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 ;-)