Designed for life: Helen James on creativity and a life InSync

In the second part of our Danone Activia Live InSync series, Deirdre Mullins meets designer Helen James


We've all played that game: you're stranded on an uninhabited desert island and you have to pick one person who comes with you. Within an hour of meeting Helen James she secured herself a spot on my island. Not because she can build rafts or hunt, but because when the going gets tough she goes to the kitchen and bakes.

“If I’m going through something stressful there'll be trays of cookies and cakes in my house. Half of them could even go in the bin,” she laughs.

I’m in her Dublin home and she’s baking shortbread. She finds the whole process, from gathering the ingredients to taking the biscuits out of the oven, a form of meditation and relaxation.

“It isn't something where I think ‘I’m feeling stressed, I’m going to bake’. It was in retrospect that I realised I do it,” she says.

Helen James

Helen James is best known today as the creator of the Considered by Helen James range in Dunnes Stores. After studying textiles in the National College of Art and Design she went to live in New York for 10 years, where she worked for top fashion designers including Donna Karan. She has had her own range of silk clothing under her name, worked in Avoca’s weaving mills and has been a presenter on RTÉ's Home of the Year. All of this while bringing up her three boys; it’s hardly surprising that she bakes a couple of times a week.  

To add a few more challenges into the mix, she and her family have relocated twice: to New York from Westmeath, and then back to Dublin 18 months ago. Her most recent stint in New York came after the economic downturn caused her business to close and she was offered a job in Donna Karan; this time homewares not fashion. It made sense for the family to up sticks and move back to the US in 2010.

But her family missed Ireland. In particular her two eldest boys found it hard to go from the “incredible freedom” of living in Westmeath to suddenly feeling “contained”. She missed gardening, a passion she inherited from her parents. “When I was in New York there was a two-year waiting list for the community garden. People were growing herbs on their roof and I thought everybody here is trying to grasp at the life that I just left in Westmeath. And here I am trying to grasp at it too. I thought, ‘what am I doing here?’” They returned to Westmeath two years later.

Considering all the changes and challenges she has faced, how does she manage her work life balance?

“It’s something that we all struggle with. In modern life we are constantly being pulled; children, work, friends. There are times when work has pulled me and I’ve not seen the kids as much as I want to. And then there are times when I have being pulled more to the kids and I have felt I was not giving work what I should. But that’s life, that’s the nature of it,” she says.

Being “InSync” for James is about finding the balance in all the different parts of her life and it's something she makes a conscious effort to do. She feels that prioritising oneself is very important but, unfortunately, it's something women often fail to do.

“If you don’t look after yourself, you’re no good to anyone,” she says. “I do everything in my life better if I look after myself." In the past she struggled with feelings of guilt but has come to realise that if she is not prioritising self-care she is doing everyone a disservice.

The nuggets of James’s self-care routine are simple: eating well, practising yoga, and jogging. She experimented with cycling on her commute to work, but found it stressful. She now walks the 12km round trip.

When things go out of balance she tries not to beat herself up. "We are so good at that in Ireland; the self-flagellation,” she says. She stresses the value of being gentle with oneself and always having a sense of humour.

When creating work, James does have moments where she feels completely “InSync”. She describes it as, “a meditation: you completely zone out, and concentrate on what you are doing.”

Helen James

She believes that taking care of herself helps her to be more creative in her work. “As creative people we are constantly asking a lot of ourselves; to give more, come up with new designs, and to know what's next. You have to remember to feed your creativity.”

She used to worry about running out of ideas but now she has more faith in the creative process. “I realise it’s an ebb and flow; it's like a wave,” she says.

Her work is packed with her philosophy on life. One mug in her ‘Considered’ range says: "Take time to do what makes you happy." Another suggests her doggedness; "Everything seems impossible until it's done."

She’s hardwired to be optimistic: "I always think that things will work out. I’ve taken loads of leaps of faith and it has always worked for me. But that doesn't mean I wasn't scared.”

Courage is a muscle, she says, and if you don’t use it you lose it. You can exercise this muscle by doing small things, like she did this year when she took her first surf lesson. “I think that it's really important to be constantly putting yourself in situations where you are a beginner or where you're in a state of learning. Exercise those muscles of courage and those small things can give you confidence.”


The Live InSync project is an international media campaign launched by Danone Activia and running in many countries around the world. Danone Activia believes that when women feel truly “InSync” they can be at their best, unlocking their full potential. Being “InSync” is the moment when you are in the zone and free of distractions. It is the moment when women feel a sense of harmony, order, and control, they say.

Using the life experience of real women, the series is attempting to capture the essence of what it means to reach equilibrium in your life, one that defines personal success for you. It’s not about material success but rather the sense of achievement and balance that comes from living life to the full – but on your own terms.

Deirdre Mullins

In Ireland, writer and presenter Deirdre Mullins is on a journey around the country meeting inspirational women from all walks of life who somehow embody a sense of what it means to Live InSync. Many of these may confess to not knowing the answer themselves but have been selected for the inspiration they offer to other women. We will follow Deirdre’s journey over the next five months.

More stories at www.activia.com