I've just hit 40.
I’ve had time out of my career, for the first time in a long time. I’m not in holiday mode. I’m having a break - devouring a lot of great podcasts, books and documentaries. In the background, there’s been a murmur that’s been crackling. It’s hissing up and not going away. A nag, a scratchy groove, a jarring comment within a conversation. I’m 40, and I’m meant to know what I’m doing right? What I’m building my creative career towards? Right this moment, how do I assuredly sell design skills - can I do that as a freelancer?
Creativity & it's challenges are messy.
Let’s say design is creative thinking. And creative thinking is basically problem solving. I’m curious to know, what are the problems we gravitate towards solving as designers? I’ve asked this question to quite a few creative thinkers - friends that regard themselves as being hired for their creative brains and how they tackle business problems. Commonly, freelance friends over 35, feel the industry has jumped on - leaving them far from the meaty jobs and picking up the scraps of art working - or labour intensive tasks.
Older Experienced designers are feeling frustrated and already hanging on by their fingertips, in the cleft of Love Island chat and “Oh… did you buy that from Forever 21?” Of all the things that design land clasps hold of, age isn’t an obvious accolade. I worked a rare time on my birthday a few years back. When my (younger) boss asked me how old was I today -
his response was, “F*** me”
I said, “Happy Birthday!”
I was 36. Maybe that’s when the murmur around my job choice and age started. A weird, small, persistent type of anxiety, where I thought someone was going to blow the whistle on me in work. At some point. In the near future.
hanging on by their fingertips, in the cleft of Love Island chat and “Oh… did you buy that from Forever 21?”
That could just be a head troll giving me some back chat. But looking around in agencies and larger creative teams - those kind of thoughts aren’t unfounded. A friend expressed their anxiety at turning up to a well paid, new booking - all the energy, effort and enthusiasm, that sometimes, we feel we need to have to get in with a new team. And then produce stellar ideas at high speed. Being a freelancer feels like one of those things that doesn’t get easier over time.
This isn’t intended to be a vent off at the design industry. There is so many brilliant things about it and people who make it. It is good to recognise how the industry has changed over a relatively short space of time. When I signed up I came with buckets of enthusiasm (I’d left a factory, self taught, and went straight to freelance) and couldn’t believe my luck. I racked up some decent front end skills as well as designing and hand-coding my folio. It was 2008. I described myself as a web designer. Back then, that was a catch all for a broad range of skills. The focus was on websites, but that included basic UX, wire framing, high fidelity designs in Photoshop (cumbersome I know), and for clients with the budget - hand coding the pages. Specialisms started to break rank around that time - into visual types choosing digital design, coding ninjas - front end devs. I chose the former.
For about 10 years I had a great run of freelance work. Some absolute highlights working with gifted creatives and interesting clients. The decade marker coincided with my age murmur - and chatting to other designers closer to 4-0. The problem around ageism I think is the side point.
The knack is understanding there’s a split in career strategy. And every good designer needs a plan. There’s the creative influencer - often someone with excellent art direction chops who’s known by a particular process or style. They get the broad view and geek out on brand, art direction and illustration. And then there’s the expert: a more single minded focus on going deeper into a specialism. Both get hired. I can think of two very gifted guys I’ve worked alongside. One has serious creative kahunas. He has an instantly recognisable style - it’s very light and playful - mixed with evident intelligence and ability to interpret complex business offerings into delightful content: illustrations; animations and brand experience. His thinking is all about the brand experience. What makes a customer connect, feel and decide something about this company.
The other chap I’m thinking of is an in depth problem solver. A UX designer - who gets as impassioned talking about a cursor tracking fail on a nav to the realignment of what the company’s service offering should be. Interaction detail that frustrated customers daily, and the loss of B2B customers who didn’t connect with the company at a strategic level. Both super talented designers - but have very different approaches and outcomes to their work. Both require a huge amount of discipline and commitment to craft and hone. One enables - “How do we say this?” The other dives into - “Why are we saying this?”
I wonder if it’s time to start asking some more difficult questions. Questions that force us to get a bit more uncomfortable…
What are you more connected to - the design discipline or the idea?
What / who / where are you mapping your career path to?
Are you in a learning phase?
What skills are you missing outside of design?
What skills are you gaining?
Are you bored?
Who are you serving?
Do you want to serve a purpose over a financial opportunity?
Who’s your tribe?
What excites you creatively?
A lot of these answers could fall outside of work life. We all need purpose. Without a vision I feel listless, bored and a bit trapped.
What you want at 30 is entirely different to 40.
And that’s OK. It’s OK to recognise your needs have changed.
If we’re built to be creative - then life should be seen in it’s entirety as a creative opportunity. Not just on what we feel obliged to do or pay for. I’m working hard to let go of a lot of things I feel attached to or even miss about an industry that has changed so much. We shouldn't let an industry define us. We are able to apply creative thought and our talents to new opportunities. The mindset shouldn’t be solely looking at what an industry (that’s prone to disruption, economic turbulence) has to offer. But where’s the next thing that sparks creativity in you (read that as energy, passion, like minded people to work with) and what does that look like? I’m figuring that out. I’m ok with it looking different to what I’ve been used to.