Achieving a full-time, creative career can seem an unachievable task in 2013. Many young designers, artists and musicians are struggling to do what they love for a living without having to work in something mundane to pay the bills, whilst they pursue their dream career part-time.
My life has taken many twists and turns, and with it so has my career. However, there has always been one thread that ran throughout, and that thread is creativity. Times of great change and economic upheaval can be the most fertile times to be entrepreneurial and strike out on your own--whether that's pitching yourself to a dream employer with a new idea, or starting your own business.
Here is my advice for conquering the creative career of your dreams, taken from my own experiences.
Discover what you love
Before I entered into the world of design, eventually leading me to start up my business Purpose & Worth etc, music was my forte. Like many teenagers, music became an acutely visceral experience for me--transporting me with an eye-watering intensity out of my very ordinary life, exposing me to whole new world of deep feeling and camaraderie. Unlike most teenage girls though, I found my musical tribe in the burgeoning art-punk scene of late-seventies Toronto and New York. Before I knew it, at the age of 16, I was the singer in a punk band, playing the underground club scene.
At the time I had no firm plans to do one thing in particular, but what I was sure of was that whatever I did pursue a career in, it had to be creative. After a riotous 18 months, my first band split. I had become somewhat disillusioned by some of the things I'd seen and so taking a step back I enrolled at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. Over the course of the next twenty years I led a parallel life of music and design; the two things I was and am still most passionate about. Although qualifications are not always imperative to a career in the creative industries, the educational journey can certainly help with building strong foundations.
The more you put in, the more you get out
When the band took centre stage, I put design on the back-burner, and when we returned from touring or recording, I got back to the business of design. It was a rigorous schedule: touring across Canada and gigging steadily in college towns in Canada and the States, playing SXSW in Austin, NMS and CMJ in NYC as well as writing and recording--then coming home and switching hats to 'designer'. But I've always felt lucky and grateful to be able to do the two things I love, and the opportunities haven't always been so readily available - just as they aren't at the moment for many young people. It took years of hard work, but the more you put in, the more you get out, and that is a sentiment that stands the test of time.
Opportunities will not always come to you, but rather you'll need to seek them out for yourself. After running an independent band and label for the better part of two decades I was tired, and needed a new injection of inspiration and purpose. We (my husband Derek, also the drummer in the band and a furniture maker/designer, owner of Purpose & Worth), decided that if we were going to make a change, it should be dramatic and life changing--enough to kick-start some real desire and fire in the belly. (And yes, distracting enough to make us not regret 'leaving' the band behind.) We sold what we could, packed up and moved to London, where we put on our other 'hats' to explore design opportunities in the UK.
Admittedly, relocating to London was a big reality check, but being flexible and open-minded is a must for those looking to work in the creative industries. As a designer, I'd worked for myself since leaving Art College and my client base in Toronto was such that I hadn't needed a portfolio of my design work to generate business. I didn't have any design connections in London, so for the first time in my life I had to put together a portfolio and flog my wares to find work. Not so easy when the language of the business is different and so are many of the basics, like the paper sizes! I registered with a few reputable but sceptical recruitment agents and waited by my landline because I didn't have a mobile, a necessity I was told.
Test the waters with freelance
Being a freelancer can be demoralising at times, often confidence destroying and lonely. I had no idea that the distances in London were so vast and discovered the tube was often unreliable. After a harrowing three months with no interviews I was offered a week of freelance work at a small internal design agency and finally got into the rhythm of working in London. I freelanced solidly for two years before accepting the position of Creative Director at Bisqit Design, overseeing design comms for a broad range of global clients and managing and mentoring a small team of designers. It was a foreign and unexpected place to find myself--working at the heart of large corporate comms agency, commuting in the daily crush of the Central Line tube, and all the responsibilities and stresses that went along with the role--but it was a hugely rewarding experience.
I learned how much I enjoyed mentoring young designers, which led me to an Associate Lecturer position at Camberwell College of arts, teaching advanced typography and layout, and I discovered that I could navigate the demands of a corporate environment and sell-in big, often brave ideas to clients. But I grew to resist the confines of such a structured business model and resent the lack of time I had to pursue other interests, so after four years I left to return to freelancing and take control back of my time. It was during the next five years of freelancing, that I started seriously planning the start-up my own business, Purpose & Worth etc. Freelancing can provide a great opportunity to test the waters of your chosen industry, and can also help as an incubator to your own business idea.
Consider starting your own business
I had a huge learning curve when I started. I knew nothing about the business of stationery, production or the industry, but I muddled in and found a fantastically helpful and generous group of people in this small industry who patiently answered questions, offered advice and pointed me in the right direction- a trusted sounding board is vital when setting up on your own. When I launched my first range of Purpose & Worth etc cards at the Progressive Greetings trade show, I was terrified that no-one would come to my stand or place an order, that I'd totally got it wrong and wasted a year planning and investing in my new venture. But thrillingly, that was not the case. I landed my first large retailer, Paperchase, as well as a handful of other design-led shops and galleries.
The overwhelming sense of achievement that comes from a positive response to your first business venture is indescribable. It is the first push of momentum that can kick-start your business to success, but getting to that first hurdle is often a difficult yet rewarding journey.
For anyone looking to start a career in design, I would offer this advice. Design is a process and a craft. You need to understand and master both to really liberate yourself to the enjoyment and application of designing. And it is problem solving with the objective being communication. Look everywhere for evidence of successful design, and when you come across someone who really knows their stuff, absorb and extract every bit of insight and information you can from them, it will be priceless. Passion is an obvious and over-used 'necessary ingredient' I think. Curiosity is a far more important character trait, and then of course, a lot of damn hard work and graft. You don't need a formal education, but you do need to be educated, so choose your mentors wisely and always try to find the answer yourself before asking someone else. It's a cliché, but the journey really is where it's at.
The times they are a changing- take the opportunity
The industry, and the world in general, is different and much more competitive now than when I first started out. Many of the artists I knew (including myself) were able to focus on careers in the creative industry without having to work another job on the side. Now that opportunities to get into the creative industries are so scarce for young people it's more important than ever they use their creativity to imagine and pursue new ways or working and thinking.
And while its tough out there, it's not all bad news. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article- times of great change and economic upheaval are the most fertile times to be entrepreneurial and strike out on your own. So, if your skills lay in creativity, then don't rule out a full-time creative career just yet, hard work and perseverance will pay off in the end.