Always do what you love. That’s what they say, right? If you follow your dreams and try to make it in the field that you actually enjoy the work, then you will be good at your job and (most importantly) those long days in the office won’t feel like work. I’ve always agreed with that philosophy and it’s partly the reason why I have enjoyed some success in my career — but what happens when you are finally in that dream role and all you want to do is quit?
I have never been worried about quitting any job I’ve ever had. Not because I’m a bad employee, far from it, I always work hard and get along with people so I’m usually turning down pay rises to stay. It’s because I’ve tried to always make sure I enjoy not only what I do for a living but also the people I do it with — so it wasn’t a big deal for me to quit my comfortable position at a publishing house to join Conde Nast Digital UK as an intern a little over 4 years ago.
I remember going to the interview at Conde and my boss-to-be asking me why, with four years of experience and running the design team where I was, would I want to go back to being an intern? (on an intern’s salary and no promise of a role after 6 months). My answer was simple: I had never designed a website before and was fascinated by how a PSD becomes a live website! Plus, I loved GQ magazine. I proceeded to call him every day until he caved in and offered me a position in the team.
I had no idea what to expect working for such a huge company like Conde Nast. I had always worked at small to medium sized companies where everyone pretty much knew each other and suddenly, I was working on the 7th floor of Vogue House in London, which housed over 700 employees. I was given a desk that faced a white wall and given a temporary user name of onlinedesigner2 (one which I still use to this day).
The first few months were tough. I was just another number and was basically the design slave for the Vogue and Glamour editorial teams. I tried to just work hard and although I may not have been loving my job at that time, I was learning so much about the intricacies of designing for the web that it kept me going. I must of been doing something right as 4 months into my internship, I was offered a permanent role with the team and from there it all changed.
I gained in confidence and under the mentoring of the lead designer, we started to create some really innovative work. This was all around the time that media queries and responsive websites first started to be talked about and I remember my mind being blown when I was given a demonstration by one of our developers of how one website could change layout at different screen widths. It was also the first time I had worked with an Information Architect and I found it fascinating to see not only the stats that they would produce, analysing our users behaviours but also wireframes he would create for innovative solutions.
I started to genuinely love my job. I would come to work every day and be amazed by what the others would show me that they wanted to build and together we would figure out a way to do it. We were a mixed group of around 30 people but we all shared the passion for the products that we built, wether that was launching the fully responsive Vogue UK website or inventing an advert builder for the new fully responsive format that we created. We spent many late nights in the office with music and pizza to keep us company but it never felt forced. We were all there because we wanted to be and because we saw the value in what we were creating.
Being in a position where I genuinely looked forward to work on a Monday was brilliant for my career and saw me develop more as a designer in 3 years then I would of in 10 years somewhere else. I started to move up the ranks until I was the Senior designer of the group, responsible for guiding other designers and leaving the lead to deal with all the meetings and planning that comes with management. In hindsight, I never had it as good as I did then. Lots of responsibility but with a great boss above me who would shield us from the business pressures from the sales teams, editors or deadlines.
We were there to create work that we would be proud of and would only launch a product when it was ready. This attitude saw us create some beautiful products and completely re-think how users consume long form articles online. I remember how proud I felt after launching the GQ and Wired article templates and seeing how successful they became. Our work won us a few awards and lots of praise from our peers. It was such a special feeling to work in such an amazing team that also got along so well outside of work.
I’m sad to say that it all changed not long after. The powers that be wanted more than just having industry leading products and decided to bring in a Digital Director to monetise all of our products. Everything changed from there. We went from building prototypes of new gallery and article experiences to building micro sites for the highest bidder. A lot of people left in a very short period of time. It felt like every week we were having a leaving party for yet another integral member of the team but I guess that they were too talented to build 1 page advertorial sites.
I found myself being promoted to the Head of Design (which the ambitious side of me just couldn’t turn down) and quickly started to hate my work life. I had worked hard to finally feel like I was good at what I did and was now being told that my designing days are over and that my role was to manage the creative output for the team. The problems were that a) there wasn’t much of a team left and b) the creative output they wanted were just adverts for whichever third party brand offered the most money.
Adverts started to pop up all over our sites with little regard for what had gone on before. For instance, we had designed the gallery and article templates to only host an MPU (300x250px) or responsive adverts as we felt that hosting Double Sky adverts (300x600px) would be detrimental to the user experience on mobiles and small screens but Double Sky adverts were added wherever they could — often breaking the templates. Our websites were falling apart. They had been ignored for months in favour of concentrating on the commercial side of the business.
We basically became an agency creating bad work for anyone who would pay for it. The problem was, when you are Vogue, GQ, Glamour and Wired, there are a line of brands desperate to advertise with you which kept fuelling the fire. By now, the company was breaking a sales record every week and the management were celebrating in whatever lavish pursuit they desired that week but the websites and more importantly, the people building the websites, were on their last legs. Me included.
It genuinely upset me looking at how our sites that we spent years iterating had just become a warehouse for adverts. I had not joined as an intern to build bad micro sites for brands selling deodorant or hair products, I had joined to keep our best in class websites for the brands that I admired innovative. I decided that enough was enough and became the 12th member of a once tight knit family to leave the team.
I look back at the whole Conde Nast experience predominantly positively. I spent some of the best years that I have had in any job there with some of the kindest and most talented people that tought me so much. I rarely visit any of the sites anymore as it genuinely pains me to see what has become of them and although I’m sure they are still a cash cow, how much longer until even the smaller brands stop advertising and you are left with a once beautiful but war torn product that is miles behind the competition?
I never chose to design because I wanted to be rich. I design because I enjoy making beautiful products that enhance people’s lives. I’ve learnt that although I am ambitious and always want to develop, my sweet spot was and always will be that beautiful senior designer position. It’s great to make money but at what cost? Working 14 hour days, building products that I was embarrassed of with the memories of how great it used to be finally broke me and it’s taken me a long break and lots of travel to even start to be inspired enough to get back into designing.