The design world’s secret to maintaining creativity throughout your career

Looking back at a creative sabbatical.
Looking back at a creative sabbatical.
Image: David Peter Harris
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Cape Town, South Africa

God commanded Moses to take one; the Major League of Baseball commanded A-Rod, too. But the rest of us rarely get the chance to take a formal break from work, unless we’re in academia.

Perhaps we should.

At the first day of global design conference Design Indaba on Feb. 17, former advertising creatives Chanel Cartell and Stevo Dirnberger spoke glowingly about quitting their jobs and traveling for a year, after hearing designer Stefan Sagmeister speak in 2014 about the power of time off.

The couple soon sold all of their possessions, packed just four bags, and traveled around the world using Workaway, a service that offer accommodations around the world in exchange for work. They documented their year on Instagram and their blog, How Far From Home, which has become a viral success. 

Cartell and Dirnberger found that stepping out of their comfort zone and exploring different parts of the world was a way to cure creative block.”Looking for inspiration didn’t mean surfing the net. It meant going outside, exploring and meeting people,” Dirnberger said at Indaba.

Every seven years, celebrated designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his New York design studio to take a break in order to pursue experimentation. In his popular TED talk, he says: “Many things in my life that I actually love, I adapt to it, and over time, get bored by them. And for sure in our case, our work started to look the same.”

His practice is an attempt to upend the traditional life cycle: 25 years of study, 40 years of work, 15 years of retirement—Sagmeister says he wants to take five of those retirement years and intersperse them with work.

Stefan Sagmeister’s rethink of a career with seven-year sabbaticals.
Stefan Sagmeister’s rethink of a career with seven-year sabbaticals.
Image: TED

Hilary Cottam, a social entrepreneur based in the UK and speaker at Design Indaba, tells Quartz that she structures her work in a similar way. She told Quartz: “Generally how I’ve staggered my life is I work 5-10 years, and I go back to university or I’ve found a place to basically have a creative sabbatical.”

On her last “creative sabbatical,” Cottam took a year’s maternity leave and conceived of Participle, a London firm, with the mission to radically rethink the way the UK approaches every thing from prisons to elder care, health care and unemployment.

When it launched in 2007, Cottam was managing 50 people and raising £1 million ($1.4 million) for every innovation project. That same year, the World Economic Forum named Cottam a Young Global Leader. Last year, she closed Participle in order to gain perspective on how to innovate moving forward.

“Participle was very successful, everybody wanted me to repeat the project and I have to kind of think like if you’re Bob Dylan or Taylor Swift, you’re not going to redo the album are you? No matter how much it sells,” says Cottam.

This year she’ll focus on saying “no” and preserving her creative space, which means “having a space where [she] can listen and learn and not be the person speaking.” She intends to use the time to reflect and work on a book about changing the welfare state.

Research has shown that academics who take sabbatical report higher levels of life satisfaction and well-being and lower levels of stress than those who don’t.

Robert Austin, dean of business administration at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, told ScienceMag, “Being out of your ordinary surroundings makes you establish new relationships and collaborations and lets you present your ideas in a different context.”

The business world has recognized the virtues of time off from work: Adobe, General Mills, and Boston Consulting Group are just a few of the companies that offer paid sabbaticals in a variety of forms. Yet, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, only 5% of companies in the US offer paid sabbaticals and 13% offer unpaid.

The concept of sabbatical has its roots in the Hebrew bible. The sabbath year, or shmita in Hebrew, is commanded on the seventh year, to give the land rest from agricultural activity. Our minds, like the soil, need rest to make way for new new growth.