I don’t have a story about the first time I knew I wanted to be a designer.
I remember drawing a lot. Not very well, but a lot. I’d fill out the margins of my school notebooks with sinewy aliens, mechanical constructs from another world, unhistoric architecture, anything I could do to keep from plugging into the lesson at hand. I remember drawing type all over a folder when I was younger; the names of my favorite bands—the details of which, I’ll spare you (or, more likely, myself).
And while there’s nothing all that remarkable (or maybe even mentionable) about my story, I know that somewhere in that narrative, I fell head over heels with the idea of working on things together.
My brother and I would build these spiraling epics on paper. We’d create entire worlds that could be played out as our own table top games. He would author a compendium of all the world’s exotic locales. We would create cities with commercial exports, valuable resources, select industries. I remember that I was in charge of the monster manual, wherein I’d detail all of this universe’s creatures in a collective bestiary: which was actually just a few scrawled out spiral notebooks, packed from front to back with exhaustive species descriptions as well as attacks and hit points. I’ve always been terrible at illustrating people, so he’d do those for us with technical specs on armor and the arsenal. We were, essentially, a two-man Comic-Con.
None of this is probably very interesting to you. Well, I don’t have an editor and this is my blog, so there’s that.
But this idea that there were things that I couldn’t do very well—ideas that I, myself, wasn’t as competent at conceiving—where my brother would pick up where I could only begin to scratch the surface, was a concept that I came to fully embrace.
It doesn’t mean that those have to be opportunities where you pass the pen and check out, it means that they can become learning opportunities wherein you can achieve something together you wouldn’t have accomplished alone; at least not at that level of excellence.
When a business of mine failed some years ago, I set out to build something of my own that I could fully control. I wanted to champion something where I was the only responsible party. For my failures or my successes, I’d remove the variables. After all, fewer moving parts means fewer moving pieces.
And for some time, this worked. Better than I thought it would have. I got work as an illustrator, had opportunities that I, myself, couldn’t believe had presented themselves, and found a solid rhythm to my workflow. I was my company. The one I thought I was going to build those few years ago before things went South.
To be honest, it took me a long time to realize how isolated my work became—even longer to see just how walled off I’d become to those around me. On a personal and a professional level, I’d made my own island where, sure, I was king. But of whom and for what?
I did freelance illustration for two years and in that time, I don’t regret taking the plunge to do it. I grew in ways I never thought possible and have, through time, hatched some of the fondest relationships I’ve had the opportunity to take part in. The world has felt a lot smaller since connectivity has made remote co-working a real, tangible possibility.
But I know, for me, that one of the things that I’d missed doing, was being part of something from the beginning to the end. Seeing it through from concept to creation to iteration to distribution and everything between. Those messy, oftentimes infuriating parts of the process that, as a contractor, I was spared from. I missed being able to work on things that were impossible for just me to do at this point in my life.
Joining on staff with the team at Code School has been one of the more rewarding things I can think of doing. Largely, in how it’s challenged me to remember those parts of myself that really come alive when I’m working with a team of likeminded (though sometimes differing in opinion) people.
Right now, I’m getting the opportunity to work beside those who are a lot smarter and a lot more patient than I am. What’s more, we’re building something that I couldn’t even possibly conceive of doing alone. I’m challenged so much more when I’m engaged for my brain, rather than just my hands. I’m more present than I’ve been able to be in my work and it’s given me the chance to grow in more than just illustration.
I’m not trying to tell you that this is the only way that you should work or what’s ultimately going to make you the most fulfilled in your personal life.
But I will tell you that if you’re fresh out of Art School or just joining the job force in general, take some time to work with a team. Learn what it’s like to answer to someone on a regular basis that you can’t just crumple up the contact and close the books on. Don't undervalue the opportunity to learn under people more seasoned in their experiences. There’s a lot you can learn from a non-horizontal work environment. It doesn’t mean that it will always be the absolute best method for efficient workflow or how creativity is supposed to be serviced, but working with others is a good reminder that you’re not just you out there, floating in the void and looking out for numero uno.
You might think now that getting to work yourself is the ultimate goal, and maybe for you it will be. But for others, you might discover that it's within a team environment that you find yourself most engaged and consistently enjoying your work. Different strokes and all, eh?
This isn’t a story about how freelance is bad or how the only true happiness is in working with a team, but I know that, for a time, I thought going solo was the one true climax of a design career—that thing you work towards until it's finally within your grasp. It’s not a plea for playing nice with one another or a guilt trip for those lone wolves. Maybe, for you, working with a team doesn’t mean working somewhere full-time. It could just mean making more space in your schedule for collaboration. You're the only one who can figure out just how to remember what a valuable resource it is to have someone working beside you.
This is just a story about how I came to terms with those parts of me that needed those parts of others to make something that felt tired feel new again.
It's where I currently find myself.
And I don't think I want to be anywhere else.