that helps her stay balanced. "We walk over together every week and just play with the clay, and it has been relaxing in a way that I did not expect," she says. "I found myself loving it, not only because I like making things, and you don't get many opportunities to play anymore— but it also forced me to pause. For three hours, you’re not able to touch your phone because your hands are disgusting. You can't do anything else."

The medium itself also offers poignant lessons in patience and staying present. "I came in with really lofty goals—I was like, I’m going to make a set of dishes or vases," she recalls. "In the beginning, a lot of things broke, or they came out pretty badly, and it took me a while to be OK with that. If you’re not focused, or if you’re rushing, [the piece is] going to break. I learned that it can't just be about achieving a goal."

Slowly but surely, Ramchandani's work is improving—but more important than the ceramics she's brought home is the mental break from the demands of her business. "I’ve had a nice evening, and I’ll deal with everything tomorrow," she says. "Before this, I didn't really have anything else outside of my work. Pottery has helped with my work life a lot, and my personal life too."

Sometimes, Lucy O’Brien is just looking to get out of her own head. Meditation has offered relief from unproductive or stressful thought patterns. "When I get particularly stuck, or when I have a lot of projects going on and I can feel my creative energy getting drained, I search YouTube for a mindfulness exercise targeting whatever I’m struggling with— ‘meditation for creativity,’ or ‘meditation for mindfulness’—and it really does help," says the Swarthmore, Pennsylvania–based designer. "As a visual creative, I see stuff in my head and can't get rid of it until I figure it out. So if I’m stuck on some piece of a project, meditation helps me change gears. Even for five minutes, it resets my brain."

Beyond greasing her creative wheels, a meditation practice has also helped O’Brien navigate the administrative challenges of running a design business, and she's even leveraged it in her personal life—after giving birth, she sought out meditation sessions for new moms. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, narrates some of O’Brien's favorite longer-form listens, though the 20-plus minute sessions "definitely take a lot more focus," she notes. No matter the length, a guided meditation or focused breathwork can help reframe the challenges at hand and unlock new ways of thinking.

O’Brien also prioritizes movement to gain a fresh perspective. "If I feel like I’m not able to stop and do a meditation, I’ll go on a walk or a run, or even go swimming," she says. "As a lymphatic exercise, swimming is so calming and relaxing after the overstimulation of [interacting with] so many people at work." All the better if any of these activities take place in nature—for O’Brien herself, or her team members too. "If I can tell an employee is stuck by their body language, I’m like, ‘Go take a walk—step away,’" she says. "Getting inspiration from nature is helpful to recharge. But you have to physically remove yourself and do something else to get your brain out of it."

Katie Monkhouse was looking for a leadership coach to turbocharge her business strategy when a friend referred her to Marcie Montgomery. "I needed someone to hold me accountable, and to help me figure out this next phase of business and life," says the San Anselmo, California–based designer. She got exactly that, though the process wasn't what she expected. "I thought we were going to make strategies and goals, and analyze the business from a KPI perspective," she recalls. "It ended up being based on core values: What's important to you, and how do we make sure your business decisions reflect that?"

Though the questions surprised her, answering them has been transformative. "Now, I lead with intuition and feeling as much as facts and numbers," says Monkhouse of her bimonthly sessions with Montgomery. "This process appeals to the part of me that's like, ‘You already know the answer. Dig in there, find it. What feels right?’" Those conversations don't always have to be about big, ambitious business goals—sometimes, Monkhouse says, it can be as simple as sharing her frustrations and gaining fresh perspective. "If we have a slowdown in business and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get off social media because it looks like everyone's crushing it but me’—that may seem silly, but Marcie helps me dissect where those feelings are coming from, what values are being stepped on, and how I can navigate that."

That level of introspection has helped Monkhouse get more comfortable sharing responsibility and delegating to her team, safe in the knowledge that she doesn't have to do everything herself and that it's OK to let go. She's also gained clarity around the type of business she wants to build: "There's nothing wrong with lofty goals—they’re great—but sometimes I think I only have them because someone else has them," she admits. "When I first started meeting with Marcie, I was like, grow, grow, grow. And now it's like, sustain, sustain, sustain. How do we do this in a sustainable way, where I make sure that my team and I are taken care of along the way? It's about running a business from a place of values. It's great to have a person in my corner who puts things into perspective and asks, ‘Is this really what you want?’ I’ve found it very grounding."

This article originally appeared in Spring 2023 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.