Flow

A few years ago a friend asked me what I was doing differently; my design work had “just gotten better”. She had worked with me in a previous environment and was collaborating with me on a project at different agency. It was clear that something had changed, but it was hard for me to articulate what it was; not only that, I felt noticeably happier. Without realizing it, I had found a way for me to maintain my “flow” at work.

Flow meaning my actual mental state: I was in my zone, designing like time didn’t exist, food didn’t need to be eaten, and all the puzzle pieces were snapping into place. It was a luxury that I tried to ration to myself for fear of becoming an unsocial hermit. It was a state fostered by a complex web of factors, all contributing to my ability to find my optimal state: being highly challenged and having the skills to meet those challenges without interference. It wasn’t entirely obvious to me at the time, but things like having a solid organizational infrastructure, working with a supportive team and reporting to management who championed my need to succeed all helped contribute to my happiness. Overall it was a cultural system that empowered me to seek my own challenges and face them uninterrupted.

I didn’t know this was an actual recognized psychological state until I watched a documentary called Happy, where I was introduced to the positive psychology concepts of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Csíkszentmihályi doesn’t just recognize my flow, he says it contributes to happiness. This perfect storm of factors actually contributed to me feeling very content.

While flow had previously been an achievable mental state while working on personal projects, painting, or gardening, I am not sure I truly had found a sustainable state at work. Contrary to popular belief there is no recipe for the perfect environment for a designer. I have had conversations with friends who swear that exposed brick and hip furniture make them feel more creative. Others feel inspired when they can dress however they want.

Both process and culture are the two most underrated topics in the design industry. They form the infrastructure that can make or break a project; it dictates how teams work together, how communication is performed, and how a designer finds their flow against all challenges that face them in creating a solution. We talk about innovation, but how do we build the systems that breed it?

Watch Csíkszentmihályi’s Ted talk on Flow.