Balancing the Grind with Mick Thorp, Creative Director & Founder of Friend_Thorp

Mick Thorp is a veteran graphic designer who has been in the industry for over 35 years. He is currently the founder and creative director of design coaching company Friend_Thorp.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I guess you could call me a veteran as I have had a career in graphic design for more than thirty-five years. I began my design career in London – loved it – experienced wanderlust – left England – ended up in Sydney, then the world’s best kept secret!

I landed a job as a senior designer at Sydney icon Billy Blue, eventually becoming part of the furniture and was there during its years of growth – from magazine, to design agency to private educator.

The culture was very entrepreneurial with a guiding principle of, ‘F@$k it! Let’s try it! I was Managing Director when I left in 2009 to join the Enero owned agency, Precinct, as Regional Head of Design.

In recent times Precinct merged with sister agency Hotwire, a global PR and communications agency where I held the role of Executive Creative Director.

COVID has forced me to consider a career swerve and I am busy establishing a business with the objective of coaching design thinking to graphic designers. The company is called Friend_Thorp and it’s all very fledgling and exciting!

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

I must have been a sparrow in a previous life, one that loved routine!

It’s very important for me to be productive and I try to spend between 3-4 hours developing my new business venture each day. As I’m trying to cultivate a life/work balance it’s always an early start.

I’m up at 5.00am and in the shower. Make coffee. Take a cup to my wife, Brigitte, in bed, a daily ritual that’s lasted 34 years and counting! I check emails. See how the English Premier League is progressing, specifically my beloved Chelsea FC. Check my social accounts and grab the early morning news headlines. I drink my coffee.

My preferred daily commute to work has been to walk from home to station, from station to the office. A practice I’ve been able to maintain throughout my career. I consider it great mental preparation for the day ahead.

For the last few months we have left the house before sunrise, walking to Clovelly Beach. Sometimes we see whales and dolphins. This distraction has been vital during these challenging times. 

Back home for breakfast, more news and email checking. 

I ‘attend’ my online gym session for a half an hour to stretch and flex before I start ‘work’ proper. As a start-up business there’s lots to do and plan. I usually have lunch at 12.30.

Afterwards, I’m back in my home studio for a couple of more hours. I usually take another walk, do some household chores or potter in the garden for a bit. I might even cook dinner. Phew, busy day eh?

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine? 

Hotwire always had a remote working policy and cloud-based technology enabled us to work from anywhere. Thanks to COVID the need to work remotely has become the new global work practice.

I have a dedicated home studio where I have replicated my desktop set-up I had whilst in full-time employment. This has been of tremendous benefit. I’m surrounded by bits and pieces that inspire me – my ‘collected soul’ as I call it. It’s a very stimulating environment to work and to create.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I had always considered that my work should define who I am. My motto was, “Work hard and thou shall be rewarded”, never really subscribing to the work-life balance philosophy. However, reaching an age milestone, becoming a grandparent and finding myself as an unemployment statistic have all contributed to a review of my priorities. 

The marketing communications industry is deadline driven. There is a step by step process that project teams need to follow in order to take a brief to fruition. Sometimes the journey can be long and arduous or the deadline was ‘yesterday’ and late hours and weekend work is required to deliver.

A creative manager has a responsibility to direct and encourage resources and to ensure that the creative integrity is maintained and that the communication objective is not diminished through the process.

There are always many plates to spin. I have always had a strong sense of responsibility to guarantee that every project is delivered on time and on budget. This can be very stressful.

The discipline and patience required to ensure nothing falls off track is sometimes relentless and requires a cool head. I am someone who becomes bored quite quickly so there was often a mental conflict for me. However, being old school my overriding sense of loyalty to the client, my employer and my personal sense of pride in not letting anyone down always won the day.

Now the reset button has been pressed, I have realised that a transition into another career phase is well overdue and a new enthusiasm has been rekindled. 

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5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

In the last twelve months I’ve started: 

  • To appreciate the calming force of nature
  • To attend a fortnightly Zoom discussion group with people of a similar background, age and employment situation as myself. It provides an opportunity to exchange ideas, advice and encouragement for personal reinvention and how to pivot from the old norm. Being made to realise and appreciate the value of my accumulated experience as a foundation for a new career opportunity is one of the inspiring outcomes from these sessions
  • A gym subscription 
  • Stepping up my collection of ‘found bits’ on the street. Usually small, metal objects preferably in a rusty condition. I then create faces from this rusty detritus that I’ve christened Face Aches 
  • Accidently growing tomatoes
  • Cooking a good Boeuf Bourguignon 
  • A subscription to Spotify 
  • A membership to the local library 

In the last twelve months I’ve changed/stopped: 

  • Being oblivious to the positivity of my natural surrounds
  • Underestimating the value of peer support and realising that the expression ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ actually rings true 
  • Being dismissive of organised exercise
  • Seeing other people’s junk as junk
  • Assuming any new growth is a weed
  • Thinking that you have to be French to cook well with wine
  • Buying old school CD’s (actually I still do this a bit!)
  • Spending a small fortune to fill my already straining bookshelves

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I have a few old faithfuls that I rely on. 

My top ‘go to for inspiration’ books are: A Smile in the Mind by Beryl McAlhone, David Stuart and Greg Quinton. Reasons to Be Cheerful by Paul Gorman and the classic, The Art of Looking Sideways from the late, great Alan Fletcher.

All illustrate how a touch of humour and a human touch make great design and being a designer great.

There’s a couple of blogs that I visit on an almost daily basis: Brand New. Opinions on corporate and brand identity work from UnderConstruction and Graphic Journey: Mike Dempsey’s blog on graphics and living.

As a music fan I have recently revisited the Spotify podcast: Stay Free. The story of the Clash, narrated by Chuck D. Australian Design Radio is another favourite. The interview format keeps me up to date on who’s the latest and greatest in the creative industry.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I’m afraid that my example is a little ‘analogue’. A few years ago I started to fashion a handlebar mustache with a beard. What started as a casual bit of facial hair grooming soon developed into a piece of high maintenance styling known as a scruffy ‘Van Dyke’.

Now I have trimmers, trimmer cleaning products, combs, scissors, travel mirrors, smooth shaving gels, after shave balms and most importantly, mo wax as part of my grooming kit.

Through trial and error my wax of choice is King Brown original pomade. A hair styling product for rockabillies, I find that it holds the curls perfectly at the ends of my tache and as an added bonus it comes in a really cool tin!

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?   

I think that Jacinda Ardern is a very impressive leader. What physical and emotional stamina and so wise beyond her years.

How she has juggled running a country, motherhood, the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings and guiding New Zealand through a global pandemic is just amazing.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

The value I try to live by most is ‘Respect’. In the words of Joe Strummer, one of my all-time heroes, “Without people, you’re nothing.” Sums it up really.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.