I grew up drawing. I was an artistic kid, but was always told that you can’t “do art” for a living. I had no idea what design was, and apparently neither did anyone I knew. I hardly knew any adults who went to college and all were in traditional jobs just trying to pay the bills. The most trade-trained I knew were from Vocational Technology school and were parents of myself and friends. I admire all of these people greatly. Even my high school teachers never presented me with this idea of opportunity to use what I enjoyed, or not in a way in which I made the connection.
When it came to my junior year of High School and I started working my first job (same first job my dad had) at a local restaurant, I began to think about what I wanted in my future. I felt all I needed was to work hard and pay the bills so I could work toward the weekends, have some money for hobbies and fun and save for retirement like everyone I knew. I enrolled in the internet programming course at Lancaster County Career and Technology for my senior year because it seemed like a good way to make money after high school.
One day at the end of the school year, a representative from Central Pennsylvania College came in to speak to us. Once I realized I could actually learn more and saw other possibilities in my field I checked out college. I considered art and design school but was afraid to be stuck without the option of a bachelor's degree (back then there was only one in my state for anything related) so I went with the Computer Science route and focused on Multimedia and Internet Production.
I was already over working weekends. I honestly also thought I would be behind the competition if I didn’t use my certification right away and work in my field throughout school, so I looked for Junior level jobs with the skills I already had. I had no idea I knew so little, or that what I did know was valuable. I landed a Junior Web Design position for a marketing team in a commercial realtor group. I still remember the first day; I was asked to resize a whole folder of property photos. I felt relieved that it was an easy task and that boosted my confidence, but I was always looking up to what better designers were doing and thinking how crappy my “real world” work looked to their portfolio work. It was during these early years already in my field that I first learned that there was a career path or industry doing design work.
Real World Skills
I scheduled my classes around my part time work and learned a lot about email marketing, web design, SEO, business culture (which ignited my passion for changing it), real estate (I ended up licensed to do my job), marketing and got to do some fun team building activities. I worked toward my BS in Computer Science with a focus on Multimedia and Internet Programming and graduated with honors. I did my required degree internship with Capital Area Intermediate Unit in Harrisburg with my first exposure to a CMS (Joomla) while I then went full time with the real estate group when I graduated and then began looking for something new.
Identifying weakness by comparison to others
I started to see my weakness in graphic design principles due to the focus in my education and full time work, so I took a position as a graphic designer designing banner ads and emails. I learned to ask for work examples you will be doing before you take any design job. I was here for a year and got really fast at production and better at design principles due to high volume and quick deadlines. I started to miss development so I kept my options open, and when a position came around for me to work in a small local agency I took it.
Never Sit Still
A few years in with lots of well rounded experience, I still felt like everyone I was reading about was so much better than me and that experience at an agency would surely help me feel more legitimate because I would be creating comprehensive work. I still felt pulled toward the design aspect but was thrown into projects head first with little direction and so had a huge variety of responsibilities including working directly with clients and some more business culture that was less than ideal. I still felt stuck from pushing forward due to all I had to do to help run the business so I took an interactive design position at the local PBS/NPR station in Harrisburg.
Round It Out
Their facilities were top notch, they bought me a brand new Mac Pro and the people I worked with were great. I was able to focus more on the skills I had learned previously and learn from other technical people. All the while I felt like the projects I worked on were well within my skill set, helping our company grow and helping our constituents, but they weren’t near the level of quality I saw peers cranking out on Dribbble and Behance. Due to the lack of focus on graphic design work in my portfolio, I never got attracted to a graphic design agency and I was always afraid to stop coding.
Part of that position was also commercial work for a media marketing company where I got to do graphic and web design work. I got to work on some fun projects including some country music proposals for CMA Awards. I still looked at the work that was on display at the actual event and was embarrassed to have used stock illustrations. I thought to be a legitimate creative I should be able to custom illustrate everything. I felt like I was doing my job, but as a designer I just wasn’t up to par. I needed to be better at so much and I needed to produce full sites, apps, etc. Even the graphics I made for a mobile app package were embarrassing to me. Other designers were designing full, beautiful apps from the ground up.
I displayed my work in my portfolio as a way to attract potential opportunities, but I let my feeling of inadequacy fuel my paralysis of new ideas for personal projects that could fill the gaps. All the while, I kept looking for the next best thing. This didn’t necessarily make me a better designer, but it did push me to keep learning and not to shut out potential opportunities or to stay anywhere you aren’t happy. I got really good at interviewing.
The Search Continues
One day I was approached by a recruiter for a Sr. Interactive design position about two hours away from me. Instead of saying no (I was very interested in the job itself) I expressed my interest followed by the ability to work remotely part time to perform the work they need done by someone with aligned experience. It worked and I got my foot in the door at Schoolwires, focusing on the web and tech side of their marketing team while keeping my other foot in their product design team (those who actually interviewed me and had similar skills). After being in the marketing team for a while my position changed to more UX research than design which did not interest me. I reluctantly left a company I really liked for more experience doing what I enjoyed. A full time UX consulting gig at an international corporate taught me a lot but lasted only a few months until Schoolwires had a product design position open and I went back and took the skills I had learned.
I am now a part of a team that feels right. I still look up to many designers and admire so much work on the web that it makes me stop in my tracks and re-evaluate my daily work. This is still the way that motivates me to get better. I am much more confident in my work today and realize that every day work IS real work. The quality at which you execute can only be your best and no more. Feeling not enough can be demoralizing to many, but for me it fuels me to be better. I feel strongly that if you feel you’ve “arrived” you are on your way out. My current position also has afforded me with some strong mentors which I never really had before and that has made a huge difference for me as well. Props to Jason Coudriet and Sara Hardy.
For the record, I am still working on even more design projects on my own time and "doing art" for a living.