I’m dangerously nearing my 30th birthday, and round numbers like that tend to make us evaluate things, and become very analytical of our own path.
My path hasn't been very straightforward, and I don’t see any signs of that changing... But one thing remained a constant for the past 15 years, and I wanted to write about it today – graphic design.
I primarily identify myself as an artist, because let’s be completely honest here – I love creating my own things more than I love working for other people. And design is always that: working with others’ needs in mind, whether it’s my clients’ or my readers’. Pure, uninhibited self-expression is just more fun.
But despite my passion for art, I spend way more time designing things – logos, websites, posters, business cards, you name it – and it makes sense because hey, that’s what pays my bills. It’s a simple equation. No design, no money for rent, food, books and art supplies. Maybe I’d be able to make a living from art if I started spending more time doing it, but I enjoy having it as a pure passion, unburdened by the need to earn any money, and my artworks are the best when I don’t care about who’s going to like it.
So, that leaves me with design.
My journey as a designer
I started fiddling with design when I was about 14 years old. I had just recently gotten a computer that had a CD-ROM unit and a color monitor. This opened up so many options I didn’t have before. Back then, there was no Wikipedia, and social media was called “forums” and “chat”. Computer magazines were big, because you couldn’t get all the information you needed online for free. They used to come with a CD that had a bunch of free or trial software – that’s how I laid my hands on my first photo editing programs.
I honestly don’t remember which one was the first because I tried and tested all of them simultaneously, until my trials expired and it was time to get a new CD with a newer version. There was Photoshop 6 and Paint Shop Pro, among many others that didn’t impress me.
Besides photo editors, I also looked into website design tools. There was ye olde Netscape Composer, and later a really neat one called FirstPage that came with a bunch of ready-made scripts. Then someone gave me a cracked version of Macromedia Dreamweaver and I played around with that for a while as well.
My first designs were just for me, but after a while I created my first "real" website and actually put it online. I have no idea what content I had on it, but it didn’t even matter – I was having so much fun with design, that I was just looking for excuses to create a new website. Over the years I must have had dozens of them. Not even exaggerating. I’d think of a fun project, and then I’d make a website. Soon after I’d lose interest in the project and went on to the next.
Eventually dealing with the projects themselves became cumbersome, so I decided to just create website designs for no reason and offer them for free download. There was already a vibrant community of kids my age and younger from all over the world, whose hobby was to create website templates, wallpapers, avatars and Photoshop brushes... and I jumped in. My main web project became a resource site that started off as "Nelchee's Dungeon" (it's not what you think) and later became inObscuro. I changed its design whenever I felt bored with it, since, unlike right now, I had all the time in the world.
I’ll show you some of those very early designs. I think it’s really inspiring to see that we all start from zero.
Those are the best screenshots I’ve got, sorry. I’ve lost most of my old files in a hard drive crash.
The reason I’m telling your this long-winded story is to give you a picture of the drive that pushed me forward to learn more and more about design. I wasn’t motivated by the desire to become a freelancer and earn money working from home. I didn’t even know that option was on the table. There was just this insatiable curiosity for learning, combined with creative fire that wanted to be expressed in whatever form was available.
You probably know what I’m talking about, because there must have been a time in your life when you’ve felt the same. Maybe you still feel this way, or maybe these days are passed and now you feel like you can no longer have it. You think that maybe this kind of passion is only available to beginners? If that’s the case, you’ll love to hear what comes next.
I discovered a Croatian forum of artists, designers and web developers and became an active member there. This community helped a lot in my development on all fields. Some of the members there were accomplished professionals, and they generously gave away their time and advice to help newbies like me learn their craft. (A few years ago, my ex boss paid a hefty sum to get one of those experts in office to train our team. I recommended the guy not the least because of the impression he left on me on the forum.)
I learned a lot from these folks, both about design theory (and where to find more information on that, since I didn’t study design) and about coding. I’ve learned of the importance of web standards, browser compatibility and started coding my own HTML and CSS. All this newfound knowledge got to my head, so one day I sent a hate mail to a web design agency that had a site that looked broken in Firefox, basically calling them inept. Instead of sending me to Hell or ignoring me, the guy offered me a job.
And that’s how Nela the design apprentice became a freelancer.
When your passion becomes your job
I already wrote about a dilemma called Should you turn your hobby into a job? where I get more into the pros and cons of doing that. Here I’m going to tell you a bit more of my own experience and what effect it had on my creative drive.
As expected, having to show up and do the work whether you’re inspired or not is quite different from riding the wave of inspiration that I was so used to. More so, the designs I was creating for clients were “dull” and “boring” compared to cartoon and fantasy inspired things I did for myself. Soon enough, my initial drive was spent and I realized there’s really nothing glamorous about this job compared to all the other jobs I’ve had until that point, the main difference being that now I didn’t have to leave my room, talk to people or stand on my feet the whole day.
About the same time when I started freelancing as a designer, I found a new passion – drawing and digital art. Before that, I was spending sleepless nights designing, now I was learning how to draw and edit photos. I learned quite fast, since I always immerse myself 100% in a new passion, so soon enough I had some job offers for illustration gigs too, but there was never enough demand for me to fully transition.
For several years I was freelancing and working with a couple of agencies, but I rejected permanent job offers. Then my 2008 depression hit (more on that here) and I found myself out of money, with no clients and a huge driving school bill to pay. I got a call from a friend about a job position he recommended me for, and I went to the interview. I stayed in that company for about 2 years, and left to another one where I stayed another 3 years. During that time, my love for design started to lose its sparkle. Not only was I not super passionate about it, it actually felt like a chore.
I’d come into the office, work for 8 hours, go home and do art, jewelry, sewing or whatever was my “thing” at the moment. I no longer jumped on every new technology that came out. My once insatiable curiosity dwindled, and I only learned the bare necessities in order to perform my job well. Well, but not excellent. In my spare time I was reading about art, drawing, psychology and personal development, rarely design. I started dreaming about switching to a career in illustration.
“If only I could be drawing fantasy scenes all day every day, I’d love my job.”
“If only I’d have interesting books and music to inspire my work, I’d be so much happier.”
I was telling myself these stories, and decided that in 5 years time, I’ll go on my way as a freelancer and do illustration as my main career focus. Prophetically, 5 years later I did in fact become a full-time freelancer, but not as an illustrator.
My first freelance project was almost an employment gig (down to coming into the office “occasionally”) and all the things I didn’t like about my jobs became evident here as well. I wasn’t happy with my work there, and neither were they. We parted ways after a few months, and I was left with a bitter taste that taught me what I never wanted to experience again.
What happened to my passion?
I have a theory about what happened. The reason I have this theory is that now, almost 2 years since I became a freelancer for the second time, and 15 years after I started doing this work, I feel that spark again.
I thought that I was “over” design and that I’d never be able to find fulfillment in it. I thought I had to look for something else to fill my creative well. Like art, illustration, art therapy or writing... I even thought that no matter what I did, even a creative a job is a job, and it cannot be “fun” by definition, because you’re doing things for someone else. But experience has taught me that I still have a lot to give and that I do it gladly, when certain conditions are met. And I believe that these conditions are the same for all the creatives out there doing the work of their dreams, yet feeling as unfulfilled as I was.
When these conditions are not met, we’re unhappy. We resent our clients. We get burnt out easily. We find it hard to get up in the morning and somehow we’re always tired. My boyfriend used to ask me “Why are you so tired? You work a similar type of job as I do, the same number of hours... How am I not as tired?”
He wasn't tired because he didn’t spend so much energy struggling with himself 24/7. He didn’t feel the calling for something bigger and better that left him disillusioned with his current work. When you think about what’s going on in the background of your mind the whole time, is it any wonder we get tired and burnt out?
Now, about my theory.
I originally wrote all of this this as a single post, but it got too long so I published it as a separate post: How to bring back the passion – 5 key conditions for fulfilling creative work. It's packed with valuable, practical insights, so make sure you go read it.