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Creating Beyond
the Screen

ShopTalk Designer, Ellie Ghafouri, chats about the benefits
of working with your hands off-screen. 
The last time I made a New Year’s resolution, it was to try to make more out of living in London — to see more exhibitions, go to more gigs or just to experience more new things in general. This was the start of 2020, so understandably, a lot of this did not happen. But, before we were plunged into a new reality, I did manage to book in a few things. While the gigs were cancelled, other events managed to proceed virtually and the workshops I had signed myself up for found different ways of happening too! After working through those initial DIY kits that were sent home to me instead of attending a class, I kept going with a few projects of my own — like reviving an old sourdough starter, knitting my first jumper, brewing batches of beer and pottery. Although the starter is back in the freezer and the jumper – with one arm is significantly longer than the other – is now stuffed into the back of my wardrobe, I did find that it (luckily) was a lot more about submerging yourself into something than about the finished product. Particularly something entirely off screen.
I doubt I was alone in seeing my social feeds fill up with other people’s new interests and working with their hands too, during this time. From candle making to investing in pasta machines, to heavier activities such as reupholstering furniture — I saw my friends rattle through project after project. Although it’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep busy while cooped up at home, I found that it acted as more than just something to do. It reminded me about some of my classes at university, where a whole afternoon could be spent on a task just for the sake of learning something new rather than creating something of value. This could be pattern-making using only a pair of scissors and coloured paper, or playing around with emulsion to explore colour relativity. Although it may have been seemingly pointless at first, we’d often find ourselves engrossed in the task by the end of the day, because there’s something liberating in having limited means to create something. It can be an incredibly refreshing way of learning about something new too! It is too easy to get stuck behind a screen throughout a whole project, with endless tools and softwares to use. With too much choice, it can be tough to know what to move forward with. Using your creativity off screen, you’ve got less tools and have to work with what you’ve got, which can really do wonders to shake a creative block.
It’s not uncommon to spend 40 working hours and upwards in front of a screen a week – especially as a designer – and with a lot of the socialising taking place virtually over the past two years, it can easily exceed that too! Whilst technology has been a lifeline for most during the past two years, many of us might be experiencing the side effects of increased screen time in one way or another. It could be evident in energy levels, eye strain, sleep quality or even our cognitive performance. Research has shown that doing manual tasks can release serotonin as well as endorphins, and even improve our neuroplasticity by creating new pathways between nerve cells. Working with our hands can also trigger our brain’s reward centre and concentration as we put in effort, as well as then getting something tangible in return, often seeing the instant result of your work. This sounds like a good start to counteract some of the ever-increasing screen time that we face.
So, what steps can we take to benefit from these effects? On a personal level, it might be as simple as exploring a manual interest that is simple enough to be relaxing, but challenging enough to keep you going. On a professional level, it could be a case of finding small ways of incorporating manual work into your work process. As a designer, it might be having an initial stage of exploration at the start of a project solely reserved for sketching, or perhaps prototyping your designs by hand. But it could be a lot more simple than that — we’ve recently introduced a quick task to our weekly design meeting where we take it in turns to host a challenge, such as to produce a speedy portrait. This has proved to be quite effective as a way to boost moods or even to reset after a busy day. Wherever you manage to add your manual work into your routine, it helps if you’re able to set aside time specifically for it, and remember — you don’t have to master it as long as you enjoy it!
By Ellie Ghafouri