Design was not my calling. But becoming a designer was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Growing up, I never wanted to be a designer. Don’t get me wrong — I love Design. But I can still remember how anxious and confused I felt when I was asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as a child. I continued to be perplexed by this question into early adulthood. How could anyone know what they wanted to do with their lives when there are so many things to choose from?
From a young age I loved creating things. I used so much of the craft resources in my primary school that my my mum would have to secretly dismantle my numerous cereal box sculptures and return their parts to the art room, so that there was enough cardboard for the other kids to play with. As I grew older, I spent of a lot of time playing guitar, drawing and exploring outdoors. But my curious nature spilled into my academic life, too. I loved understanding things and found myself really engaging in philosophy and physics.
When I entered the working world, my analytic mind and creative disposition always seemed at odds with one another. For a long time, I worked as a visual technician, designing graphics for LED signs for large-scale events like Glastonbury festival. I enjoyed the work, but I still missed critical thinking. To eliminate the feeling, I did a MA in philosophy. This had the inverse effect. I loved using my mind, but missed exploring my creativity. After many years trying to navigate this pendulum, I ultimately was left feeling lost and paralysed by indecision.
It wasn’t until I really took some time to travel the world that I realised that the problem was not me. The problem was the narrative that I had been fed about deciding what to do with my life. From a young age, we get fed the idea that each person has a calling or a passion. The implication is that finding this one thing is a one way ticket to fulfilment. The trouble was that I, like a lot of people, had no idea what my ‘thing’ was. I was a multifaceted human being, with a multitude of interests, strengths and weaknesses. I loved living lots of different experiences. The challenge was not identifying the one thing that made me ‘complete’ but learning how to apply myself to the best of my ability to one of the many things I had the potential to be.
This meant that finding my career path was actually a quite logical process for me, not unlike the process I might take in the beginning phases of designing a product. The first step I took was asking myself at a generic high-level, what was I good at. I knew I was creative, thoughtful and analytical. My second step was asking myself: What do I enjoy? I then started to look at careers that intersected across these two categories. In a way, I was looking at the end user — myself — and working out who the user was and what the user needed.
I then started thinking about other, less significant factors. For instance, I wanted a job I could take anywhere in the world. So it was a big plus if a career path did not tie me to one country. I wanted a job where I could grow a lot, too. So a job where I was constantly learning was important to me, too. There are lots of other factors to think of — for instance, I considered salary expectations or how long it would take me to qualify for a role as well. I started looking at different career paths and uncovered which ones met “my users needs best.”
After sifting my way through lots of mind maps, prioritisation matrixes and Venn diagrams, it was right in the middle of my page of scrawling notes. UX/UI design. I swallowed myself in research. While it was clear that the journey would not be easy — I hadn’t been to design school and I didn’t strictly know anyone in the industry — the more I investigated, the more apparent it came that it was the the right path for me. I spent hours reading about the industry and talking to anyone I could about what the industry was like. After finishing a course, I realised I had only done half the work.
Landing your first design role is no easy task under ordinary circumstances, but doing it in the midst of a global pandemic felt near impossible. I laboured over my portfolio for weeks and weeks. I diligently sent out job applications with carefully worded, personal cover letters. I took on freelance projects in the name of experience. I set up countless virtual coffees with established designers. Yet despite my efforts, anyone I spoke too said the same thing: “It was very nice to meet you, Holly and we will let you know if we hear of anything — but at the moment, we aren’t hiring. No one really is.”
Trying to break into design, you become well adjusted to rejection. So when Sainsbury’s offered me a position as an Experience designer for Nectar, I felt awash with excitement and relief. I had achieved a goal that had, at points, felt impossible. Now I get to do something that I enjoy every day. Yet working as a designer, I realise that the mindset I had when I was working out what I wanted to do never really leaves. Honing my craft is an ongoing journey. While I’m still not confronted with the question of what to do with my life, I’m still asking myself where I want to learn, to grow and develop. This still involves asking myself introspective questions like “what will I enjoy doing everyday?”, or “what meets my natural dispositions?” and “where can I grow?”. It’s made me see that life is an ongoing, iterative process. So for anyone thinking about becoming a designer, or struggling to know what to do next, then I would suggest asking yourself these three questions and seeing what comes out.