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William Morris, Wallpaper, and Work

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

I've had a love affair with William Morris' wallpaper for a while. Two of his prints hang side-by-side in my kitchen. But it wasn't until recently that I discovered Morris had strong takes not only on patterned peacocks but also on work and labor organization.

His science fiction work, News from Nowhere, describes a society based on democratic production control and shared ownership in the future. And his essays span a wide range of topics, from gothic architecture to hopes for civilization.

So, on these lazy, hazy, and very hot summer days, I've chosen to focus on a man's views from 130 years ago since they still ring true today. Given I'm an advocate of work that actually works, I was immediately drawn to Morris' essay, Useful Work Versus Useless Toil. (Compelling, right?)

Morris was well aware that his beliefs ran counter to the ideals of the industrialized world. Hence, he acknowledges it straight away:

It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it — he is 'employed,' as the phrase goes... It has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself — a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them to not take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

As you can see, Morris doesn't hold any punches. He later divides work into good and bad, which still holds today. In the realm of "good work," there is:

  1. Hope for rest

  2. Hope for product

  3. Hope of pleasure in the work itself

Hope for Rest

Morris thought that despite any enjoyment one would derive from employment, there was still "the beast-like pain of waking up our slumbering powers into action." (I feel that now more than ever these days.)

He contends that "we must sense while we are working that the moment will come when we will not have to work." These breaks, or "animal rests," must be longer than the amount of time required to replenish the strength used throughout the workday.

Dr. Sahar Yousef, a neuroscientist, and lecturer at Berkeley, whom we interview for our book, recommends a 3M Framework for Morris' recommended rest.

  • Macro breaks - Monthly, full-day breaks where you completely disconnect. Think a long hike without your phone.

  • Meso breaks - Weekly, one-to-two-hour breaks to refresh and recharge, like cooking a special meal.

  • Micro breaks - Several times daily for a few minutes, like taking a short walk.\

Hope for Product

Work should produce something—which Morris recognized was key for motivation.

However, as anyone who has worked in corporate America knows, months can pass with little more than a calendar full of meetings. Asana claims that "work about work"—e.g., administration, duplication of work, "fire drills," and communication about work— make up 62% of our workdays.

Analyzing how we use our time at work is crucial. Without it, important work falls by the wayside.

Hope for Pleasure in the Work Itself

Ever the idealist, Morris ends his essay with an ode to being human:

The hope of pleasure in work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers — to most of them! Yet I think that all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong.

As Microsoft found in a recent employee study, it wasn't perks or a promotion that made people happy at work. Instead, it was giving people the time to do their real work. Microsoft's happiest employees had few collaboration hours and a smaller internal network while enjoying the benefits of a shorter work week and more focus time to get things done.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How can you increase awareness of "good" and "bad" work?

  2. How can you incorporate the three hopes—for rest, for product, and for pleasure in the work itself—into your workflow?

  3. What's one 3M break (Macro, Meso, and Miso) you can take this month?

PS - If you have a moment, check out William Morris' textile patterns here.

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