14/01/2022 Mental health @_erichu Interview by Harry Bennett
“Design is a currency right now”: Eric Hu on creativity and mental health

Whether you are freelance, founder or fresh-faced in the industry, the creative industry takes a mental toll on us all. From the legacies of unhealthy working hours and the nonsense expectations of unpaid work, toxic behaviour and creative ego – to name only a few of the industry’s downfalls – the impact patterns and expectations can have are enormous and often incredibly damaging.

Having faced these challenges himself, New York-based creative Eric Hu has since sought to better his relationship between creativity and mental health, turning towards a self-employed freelance career following his remarkable work at Nike as Global Design Director and Director of Design at SSENSE.

 Speaking to the prolific creative further on the topic, we’ve chatted to Eric about embracing his natural working style, digital cleanliness and the healthy separation between client, work and life.

At NOISE we are looking into the impact of one’s creative practice has on their mental health, and the systematic issues the industry faces in this area. Quite simply, how does your mental sensitivity affect or inform your work?

The success of a lot of things in the West is measured by the amount of time spent on something. From the 9-5 workweek, to the idea that design is only considered good when some considerable time/labour has been spent towards this. Without getting caught up too much in clinical labels, let’s just say that the way isn’t always fundamentally compatible with this. I’m not someone that can guarantee a level of productivity at a specific 8 hour stretch of day. I’m also not someone that can guarantee I’ll have the answers. I work best like a lion. Long hours of rest or reflection punctuated by intense short bursts of creative energy from both a daily and weekly standpoint. It’s why I ultimately walked away from working in a corporate office when I was able to be financially independent. I knew in my soul that it wasn’t bringing the best out of me.

Why do you think (as seems to be the case) that the mental well-being of creatives seems so inextricably linked to their career and practice?

There are a few things. The first two are popular concepts:  1. I think generationally we have been more or less accepted the lie that if one has to “love what they do” and if they do in fact love what they do, then it won’t feel like work when that simply isn’t true.  2. The West as an individualistic society tends to value individuals over collectives – hence the rockstar designers. The third point though is that, simply put, design is a currency right now. Besides work, people often link their identities to what they consume and most consumables these days have some level of design input. It’s a gateway to a bunch of other cultural practices such as music, fashion, art, film etc. So much of what we consume is mediated through design so even non-designers have a harder time now than before not being aware of design. We’re a more visually literate culture than before. 

Has your attitude towards mental health changed since you first began your creative career and independent practice?

I think I have a lot more of a compassionate understanding of mental health and neurodivergence as I matured. I also spent many years trying to fight my natural working style rather than being okay with it. Now I try to remember to embrace it. It’s a necessary part of self-compassion.

How important is the understanding between client and designer, and how did you foster supportive relationships with your collaborators? 

It’s nice but not necessary and sometimes a bad thing if it’s too intense. A bit of separation is healthy to maintain certain boundaries. A client who has some level of understanding of design can be worse than a client without any understanding of design if the rules of engagement aren’t respected. I tend to mirror my clients in that regard. If it’s something they truly care about I tend to care with them. If it’s something they want to check out of, I’m okay with a more removed approach. I’m not looking for friends necessarily. This is my job and I’m okay when a job is simply a job.

What do you wish you’d known when you first began your creative career, and then when you first went freelance?

On one hand, I could probably spend hours just talking about this. On the other hand, I also like the idea that I learned things the moment I was truly ready to receive and internalize those things. It’s hard to say. But if I had to choose one thing, I’d say that I wish I had truly known when I started self-medicating is harmful. It’s probably the thing that held me back the most over the years. Rather than seeking help for my internal struggles, I sought out drinking and smoking and it only made those problems worse.

Practically, how have you shaped your work environment to best suit your mental health, and how important to you is the space in which you work?

I have a space that I only use to work. I think that’s the only prerequisite for me. I’m pretty messy in my personal life, but my work area both physically and digitally, I keep very hygienic. No matter what the state of your mental health or divergence is, decision fatigue makes most things worse. So with that I try to eliminate the amount of decisions I have to make.

I think I have a lot more of a compassionate understanding of mental health and neurodivergence as I matured. I also spent many years trying to fight my natural working style rather than being okay with it. Now I try to remember to embrace it. It’s a necessary part of self-compassion.

What is your daily routine, and how does it affect your work? Do you see a routine as something that is daily, or something you consider on a larger scale?

I don’t really have a daily routine. As I mentioned, I choose to work like a lion because that’s suited me best. I sprint, rest, repeat. The moment I try to force any sort of consistency out of me, that’s often where problems start. If I tell myself “I need to work 8 hours a day today” and I don’t, I’m often overcome with feelings of guilt and shame and it spirals. The more guilt and shame I try to remove, the more reliable I am.

Have you found external mindful practices that help better your mental well-being, how did you find them, and what is their significance to you?

Mindfulness is something I started learning about through therapy. It’s helpful but not as a ritual. But building awareness of my feelings in realtime has absolutely brought me out of unhealthy thought patterns. 

What role does self-care play in your creative practice?

Self-care is a term that’s been abused but I’ll just say that, if you don’t decide when to rest, your body will forcefully decide for you and neither the timing nor the treatment will be convenient for you.

What do you think needs to change about design’s relationship with social media to be more sympathetic to mental well-being?

Do you have a few hours?