On the face of it, Vince Frost had it all. An internationally acclaimed designer, with a thriving studio in Sydney, one of the world’s great cities: surely he must be pretty content?
So why then did he find himself three years ago, feeling “very low”, and frequently descending to “the depths of self-pity and panic”?
“I should have been happy all the time,” he admits, “but I was stressed like hell, going through a tough divorce, having challenging times at work, drinking too much and eating the wrong food. It was a lethal combination. I’d get this re-occurring man flu where my body would just shut down.”
In 2011, Frost was invited to give a talk at the Apple Store in Sydney. The opportunity provided a moment to take stock: although his personal problems were in many ways being caused by his professional life, perhaps the solution to them also lay in design. “I realised that I could apply the same rigour, design thinking and problem solving in my own life,” he says.
Frost titled his Apple Store talk Design Your Life. An executive from the publisher Penguin Lantern saw it and asked him to turn it into a self-help book, which has just been published in Australia.
“For years my private life was a mess,” Frost writes in the book’s introduction. “I periodically reached rock bottom and felt like I was about to die. Mental and physical exhaustion would force me to stop and rest…. I was designing and redesigning everything but myself.”
The book is part autobiography, part self-help guide as Frost details the techniques he has used to put his life in order. Each chapter sets a principle that will be familiar to designers – such as learning how to collaborate or the importance of failure – against episodes from Frost’s own career and interviews with those whose advice Frost has sought in this process of redesigning his life. The latter include Gabriela Rosa, a naturopath who helped Frost eat more healthily, productivity consultant David Allen and social entrepreneur Ronni Kahn of food rescue charity OzHarvest.
But it’s not a visually dry book. Between each chapter Frost has let his love of typography loose on appropriate aphorisms, quotes and thoughts. The best way to describe it is a kind of cross between Stefan
Sagmeister’s Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far project and Paul Arden’s 2003 book It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be. In the latter, Arden looked to apply lessons learned in his advertising career to life in general: Frost attempts the same thing here, encouraging the reader to believe that ‘design thinking’ can be applied to better of any life.
But it is with those who own and run creative businesses in particular that the book will resonate most. Frost points out that a lot of creative people “get into [running a] business by default, they don’t know how to delegate or grow a business. They are very good at what they do but they become stretched and they break and implode more often than not.”
The pressures of Frost’s own career will be familiar to many who have set up their own studio or agency. In the ten years since he left the UK for Australia, Frost says he has concentrated on “plugging away, head down, focusing on the work.” He found himself managing a team of up to 40 people, “which is a frigging nightmare. There’s a lot of HR, hiring people, projects not being managed properly … it was exhausting. Just getting through was the main focus of each day … I was running round like headless chicken.”
Going from working as an independent designer or creative of any sort, to managing teams of people, learning to delegate and let go is something that many in the creative industries find extremely difficult. In graphic design, Frost suggests, it may be the reason that so many studios decide to stay small. “It’s really hard to shift from being a creative who does what they do, and that’s why most designers have a couple of assistants and don’t grow beyond that. It’s totally possible [to grow a design business] but it’s not easy and it’s something that’s missing in our design education.”
Although he had always made a point of trying to learn from those designers who had seemingly achieved what he wanted (the likes of Alan Fletcher and Kenneth Grange were early mentors during Frost’s time at Pentagram in London), this time Frost looked outside the profession for advice. “I did some coaching which helped me to understand how business worked,” he says, “how to work on my business rather than in my business, which is what a lot of creative people struggle with.”
Frost is now CEO, as well as ECD, of FrostDesign, leading a team of 30. In addition, he has established FrostCollective, bringing in other businesses such as digital specialist The Nest in a nascent mini network. “Part of redesigning my life was redesigning my business – I’m still working on it every day to improve it,” he says.
Throughout the book, Frost is very open about his mistakes, faults and failings. A disastrous eight-month period as art director of Vogue Japan is recounted in detail, as is the impact his stressed-out state was having on colleagues and family. Was he nervous about being so open?
“Yeah, absolutely nervous,” he laughs. “I’m not trying to be high and mighty and tell people what to do. I have a very low opinion of myself, a huge amount of self-doubt. I just want to be honest and open. I’ve fucked up big time in my life – hopefully these are moments people can relate to and see how they can come out of it. Life is challenging, problems come along on a daily basis, but there’s not always a lot of guidance for people to help you through that stuff.”
Not that he is saying that the book, and further as yet unannounced projects from what Frost is terming the Design Your Life ‘brand’, will provide all the answers. “This book will not solve your problems,” he states baldly in the introduction. “You have to do that yourself. And it will take lots of hard work.”
Rather, he hopes the book “will inspire you to work better at living better”.
Frost says that after he began applying principles from his work life to his private life he now finds that, “I am more reflective, more alive to my senses, more in touch with the people around me and more aware of my value. In short, I am happier.”
So is that it? Job done? “You can never totally design your life and get it perfect,” Frost says. “It’s about incremental changes over time.” For now, he says, he has stopped trying to be perfect all the time and instead just tries to be “the best I can be, most of the time”. Which sounds a suitable goal for all of us.
Design Your Life by Vince Frost is published in Australia by Lantern, an imprint of Penguin Books. It is available to buy at designyourlife.com.au