On April 25, 2019, I had the honour of being the Vancouver Island University (VIU) Design Grad keynote speaker. The grad show was named SHIFT, which really felt like a timely theme for me, since I’m shifting back into work this spring after my parental leave. This talk was a great opportunity to reflect on my journey as a designer and to share with new grads the importance of building on each experience/job, taking the time for constant self-reflection, and creating their careers with intention. I have truncated my talk to share the main points.
Congratulations to the grad class of 2019!
No doubt you’re now wondering, what’s next for you? How will you SHIFT from academic life into using what you’ve learned to continue to build a successful career in design? What will you create next? What skills do you need to get there? What impact do you want to have on the world? The potential within each of you makes me excited. I hope it makes you excited too.
When I first left school, I wanted someone to tell me what direction I should go next. I imagined a pathway that was clear and mapped out. For me, knowing where to go never seemed to happen instantly and my career has certainly been a collection of varied experiences along the way. Most times, the path has looked more like a shiny object far off in the distance, with no clear way forward.
Now, before you spend too much time worrying about what IS next, it might be useful for you to remember that your experience here at VIU is simply ONE piece of a larger map that you’ve been drawing your whole life, a map which makes YOU and your career path truly unique. I think sometimes the pressure we put on ourselves to have it all figured out gets in the way of actually DOING what we need to do to figure it out.
Some of the ways I’ve navigated and supported my own career development over the past 15 years include an ongoing commitment to personal sustainability, nurturing relationships, leading with values, and continuous learning.
I was inspired early on to create a different kind of work-life relationship. I knew that what my parents were doing—working all day, every day, and holding onto their dreams in their back pocket—didn’t make sense to me. I always wondered why they were waiting to do what they loved. But clearly, I had the luck and good fortune to be raised with the privilege of being middle class and not having to worry about our family’s basic needs, for the most part. As a typical genX/Y “xennial” (or whatever the term is now) this desire isn’t unique, but nonetheless, a part of what has influenced me.
What I took from my upbringing, and what was reinforced most recently when my dad died of cancer on the cusp of his retirement, is that life is short. We need to focus on what’s important to us, now. NOT later. Health and personal sustainability must come first. I set a goal to create a career that gave me the flexibility to put myself and my life needs first.
I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do, and that I’ve built a business that flexes around my needs—be it spending time with my kids, or taking care of my aging grandmother—and creating the space for my collaborators to do what feels important to them. I know I’m responsible for what I create in terms of my own life-balance and its something I’m constantly re-calibrating. Balance is an ongoing process, not an end goal.
Some people call this approach a lifestyle business, but I like to think of it as having a business as one part of my life. I’m not saying that self employment is for everyone, but I’m saying, figure out what YOU need first and foremost. You’re of no use to anyone if you’re not taking care of yourself.
Looking back, the people who have believed in ME have become my biggest connection to clients and opportunities over the years.
When I worked at Nature’s Path, four of my coworkers became clients years later, and one individual has been my client at three different organizations! You never know who might turn into a client one day—collect people in your life who lift you up and send opportunities your way, and nurture these relationships.
My coworkers have become clients, collaborators and friends over the years, and vice versa. I feel fortunate to have a business that allows for these relationships, but I also know, much like interests, to follow my intuition with people. If I don’t get a good feeling from someone, I listen. There’s usually something there. I ask questions.
Good opportunities are only good if you’re working with people in a spirit of mutual respect. Pay attention to the people who already think you’re amazing and spend time nurturing those relationships over the long term.
LEADING WITH VALUES
I find that our values are often hidden within our natural interests. When you’re honest with yourself, what do you truly LOVE? What do you love to talk about? What feels EXCITING?
For instance, I love textures with patina. I have countless photos from my travels. I feel connected to things with a visible history, peeling paint, old furniture, wood especially. I think the things we keep show love, they have an inherent value in that they’ve lasted so long. This speaks to my value around authenticity—things that have ‘seen’ a lot of time usually show it in a way that’s hard to imitate.
If you follow what you truly feel interested in and get excited by, then you’ll attract more of that, and ideally get more and more interested in your work. This sounds super obvious, but trust me, it’s not easy when opportunities are all around you. I’ve learned, more than once, that saying NO is really saying YES and recommitting to what you want.
The problem with doing things you DON’T believe in is that you’ll meet PEOPLE you don’t believe in, and they’ll know other people you don’t believe in!
One thing I love about my business is that it creates space for continuous learning. School can really kick-start the habit of learning, but please be sure to build that into whatever career path you choose.
I learned detailed prepress skills working at Nature’s Path Foods. No, I wasn’t necessarily creatively fulfilled by making a box of cereal work for international skus—nothing quite as sexy as listing nutritional information in both French and English (which, by the way, is probably the #1 reason Canadian packaging isn’t so beautiful)!—but it was a valuable learning opportunity.
I can look back now and see that my time at Science World allowed me room to play, learn, and tackle designing in all sizes and materials, from coupons to giant building banners. I can see that suffering through 12 drafts of ‘The Big Book of Hockey Trivia’ for Greystone Books taught me to be resilient and consistent with my process. And that my contract work over eight years for an HR organization has actually taught me how to be a better business person, as all businesses require PEOPLE. Sometimes we don’t set out on a learning experience—but if you’re open to them, there are learning opportunities everywhere.
Another way I commit to ongoing learning is through business coaching and conferences. I love to be exposed to new ways of thinking and to challenge my own mindset. Design conferences are fun, but instead, I suggest going to an industry conference in an area you’re looking to specialize in, or an area that simply seems interesting to you. You’ll quickly see your value as a graphic designer. One year, I went to the international zero waste conference, which had the most interesting topics about waste management, diversion strategies and behavioural change. And the worst slides I’ve ever seen. They need us communication designers!
In closing, I hope that by sharing my story you’ll be inspired to take a look inward to figure out what you want to create for yourself along your path, and what you want to SHIFT towards, using your own unique set of experiences collected along the way. Graduation may be the end of your time here, but it’s the beginning of a new chapter.