Cover image by Bri Hammond
Interview & Photography
While studying a degree in Nanotechnology, Spencer Harrison would spend a great deal of time designing the front covers of his reports.
Self-taught in Photoshop and Illustrator, he boldly decided to quit and pursue a career in graphic design. Finishing a degree in Visual Communication and learning from renowned graphic designer Michael Bierut at Pentagram New York, he now has a wealth of experience in design and illustration and is ready to take the bold leap to become a self-sustaining graphic artist.
Based in Melbourne, the self-professed dabbler in many things, Spencer Harrison is the man behind Spenceroni and the co-founder of Studio Pennant. The master of the side-project, he has gained an international following for his daily illustration project MNML Thing and weekly pattern project Rhythm and Repeat.
In an inspiring conversation over brunch, Spencer revealed the value of doing something creative – however small – each day and candidly shares his experience with something we can all relate to, but rarely reveal, the creative slump.
PART I: DAILY ROUTINE
I wake up and procrastinate in bed for about forty-five minutes. This is a really bad habit at the moment – spending so much time on my phone checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I will run out of things to check, so I will then have to recheck [Laughs]
I always need to have a shower before I do anything else. If someone else is in the shower then I will actually go back to bed!
Deciding on clothes to wear is always hard in the morning. I feel like it would be wise if I switched to doing that the night before. I’m really bad at putting away washing, so everything just exists in one big pile and ironed as needed. But there is an inbox and an outbox, so it's organised chaos.
I switch on the kettle. Then do my hair because the kettle takes time. I use an AeroPress in the morning, which I like because there are rituals with that and I make some toast. I will go through little phases where I’ll have muesli or porridge, but it’s pretty much just toast. I alternate between a couple of option – jam and butter or pesto and tomato. Trusty toast, can’t go wrong!
I walk to work listening to either Savage Lovecast or music. I don’t like rushed mornings. If it turns out that for whatever reason I leave my house at ten, then I leave at ten.
My preference is to just get straight into work and not check any emails until about lunchtime. Emails are the bane of my existence. I do whatever I can to try and tame them. I turn off all notifications and I don’t check email after hours. It was just stressing me out. It’s nonstop and it’s not so much like, "Oh that email is there, I’ll deal with that tomorrow", it takes up mental space. Half your brain is thinking whether if it is good or bad, so you just check it and it’s, "We just need that file", so you end up just doing it then and there and you are stuck in this cycle.
I have lunch with Scott, the co-founder of Pennant. We always leave the studio, get out, and never bring food back. It’s something I’ve tried to do from the beginning because there are so many studios where you get your lunch, bring it to your desk, finish in five minutes then it’s back to work… it just eats your life. We are always on the hunt for a bargain and keep lunch to under $10.
Back in the studio. And then I’ll normally do an email check and some more work.
Tea break in the studio
Keep working straight through the afternoon. The morning has the good work – the creative work – and the afternoon is when I do a lot of business administration or artwork files, stuff that doesn’t require a lot of thinking. This is how I like my day to be structured, but clients will always try to derail this [Laughs].
It’s a really hard thing to find the balance between being in touch with clients and being able to make space for creative flow. My favourite day to work is a public holiday because there are no interruptions.
Scott usually leaves around five-thirty and I stay til around seven p.m to work on my own stuff, like getting a pattern ready to upload the next day. I quite like this little extra hour as there are a few other people who will hang around the co-working studio and that is when you get a chance to socialise with them. The other day I was staying around and some guys rocked up with some beers and we had some drinks at the studio. That’s where the magic happens! [Laughs]
Walk home. In summer I would have dinner then go for a walk after and it would re-energise me… but in winter it’s a bit harder.
I eat out a lot, maybe three or four nights a week, but it lacks soul. After a stint of eating out I end up feeling like "ugh I don’t want to eat out again." I really love cooking, but it’s two-hour ordeal to cook and clean. I'll cook to relax on a night off.
My days are fairly consistent, but after hours there is a different routine for each day:
Monday: I’m usually feeling pretty energised after the weekend so I will work on a pattern, drawing or side-project after work.
Tuesday: Is a bit of a cook-at-home night. Cook and watch really bad TV shows like Real Housewives of Melbourne. I have to force myself to have a night off and do nothing.
Wednesday: I usually squeeze out a side-project. I have a schedule to create something every week, so I usually work on projects at least twice a week. Once I get started I really get into the flow. I’ll often combine activities, so I'll be watching a TV show and working with clay, or listening to music and drawing.
Thursday-Friday: Something social. Ideally, I try and do two or three social things each week. But they are in different categories. There's the cultural events like gallery openings or a graphic design seminar. Another is friends. And then there is dates, which is quite a new category
PART II: WEEKEND ROUTINE
Brunch always features highly. I’m such a creature of habit when I think about this stuff [Laughs]. I’ll have poached eggs every weekend and lay in bed until ten-thirty reading on my Kindle.
On weekends I’ll do housework or gardening. I went to a talk at Creative Mornings recently and the speaker, Ghost Patrol, said something interesting which is very true, “You become really good at the lifestyle stuff so you can make time for the creative stuff.” Doing chores on the weekend allows me to get it out of the way in a day.
I’ll also do something creative on the weekend. I will have one day that is all activity and one day that’s slothing. [Laughs]
PART III: BEHIND THE SCENES
On creativity slumps…
It all seems so idyllic on paper, but it is far more chaotic. One week there will be something every night. Then I will go through phases where I don’t do any projects or see anyone for, say, three weeks. So I try and manage my energy more so than my time. I am learning to not feel guilty about having periods where I don’t do any work. I'm not sure what it is… maybe it's just a natural cycle. It's almost like a depression – I feel really flat with zero motivation.
But I think it's quite common for creative people to experience similar energy or creativity slumps...
Over the last couple of years I’ve been doing more meditation, yoga and practices like mindfulness and generally being more aware of how I am feeling in a given moment.
You always perceive that other people are doing so much, and you think you have got to do
more and more and more.
But as I’ve become mindful, I’ve become more aware of when I’m starting to feel flat and
I try not to feel guilty about it.
After about two weeks something inside of me goes, "Right". I try and do more exercise and meditation. It’s not that easy though. I try and get back to those habits like making my morning coffee again.
Routines play an important role in this stuff, they help you get out.
On getting started…
So after a few weeks of this slump, I eventually go back to normal, which means I am doing okay in the evenings and getting stuff done. The hardest thing is starting. Once I get the pen out and start drawing I can go for hours… even if I’m tired.
Don’t wait for
something to be
perfect to start,
On productivity experiments…
For awhile I was trying to squeeze more productivity out of my day, I felt like the schedule wasn’t practical enough!
Experiment #1: The Early Rise
I started dating a guy who woke up at six so I tried to synchronise with his routine and be productive. It was so nice in the morning. I skipped the bad social media habit and got straight to work on my side-projects. But I just couldn't sustain it, I’m not a morning person. I tried for three weeks, but then was like "fuck it, it’s too hard" and I was too tired!
Experiment # 2: The Biphasic Sleep
I tried to combat the lack of sleep with a nap in the afternoon. Some of the Greats have done this to get more hours out of the day. So I thought, I can be like them? [Laughs]
Ideally, I would have napped at three p.m but I had to keep working. So instead I would sleep from twelve a.m to six a.m, work on creative projects and then do a full day at the studio, then have an hour nap from six to seven p.m and continue working. This was how it was meant to work but a few things derailed it. The first being that I wasn’t able to fall asleep in my naps and the second was social events, “Sorry, I can’t meet you guys for dinner, gotta have a nap”, didn’t really work in practice!
On using rituals to spark creativity…
I’ve started creating a few rituals around getting started. I make a cup of peppermint or green tea and light some incense in my lounge room or at the kitchen table.
I don’t have a physical studio I can go to, so instead I create a sensory space so I can get into the mindset to do work. Then I just try and start drawing.
It’s inspired by designer Frank Chimerio. When he has creative block he will just start drawing on a bit of paper. He calls it “taking a pen for a walk.”
Going for a walk is one of the best things we can do for our mind and body, so if you have creative block it’s a similar type of thing – I just try and take my pen for a walk and eliminate the pressure.
I try to become consciously unconscious of the creation. Distract yourself, then ideas come out.
On finding inspiration and motivation for side-projects…
The key is to do a little bit. Break things down into small steps. I set little rules for my side projects. All these things have bigger plans behind them, but I just take small steps. For example, with the Rhythm and Repeat project, I want to do more pattern design and then hopefully do that professionally, or create a line of products.
Instead of saying “Ok I have to design a whole range of products now” and getting overwhelmed by that whole possibility, I just start with one pattern a week and see what happens after that.
"Fake it ‘til you make it... don’t let perfection be the enemy"
- Spencer Harrison