Hindsight is a Career’s Best Friend

It has been 7 years since I qualified from University with an honours degree in Applied Graphics Technology with Multimedia, a very quick 7 years it must be said and 7 of the biggest years in the history of the web. To put things into perspective, when I left University, YouTube was only a year old, Bebo and MySpace were the most popular social networking websites as Facebook hadn’t publicly opened yet. Oh, and the Nokia N95 was at the cutting edge of mobile devices.

At this moment in time, I am a very happy full-time employee at an Edinburgh based agency that specialises in App and Website design and development. I work part-time with a San Francisco based startup and also freelance on the side under the guise of Citrus Sunrise Digital. I consider myself a very busy, very happy, web designer and front-end developer and I am very grateful to be where I am today. However, this wouldn’t have been possible without the harsh lessons that I have learned in those 7 years and this is what I intend to focus on with this article.

When I left University in the summer of 2006, I was already lucky enough to have had some part-time and freelance experience within the web industry but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do full-time as my passion had always been with animation and multimedia production.

My First Job

I applied for a few jobs and eventually got my break later in 2006 when I was hired by Europe’s largest independent car dealership as a Junior Web Designer. In Scotland there are not many larger companies so for my first ‘proper’ job to be with them was a massive privilege and I couldn’t wait to get started. Within 5-6 months, I had been promoted to Web Designer and in general the first two years were great as the company’s full suite of websites required redesigned and relaunched.

Unfortunately, after the first two years the job satisfaction diminished. As someone who likes to be creative and constantly challenged with new projects, the work dried up and my daily routine became more along the lines of site maintenance than actual designing. The other designers and I were always coming up with new ideas of how to improve the website, the workflow and the company’s social media presence among other things but the management saw our suggestions as negative and criticisms rather than positive steps towards something more productive.

There is only so much rejection that you can take before it has a detrimental effect on your job satisfaction and creativity levels.

The Comfort Zone

I should have looked to move on before I did but I became “comfortable”. I could turn up on a daily basis and get through the day with minimal effort. What annoyed me most is that this job almost killed my interest in design completely. I used to actively contribute on design forums and I used to love getting home and opening up Photoshop, designing different bits and pieces and taking part in online graphic design battles but it got to a stage where I could not stand being near a computer outside of office hours and I was in serious consideration of a career change.

Thankfully I made the decision to go to the Future of Web Design 2011 in London. It was the first web conference that I had attended and it really got my buzz going again. Seeing and listening to these other creatives got me back into my old mindset, the event inspired me to get out of that job and later that year I did.

I lost about 2 and half years of my professional life being in this comfort zone and to this day is one of, if not the biggest, regret I have but hindsight is a marvellous thing. I can’t stress enough that a job is just a job and if you are unhappy you need to do something about it.

The biggest lessons that I have learned are:

  • to stay positive no matter what because negativity only leads to laziness and below par productivity
  • always stand up for what you believe in
  • that you are allowed to say no
  • keep your mind and creativity active with side projects
  • take part in online discussions with like-minded people
  • use any spare time productively, learn a new skill and/or do tutorials
  • actively seek new challenges to keep your creativity levels up
  • and never stay in a job that you’re unhappy with

Making up for Lost Time

In the 2 and a half years or so that I lost in the comfort zone, I fell way behind on design trends, development techniques and I lost interest in the web industry as a whole. It was just a day job now. I hadn’t realised just how much I’d fallen away or how little I cared until I’d been to FOWD, I honestly don’t know where I’d be now if I hadn’t attended that event.

Future of Web Design gave me the inspiration I needed to catch up and get my skill levels back up to scratch.

Change Is Good, Embrace It

I don’t think I would ever go back to working in an environment where the focus isn’t on design. It is really difficult working for people who have no background or little interest in what it is you do which is why for the past couple of years I have worked in design agencies. Of course there can be pros and cons of working in design agencies too; tight deadlines and heavy workloads may not be everyone’s cup of tea but personally I relish being under pressure as I feel thats when I produce my best work as there is very little room for error.

Lesson Learned

Perhaps it was inexperience on my part that lead to me becoming as unhappy as I was, if I could turn back time I would definitely have done things differently but as I previously mentioned I wouldn’t be where I am today without having experienced what I have and I am a much happier person now because of it.

Between full time, part time and freelancing work I am learning new things and producing new ideas on an almost daily basis. My creativity levels are as high as they’ve ever been and I am a much happier person. This happiness is mainly thanks to the encouragement and kind words that I have received from employers, clients and friends within the industry.

Hindsight is great, I’m sure that everyone has something that they’d go back and do differently but instead of dwelling on past events I chose to learn from them, to keep an eye out for warning signs and turn the negativity I have experienced into something positive.

I hope that my words can inspire you to do the same.

  • Graeme Pirie

    Interesting post.

    I had similar thoughts about a previous employment, where any enjoyment was slowly sucked out of it under huge pressures. Deadlines meant nothing and a lot of pressure was applied to do hours of unpaid overtime under the threat that “people who helped the company” would be rewarded. I even received calls in the evenings to go back to the office as they’d promised the client something that was in no way realistic! Having moved on, I now have done the opposite move to you going from an agency to an in-house position and find the envirnonment much better, and although working with people with whom technology isn’t their area of expertise having the opportunity to make a real difference to an organisation is what appeals to me.

    It will be interesting to see if I experience the same issues to yourself in a couple of years when maintenance becomes the main focus but so far I can gladly say that moving on was the best thing I could have done.

    • I’ve thankfully yet to experience these pressurised late evenings working in agencies (touch wood) and I know of others similar to yourself who prefer the in-house environment to working at an agency. I had much the same mindset for the first couple of years or so about being involved in a big organisation and moulding their digital landscape but as I mentioned above, the other designers and I continually tried to make a difference and push for new technologies but we were always met with corporate red tape because of that lack of expertise and understanding about the difference the ideas would bring.

      It got to that stage where we’d been rejected so much we just stopped bothering and thats when getting into the comfort zone set in, we weren’t challenged in any way, the company was happy enough to toddle along with what they had and maintenance became our thing. It was really underwhelming and ended up with the designers questioning what we were even really doing there.

      Of course these issues may only occur at that particular company, other in house jobs may be (I’d hope) a lot better in terms of taking new ideas on board and pushing their team to be the best they can. The biggest lesson I learned from the whole experience was that as soon as you start to become unhappy, just get out, there’s no point in being miserable day to day or prolonging the job in hope that one day it may get better.

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