A “Coming of Age” Sabbatical Story

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity

— Lao Tzu

One afternoon I found myself leaning against a pier railing, gazing out at the SF Bay, my mind as churned up as the grey water. After more than 30 years, I was contemplating quitting my beloved design job. I consider myself a patient creative force and a late bloomer, so when I took a museum art director position after many years as a museum designer, I felt a renewed sense of purpose. It was a natural shift from proving myself to wanting to mentor and support other designers. Professionally I was on fire, but I was a woman on the verge. It wasn’t creative burnout that pushed me to the stormy edge; it was work politics. At a time when my design agenda felt most urgent, I found myself unsupported and impossibly restricted. I was 61, too young to retire and perhaps too old to get a similar job, an age when many designers feel most vital and eager to realize their abilities, yet strangely vulnerable. “Quit while you’re ahead” is a bittersweet pill to swallow. But this was a professional emergency, so I took the leap of resignation.

After working so hard on the world, I just wanted to let the world work on me. Beyond that, my professional future was officially uncertain. I accepted this, but I needed a strategy, even for exploring the unknown. My plan was to take a sabbatical, with three main components. First, because time heals all wounds, and I was in professional pain, I gave myself a whole year. Second, I decided to circle the world. For me travel is a powerful wake up call, like flipping a big awareness switch to “ON.” Foreign realities are an eye-opener, a way to see in a fresh, sensitized way. Third, I started a blog Design to Go. As an art director, I enjoyed pairing photos with observations and questions as a way to think aloud with my design group. At our weekly design forum, I often shared travel design findings for inspiration and critical thinking. A blog seemed like a natural way to take this on the road. Finally, the actual departure was a simple leap of faith. My husband & I rented our apartment to fund the journey. We traveled light, planned as we went and stayed in cheap airbnbs, often for a month or more. We were able to support each other by sharing the journey as a personal “gap year” as well as a sabbatical for me. Our teamwork made the weird intensity of living on the road more fluid and manageable.

A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to,
and a perfect traveler is one who does not know where he came from.

— Lin Yu Tang

Six months later I was walking around Aki Ra’s Landmine Museum in Cambodia, photographing an exhibition strung between the trees of a dusty side yard. I was deeply moved by the urgent mission of this grassroots museum. With Design to Go, I was interested in all of the ways that communication arts intersect with real environments and direct experience. Fueled by years of design problem solving and creative brainstorming, it was time to take a leap beyond my own assumptions and trust in fresh impressions. I felt liberated to follow my own quirky intuitions. The wide world is an embarrassment of design riches, and I gave myself full permission to wander, finding surprising meaning in unexpected places.

My casual intent was to collect material to reflect on later, but intriguing design themes surfaced along the way. For example, I thought a lot about narrative; from living room family mementos to anonymous street art, the need to tell stories through images, objects and words is universal and profound. Exhibition designers need to recognize a wider range of situations and forms of narrative outside the traditional museum. All the same questions about “visitor” behavior, participation, interactivity and relevance can be applied to a wider context, which in turn informs and inspires exhibition design. I was fascinated by what I think of as “surreal meaning” in graphic design; the accidental overlapping of practical and poetic messages in the environment. With my bias towards simple, honest design methods, I was constantly focused on issues of respect and authenticity. I found myself drawn to museums with organic origins and no pretense of being neutral. I even developed random or fleeting obsessions such as food packaging and the ghostly residue of signage. It took many months for me to recognize the value of my blog, but eventually I came to see it as the professional self-gift of my sabbatical. Like a saxophone player under the bridge, I needed to put in some time alone.

Design to Go was the professional purpose of my journey. I was surprised to discover how much two other elements nourished my sabbatical. As a Tai Chi instructor, I needed to practice Tai Chi on the road (somehow), which often meant climbing up to rooftops at dawn. Overcoming my self-consciousness while immersed in different cultures, Tai Chi kept me focused and prepared for the unpredictable. And when I felt dazed and overwhelmed, I turned to collage, a practice I’ve maintained since art school. I carried a small pouch with postcards, scissors, rice glue and a fat sharpie. If graphic design is the arrangement of word and image to communicate a pre-determined message, then to me collage is graphic art in the service of mystery, an unconscious arrangement of found word and image to discover complex meanings, visual poems of experience. Ultimately the value of my sabbatical came from the synergy of all these elements; time, travel, design blog, Tai Chi and collage. I had found a balance between working on the world and letting the world work on me.

Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?

— Lao Tzu

Full circle. Exactly one year, 14 countries and 176 collages later I returned to SF. I was energized and grateful, but my newly gray hair made me wonder what happens to older designers who jump ship and go adrift as I had? After all, I knew it was risky to take a sabbatical so late in my career. Re-entry meant taking another leap, into the free fall of transition, and I knew it was probably too late to find a professional landing place. I became doubtful of my relevance and role. Was I parachuting directly into retirement? Far below, that looked like a crashing sign of failure.

Fortunately, after catching my breath for a few months, I’ve come to a new clarity. Age is not the problem. Age was in fact the key that gave my sabbatical substance. Now instead of dreading ageism, I feel oddly immune. I’m older and wiser and have no regrets. Like the rite of passage of a teenager, my sabbatical was like a second “coming of age”. I gave up all professional pretense and need for approval and I’m no longer intimidated by work politics. The gift of age is the freedom from fear; the freedom to think freely, to ask different questions, to offer unusual insights from experience. It’s the natural continuation of the support and mentoring role of an art director. I left as a museum art director and returned with an international perspective and fresh interests as a design consultant, reporter or educator. A vital and creative retirement is not a failure. I’ve been told that if you meet the world halfway (or go around it) it will come forward to meet you, and I believe this is true, at any age.

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