Illustration by George Douglas

In many agencies, Friday means it’s time to kick back at your desk with a well earned drink, on the house. That’s after a long stretch of design industry “networking” (a.k.a. semi-heavy weeknight drinking) and a few client lunches that tend to lean on the liquid side. In the UK and the U.S. at least, it seems booze and the design industry are very comfortable bedfellows indeed, snuggled together after years of blissful union. Heck, on this site one of our longest running regular features is Happy Hour, a post that exclusively celebrates designs for booze packaging. While this culture is rife, we’re also seeing things shift: maybe our younger generations of designers are feeling less need to seek confidence and fun in a bottle.

Most of the time, this sort of culture isn’t a problem. It’s often the opposite—for better or for worse, alcohol is the lubricant that fosters closer relationships with co-workers; it’s a shared ritual in many workplaces, and the local bar can prove to be a fantastic offsite leveler. Alcohol also has the capacity to make lengthy awards ceremonies bearable, gently taking the edge off the fact no one feels particularly comfortable in a suit, and that your hands are numb from hours of absent-minded clapping.

Again, for most people this is fine, even enjoyable. But for many others, the ingrained expectation that afterwork time spent with colleagues is alcohol-fueled (or at least alcohol-accompanied) is a problem many aren’t comfortable vocalizing. There are a multitude of reasons for not drinking, of course: religion, pregnancy, health, recovery from alcohol addiction or substance abuse, and simply the decision that alcohol isn’t for you. Yet oftentimes, working cultures aren’t subtle about frowning upon abstinence. Certain industries are particularly alcohol-centered, says Roxanne Kibben, project director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Chemical and Mental Health (she’ll be speaking on the AIGA Eye on Design Conference panel on mental health, too), who says “Highly competitive industries have a tendency to drive pressure.” 

In creative roles people are wrestling with creative energy and the drive to express oneself, and on the other side of that is self doubt. As human beings, most of us wrestle with that.

“If you’re a balanced person you take a reality check or ask other people and they say ‘yes you did fine.’ But the alcoholic will take the tiny thing they can improve on and go into a tailspin of ‘I’m not good enough.’”

Stephanie Chivers is an addiction specialist who co-runs ichange21, a company that works with individuals and teams to change habits, often specifically around drinking. She says that alcohol affects “everyone and anyone—people from all walks of life and in any job.” The big problem, she reckons, is when alcohol is “ingrained in working culture, and people think that if they don’t drink they won’t get on. If your manager is a drinker and everyone goes to the pub, then the person who has the best relationship with your manager is the person who drinks with them.”

That means lots of events and occasions in which booze shares the starring role with great design. “In the design industry as a whole, a lot of things take the loose guise of networking but are systematically boozy,” says Tom Banks, editor of industry publication Design Week. “The majority of people seem to drink,” he says, noting get-togethers like the “notworking” UK event series Glug, as well as launch parties and awards events.

“For someone working in the creative industries, you have all that on top of leading busy lives in what’s usually a big city, so that could mean you’re drinking five nights a week. That’s probably not good for your mental health, and it’s a very normalized thing.”

In fact, design is a “dream industry for some functioning alcoholics,” says Melissa Leggett*, a Philadelphia-based designer who worked in large agencies before starting her own small studio. ”In my agency days, most art directors had at least one bottle of hard liquor somewhere in their beige metal desk. There were many times when a few of us would fortify ourselves with a quick belt from a brown glass bottle when we were told we’d be working late on a unexpected project. It helped soften the disappointment and resentment of finding out at 4:55 p.m. you wouldn’t be going home at 5.

“Designers often work a roller coaster of deadlines and crushes and swings and misses and an occasional hooray home run. These cycles are often improved by celebration, and in the Western world booze = celebration. Beer and pizza is also often viewed by management as a reward. In actuality, money or real comp time—not a promise of comp time—would be more welcome than a potato chip party and few cans of coldish beer in a meeting room that you’ll eventually have to drive home from.”

Chivers agrees with a recent directive from insurance behemoth Lloyd’s of London that banned their employees from drinking during the day. “As an employer I want my employees to be healthy and happy; if they’re happy, they perform,” she says. It’s a thorny issue: if it’s a health concern, should employers ban cigarette breaks, too? Should they monitor employees’ diets, warning against lunchtime fries and prohibiting Krispy Kremes doing the rounds to celebrate a birthday? Where does it end? “It is a performance thing as well,” Chivers concedes. “If you have a drink at lunchtime you will perform differently.”

While drinking culture in the design industry today is a world apart from the office-bar-cart days of yore, and even the ’80s and ’90s, her words may rankle with many who still enjoy the occasional lunchtime pint. Before moving to Sweden to found design agency Studio Theolin, Jenny Theolin worked at London agencies including Mohawk and Clinic during those halcyon pre-recession days when booze flowed freer than ever, and before widespread unease around budgets and job security set in.

Back then, she says, agency dynamics were often shaped and created in the pub. She describes the mid-2000s as “what felt like the Mad Men-era for the design industries.” When she was interviewed for one role, she asked to join the team on their post-work Friday drinks. “Culture is really important to me and as I had no family in London it was very important that my place of work was my family,” she says. “I had to know it would be a cultural fit. They’d been bragging about how good their culture was so I wanted to see if they were true to their word. It was great to meet the team in a social setting before I signed a contract. That gives power to the person being interviewed.”

In agencies at that time, liquid lunches were often the norm, says Theolin. Many joked that they were good drunk designers. “You get quite creative,” she jests. During her 14-year career in London, drinking was an intrinsic part of networking and recreation. “When I left the agency and started my own company, I went [to the pub] on the basis of making contacts like I make friends. Where do friends meet? In the pub. It’s part of UK culture—there’s lots of meeting up and talking shit and bonding over a drink. I really enjoyed that culture because I was sensible; it was a socializing thing, not a binge thing.”

Banks agrees that things have changed. “The three-hour boozy lunch is definitely something of a bygone era,” he says. “But people’s working patterns have changed so much. People are more desk-bound now, so all the design journalists I know have less face-to-face meetings, and that’s the same for client and agency meetings. The internet means the world is much smaller—people can do things from their desks or homes that they used to have to do in person.”

Just as Theolin points out how drinking, when done sensibly, has actually helped shape her career, Banks concedes that alcohol, despite its detrimental effects on physical and mental health, can be a useful thing. “There are advantages,” he says. As an editor, “if you’re suitably lubricated you might well get more stories or get to know people better. I suppose that’s a personal and legitimate decision you might be making. You might just be having a grand old time, too.”

Theolin says that the differences between design industry drinking culture in the UK and Sweden are marked. A non-drinking Swedish friend of Theolin’s recently moved to London, and (perhaps understandably) panicked at the thought of trying to meet people and clients away from alcohol-enhanced settings. It’s simply not an issue in Sweden, which Theolin attributes to the differences in work-life balance. “Most people there have children when they’re much younger, and a lot of people finish work at 4 p.m. in the summer,” she says.

“You really see the split between work, family, and life. People don’t stay late—it’s frowned upon. It’s very structured and organized. We have a ritual on Wednesday called Little Saturday, so that you can’t get too drunk at after-work drinks because you still have to function for another two days. “In Sweden it’s easy to not drink anything, and no one bats an eyelid. In London if you don’t have a pint people maybe don’t trust you. That’s less of an issue now, though. Was more an issue ten years ago than three years ago though.”

Indeed, things are changing, and for numerous reasons, like smaller budgets allocated for boozy schmoozing, and shrinking job security, which could mean employees are more vigilant about things that might affect their performance at work. Perhaps the most pervasive reason, especially with young designers, is that heavy drinking just isn’t as cool anymore. Numerous studies have shown that millennials are drinking less, partying less, eating more “cleanly,” and working harder. “They’re a lot more self-conscious, health-wise,” says Theolin of her Master’s students. “When you look at the juniors working for us now they’re extremely ambitious. I read that three-quarters of the millennial global workforce want their own company: they’ve got more of a business mind. Maybe they just don’t feel as much that they need to get smashed.”

It’s all of the above, and more. After graduating into an insecure job market, younger workers are more risk-averse—they feel less stable in their roles and are driven to perform better; they’re more taken in by health trends; and they know that if they get falling-down drunk someone will snap a photo and share it on social media. But could it also be that the increasing sense of empowerment and confidence in young people around their abilities, spurred by the democratization of digital design tools, means there’s less of a need to rely on external crutches like alcohol? “They’re definitely less humble than they used to be,” Theolin laughs.

“I think they’re more wild with their ideas now. Once they understand that the technology allows them to do pretty much whatever they want,  that gives them more possibilities to execute their creativity. Maybe that fills a bit of a void. Ten years ago we didn’t have all the tools and tech we needed to do what we wanted to do. There could be a link.”

Kibben sees the link between abstinence and youth in far more idealistic terms. “From what I heard at the Millennial Engagement Conference, it’s all about how global projects and personal projects are changing the world. They really are up to big things and ideas. I think there’s a shift towards a social consciousness and a way of looking at things beyond their own navels. You just can’t do that if you’re only focused on where the biggest party is. You’re just not going to get stuff done. Millennials are not happy with the status quo of this world and won’t stand by and let other generations take it down.

“Maybe that self responsibility and capacity to impact the world in a positive way is counterintuitive to a self-absorbed alcoholic fog.”

Less drinking will surely mean less of a drinking culture, and with  the well-established link between alcohol and numerous physical health conditions (including cancers and liver disease, to say nothing of mental health), perhaps it’s a good thing that the party is ending early these days. According to Chivers, 70% of the people who came to her with concerns about their drinking “were on antidepressants and they didn’t need to be. People working long hours in stressful industries drink to cope with stress, but that makes it 10 times worse.”

So when does standard work culture drinking become problem drinking? As a designer, Theolin says it’s when the drinking is happening at a senior level “without transparency,” when you can no longer take someone seriously who you’re meant to respect, and when younger or less experienced workers feel pressured into drinking to keep up with bullish seniors. For Chivers, it’s when “work” drinking complicates life outside of the 9-5. You know “drinking every day is a problem,” she says, “when affects your relationships, your financial status, or your health, whether that’s skin problems, sleep problems, over-acidity in the stomach, or mental health problems like anxiety and depression.”

No matter what their working culture, everyone should feel the right to choose to abstain from alcohol. Abstinence isn’t questioned for religious reasons or pregnancy, but what if you just don’t want to drink? “People need to be really clear about why they’re doing what they’re doing,” says Chivers. “Some people are happy to say why they’re not drinking, but if you need to be armed with something people won’t question, you can say you’re on medication, you’re driving, you have to get up early. ‘I’m losing weight’ seems to work too.” Kibben adds that “it’s always helpful to have an ally. If you have someone else in the agency or a fellow designer who’s uncomfortable with alcohol you don’t feel alone. They don’t have to always be with you, but sometimes it’s about having an ally someplace so you can call them and say ‘I’m struggling.’”

She adds: “Try calmly and assertively turning down alcohol. You could say ‘I’m not drinking today’ or ‘I have an allergy, it doesn’t work for me.’ One of the smartest things to do is take a bathroom break. People can’t bother you in the bathroom, and you can take a deep breath and remind yourself you can take a choice and make better decisions if you don’t take that first drink.”

It’s one thing for individuals to take responsibility for their intake, but shouldn’t there be more consideration higher up within organizations to look out for their employees’ health when it comes to alcohol-related situations? Theolin advises that companies who pride themselves on their culture should consider investing in opportunities for co-workers to get together in situations where alcohol doesn’t come into it, or where it would be even be inappropriate. “There’s a responsibility for event organizers to not position things so that you have to drink together.” When employees get to the point of needing help for addiction issues, Kibben recommends looking into your employment rights as regards to assistance programs and laws.

“Approach mental health as you would physical health,” she says. “Say, ‘I’ve got a health issue, and I need to take care of it so I may need some time off.’ You don’t have to say what it is, and usually a person won’t push. You have a right to frame this as you would any other issue.” 

*Name changed at the request of the interviewee