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Coping with status anxiety and other pressures of the web design industry

Christopher Murphy is a writer, designer and educator based in Belfast. The author of numerous books, collectively covering various aspects of design, he also writes regularly for publications worldwide, including: 8 Faces, The Manual, and WIRED.

An internationally respected speaker, he is regularly invited to talk on a range of topics, including: the importance of improving design education; exploring how design is changing; and the importance of growing ‘idea cultures’. He has spoken at conferences worldwide, including: Build, New Adventures and, most recently, on the topic of mental health in the technology sector, at Brooklyn Beta.

This week Christopher shares some details about his background and what motivates him as a speaker and designer.

1) You’ve just returned from Brooklyn Beta. How was your trip? Can you share anything about your experience?

I had a wonderful time. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been invited to Brooklyn Beta since its launch, and I’ve attended every single event. It’s been interesting to see the conference evolve from #1′s intimate 100 person experience (to this day I wonder, “What am I doing amongst all these hugely talented individuals?!”) to #4′s slightly larger, but no less intimate 1,300 people.

It’s a measure of Chris Shiflett, Cameron Koczon and their team’s passion that the conference has grown to the size it has, whilst remaining every bit as friendly. I always return from Brooklyn Beta with a considerably longer list of friends, for me that’s worth all the pennies it costs to make the annual pilgrimage.

I was fortunate to be invited to speak in an after dinner slot on the opening night in a session organised by Ed Finkler and kindly supported by Chris and Cameron on ‘Mental Health in the Technology Sector’. This is a subject that’s close to my heart after A Non-Graceful Shutdown, which I recently experienced. It was humbling to see so many people attend the session and the ensuing discussion showed clearly that this was a topic close to many’s hearts.

We work in an industry that’s forever changing and the pressure to keep up can be intense, so it was refreshing to see so many people sharing their stories and being genuine in their support.

2) You’re a long-standing advocate of web standards. Why do you feel so strongly about them, and do you think things have improved over the last year or so? What would you like to see going forward?

When I first started teaching, over a decade ago, I was confronted with students who used tables for layout and spacer.gifs (it wasn’t their fault; that – alarmingly – is what they had been taught). What a nightmare. I made it my goal to change that way of thinking and inject a substantial dose of up-to-date-and-forward-looking-and-thinkingness into the curriculum.

I believe we’ve made good progress, but I also believe we can do more. Education moves very slowly, but it doesn’t have to be glacial. It is the responsibility of educators in our sector – one which is changing year in, year out – to maintain their non-teaching practice, to make things and get engaged at the coalface, so that they can understand how things are evolving and teach accordingly.

Sadly, there are many educators who don’t feel this way. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but in an increasingly social age they may find themselves at the mercy of a very vocal student community who, rightly, expect the high standard of education they’re often paying considerable sums of money for.

As we move forward, I’d like to see more people from industry get actively engaged in education. Working in partnership I believe we could make even greater progress.

3) How do you feel about the current state of the web as whole? Where do you think improvements could be made?

I believe the current state of the web is an exciting one. We’re seeing the emergence of greater numbers of designers working in this medium, who are beginning to understand the wider field of design.

We’ve had a lot of discussion about ‘designers needing to be able to code’, and I completely agree with that line of reasoning, but I think we also need more discussion around ‘designers needing to be able to design’.

Design is complex and messy, it has a lot of facets. There are very few self-taught designers with the range of design skills required to really lead this field. I’d like to see more designers with a knowledge and understanding of design history and its impact upon our profession. Design is about much, much more than choosing the right ‘font-family’ or the judicious use of ‘border-radius’, I’d like to see those fighting the ‘must understand code’ battle fighting the ‘must understand design’ battle.

4) You recently posted an article, which spread rapidly via Twitter, regarding your struggle with depression. Many of your colleagues felt this was a brave move. What motivated you to do that?

150 days ago I tried to commit suicide. I had painted myself into a corner by taking on too many projects in some kind of misguided effort to ‘prove myself’. I, like many others I’m sure, was suffering from a high level of ‘status anxiety’ (, worrying about whether or not my work was good enough (whatever that is and, however, one measures that) and what others’ perception of me was. As the philosopher Alain de Boton puts it:

Status Anxiety‘ is a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.

I had reached rock bottom and I took the only way out I could see. Thankfully through the support of my wife (a very talented silversmith), my children and my friends, I made it out the other side.

I hoped that sharing some of my experiences would help to open up a dialogue around this often hidden topic and, in so doing, offer others hope that they are not alone. I hope my post – A Non-Graceful Shutdown – will act as a form of ‘View Source’ to this problem.

5) Do you think there is a connection between depression and the web industry (particularly freelancers) and if so, what do you think could be done to address the issue?

Since writing and speaking publicly about this topic I’ve been overwhelmed by the widespread nature of depression and anxiety that surrounds our industry. Many people suffer these feelings. I’ve been surprised by the number of highly talented individuals who feel similarly, clearly there’s an issue.

I don’t have all the answers (I don’t have many, like everyone I’m learning every day). I believe, however, that our industry – more than any other I’ve worked in – has the strongest bonds of community I’ve experienced. We can leverage that community to do more to support each other, not least for freelancers or remote workers, who can often suffer from feelings of isolation or loneliness.

6) Looking ahead, what excites you most about the future of web design?

The erosion of the artificial boundaries between offline and online worlds excites me greatly. Products like BERG’s Little Printer fascinate me for the opportunities they offer to deliver the web in interesting new ways. I started Glyph, the world’s most compact typography journal, to explore the opportunities that publishing on-the-fly to paper offers (and, of course, as an excuse to buy a Little Printer).

Nicholas Negroponte wrote many years ago about the evolution from a world of atoms to bits in his excellent, and still very relevant, Being Digital. Bringing the world of atoms and bits together offers huge, untapped opportunities that I’m eager to explore further.

7) What are your plans for 2014?

2014 is the year I leave the band and, once again, pursue a solo career. I’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable time as one half of The Standardistas, but my focus is shifting and widening out to encompass design in all its forms. I’m interested in where design is heading and I’m eager to write and speak about that more.

I’m in the process of writing, solo, for a number of publications including 8 Faces and Offscreen, and I’ve just complete a chapter for Smashing Book #4. In addition to this I’ll be launching the first of theTiny Books shortly, the result of a collaboration with the hugely talented Paddy Donnelly (who is, strangely enough, one of my many graduates).

8) Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to anyone thinking about having a career in the web, what would it be?

Follow your passion. Roll up your sleeves and learn, you’re in one of the most sharing (and caring) industries I’ve ever known.

Shoot for the stars, you might just reach the moon.


This article was originally posted October 2013.

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