Arts & Culture People

Community Matters: In Conversation with Rachel Cook, Graphic Designer

Originally hailing from Manchester, Graphic Designer and Lettering Artist Rachel Cook was raised not far from London, but moved back up north for university and has made the region her home ever since.

Proud of her Northern roots, Cook has firmly established herself in Manchester’s burgeoning creative community, joining forces with likeminded designers to create platforms such as Design Recovery to raise awareness around mental health through creative outlets and conversation.

Last year she bravely put her own mental health experience front and centre during her time as Design Lead at Yolk to create Two Minds, a collaborative print exhibition, which raised funds for Mind Charity. Here she talks to us about finding her passion, the role that design has played in her own recovery journey and why Manchester’s creative community is so special.


Rachel Cook speaking at the inaugural Design Recovery event

Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a Graphic Designer living in Manchester. I was born here but when I was two years old we moved down south. However, six years ago I headed back to Manchester to study Graphic Design at Manchester Metropolitan University and have stayed here ever since. I now work for a design agency called Persona Tile, co-run an event called Design Recovery and am also on the PechaKucha Manchester event team. 

How did you get into Graphic Design?

I first fell in love with Graphic Design back in secondary school, at my school we all had to do one of the Design Tech options at GCSE level and I chose to do Graphics. That course covered a lot more than just the design of a product, such as manufacturing methods and materials, but the part that interested me and piqued my interest was the design element. 

Despite being creative growing up, I wasn’t really that into art, I just messed around in lessons and was politely told I probably shouldn’t take it at GCSE, but with Graphics there was something about the whole process of identifying the target audience, creating moodboards, and solving a problem creatively that got me hooked, and it was rare that something had me that engaged in a lesson at school (I was a chatterbox and didn’t care much for authority) so I knew it was something that I had to follow, and it all just developed from there!

Rachel Cook and Charlie Brown at the Two Minds event – © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

Tell us a bit about your involvement in Design Wellness and the sister event series Design Recovery?

Myself, my partner Jordan and our close friends who run a company called Design Wellness go to lots of design events in Manchester and we started to realise that there wasn’t much of a focus on mental health. With the creative industry having such a high level of mental health issues, we knew there was an opportunity to create a safe, welcoming space for people to open up (if they wish) and to ultimately try and help broaden the conversation surrounding mental health. We’ve done two Design Recovery events in Manchester and they’ve gone even better than we imagined,  which is encouraging.

I have a personal interest  in helping support mental health awareness as I have experienced my own own problems with mental health in the past. My recovery from Anorexia taught me so much and since then I had been wanting to do something positive with my experience but I had struggled to figure out a way to do so that felt right. Art and Design can be such a positive way of expressing ourselves and I did a lot of that, but I wanted to do something that could reach more people. So starting the Design Recovery event series  just felt like the perfect fit!  The creative community in Manchester is already so close and supportive, so we hoped this would be a great addition and hopefully encourage the community to be more open when it comes to mental health.

The Two Minds Exhibition – Foundation Coffee Shop – © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

In your experience, how do design and mental health relate to one another?

They both require patience and perseverance. The former is not my strongest quality as a person, that’s for sure, but you can’t get better overnight. You have to give yourself the time and space to grow and heal. Since working on my mental health I can see how impatient I used to be with design. I’d get so down if I wasn’t nailing every new skill straight away or producing ground-breaking work whilst I was still in university. But the simple fact is, all that pressure was having such a bad impact on my confidence so no matter how much I tried, I was never going to be happy with what I created. 

Now, I really enjoy seeing my progress and developing my skills in my own time. All of that really just came with time and experience so if I could go back I’d tell myself to slow down and focus on where I’m at now rather than speeding ahead, just like I had to do with my mental health. 

As a designer, how have you sought to illustrate your own experiences?

I do a lot of hand-drawn typography that allows me to visually represent a quote or phrase that means something personal or encouraging to me. I think it helps me to reflect on the experiences I’ve had with mental health, and reflecting means I can see how far I’ve come, view the experiences in a less negative light, and therefore continue to grow from them. 

It also has an impact on the type of work I enjoy creating the most. I love working with positive companies and individuals doing good things for wellbeing, I recently I designed the brand identity for a therapist, and I regularly create typography social posts for Design Wellness so I get a lot out of those kinds of projects.

Poster for the second Design Recovery event series on resilience

How does Design Recovery help others channel their passion for design into something beneficial for themselves and those who come to listen to their talks?

Design Recovery gives people a space to share whatever they are comfortable sharing, in whichever way they want to do so with absolutely no judgement. Going forward, we hope that the more we speak about mental health, the more normal it will seem to talk about the struggles we are facing and we will see more and more people speaking up and getting help sooner. 

It can also be a really reflective experience much like a personal creative project can be. For me, sharing what I went through has helped me avoid falling back into negative behaviours because it helped me see how far I’ve come and encouraged me to continue on the path I’m on now rather than going backwards. So whether it’s through an event, or creating a piece of artwork like I do with my typography, that ability to reflect on what you’ve been through and physically confront it through something positive you’re doing can be really beneficial.

How has moving to Manchester shaped and influenced you as a designer?

Developing my confidence is one of the key things that has helped me develop as a designer and I’d say Manchester played a pretty big role in that. I started attending a number of design events, which were available across the city and started to get to know the community in Manchester properly when I was in my third year of university and in that year my confidence skyrocketed from more or less nothing, to making me the designer I am today. But I think within the creative industry, wherever you live can influence the work you produce because you draw inspiration, sometimes without even knowing it, from your surroundings and what you take in everyday. Manchester as a whole is an incredibly creative city though.

Design by Rachel Cook

What do you love about Manchester’s creative community and how does being a part of it help your mental wellbeing?

It goes without saying that the creative community in Manchester is incredible. It constantly makes me feel like I belong which has done wonders to my mental wellbeing. It’s also just really helpful to have people to speak to about the highs and lows of being a designer because there are so many people around that completely understand. We can all relate to one another based on our career, which is really nice and everyone is so willing to share their advice and help each other out which has been so valuable to me, especially when just I was  starting out. 

What challenges have you faced personally and in your career to date?

As a Graphic Designer it can be a pretty tough industry. It’s so saturated with incredibly talented artists and designers so to stand out is pretty difficult and can be a lot of pressure, especially with platforms like Instagram where there is so much design work online, making it a pretty competitive market. 

However, that can also be motivating because it builds a drive inside you to keep developing your skills and create better work, despite the fact that it can still be quite challenging at times. I guess the important part is how you manage that pressure and let it encourage you rather than letting it get on top of you, but defining that balance can be pretty challenging. 

Design by Rachel Cook

What do you love about the North of England?

I absolutely love how proud everyone is to be Northern, it’s definitely one of my favourite things. There’s just such a sense of solidarity between everyone that I haven’t seen anywhere else and it brings people together. Even though I didn’t grow up here for the most part, I still find that I’m proud to say I’m originally from the north. (Plus I was two years old so technically I was moved down south against my will, I’m just saying.) 

Looking forward, how do you think design can help others work through their own mental health battles?

I think we are already starting to see how fantastic design can be for wellbeing during the current lockdown situation. I have seen tons of creative solutions that people are coming up with to help others in a time of need. From colouring in sheets created by illustrators, to big projects like Play Playhouse that Playground Design Studio, Ben Clark and Barney Ibbotson have been working on. These are all to help support the wellbeing of each other and keep people entertained when stuck inside all day which is brilliant to see!

But I think in general, we should all do what we can to share our experiences through our own skill sets and passions. If the conversation is more open around mental health we will start to see more art and design that stems from people expressing themselves and their experiences with mental health.

Rachel Cook and her partner Jordan Yates at the Two Minds event – © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

To see more of Rachel’s work visit her Instagram page here.

For updates on Design Wellness and its sister events programme Design Recovery visit here.

Feature image courtesy of: © ON LOVE AND PHOTOGRAPHY 2019

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