My path to design is a bit irregular. I studied fine art at University of Wisconsin-Madison. They have great printmaking and sculpture programs there, but I fell in love with life drawing.
I had little interest in design then. I took one type course and dropped it immediately when the professor snapped at me for asking a question. Have you ever met someone whose core philosophy was in violent opposition to your own? People ask me if I regret that decision, because I would have found design sooner. No. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with design under a teacher like him.
I was leaving all my art friends behind to return to home, to a city 2x larger and I had no connections. They asked “What are you going to do there?” and I responded, “I’m going to do something BIG... in ART....” This was a total bluff. I had no idea what I meant. The universe interpreted it as a plea. Years later, I made a giant lite brite that was on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and now I co-organize CreativeMornings/Milwaukee. Those qualify as big and arty (Thanks, universe!).
Straight out of school, I started working in marketing for Honda. I thought, “Marketing. It’s creative. That’s close enough.” It wasn’t. My boss was always trying to find creative things for me to do so I wouldn’t get bored and quit. One day they let me give feedback on a postcard campaign. I’m sure the designers wondered who I was and what authority I had. It was that evening that I started researching schools. I went back to design school and landed my first internship within about a year.
I’ve mentored and taught at every stage of my career, often software skills, typography, UX, sometimes just listening to worries and helping sort out their career direction. Protectively, I don’t want anyone else to feel as lost and insecure as I did. It took me a long time to find my way in my career and even longer to find confidence. I felt like an imposter, faking it until I made it, and terrified someone would notice. As creatives, our paths are flexible and there are many entry points. This can feel unstable when you’re starting out.
Last summer, I held Office Hours to give recent grads and those in career transition an opportunity to drop in and ask questions on absolutely anything. It was fun. Lots of grads had questions around networking. I get it — it was big fear for me too. I’m shy and introverted. I’ll share my advice: Don’t think of it as networking, just think of it as being in public and making friends.
AIGA used to be very active here, drawing big speakers like Tina Roth Eisenberg and Michael Bierut, but lately that seems to not be the case. We had a critical design dialogue series called Designers Talking, but the organizer left for grad school. We recently got a TDK chapter and I’m hopeful that it can fill some of the void.
There are a ton of small design shops in Milwaukee— so many that I’m discovering more daily— and a handful of bigger agencies. I started out in small and midsize agencies, working my way up from intern to associate creative director. Three years ago, I went independent because I wanted the freedom to choose my own clients and to set the tone for my work and collaborations. Most of the work I do is in the UX/UI sphere, so I spend more time with Engineers than other Designers. I like Engineers, but I have to carve out time to connect with other designers or else I get professionally lonely.
1. Keep peeling back layers by asking good questions. It will make some clients uncomfortable, but it needs to be done if you’re going to help them.
The big goal is to be a digital nomad. I want to live mini-lives abroad; live for 6 months in a place, move. Long enough to not be a tourist. Rome, Montreal, Prague, Bangkok, Sao Paulo, wherever. I’ve got English down pat, I still remember a fair bit of Spanish, and I spend my mornings learning French, just in case.
In the long run, this will mean a big shift in my work. I have three options: 1) find a job that allows and encourages me to be 100% remote 2) get all my clients on board with the idea of Hangout-only meetings and hope work doesn’t dry up or 3) Work for a global company. We shall see.