I made the decision to go back to school while I was asleep on a flight from New Orleans to Detroit. I woke up, head pressed awkwardly against the wall, sun streaming across my face, likely drooling, and thought, “I need to go back to school for engineering.” It may sound like I’m making this up – dramatizing a bit. I’m not. That is literally what happened.
This is not to say the idea came out of nowhere. I was working as an environmental graphic designer three years prior. My company specialized in the niche market of wayfinding signage systems. When you go to a big city or a college campus or a hospital – all the signs and the “you are here” maps that help you figure out where are and where you need to go – that was us. The work, while interesting and exactly what I’d hoped to do when I graduated from college, had become repetitive and was no longer challenging me. I wasn’t happy with the job and I was starting to worry that I wasn’t happy with my whole career.
To put it mildly, I’m not a quick decision maker. I compare, I analyze, I make spreadsheets. I think it took me six months to buy my car. That said, I needed some help with this big decision, you know, with what to do with my entire life.
I signed up for a few sessions with a career coach in the hopes that she would look me up and down, subject me to a few Rorschach tests and *poof!*, give me the verdict. She did not. I took a battery of career interest and personality tests, most of which suggested I’d be best suited for conventional jobs (office manager, accountant, plumber) or analytical jobs (engineer, scientist). Absent from the lists were artist, designer, creative of any sort. Hmph. I took my stack of test results and went on my way.
I eventually left the wayfinding company. I’d decided I wanted to get back into mainstream graphic design – print, identity, branding, publications. Lacking a mainstream graphic design portfolio after four years doing environmental work, I was thrilled to land a full-time job doing in-house design at the university I’d graduated from, in the same office I’d interned as a student. Another bonus – working at a university opened the door to go back to school if I decided I wanted to do that.
At first the work was exhilarating. I hadn’t had the opportunity to work on such a variety of projects in years. All my pent-up creative energy was gushing out and I was having a great time. My work had improved and I was creating a lot that I was proud of. I was building a portfolio. I was loving my work again. Thoughts of changing careers faded away. I wasn’t going to be just a good graphic designer. I was going to be a great one.
The honeymoon lasted about two years. The same frustrations started creeping in. My best ideas were rejected by nervous clients. Tight timelines and low budgets made innovative and eye-catching work difficult or impossible to implement. I wasn’t being respected as a professional, which was something I’d struggled with for most of my career. There are no right and wrong answers in the creative world. Only opinions, and I wasn’t great at selling mine.
At that point my portfolio was no longer improving. From the perspective of a new employer, staying any longer would have hurt my chances of being hired. If I wanted to stay in graphic design and make something of myself, it was time to move on.
I spent the next six months working tirelessly on my portfolio. As a print designer with embarrassingly little web experience, I spent hours watching online tutorials on CSS so I could design my portfolio website. I created business cards, made spreadsheets of design studios in Chicago, where I hoped to move. The pinnacle of my planning was the HOW Design Conference in Denver, where I would be travelling for work in June. I hoped to have my portfolio critiqued at their portfolio review and hand out a stack of business cards. I was ready to kick some butt…it was finally time to be not just a good graphic designer, but a great one.
Then in May, three weeks before the HOW Conference, I went to New Orleans to visit my cousin with my mom and my aunt. We spent several days eating crawdads, sightseeing and drinking too much alcohol. On Bourbon Street my mom was photographed posing suggestively with a taxidermied alligator. It was that kind of trip.
Five days later I woke up on the plane and thought “I’m going back to school to be an engineer.”
Two weeks later I met with an academic advisor. Three months later I went to my first chemistry class. I still have all those business cards.
I’m not entirely sure what happened on that plane. Had those career assessment tests been knocking around in my head for three years? Why engineering? Why on the brink of my job search? I have a few thoughts on that, but that’s for another day. I’ve got a whole blog ahead of me – welcome to Extra Credit Life!