The Artist's Take on Mental Health - Shannon McNab
If I could attribute my passion for surface design to just one person, it has to be Shannon. I came across her (virtually) early last year, when I took one of her Skillshare classes. What struck me immediately was her prompt and highly constructive feedback to my projects. I was impressed with not just the knowledge she has, but also how open she is to sharing it with the entire world. I joined her Pitch Your Portfolio class last year, and I must admit, I was not disappointed. She is indeed one of the best teachers I've ever come across, and I can't wait for you to read all that she has to share.
Please introduce yourself.
Hi, I'm a surface designer and online educator living in the SF Bay Area (although I'll soon be relocating to Ireland). I have an affinity for bold colors and playful typography which are key features in my artwork. But I also have a deep passion for teaching, sharing what I've learned in the industry with aspiring designers. Nothing brings me more joy than to see my students thrive.
Tell us a little about your journey as a designer.
How much time do you have?!? But seriously, I've always known I'd end up in a creative career and went to college with only 1 degree in mind – art! At college, I studied graphic design, considering becoming an art professor, and eventually learned how to create patterns (which I found WAY more fun that doing logos), but for some reason I didn't listen to my gut and decided to pursue graphic design when I got out of college. And it took the next 6 years of me slowly doing surface design on the side before I finally took a leap of faith to do it full-time in mid-2016. Since then, I've worked with dozens of brands licensing my art and freelancing on some seriously cool projects – my absolute favorite are the illustrations I designed for Pyrex glass containers. My fondness for teaching never left me though, so I first started teaching on Skillshare and in 2020 I created my own education platform, Sketch Design Repeat, so I could have a larger positive impact on the surface design industry. It's so rewarding to be able to chat with & teach artists from all over the world!
Of all the wonderful art you've created, do you have a favourite? What's the story behind this art piece? Why is it your favourite?
One that's always been near the top of the favorites list is my Cloverdale pattern. It's not groundbreaking or super unique, but when I look at it, I just love what it represents: a new shift in my design style. For years, I'd designed exclusively in Adobe Illustrator and did "my thing", but over time found myself bored with the monotony of my style and struggled with the lack of growth I saw in my own work. So I took a break from focusing on my portfolio and experimented for a few months when I finally had a breakthrough and enjoy creating again – Cloverdale was the result of that process.
Why are you passionate about mental health?
We alone are responsible for our own happiness, but that doesn't mean the road to get there is easy. I've watched dozens of friends struggle with depression and personally been dealing with mental health issues since losing my mom at age 20 (I'm 37 now), so I know the emotional, mental, and physical toll it can take on all of us. It's so important, yet there's so much external pressure and noise sometimes, it can make it really hard to hear our own inner voice. And that's why mental health matters – because EVERYONE deserves a chance to be at peace with themselves no matter what is going on in the world.
How do you think an artist can raise awareness for mental health?
Share your story. It takes guts, but I promise you that dozens of people are struggling just like you. Because the more awareness we all bring to the subject of mental health, the less afraid others will be to open up.
How does a typical day look like for you, as an artist clinically diagnosed with depression and anxiety?
It depends on how I feel when I wake up – I have a scale of 1-10 for myself. A 1 is "can't get out of bed" and a 10 is "bouncing off the walls with energy." If I'm at a 1-3, I usually take the day off because I wouldn't be productive anyways, although I'm happy to say it hasn't happened very often in the past 3 years. On most days, I'm anywhere from a 4-8 which means I get out of bed early, have breakfast and then head straight into my office to work. I'm most productive in the mornings, so I try to get the bulk of my work done by lunchtime. And my to-do list looks different everyday: maybe it's developing a new class, scheduling my Instagram posts, or working on client projects. But I never try and put more than 3 tasks on my list a day (and only 1 task is allowed to be "big") so I avoid overwhelming myself. After lunch, I get back to work if I still have to-do items to cross off or I sometimes take the afternoon off to get some puppy cuddles, run some errands, or start preparing dinner. I like to unwind in the evening with some tv and wine or chocolate, then it's off to bed, usually by 9:30 – that sometimes makes me feel like a grandma, but I love getting to bed early.
How do you keep yourself constantly motivated and inspired as a designer?
The honest truth is sometimes I don't. Being creative and putting pen to paper (or iPad or computer) is one of the things I've always struggled to be consistent with for my entire career – it's been so annoying at times that I even wrote a blogpost about 10 ways to get out of a creative rut because I've been stuck in so many myself!
How do you deal with anxiety and self-doubt?
When I was younger, I often tried to push through and force myself to keep going and act happy... which not surprisingly, always ended up in disaster. The worst was in 2015 when I got so overwhelmed with anxiety and depression that I had to take a month off from my business. It was a tough lesson that showed me the necessity of taking breaks BEFORE things get too bad. So now instead of waiting til it's too late, I use a "toolbox" of simple actions I've developed for myself whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed or anxious. A few of my favorites are: getting up and stretching for 5-10 minutes, blast a Disneyland park song, or taking an extra long walk with my dog. Each "tool" may not always work, but often it's just the mental/physical break I needed.
If you could give one piece of advice to artists and designers living with mental health conditions, what would it be?
Be vocal about what you need and give yourself permission to fall apart. I know how scary it is when a wave of depression hits – it feels hopeless and uncomfortable. But that's your body telling you it needs space and time to heal. And the only way that healing process can happen is if you allow yourself to be a puddle of emotions for awhile. That's also the best time to lean on anyone in your support system; people will amaze you at how much they can show up when you need it most.