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Theresa Whitehill, photographed by Martin Hoang

Never Stop Dancing: Making a Case for Maintaining Momentum

by Theresa Whitehill, Colored Horse Studios

Just ten days ago, I commented to Graphic Artists Guild colleague Yanique DaCosta, that our community in northern California was under orders to “shelter in place” due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that I was making arrangements for my two full-time employees to work from home while also helping clients with their communications. I had expected to have many of my projects canceled or postponed. Unlike food or utilities or medicine, graphic design is not one of the fundamental necessities of maintaining biological life. However, what I am finding is that while a few projects were understandably postponed, in general, my clients have been scrambling to put together digital marketing tools so they can carry on their own businesses online during this time. Right now, they need my skills and expertise more than ever.

Yanique found this an interesting perspective and acknowledged she had been inundated with work herself, but she hadn’t paused to consider why this might be happening, in contravention to most assumed behaviors. All I can say is, there is no assumed behavior at the moment that won’t defy prediction. That goes for positive, amazing, creative solutions to some of the problems we’re facing as much as it goes for some of the dire and somber aspects. It will be far better and far worse than we can imagine, so I’m leaving room for both.

As inspiration, I have in mind the case that Rebecca Solnit makes, in her book, Hope in the Dark, for informed optimism, as opposed to naïve denial. Who, she wonders, would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall? She states, “To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

It is far easier to redirect momentum that may be going in a slightly wrong direction than it is to overcome the inertia of getting going after coming to a dead stop.

In the initial flux and chaos since California has been ordered to remain at home unless their business is deemed essential to public health and welfare, my graphic design business has been busier than ever, for which I am grateful. I am able to keep my two employees employed, which I am aware can’t be said for everyone. I have an instinctive motivation to keep the three of us gainfully employed for as long as I can as I believe it is the businesses that are able to maintain some kind of momentum that will help the economy recover when the time comes that it is possible for us to rebuild our lives.

This comes from a model I learned years ago, taught to me by my friend, author Christy Wagner. She shared with me a concept about momentum: it is far easier to redirect momentum that may be going in a slightly wrong direction than it is to overcome the inertia of getting going after coming to a dead stop.

An image showing Theresa working with her staff
Theresa (right) conducting a design session at Colored Horse Studio.

I explained to my employees that some of what I will be asking them to do during this time might seem like unproductive “busy work,” but I asked them to indulge me for the moment. I am maintaining a slender live thread, an electrical connection, to the future. This is good practice; these are good life skills to have. This is keeping our minds engaged and problem-solving on a larger scale than we have encountered before. It also is helpful in preventing the onset of unproductive obsession over cataclysmic rates of infection and death. If the billable work truly falls flat, then I will be forced to consider alternatives, but until then, let’s roll up our sleeves.

I have always worked from home since founding my business, Colored Horse Studios, in the fall of 1993. In addition, I am used to managing remote file sharing when I transition between two separate studios. I need to carry files back and forth, and maintain clear communications with my two employees at the home studio in Ukiah, California, while I am working in my cottage in St. Helena, an hour and a half away in the Napa Valley.

A view of Theresa's home studio
Theresa working in her design and writing studio.

The experience of working from home is relatively new for my two employees so I am able to give them a leg up and provide guidelines for how they can be effective. One of the most important things I told them was to give their work day at home structure. As much as possible, establish and maintain regular work hours with regular breaks. While working, maintain focus and separation from personal tasks. And, most importantly, when not working, resist the temptation to check work email and messages. If they learn nothing else from this time, I would want that. After 27 years of working from home, that is the one thing that keeps me from the ultimate burnout.

I also stressed that during this time there is bound to be an overwhelming generalized anxiety due to the stress and concern about living through this historic moment. They will have concerns about their families, friends, and communities. This is bound to affect their ability to concentrate, so I reminded them to slow down, be methodical, and focus on accuracy rather than speed. As part of this, they are required by me to take regular breaks. I pointed out that this is not evidence of any ultimate benevolence on my part. Our reputation is for excellence. A little inefficiency we can deal with; errors can damage the business. I am trying to model how to practice excellence even if it looks weirdly awkward and ungainly at the moment.

My friend, book artist and letterpress innovator Peter Koch, taught me years ago his definition of mastery: Solve the problems as they come up, teach the uninitiated, and never stop dancing the whole time you’re doing it.

Examples of Theresa’s letterpress-printed poetry broadsides.

Theresa Whitehill is Co-founder and Design Director of Colored Horse Studios, a graphic design studio in northern California focused on branding and graphic design and editorial services for packaging, publications, and websites. For the past several years, she has served as a judge and mentor for the Adobe Design Achievement Awards. After 27 years in business, having developed a very personalized and thoughtful approach to working with clients, we think of our focus as “Design at the Intersection of Heart & Market.”

Featured image © Martin Hoang. All other images © Colored Horse Studio. Used with permission.