No More “Crunch Time”: The Value of Taking Breaks During the Design Process 

It’s 3AM, and I’m in the studio working on a project deadline due in a few days. The scene is stereotypical; all the lights are off, and we are working by the cold glow of our monitors. We want to finish early so that we have more time to practice our presentation and make sure we’re prepped for the review. As I pause for a minute and rub my eyes to get the exhaustion out, I look up and see my colleagues toiling away. The three of us exchange a look, and without words, we say to each other “we’ve got this”. I look back and think to myself: what the fuck are we doing here? I know that tomorrow when we come in, we’re going to have to redo half of this work anyway because it was created under duress and exhaustion.

Every creative I’ve ever met, without any exception, knows exactly what this sensation feels like, but none of us want to admit it’s a bad thing. There are so many things wrong with studio culture, the design process, and the concept of “crunch time”. It’s especially baffling to think that most industrial designers today probably use the term “human centered” more than “well rested”. Tell me: what exactly is human centered about completely disregarding biological limitations and just “powering through”?

Staying hours in the studio is a terrible idea. Our brains are only capable of performing at peak capacity for so many hours of the day, and we need to rest to keep our cognitive abilities up for problem solving and “a-ha” moments—not slogging away just to deliver a sub par idea. Good design comes from well thought-out ideas. The creative process is not linear—it’s a weird, meandering path with many dead ends and multiple amazing moments—but that journey must have moments of pause, reflection, and simply doing nothing. How many designers can honestly say that they do this? I know I am still guilty of “powering through” only to realize it would have taken me half as long if I had simply taken a break.

Oddly enough, I find that many designers are poor time managers, but time management is such a critical part of delivery on any project and goes so far in helping to mitigate long hours in the office. We could segue into a whole conversation about time tabling here, but I’ll simply say this: nobody gets their timetable right the first time. It takes at least 6 months to get a rough, realistic idea of how long it takes you to do certain tasks.

“The creative process is an amorphous, wonderful and beautiful thing.”

Taking the time to realistically schedule work out and charge accordingly can also be good for your livelihood. A few years ago, I was experimenting with a design for a high performance vehicle, and about halfway through the design cycle, I hit a major roadblock. I was completely unable to figure out how to blend some of the surfaces without compromising the performance factors the engineer had set for the project. Nothing was working, I lost my temper after 30 minutes and I decided that the best thing to do was step away and take my mind off the project entirely. So, I headed to a store and tried on shoes for about 2 hours (there’s nothing wrong with a little retail therapy). As I was walking back to the studio, my mind refreshed and relaxed. Excited about the shoes I had bought, everything suddenly clicked, and I immediately knew how to solve the issue back at work. By the time I returned to the office, we were finished in minutes. A problem that I had assumed was going to delay the project by a few days ended up becoming a moment that helped us complete the project ahead of schedule—all because of a well-timed break.

That experience was almost celestial for me. I finally realized that I can’t be a human-centered designer if I can’t design for the center of this human. Today, my work style has been described by my peers as chaotic and hard to follow (read: I get up from my workstation a lot), but I have never missed a deadline, and I have only experienced “crunch time” a total of 6 times since that experience, for reasons outside of my own control.

So what is my point? What am I trying to get at? The creative process is an amorphous, wonderful and beautiful thing. Like a vision in your peripherals, you are aware of how it feels when it hits you, but you can never quite describe it. So then why is it when it comes to our work we try to brute force our way to the goal? There is value in stopping. Sometimes the greatest ideas come to us when we aren’t looking for them at all.