Becoming a Stationery Designer

Becoming a Stationery Designer

I used to have a habit of making zig-zagging down my career path. As a college-bound high school senior in 1986, I had made the choice to go into computer engineering instead of pursuing some kind of English degree. After pushing on through to graduate school, I realized that I wasn’t happy and decided to go to art school for my MFA. My rationalization at the time was that I’d gone into computer engineering in the first place so I could make video games, so obtaining some credentialed experience on the art side of things would come in handy. And thus did I end up working briefly in the computer game industry from 1992 to 1999, before discovering once more that this wasn’t quite it. I didn’t know what “it” was, but I knew that I wasn’t these things:

  • I wasn’t a computer engineer
  • I wasn’t a computer animator
  • I wasn’t a game developer
  • I wasn’t even a hardcore gamer

Fortunately for me, the Internet was starting to supernova in 2000, and opportunities to do computer graphics and interactive design consulting dropped into my lap. In this world, credentials and technical ability matter somewhat, but what’s even more important is the ability to relate to people. It took me quite some time to realize this, having emphasized multi-disciplinary competence and unwavering ability as the ideal blend of talents to alloy within the crucible of my ambition. But, through good friends and one or two disasters I gradually learned the importance of this lesson. I started to develop an appreciation of people beyond ability, and my empathy—long suppressed—started to make itself visible in gasps and sudden starts.

In 2003 I became allergic to marketing work, and took some time off before leaving the company I was with for good. I had drifted out of alignment with their business trajectory. So I went freelance, and a couple years later began to start blogging. Unexpected success of a modest nature, in the form of the Printable CEO Concrete Goals Tracker, gave me an inkling of what it would be like to be appreciated for my own thoughts and own perspective. But I still didn’t know what I was, what I was doing, or where it would go. Eventually I learned a few more “I am not” things:

  • I wasn’t an interactive designer
  • I wasn’t a motion graphic designer
  • I wasn’t an entrepreneur
  • I wasn’t a consultant
  • I wasn’t a web developer

I found it interesting that while I could perform these functions, I didn’t find my identity within them. I wasn’t filled with excitement about being any of those things as an ends in itself.

Since existing labels didn’t stick, I started making up my own fields of expertise. For a while, I called myself an investigative designer, combining the observational powers of a crime scene investigator with the creative toolkit of a visual designer. This appealed to the creative consultancies. I also tried labels like information graphics designer, as I had seemed to develop a design sensibility along these lines with the various Printable CEO forms. I see now that this was an attempt to use the need for consulting status to muffle my inner disquiet.

In the 36 months leading up to 2012, I started to recognize that what was important to me was actually not business-related, but freedom-related. I want to write about what I find interesting because really I have no choice but to indulge. This is what I needed to be able to sustain. The point of me even having a business, I realized, would be to do THIS all the time and make it work FOR me at the same time.

Which brings me to now. The difficult shift is dropping all the things I used to do in favor of a new label: that of a producer of goods. I am used to portraying myself as someone who has a lot of skills combined with the insight to make things happen, in the general areas of technology, graphics, and workflow. Even though I didn’t work in a company, I subconsciously told myself that I could work in one, at a senior level, and be successful. It was a kind of consolation prize for not making progress as quickly and surely as I thought was possible. That keeps me in the past, and judging myself using old guidelines is probably not going to be as effective as accepting new ones that are more relevant.

So, a few weeks ago, I started to erase my old professional identity from the Internet, replacing designer-for-hire and project lead credibility indicators with something that felt, at first, like a professional step backwards.

It’s kind of terrifying, to erase signs of past competence.

Intellectually I know that it’s not going to kill me, and that I still possess those skills at least at a conceptual level. And indeed, I use nearly all of them in the day-to-day operation of and in the creation of products I’ve been working on for the past seven years. And also, I am still working as a designer or developer for hire with people who have approached me through existing channels so I can pay the bills. But emotionally, I’m starting a zig-zag run in a new kind of marathon.

One reason I like the idea of being a stationery designer is that it’s easy to understand. That not only helps people “pigeonhole” me into an understandable category, it also makes it easier for ME to know what I should be doing. As I say I’m a “functional stationery designer”, this pretty much means continuing to develop the various forms and tools I’ve always done. An added dimension is that of being a business person building a machine that generate revenue, which in my case is being designed to support that desire to write about anything I want and pursue projects that I find interesting.

But is that enough? Friends and various acquaintances, familiar with my skillset, have pointed out that I’m throwing away a LOT of opportunity by not listing some of the things I do. And, if past history is any indicator, this may not be The One Thing that I’ll find satisfying in the long run. Is it wise to just throw away those old identities and work opportunities?

I don’t know. Only hindsight will tell. But I think there is a connection between this path and what I have done all my life, which is just trying to make sense of the world. The new wrinkle of understanding is that it’s not so much the “making sense” of things that is my focus; that’s just the technical aspect of something bigger. And that bigger thing is addressing the yearning and desire to achieve. Whether it’s my own needs or the needs of someone else, this is what I always respond to, and it’s what shapes all my work., It’s actually what starts me working. I see the emotional need, and then create something technical that will help meet it. The emotion comes first. It’s productivity in the context of yearning.

Because it’s difficult to express that sentiment in a pithy slogan without sounding like a fruitcake, I’ve decided that just saying I design-, I mean MAKE functional stationery is a useful way to capture the sentiment without being sentimental. Instead of DESIGNER OF, which has service implications, I say MAKE to impart a sense of finished product. That allows me, I think, to focus on the emotional relationships that my products can perhaps resolve. When someone tells me they are happy with the Emergent Task Planner, it’s the sense of joy at having taken control of their day that moves me: Things aren’t so hard to track. Change seems possible. I can do more and dream bigger. That’s what it is really about.

That I get to expense paper, pens, and packaging materials as “research” is just a perk ;-)


  1. Lucy Mae 12 years ago

    I am a big fan of yours David! Zig-zagging careers are normal for lots of us. I went from English Major with a degree in teaching and teaching English as a second Language graduating in 1988, to teaching software applications in large corporations, managing training for technical professionals, to usability. I have been a successful consultant and continue that work; what do I really like to do?

    Being a housewife. Seriously. I love cooking, sewing and all things we imagine a 1950’s housewife would love. Including a nip of scotch at the end of a long day. Go figure.

    The emergent task planner works for the ‘me’ that is a housewife and the ‘me’ that is a corporate consultant. LOVE your work.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 12 years ago

      That’s a great story, Lucy Mae! Warms my heart too, knowing that the ETP works for you in both capacities…that’s kind of amazing!

  2. Avrum 12 years ago

    David –

    Interesting post.

    Truth is, you’re so nauseatingly talented that you could design farts and they’d probably sell (I’d buy one). Looking forward to your new creations.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 12 years ago

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Avrum. I can believe that I possess a certain combination of talents, but as always with doing creative stuff it’s a matter of finding that connection with people…one that turns into an opportunity or transaction. It sounds really crass, I know, but t’is the reality.

      Although, thinking about this and farts, I wonder what it is that is difficult to see about myself. I tend to chafe at my limitations, which is probably the wrong attitude to have. Hm.

  3. bStormhands 12 years ago

    Isn’t it sad that people like it better when you are a square peg, instead of the amazing 3D curved geometric structure that we really are?

    Glad that things are getting closer to what you are.

    • Author
      Dave Seah 12 years ago

      bStormhands: I think that people like what they like, and I don’t really feel too bad about that. The important thing about having an easily-pegged identity is that it saves a lot of time when establishing a conversation. And it’s easier for people to spread the word. I guess I crave simplicity more these days.

  4. J Vick 12 years ago

    As long as you are not a stationary designer.

  5. Mai Anh Nguyen 12 years ago

    Hi David,

    I have followed your blog for a while now. About 3 years, I think. :) I love your CEO products though I haven’t had much chance to use them. They are very inspiring but I guess I’m not much of an organizer as I would like to be.

    What you said in this post really has me thinking. I’m at my middle 20s so I haven’t had that much time and experience but I have been musing over the same issue for a while. I can’t seem to find myself labelled with anything I have done. I think I just want to appear as a well-rounded person, who can do both this and that. More than anything, I both like and fear changes at the same time as they are both exciting and uncertain. And I’m also more about freedom-related as you put it.

    I just wanna say that I appreciate your works and what you are doing as in finding “it” for yourself even though on a zigzag road, is great and worthwhile.

    I hope that you find “IT” for you and continue to be an inspiration for me.


    • Author
      Dave Seah 12 years ago

      Hi Mai,

      I’m not much of an organizer either, at least not consistently, so I tend to use the tools when I need them.

      The desire to be part of something as a good team player, versus the desire to stand apart…this is a struggle that maybe you are feeling. I feel this myself…while I don’t personally like to feel bound by limitations of a particular team, I also recognize that with the team you can take on larger challenges. The third option, which I think I’m starting to wake up to, is to build a team. But to do that, you need to first have established that outstanding rallying experience, and be able to communicate it to people who are then willing to follow you to the expectation of a payoff. The payoff isn’t necessarily money; it could be deeply personal or something else.

      I think the positive aspects of my “IT” search has come from a lifetime of small victories. I don’t have any huge business victories to point to, and this is possibly because I haven’t pursued large business-style risks. They don’t interest me. I suppose the greatest victory I’ve experienced so far is to have been motivated enough to start blogging in the first place, and apply to get into a blog network I admired at the time, which years later has had the result of me talking to you.Writing on the Internet is kind of a risk, but I guess I’ve learned how to manage it in a way that doesn’t drain me. Every blog post is a small victory.

  6. Stephen P Smith 12 years ago

    I remember talking about this at the first of our Knowledge Exchange Summits (and we should really do another one BTW) a couple of years ago and I am so very glad that you have made this conceptual advance.

    Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you with this endeavor.

  7. Will Hopkins 12 years ago

    Good luck with the career reinvention, Dave :)

    Keep us posted what’s coming down the pipeline, career-wise and product-wise. Based on the Printable CEO stuff I already use, I can definitely say I’m excited to see what’s next.

  8. Amit Patel 12 years ago

    This reminds me in some ways of “semi retirement”:

  9. Author
    Dave Seah 12 years ago

    Will: Thanks! Let me know if there are any particular directions that you might find useful. I’m happy when what I’m doing also enables other people’s work.

    Amit: Ah, yes! I have a couple of friends who has pursued this path, and I am halfway doing it too. I’d say my two main inspirations were Tom Hodgkinson’s book The Freedom Manifesto, which is a series of essays about various parts of the modern rat race that don’t have to be that way, and then Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Work Week, which outlined the mechanics. In my case, I think I’ve always been trying to unlock a perceived potential or desire in me, but I have never known exactly what it is (hence all the jumps from one aspect of work to another). Semi-retirement is probably closer to The Freedom Manifesto in spirit. Personally, I don’t think I will want to retire, but instead want to be in the position of learning and creating the props and tools that enable outstanding experience. Originally, I think that’s why I liked writing, but then moved into computer games. When the work experience deviated from mission, that’s when I jumped to a new variant. What I see now is that I need to control my own ship or island, so I can create a base of operation to pursue my values regarding the pursuit of this…whatever it is. First step: learn how to build and run a ship well, and in the process see where that takes me.

    • Amit Patel 12 years ago

      That’s great! I’ve been following your blog for some time, looking for inspiration for my own transition to this less structured path through life. Coincidentally, my current interests are writing and computer game development. I use both “Seah Model 4” and Emergent Task Planner to help structure my work. Thank you for sharing your journey.

  10. Ati 12 years ago

    Hi David,

    How is going?

    I have a question to you.

    I search on your blog, but can not found topic on this.

    How to properly prepare a staionery documents, vector logo for print and for a web page.

    I’m using Illustaror for a vector work a Photoshop for other works.

    I don’t know was I clear with my question.

    David, will you please let me know about this and if you could give me an advice, or some resource on this?

    Sorry for this noob question.

    Sincerely Ati