Geek Mental Help Week: Chris Murphy on web design and mental health

Christopher Murphy

Christopher Murphy is a writer, designer and educator based in Belfast, whom Adrian Shaughnessy has described as ‘a William Morris for the digital age’.

Author of numerous books, collectively covering a multidisciplinary approach towards design, he has written for a wide variety of publications worldwide.

As part of Geek Mental Help Week, we caught up with him to find out why he’s recently been speaking out about the mental health issues faced by web design professionals…

You’ve written about mental health issues a great deal, recently. Is there anything you’ve learned you’d like to share?

I’ve learned a great deal. Mostly, about rediscovering the need for a more considered balance between work and life. We work in a relentless industry, where change is constant. If you’re not too careful, you can get sucked into a pattern of working constantly; that’s not healthy and is, in fact, counter-productive.

One of the simplest things I’ve learned is the fact that it’s fine to focus on what you core skills are, and there’s no need to know everything. We work, for the most part, in teams. Find the right team members and you don’t need to do it all. That’s the beauty of collaboration.

It’s important to take time out to just enjoy life. Although I have a very busy schedule, I’m trying to focus on that more.

Why is this conversation around mental health surfacing now?

I think it’s to do with the relentless pace of change we’re all facing, both as an industry and as a society. Technology is evolving at an alarming rate. Whilst it’s incredible – there are things we can do now that would have been unimaginable before – it’s also intimidating.

Keeping up with change can be a challenge. A year ago, in my journal, I wrote: “I believe, as an industry, we focus all too often on the headlong excitement of endlessly moving forward. That’s fine, but there’s a flip side. Relentless progress brings with it relentless pressure. It can be difficult to keep up, and the pressure to stay on top of everything can at times prove debilitating.”

I believe the conversation is surfacing now as a result of this. Designers and developers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up, which is leading to worrying work patterns.

We used to work, as Dolly Parton memorably reminded us, 9-5. Before long, however, that was 8-6, and then it became 7-7 (or worse). The edges of our work and life are blurring, and this burgeoning workload leads to a great deal of stress.

This is why we find this conversation bubbling to the surface. It’s hard to keep up and everyone is worried they’ll be left behind if they don’t spend increasing hours at the coalface.

Can you tell us a little about Prompt and how you got involved?

Geek Mental Health Week
Prompt is aiming to start a conversation about mental health in the technology sector

Prompt is a fantastic initiative, backed by Engine Yard, designed to start a conversation about mental health in the technology sector.

I was fortunate that Eamon Leonard, who is the driving force behind Prompt, contacted me last year, asking me to participate. I’m not 100% sure how we made the connection, but Eamonn has been incredibly supportive and connected me with a number of conferences that wish to address the issue of mental health in our industry.

I’ve now spoken at three conferences thanks to my connection with the Prompt initiative. I always worry a little that audiences will think the content I’m covering is ‘off topic’, but I’ve been humbled by the response, which has been overwhelmingly positive.

What sort of feedback did you get for your talk at Brooklyn Beta?

The feedback was fantastic. What fascinated me was the connection between the speakers and the audience. There was a very real sense that ‘we’re all in this together’. Chris Shiflett and Cameron Koczon deserve every credit for giving us the space at Brooklyn Beta to have this discussion, and Ed Finkler, who organised everything, deserves a standing ovation.

As important as the talk, was the conversations it kickstarted. I was fortunate that Kai Brach, the publisher of Offscreen, was in the audience. Kai invited me to write an article for Issue 7, a reflection on some of the personal issues I’ve faced. That article generated a lot of awareness and interest.

What will you be talking about at forthcoming event The Web Is…?

Geek Mental Health Week
Murphy will address Cardiff event The Web Is… on Thursday October 30

My talk at The Web Is… focuses on education. Craig Lockwood has been hugely supportive of education, for which he deserves every credit, and it seems only fitting that my talk is on that topic.

My talk will explore how education might evolve as part of a connected culture. We’re currently witnessing a tension in education, between physical (offline) and virtual (online) courses. I believe both have a part to play, and one size does not fit all.

I’ve just started a new Interaction Design programme at the Belfast School of Art. I’m fortunate to have 16 incredibly talented students on the course. They are learning through a combination of studio-based activities and self-directed study, via the web.

This, I believe, is the future of education. A tight integration of the physical and virtual. Give me a couple of years and I’ll have 16 highly qualified, industry ready graduates. Watch this space for details.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about mental health within the industry?

I think our industry, thanks to initiatives like Prompt, Ed Finkler’s Open Sourcing Mental Illness and the team behind Geek Mental Health Week, is growing in awareness about the issue of mental health.

I’ve been encouraged by audience’s interest in the topic, there’s certainly a great deal of empathy. Occasionally, however, I’ll get a comment on Twitter that alarms me, including one recently, following a talk I’d given that: “This kind of material is inappropriate.”

To be fair, that was one comment that ran counter to hundreds of others. It did, however, make me think… there is more work to be done here.

Where are the best places for web designers to get help with mental health problems?

Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox comes highly recommended

I’ve found books to be the most helpful. Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is excellent, as is Viktor Frankl’s incredibly moving Man’s Search For Meaning. Both are well worth owning.

If you can only afford to buy just one book, however, get Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox. Peters’ ideas on mind management are invaluable and, if he can help athletes win Olympic gold medals, he can most certainly help you.

Finally, if you’re running a conference, and you’d like someone to speak about the challenges we all face keeping up with the pace of change, please do drop me a line. When I’m talking about this topic, I’m the most aggressively priced speaker you’ll work with: the price is… free.

Words: Tom May

Tom May is associate editor at Creative Bloq.

Updated: 29.10.2014 — 17:12