Updated: Oct 17
BY SAM HO | THE NEST GRAPHIC & WEB DESIGNER
The COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 marked the beginning of a big career transition for me. At the time, I had been working as a senior graphic designer at an events and media sustainability company based in Oakland. It had been my first full-time “adult” job after working a hodgepodge of freelance design, farmers market, and art gallery gigs. The white supremacy workplace culture at my design job led me to attend a racial and restorative justice facilitation workshop with a local RJ organization paid for by my work, with the expectation that I would go back and internally facilitate difficult conversations around race, power, and privilege. While I had initially attended the workshop on behalf of my company, I left the 3-day retreat with a gut feeling that with or without the “buy-in” from my colleagues, I wanted to work on returning home to myself. Looking back, I wince at the younger version of me who thought that I could fix the dominant culture as the only queer, trans, and East Asian person on our team of 30. I also see now, with more compassion, that it was a survival mechanism.
Outside of work, I had also been actively working with a therapist on understanding how my upbringing and previous wounding were affecting how I was showing up in my life and in my relationships. We worked on honoring the silences that had protected me for so many years but that were no longer useful in my specific context. My therapist shared that by sending grace and compassion to these older parts of me, I might find more spaciousness and discernment in how to respond in my personal and professional life. These transformative events, as well as the pause offered by the lockdown, led me to take a leap of faith. I wanted to live more by my Buddhist values. One of my spiritual guides, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (or Guan-Yin Pu-Sa) is known as the One who witnesses the suffering and cries of the world. Their vow and practice, poetic and powerful, had always resonated with me. With their guidance and my own intuition, I landed on therapy as my role in the larger fabric of collective liberation pathways. In the fall of 2021, I started my first semester at the counseling program at San Francisco State University, and I am set to graduate in May of 2024.
When Leigh Robbie brought up the idea of me writing an essay on the confluence of mental health and design, I immediately pictured a venn diagram. My mind could fill in the outer circles and differences easily. They were so different, one living in the aesthetic and visual realm, with the other encompassing the mind, heart, and body and its overlap with the interpersonal as well as the systemic. The tools were also different. Therapists use their psyche and listening whereas designers rely on software. I imagined design as clean, rigid, and procedural, whereas therapy and mental health were messy, complex, and unpredictable.
I had been having a difficult day (of many) in my first year of providing therapy to community college students. That particular morning, I was having trouble bearing witness to the suffering and pain of so many within systems that were not set up for those with the most marginalized lived experiences. I was overestimating my own role and overcome by my desire to help “heal” others. My supervisor was skilled at pulling me back down to earth and pointing at my savior complex, constantly reminding me of our ultimate but simple goal at the Wellness Center each day: to alleviate people’s suffering by just a little bit. As a triple earth sign (double virgo, taurus moon), I wondered out loud to her if I was better suited for graphic design after all, where things felt more simple, and where I could more easily leave work at work day after day. She challenged me to think about how the two different practices were not so different from each other after all.
For one, empathy plays a big role both when one is designing and when one is providing therapy. It requires shifting and moving beyond one’s individual perspective to consider the viewpoints and experiences of others. Both design and therapy require intentionality in the ways we put to paper what the client is conveying in words or in the words that come out of our mouths as we reflect back what the client is sharing in the therapy room. I think of both the designer and the therapist as a funnel, where we receive, interpret, sift through, distill, and simplify what the clients reveal and express to us. Feedback is the constant. We are constantly asking each other and ourselves what works and what does not. The hope is to come out of the other side with more clarity, connection, and creativity.
While the contemporary fields of design and therapy have inextricable roots to eurocentrism and whiteness, I have been thinking about the ways in which both of these practices are also tied to my own ancestral and cultural lineages. I have had to funnel and sift through for myself what to let go, what to keep, and what to reclaim. In design, I am learning to be more discerning in what projects and clients I say yes to. I am embracing the Japanese Buddhist aesthetics of wabi-sabi, where the focus is on transience and imperfection. In therapy, I am working on embracing imperfection, centering relationship, helping others reclaim their agency, and rooting in identity. I am learning from feminist theorists, liberation psychologists, abolitionist thinkers, and restorative practitioners. I still hesitate in ways I would be participating in the medical industrial complex and carceral systems as a therapist. The push and pull is ongoing. Regardless of where I ultimately land, I am learning to break out of rigid boundaries in both practices, focusing less on the outcome and more on the process.