Here are some of the last photos that I’ll be posting that were taken with my old faithful Nikon D70s. I bought it back in 2006, and it’s served me really well for over 6 years. In return for its loyal service, I’m heartlessly ditching it for a sexy new Nikon D600, which is full-frame (!!!!) and better in almost every way.
Sorry, old pal.
“Gourmet” food trucks (as seen at the Queen West Art Crawl last weekend) are a thing now.
When I think about the fact that I currently work full time as a front-end developer and that before that I worked at several jobs as a designer as well, sometimes it feels a little surreal, given my background. Four years ago, I was a fresh university graduate with a double major in History and Art History with no design or programming education or professional experience to speak of.
The aim of this post to try and give some advice that I would have appreciated hearing when I was first starting out as a total n00b. Everything I’ve written is of course through the lens of someone who works in the field of web design, but I don’t see why you couldn’t apply it to other creative or technical pursuits as well.
Here is what worked for me, and what I’d recommend to others starting out:
Starting as a hobbyist
There’s no easier way to test whether you’d like something than to just try it out on a personal project. I knew I liked to make websites because I’d been making terrible personal sites since I was 11 and thought that Geocities and animaged GIFs were awesome, and I’d continued to make cringeworthy websites through my teenage years. Of course, they were terrible by today’s standards and I’d never include any of them in a portfolio, but being a hobbyist without any professional pressure was a great way to slowly nurture a skill that I grew to enjoy and eventually become pretty good at. If you want to be a designer, experiment with some personal projects (perhaps try a logo or a business card). If you want to be a writer, start keeping a journal or start a blog. Nobody even has to know!
My first website ever, circa 1997. It featured a delightful colour scheme, gorgeous typography, and a state-of-the-art table-driven layout. It’s still an integral part of my portfolio, obviously.
Volunteering your skill for someone in need
Because I’m largely self-taught, I needed a lot of practice to hone my design and coding skills. The best way to do this without selling your soul is to volunteer your time and skills for people or groups who need them but could never afford a professional. Note! I’m not talking about responding to shady, exploitative Craigslist ads that ask you to work for free for “exposure” or because “it’ll be a great portfolio piece”. Barf. In my case, this initially meant volunteering to make websites and marketing materials for student groups while I was in school. It was a great way to practice in a fairly low-stress but real environment. I also ended up improving my web skills and gaining experience by volunteering for Stand Canada, which is entirely run by volunteers. If you’re a student you have a distinct advantage because student-run groups are always in need of talented volunteers, but if you’re not, there are plenty of worthy causes out there that could use your help. Ask around!
Although there are plenty of self-taught geniuses in the world, it’s sometimes difficult and overwhelming to teach yourself everything you need to know. It’s important to have some foundational knowledge, at least in design or development. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself copying and pasting recklessly without actually knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing.
You can choose to go to university or college for your chosen profession, but if you’ve already graduated from school and don’t have the time, money, or inclination to go back for another full program, there are other options. Most colleges offer continuing education, which is less of a time commitment than being a full time student, but still offers the structure of being in a class. As for me, I enrolled in a 3-year graphic design program right after graduation, but I left after the first semester, because it turned out that 7 years of consecutive post-secondary education didn’t seem so appealing after all.
If the traditional classroom isn’t quite your thing, that’s cool, too. There are lots of great free and paid resources on just about every topic. Personally, I find that paying for something means that I’ll actually use it more. After all, I’ve spent money on it, so if I don’t use it, I’m being wasteful and I’ll feel guilty about it, and guilt is obviously a good motivator. In the past I had a subscription to Lynda.com, which I found quite useful, especially in learning how to use Adobe CS programs. Then there’s iTunes U, where you can take courses for free from schools all over the world, which is pretty crazy when you think about it.
And of course I have to give a shout out to Ladies Learning Code (one-day workshops) and HackerYou (longer, more in-depth courses), both of which I am/have been involved with as a mentor. If you’re in Toronto, check ’em out.
Practising on family and friends
Now, let me clarify here: if you’re not that skilled yet and someone you know and love needs a professional job done, it might be awkward and a little painful if you try and take it on as a beginner. It’s always best to be honest with yourself about your skill level. However, there are lots of ways to practise your creative skill on friends and family without immense pressure. Do you have friends in a band? Make them a gig poster! Someone you know starting a new hobby? Make them a business card! Tell everyone you know about your burgeoning skill, and they’ll keep you in mind for future projects. I also want to note that doing things for free or very cheap for people you know is probably only a good idea when you’re just starting out and really need the practice, and aren’t yet at a skill level where you’d feel comfortable charging for your work. Once you’re past that, working for free or super-cheap is generally not such a good idea, both for yourself and for your industry. (That is, unless you’re doing it as a gift — then go ahead, you kind person, you!)
If all else fails, there’s always one client you can count on — yourself. I used to go through countless iterations of my website and “brand identity” (though to be honest I didn’t know enough to call it that back then), and this gave me tons of good practice that I could use in, or as, my portfolio later on. Doing work for yourself is a bit of a mixed blessing — although you have the freedom to do whatever you want, often we’re our own worst critics, and it’s extremely difficult to make something for ourselves that we’ll actually be satisfied with. This in itself is a mixed blessing as well, because creative dissatisfaction is a great motivator for trying new things and improving your skills.
Working your way up by working in-house
So, you’re starting to get good, and you’re on your way to finding a first real job in your chosen field. Hurray! A great way to start growing your skills if you’re talented but not yet an expert is to work in-house at a company, as opposed to working at an agency. I’m sure there are about 1000 exceptions to what I just said, but in my experience, working as an in-house designer or developer (client-side) is far less pressure than working with many clients at once (agency-side). Working at one organization generally means that you’ll be focused on fewer projects at once, and that you’ll be working on them for a longer period of time. It can be really enlightening to stay with a project from inception all the way to post-launch, and truly experience the outcomes of your decisions and work.
I was going to continue with what didn’t work so well for me, but this got so long that I’m going to cut it off here. Let me know if you found this useful, or even if you entirely disagree!
I used to think that my “unique” hobbies made me a bit of a special snowflake.
It’s laughable now, but when I was in high school, I was one of the only people I knew who owned a camera. It was a clunky 3-megapixel point-and-shoot that’s of course entirely obsolete today, but I loved that thing like you wouldn’t believe. That Canon A70 and I had a special bond; we understood each other. I was really proud of the fact that I’d bought it with my own money, and even prouder that I also knew how to use Photoshop enough to edit my photos.
I loved taking and editing photos, but I also secretly liked knowing that I had an interest in and an aptitude for something that most people my age didn’t really care much about at the time. I also felt similarly about knowing HTML. Let me tell you, 10-15 years ago, knowing how to code wasn’t at all cool, trendy, or even on most people’s radars (especially, let’s be honest, if you were a girl). So, regardless of how good I actually was, I could feel pretty proud of myself for exploring all of this “uncharted territory” (as I felt it was at the time).
Now, let’s fast forward to today. Not only does almost everyone have a camera in their phone, but apps like Instagram have become ubiquitous. Taking stylized photos is now something that everybody does. Digital SLRs are probably now owned by more new parents and pet owners than by professional photographers. Graphic design, which similarly used to be the domain of a small group of specialists, has also risen to prominence in popular culture in a similar way. In the age of Pantone accessories and Pinterest boards, it’s easy to argue that our culture cares more about design (at least on a very surface level) than ever before.
I took this picture with Instagram. So meta.
So how did I feel when I realized that I wasn’t such a special snowflake anymore? I’ll be honest – I was slightly annoyed at first. Now, the very things that I thought made me unique turned out not to be so unique after all. I had to examine my relationship with my skills and interests to see what I really wanted to get out of them. In time, I’ve come to realize a couple of things:
When you’re genuinely into something, it shouldn’t really matter how many other people share your interest. It’s kind of like when someone obnoxiously stops listening to a band they claimed to love the instant that band becomes popular. I mean, really. Did they ever actually like the music? The same goes for a niche interest that suddenly explodes. If you truly like what you’re doing, popularity or lack thereof shouldn’t make a huge difference. It will probably make some difference, honestly, but if it totally puts you off, maybe it’s a sign that you weren’t so into it in the first place.
Now that your formerly obscure pastime has been taken over by just about everybody, just showing up isn’t enough. Now, you actually have to be good to be recognized as an expert (or, really, as someone who’s even proficient) in your field. Feeling like an expert requires a lot more effort than it used to, especially when you have a whole Internet of people to compare yourself to. This can be both motivating and overwhelming. On good days, I settle on realizing that I’ll likely never be the best person in the world at anything, but letting all the talented people in the world motivate me to do better and better.
Interests, pastimes, and professions are a lot deeper than they first appear. Most people, myself obviously included, do things for a variety of reasons. We don’t just choose our hobbies for how they make us feel, but also for how they make us look. We don’t live in a vacuum, and a lot of our choices are dictated by how we think we’ll be perceived by others in the context of our culture and peer groups. The bitterness that some people feel when their previously obscure interest becomes popular really highlights this. I’m not judging that bitterness too harshly, since I think it’s a natural (human, imperfect) reaction. This kind of discomfort can actually be really interesting, since it shines light on our motivations, which usually sit, unnoticed, under the surface.