Andy Cooke

Design & direction across brand identity, screen and print

Can I please get a little bit of optimism?

A case for positivity in design

  1. 2,277 words
  2. 9 minute read

The world is on fire, the current political climate means societies have never been more polarised, and it feels like a Skynet war is a plausible reality as the years tick by. There’s a lot of shit happening in the world, and we’d all be forgiven for wallowing in a pit of pessimistic anxiety without a moment’s notice. These are, of course, huge problems that affect the vast majority of people around the world, of which one can only be so optimistic about.

Being honest, I’m not really in the mood to start tackling these kind of issues.

Not today at least.

By starting a bit closer to home, though — quite literally, as I live over the street from the office — I want to highlight the power of optimism in oneself, and in the design studio. Having ran multiple business across design, retail and food, I’m convinced that a positive outlook works wonders for the performance of staff, and the profitability of businesses. How designers and design leads can utilise optimism to facilitate better processes, better working environments and ultimately, better work—along with being in a better mental place to do good in the world… and maybe even take on some of these global issues at some point? Maybe.

Be a positive influence

In recent years, I’ve really turned up the heat on being an optimist. Probably annoyingly so. It all started by (unashamedly) getting into the ‘positive hardcore’ punk scene almost 15 years ago. What may seem like a paradox genre to some, this branch of hardcore punk started as a movement in the 1980s against the ‘hardline’ bands, and actively promoted topics about social awareness and with a focus on values—such as being inclusive, community-oriented, and anti-violent. Instead of just being angry at their Dads, the world or at people for being different, these bands were preaching positivity, fun and optimism. My entire mindset on how to approach life changed.

Yes, I have OPTIMISM tattooed on my fingers.

It was also around the same time I was studying graphic design, and in many ways inspired the unrelenting positive mental attitude that got me through another three years at university while holding down four part-time jobs, a mortgage and coming out on the other side with a first class honours degree. Naturally, this attitude filtered into every facet of my life, and into my approach to design when working in the industry, and I think it’s actually the main thing behind the moderate successes in my career so far.

Practice being that positive influence every day. You don’t have to start a band or anything like that, but by being a bastion of structured, optimistic advice and guidance, you might just make a big difference in somebody’s life.

Keep momentum

Nothing destroys progress more than someone at the table doubting whether something can be done on time / on budget / well / better (delete where appropriate). Doubt is a virus that quickly infects everyone in the vicinity and suddenly, momentum dips and with it, morale. What a bummer.

If you’re a design leader, it’s your responsibility to keep momentum going in a project. This is key for the discipline of morale to be a constant. You have to the voice in the room that says it can be done. And of course it can be done—you have the best design team in the world at your disposal right in front of you. Well, you might not, but they can’t know that. It’s your job to shield them from the shit that holds the process up, and ensure that the players are suitably hyped up and confident in their abilities.

Much like a placebo, if we are allowed to believe we can achieve, we can. The mind is powerful, and by being allowed to give a shit about the things that matter, we are liberated from pessimism and the doubt it brings.

This isn’t about blissful ignorance and blind optimism to problems that crop up as part of the design process, but rather about measured management skills to keep your staff happy and focused on what they’re good at. Be their coach and take the heat from the higher ups and stakeholders. At the same time, champion them, their work and the overall direction. It does wonders.

Breed confidence

If you’re a fan of any sport, you’ll be familiar with the concept of a player or team having confidence. The more confident a forward on a football field, the more likely they are to shoot well and convert a chance into a goal. This in return has an affect on the whole team, as waves of confidence pass through the team and the magic of momentum has the habit of making all the players play better and in turn, score more goals, leading to more points, and eventually more glory. Hooray for all involved, pat on the back.

The reverse can happen so quickly. Flip the script and take the point of view of the goalkeeper who just let that shot pass by and into the net. Immediately their head drops, a sense of inability creeps into their psyche and before long, they’ve let another and another in. The pendulum swings.

The best thing you can do in the latter is change your mindset. Coming up through various football teams from the under-12 age group right through to pub league, there was a constant shout of “Nil nil, lads!” as we trudged to back centre circle after conceding a goal. Why the shout? To change the mindset. To ignore that it happened, reset our thinking and retain a positive frame of mind that the pendulum hasn’t swung too far. We can get back in this, and win it. The best sports teams in the world are the best because they often turn games around from losing positions, to winning ones, and then go on to win.

I’m a believer that design is a team sport. We all feel like we concede goals every now and again. Whether it be an own-goal—one of the team fucks up and doesn’t deliver, or makes a huge error—or just being outplayed by other teams out there (you know, on pitches). You can’t let that stuff get to you. Let optimism reign, and then go again. Even the best teams in the world lose from time-to-time, and when they come back, they come back better.

Optimism over talent

In a world where we seldom witness the actual work people put into anything, but rather only the outcome at the end, we are wired to believe that there are these ingenious, naturally talented people who we couldn’t possibly align ourselves with or reach the dizzying heights that they have. It’s why that T.V. show is called ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, not ‘Britain’s got Hard Work’. Hard work isn’t sexy, it’s a grind, and nowhere near as inspiring as the allure of ‘talent’.

Tim Notke stated “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. My take on this is that every person who is a hard worker has an overwhelming positive mental attitude. Natural talent doesn’t mean a thing if it’s not cultivated, and a big part of cultivating talent is believing you can do it. Having the vision to set and then accomplish your goals. Having the confidence to solve problems and overcoming adversity along the way.

Knowing you’ll make it. It’s all about Positive Mental Attitude, baby.

Make the best work of your life

If you look back at your portfolio, at those few pieces of work you’re most proud of, what comes to mind? I’d be willing to bet that it isn’t the process that was filled with hold ups, that client that was a nightmare to work with, or even the one Creative Director that—with every fibre of your being— you disagreed with. It’s more than likely the projects that went really well, made you feel great about your skills and your chosen profession (while of course, overcoming challenges). It’s likely that those few pieces of work were completed when you and those around you were in positive places in their lives and that filtered through to work.

I’m assuming that you do want to do great work, and you see the opportunity in every new project to make it the best it can be. If neither of these assumptions are true, there is something wrong. It might be the role, the company, or the work. Or 99 other problems. But ultimately, if you’re not happy, you’re not going to create the best work you can possibly do.

Think about this when the next brief comes through the door. Is this where you want to be? Are these the people you want to be working alongside, to be mentoring, or to be the mentee of? Are you proud to share the work you make or tell people where you work? The answer should be a resounding yes. If it’s not, something has to change. Place yourself in a positive position. Allow yourself to make the best work of your life.

Craft the culture

Great architecture, considered interior design and solid furniture curation. It all goes a long way to creating positive environments for people to work in. These things aid to define company culture, as we directly associate ourselves with places where we feel comfortable, and assume others share similar mindsets when—more than likely sub-consciously—they also choose these spaces as places to spend one third of their daily lives.

I’ve been in the midst of at least four major renovations throughout my time in business so far. The process is long, arduous and is a real test of one’s spirit. But knowing the impact of a positive environment for people to work in is massively underrated in my opinion. It’s easy to put aside as an expense that can be consistently trimmed, ignoring the details that make spaces desirable and comfortable. Cutting corners for the sake of saving a few quid is only going to cost more in the long run when people can’t settle, and they don’t quite know why.

We should all strive to make the environments in which we design the most inspiring they can be, all the way through from the choice of knobs on the radiators to the layout of the entire room. It’s so much more than free food, decent coffee and ping pong tables. If we don’t see how the entire environmental ecosystem of a design studio works, the positive cultural atmosphere goes down the toilet… quickly followed by the quality of work.

Optimism is exciting

We’ve all been there; when the brief comes through and ideas begin whirring round. Discussions pick up, and the multiple realms of possible solutions make a project pretty exciting. This is optimism in full effect. Not bowed by opinions, insights or needs and wants, we are often at our most creative when the possibilities are endless (within the constraints of the brief, of course).

When we are excited, we are happy, and we are in a position to try new things. This mindset makes things like compromise easier to deal with, almost making issues that normally we would see as major spanners in the works far less important. Excitement, despite its energy, can make us more laid back and more open to concessions without our enthusiasm being diminished.

Do you feel excited by the work you are doing? Are you celebrating the moments along the way and nurturing joyful behaviour in your colleagues? More questions to ask yourself.

A note on negativity

I mention above that ‘this isn’t about blissful ignorance and blind optimism’, and this is true. Positivity for positivity’s sake can be damaging, especially when we’re talking mental health. It’s important that we’re all sensitive to how individuals are dealing with their respective situations and manage our colleagues accordingly. Sometimes, people need time and space to find their peace; positive encouragement should be just that, and not at all oppressive.

I don’t care who you are; we all vent. We all bitch, we all moan. That’s fine. It’s therapy, and a healthy thing. We gotta let it out, because if it builds up inside then it’ll only manifest and eat away at us from the inside. So let it out, breathe and move forward. Try not to let it get you down.

It’s also worth mentioning that negativity is important to the design process; we need to question everything. What we make is not always akin to ‘cake filled with rainbows and smiles’ (+100 if you get that reference), so let’s not pretend it is. Work is made great when ideas are tested, when designs are refined and iterated. Every time we revise work, it’s because there is some negative element that exists as part of it that needs to change. If we had a rainbows and smiles attitude 100% of the time, then we’d never get past page one, as everybody would be happy to just settle on what comes first.

The key though is delivering negative feedback, or that contrasting opinion, in the right way—a constructive way—and this is where everybody can and should practice being a positive influence.

All designers are optimists

To be a designer of anything has a direct link to being optimistic; one has no choice. The practice of design alone is what makes us all optimists whether we like it or not. Something that’s created from nothing is the definition of optimism. You once only imagined that thing in existence, but then you made it real. Is there a better description of optimism than that?