Night shifts: the pleasures of working after dark

Pulling an all-nighter needn’t be a bad thing: when the world dissolves around you, it’s a unique time to make your mark

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The whole nine to five thing is nothing but a Dolly Parton reference to me now. One of the great benefits of self-employment is the flexibility of working hours; frolicking gleefully in the sunshine is one of my favourite pursuits, and my job is ideal for finding spare frolic-time. Sometimes the flex flexes the other way though. Sometimes I get an email and I have to accept the fact that I’m facing a late one, working long into the night. This one here, this one, this is going to be a late one.

“We need it yesterday.”

And with that, I bid farewell to the wife and the boy and shut myself away upstairs in the studio for however long it takes to find my way back to yesterday. There’s a helpless book out there somewhere, coverless and cold. I have a job to do. It’s my moral duty.

I’ve been here in the dark many times before. Years of experience, etched deep into a face that has been awake too much, have taught me to respect and fear these long, lonely nights. Basically, it all comes down to the one unbreakable rule of night-working: do not, under any circumstances, leave the room. The rest of the house is full of tempting distractions and cosy beds and other humans to talk to. So I pack everything I need, wrap myself up in my best indoor cardigan and adopt a fallout shelter mentality (particularly effective, as the horrible consequences of leaving a shelter early will forever haunt me, thanks to Gravesend Library choosing to put When the Wind Blows next to Asterix and Tintin some 30 years ago).

I shall return to society once the work is done, and not a second before. No flames or intruders or the tears of a baby will move me from this station. No matter what, I MUST NOT LEAVE THE ROOM. Unless I need a wee.

And here I am. Rain taps away on the skylight. Somewhere outside, cats scream at screaming cats. The boiler hums idiotically. And I design in the warm glow of my Mac. Toast, Tunnocks and Trent Reznor are my fuel, dependable eats and beats to keep me awake.

Hours, minutes, whatever – those daywalker units have no place here. Time flaps about erratically, bursts of manic productivity interspersed with long, dragged out moments of stillness. These blinkless moments are compromises struck with the sandman, rests in the space between asleepiness and awakiness. You have to let your brain’s screensaver kick in every now and then, but you must keep your eyes open. Stare at something, anything.

Staring at my own fingernails, all ragged and sad; staring at an eBay listing for a Velociraptor cage from Jurassic Park (mental note: make mortgage enquiries in the morning); staring at the infinite nothingness of the cosmos, a sea black with ink; staring at a crumpled, orphaned Tunnocks wrapper. Perhaps these things will wend their way into the design at hand via my fragile subconscious, reduced to blobs of colour and shape. Given enough staring, anything will lose its meaning. Once the world has reached this point of tired abstraction, I do my best work. The world slips away and I’m driven to fill the vacuum with a new thing.

Or maybe I’m just tired and want to get this done so I can go to bed.

Whatever’s happening, it’s silent and rewarding. All the projects I’m most proud of have a night like this behind them somewhere. I am a nocturnal designer, but I’ll pay for it tomorrow. I’ll be of no use to anyone, mind and body dragged under by a design hangover. Still, into the night I go. Click, click, stare, click, click.

Eventually, darkness and silence give way to the stirrings of tomorrow. The birds outside the studio and the Americans inside my computer taunt me with their tweets. The coffee machine is empty and my red, red eyes can stare no longer. The sun says hello.

Losing the battle with sleep, I almost don’t notice that I’ve finished. I have a cover. An actual cover. It may not get there yesterday, as requested, but it’s pretty damn close. And with that, I escape the confines of the studio and crumple into bed for just a couple of hours before breakfast and emails and everything come to get me.

Working nine to five. What a way to make a living.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. His work can be found at danielgray.com and he tweets at @gray

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