Design, Strategy and Culture at North Collective

Bulletproof, then pierced in the spine

Mar 4, 2019 6 min read

  • Culture
Having followed his dream of moving to Australia from the UK, finding a great job and enjoying the peak of his career, Ian Howarth’s life took an unexpected turn.

The thing about health, like so many other things in life, is you take it for granted. Until it’s gone.

Illness makes you so grateful for the small things in life. Once you’ve lost your health, you’ve lost everything. It puts everything in context and makes you appreciate what you have and who you have around you. In good health, it’s easy to become complacent.

I love my job, this industry and what I do — which is a very fortunate position to be in. Some industry people are in love with the idea of being a designer but for me, I can honestly say design is my love, my hobby, my passion.

When I’m not doing it, I’m reading about it. I’m always looking at it, determining trends and racing to stay with the advancements in technology. I live for design. I’m privileged and lucky to claim design as my profession for almost 20 years.

Life was going great — at the peak of my career, working as creative director for a large digital consultancy for the first two-and-a-half years, then moving on to executive creative director for another internationally-recognised agency.

One day I was writing an email. It should have taken me a few minutes. It took my life, as I knew it, for eighteen months.

I was hit with the most horrendous shooting pain up the side of my head. I reached for pills to numb the agony, to help me through the rest of the day. They never worked. For the next eight months, I suffered from extreme tinnitus, vertigo, double vision, blurred vision and, worst of all, crippling headaches which, in comparison, makes a migraine feel like a soothing head massage. It was messy, and the symptoms continued constantly but exacerbated when I sat or stood upright.

My existence. Design. Stopped. Tying my shoelaces was my new challenge, fighting through the quagmire of excruciating pain, agonising inability to focus and unbearable frustration of not knowing what had gone wrong with me. I was working, but disabled.

We were very worried. I, my wife, my family, my specialists, my neurologists.

I had several CT scans, MRI scans and was passed from pillar to post. No-one knew what was wrong with me. I was taking up to twelve codeine a day; five times over the recommended dosage, just to stay upright and try and function.

One of many tests performed at Macquarie University Hospital.

I had just started a new role as ECD. I had a responsibility to still go to work, run a team, deliver to our clients and win new business, all whilst wanting to just curl up into a ball and close my eyes.

At my lowest point, I broke down during one of my morning shuffles along the beach, searching for perspective. I sat on the shoreline and cried the hardest I have. I just couldn’t take the pain anymore and no-one had any answers.

Eventually, after many more weeks and more consultations, I was diagnosed with a rare condition known as intracranial hypertension / or a spontaneous cerebral spinal fluid leak. Basically, I had a tear in my dura mater, a thick membrane made of dense connective tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Intracranial hypotension is a rare, still not fully understood, and usually a self-limited condition due to low cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) pressure.

I was leaking spinal fluid fast. The fluid was draining from around my brain, pulling my brain into the base of my skull. Hence my inability to focus. The ringing in my ears. And that severe pain.

“Finally!”, I thought. At least now I know what it is. So now we can treat it. Sadly, it wasn’t quite that straight forward.

At my lowest point, I broke down during one of my morning shuffles along the beach, searching for perspective. I sat on the shoreline and cried the hardest I have. I just couldn’t take the pain anymore and no-one had any answers.
Ian Howarth, North Managing Partner

When you’re 6’3” and have a spontaneous leak somewhere along your very long spine, combined with a rare condition that is still not that well-known and treatment is in its infancy, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be an easy journey.

Over the next eight months, I underwent four blood patches, taking blood from my arm and injected into my spinal column. The aim is that the blood clots over the suspected leak site sealing the hole. Just to give you context, you are awake during this procedure and, as nice as the surgeons are, having a very large needle jammed into your spine under local anesthetic feels barbaric.

They then decided to try a new approach being practiced in the US. I had two CT guided myelograms / spinal lumbar punches followed by MRI scans to determine the leak site. The procedure is performed using X-ray or CT guidance, a small needle is placed into the spine and contrast dye is injected into the spine and several MRI scans are performed to image the spinal canal.

I was the first person in Australia to undergo this new approach and, finally, they found the leak site which lead to full spinal surgery in February 2018.

I’m pleased to report that thanks to the amazing team at Macquarie University Hospital the surgery was successful, and I emerged stronger and more determined than ever.

It goes without saying that I wouldn’t want to repeat what I went through, but I can honestly say I’m glad I did. It’s given me a huge wakeup call. I now see the world, I have my eyes open and I truly enjoy and appreciate everything I have and everyone I have around me.

During my months in recovery, I knew I had changed. When I finally got back to work, I knew I wanted to bring something fresh and new to the market and get back to doing great work, with great people, and amazing clients. I spent my days in recovery making plans for a new way of doing my thing, going through my contacts.

I wanted to create something that brought the best of agency and consulting together. To build creative partnerships, not just endless projects.

Now I have North — a creative collective. We’re set up in a way to let the project team flex and grow with the skills it needs when it needs them. Having set up on my own, I can also now pick and choose the type of clients I want to work with.

It may sound twee, but I now work with nice people and collaborate and partner to produce great work all backed by great service. It’s not about greed; it’s a love for what I do and a love for helping clients meet their goals.

My point in all of this? It’s not all about long hours and climbing the ladder. If you’re not happy or fulfilled in your role, it’s time to move on. If you’ve always wanted to work for yourself, then take the risk. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail and get another job. Failing is just learning, and that’s what makes us better. Do what you love, because if you love it, it’s not work. And please take time out to relax, recharge and enjoy your life whilst you’re able.

I thank the team at Holler Australia for their support and understanding, namely Eugene Chung, Diego Trigo, and Merren Morton. My client partners and friends for sticking with me and helping me grow a business I truly believe in. My friends and family for sending me messages of support from all over Australia and the other side of the world.

And, most importantly, my amazing wife Danielle for her love and support during these tough times. I couldn’t have got through this without you.

In recovery enjoying a well deserved holiday in Italy

Written by

Ian Howarth

Our client partners

We worked with

Our partners are also our friends. We help them to achieve their goals, and they help us to stay sharp.