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Leadership

10 Creators On When They Knew They Had to Make a Change in Their Careers

Whether it comes to you all at once or in little moments, the realization that you need to shake things up can be a powerful force in shaping your career.


Change is inevitable. Without it, we would cease to exist. It is happening every day, in imperceptible ways and major milestones that alter the course of everything, like getting married, switching careers, and having children.

But sometimes you need to seek out change. You are in a slump, feeling uninspired, unhappy, or stuck. It is during these times that the changes we make – subtle or large – often have the biggest impact on our lives. So we asked 10 creatives, from creative directors to photographers, what change they made in their life and what impact it has had on their work.

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1. When my work values shifted:
Miyako Nakamura, Creative director and head designer, MM.LaFleur

I had to change my perspective about how I created value in my clothing. I spent 10 years working as a designer in the luxury fashion market in New York City. Yet I found there was a disconnect in how people see fashion, and how people inside the industry see clothes.

No matter where I worked, the universal struggle was that I had to define value.  There was a delicate balance between art and commercial potential; there was never an easy answer to satisfy both sides. So I wanted to revisit the idea of my profession and what it means to be a fashion designer. I felt that for the clothing to be appreciated, I had to change how people value the garments I create.

I met Sarah, the founder of MM.LaFleur, during the time I was changing my thinking process. She gave me an opportunity to create a line of dresses that serve professional woman. When I started to design for her, I streamlined my design: less decoration and more focus on cuts and quality of textiles, as well as the way they are manufactured. Then, I focused less on inventive looks and more on an inventive approach to the product. After designing for MM.LaFleur for the past six years, I am proud to have created products that support the lives of our customers in a very true sense.

What this whole experience taught me is that the way you define the value of your creation might not be the same as others around you. It is up to you to decide how valuable things can be.

2. When I recognized the importance of business:
Elaine Chernov, Founder of Shipshape Studio

Somewhere, five or six years into my career, I began to see that having a successful career in design was going to have to be more than just striving to have the most creative awards. Leaving design and advertising school, I believed that if I just worked really hard on making the best ad creative or design work, then nothing else really mattered – it would all fall into place.

But after spending hundreds of late nights in an office working on a pitch or a big branding project, I realized there was not anything really heroic in creating the best work; it was all business. I was just helping to sell more of whatever, and the agency I was working for was using creative people’s inherent need to create their best work to their advantage.

I had a shift in mental attitude that didn’t just come from burnout but also from reading about perspective, being a slave to an agency and, at the time, its toxic culture.

At first, I just wanted to not feel taken advantage of. I started asking for more pay and being clear about when my workday was over. At the time, I had cofounded an all-female design collective in Chicago. We learned about business stuff – salary negotiation, copyright laws, and presenting to boardrooms, to name a few. It was all the other things that design school skipped over because it’s not directly tied to making the best design work.

Eventually, when I went from agency work to working in-house at startups, not only did my quality of life go up but I was also able to see how design directly impacted businesses.

When you understand the lifecycle and gears behind how a business operates, you begin to see what parts of the business can benefit from creative work and which parts just sound fun to work on but won’t move any significant needles. As such, not only do you begin to work smarter but you become an indispensable part of the business – not just a design monkey tapping away on your computer.

3. When I reconsidered what it means to have a ‘real job’:
Stephan Ango, Cofounder, Lumi

I went to college for evolutionary biology but discovered partway through that design was actually a profession. For some reason it had never crossed my mind that this was a job. I had always been interested in making websites and interfaces and various forms of art but didn’t consider them real “jobs.” That changed after a visit to a Muji store in Shanghai. I realized there are people in the world whose job it is to decide how all the things around us are made. It was a life-changing moment and made me want to pursue industrial design. Yet making that switch was quite difficult. With a degree in biology, I applied for internships to more than 50 design agencies in the U.S. and was rejected by all of them because I didn’t have enough experience. I finally found an internship at a great design agency in the Netherlands. This experience convinced me I wanted to pursue design, and I’ve been working as a designer ever since.

At Lumi, my experience as a biologist still shapes the way I think, as I often find myself falling back on scientific methods. Being methodical about my approach to answering a question helps me make progress in a more predictable way. Also, natural selection is a process I think about when developing products over several generations. How do we take what we learned with each iteration and continue making it better?

People should pick an industry they are interested in and become obsessively curious in understanding its inner workings. Too much of education focuses on “problem solving” and not enough on “problem finding.” Getting good at finding interesting, important problems is a skill of its own. I continually ask “But why?” as I delve deeper and deeper into any area.

4. When I felt totally stunted:
Trevor Basset, Senior designer, Starbucks

I once worked at a very small, toxic branding agency. I felt like my work wasn’t being taken seriously, and there was little room to grow. I did not feel inspired coming into work, and my mood was increasingly down. This stemmed from uncommunicative, unavailable, and cold leadership. After two years I knew I needed to move on. I decided to leave the agency. I took a leap of faith. I didn’t have anything lined up but had previously worked as an in-house designer and was interested in returning to that world.

During this time, I felt freedom to try new things, but was hesitant of committing to anything full-time right away. I contracted with Outdoor Research for nearly a year before I transitioned into my role at Starbucks, where I’ve now been working for the past two years. It was the perfect move for me, and I couldn’t be happier going back in-house.

I had primarily worked for smaller companies, so it was a big change moving to an office that has somewhere around 5,000 people in it. There are so many talented artists within the organization. Seeing the work everyone makes has pushed me to continue exploring new styles within my own work and to challenge myself in a way I didn’t feel before. Looking back, I wish I had listened to my gut and left earlier. If things aren’t feeling right, I think it’s important to move on and find an atmosphere that supports you.

5. When I had a change of scenery:
Nina Hans, Cofounder and creative director, Weekday Studio

During a big trip around the world for five months with my now business partner and life partner, we spent the time reflecting on what our lives looked like working for other people and what we wanted for ourselves. That trip was where the idea of Weekday Studio was born.

Our studio has five values, and only one of them is actually about design. Time management, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, conflict resolution, follow-through, resilience, and positivity all affect my job just as much as, if not more than, actual design skill. Doing what you say you’re going to and in the time you committed to doing it can help you stand apart, and get repeat clients and tons of referrals. As obvious as it may it sound, it really has helped our studio grow and sustain itself in a short amount of time.

Since Weekday Studio opened, everything for me has changed. I now focus on learning everything possible about my clients, their customers, and their competitors. I feel it’s one of the greatest strengths we have – listening to and learning about our client’s needs and pain points and utilizing design to solve them.

6. When I sensed that there was more I could be doing:
Sara Woolsey, Creative director, Richer Poorer

During my first six years of working as an apparel designer, I came to realize that working primarily from my desk on my computer was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Gaining experience as a designer was a huge plus for my career, but I wanted to be more involved with an overall brand strategy at a smaller company; I knew designing clothes wasn’t the only piece to running a successful clothing company.

So in 2012, the company I worked for gave me an option to take a promotion that involved more management or be laid off. My husband and I had been talking about doing some traveling for a while, and after being given this choice by my manager it seemed like a natural time to go.

We took an extended road trip around the U.S. in our Volkswagen for three months. While we knew a few people who just got up and left their life, it was really hard for me to make that change. While on the road, I almost had a nervous breakdown when our van broke down. Once I was able to accept that this was just part of our adventure, it was like I gave myself permission to start enjoying myself. Not only did I learn to let go, I also learned to have a different approach to my work.  For so long, I had discerned that I had been trying to fit myself into a certain box of what a designer should be like and what they should reach for. I knew I had to start thinking of each experience – whether at a job or on vacation – as a building block to discovering what I loved. It’s the discipline of choosing what you ultimately strive toward every day. In my case, it was deciding to advance my career as a freelance designer and spend any extra money on travel – my own personal creative R&D. After six years, this led to me gaining my current position.

I learned that we are often our own worst critic. We need to be kinder to ourselves, and give ourselves grace each day.

7. When I was laid off:
Kristian Tumangan, Product designer at the Weather Company

I began my professional career as a graphic designer doing a mix of print and marketing work. While I was working for an online marketing agency, I wanted to know more about the users and customers our clients were trying to reach and know how they built their products and businesses.

I started going to UX workshops and having conversations with designers that made the change from graphic design to user experience design. I also started taking part-time UX classes at institutions like General Assembly and UCLA Extension. While taking classes I was laid off, and as unfortunate as that may sound, it actually pushed me to strive for more opportunities outside of my comfort zone. From those events I was fortunate enough to get hired as a product designer and work at the Weather Company.

The shift helped me design for users and meet challenges to which I never thought I would be exposed. These new experiences are always pushing me to become a more empathetic problem-solver and designer.

I also learned that by taking the time to immerse yourself in a curiosity can not only help you learn something new but it can also lead you to new opportunities you never thought would be there. For those looking to make a change, continue to see how you can always evolve as a professional, and always strive to learn more about the curiosities you may have.

8. When my boss gave me some real talk:
Brooklyn Dombroski, Freelance photographer

Photography has always been my first love. Ever since I picked up a 35mm camera at age 11, it’d be an extension of my arm. But when it came time to go to college, I decided to get a degree in graphic design – and found out pretty early that it wasn’t for me.  But I didn’t think I could make it as a photographer in such a highly competitive field, so I got a job doing visual merchandising and marketing for a corporate surf company in Hawaii. Yet that photography dream kept gnawing at me. Three years down the road, I began visualizing how I could transition into freelance photography. I knew if I was going to make the change, I would have to go all in.

My boss could tell that my heart was no longer in it, and she actually encouraged me to move on and pursue my dreams of becoming a full-time photographer. I respected her so much for that, because it was terrifying for me. I was constantly questioning my ability and self-worth. So honestly, that little push from her changed the trajectory of my life.

I have built my business from grassroots and feel so blessed to do what I love every day. During this transition, I learned to let go of words like stability and security that the corporate world can offer to pursue my passion. I also realized the strength I had – I was more than capable and equipped to take charge of my life and to make my dreams a reality.

And while the freelance lifestyle isn’t for everyone, I do encourage people to relentlessly pursue whatever it is that they are passionate about. I do believe that our souls will forever be restless until we are living out our authentic lives. So take a chance.

9. When I gave myself a reality check:
Suzan Choy, Designer and illustrator

I’ve worked in quite a few different environments and situations in my professional life – everything from a corporate office to an agency and startups. But I’ve learned the most while working at an agency, as rotating projects are frequent and new teams are constantly formed. Yet learning to work happily as a team with new people was a struggle for me. At some point in my agency life, I realized a constant debate wasn’t going to solve any problems. I couldn’t change how other people were going to act or feel, but I could change how I approached the situation.

I started to mentally note when conflicts arose and started asking myself what I was feeling and why it mattered. Then I took a step back and thought about how my teammate or client was feeling. What were all the possible motives behind their words – good or bad? The point was to put myself in everyone’s shoes and think about if there was a way the situation could’ve been handled so we could all feel good about the outcome.

With this change, I started feeling empathy for my clients and teammates. In doing so, I began to feel better in general. That meant whenever a tense topic was brought up or a problem arose, instead of automatically feeling defensive or annoyed, I approached the situation with humor and ease. This created a positive space, and others around me also started approaching situations with less tension.

This process helped me learn to have patience with others and myself. How I react to a situation can also drastically impact how others respond to me. I also learned to trust others. Most people do not have ulterior motives and are just trying to get their jobs done as best as they can.

10. When I got tired of complaining:
Adi Goodrich, Set designer, photographer, and founder of Sing-Sing

A change I recently made was to start a school at our studio, Sing-Sing. It’s called Saturday School. For our jobs, my partner Sean and I work on numerous projects, including set design, photography, animation, and filmmaking. We have this studio in the Cypress Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, and we felt we needed to share it with the community.

Sean and I had been complaining for years about how cool other cities were and how Los Angeles lacked this certain feeling. We longed for more education and chances to meet like-minded artists in our city.

With starting a school, we’re able to attack the negative feelings we had about Los Angeles. We invite artists we don’t know into the studio, teach our 20 combined years of experience to them, and have great discussions about art, creativity, and collaboration. The last class we did was a music and figure-drawing class. Fifteen people attended while our friend John Bowers played music. The proceeds went to paying the model and the musician – which is pretty amazing that they could show up for two hours and take home some cash while feeling like they gave back to a group of artists.

Los Angeles often feels lonely, and we feel more connected to the city by simply using our skills and inviting our friends to share their talents with the people who show up. This is also a way to combat the time we put into commercial projects. Advertising can leave you feeling a bit hollow.

If you have negative feelings about the community you live in, it’s up to you to make that change. I understand most people don’t have studios to share, but this is the thing we had to offer. To imagine them also sharing their obsessions and meeting new collaborators is blowing my mind.

Andrea Huspeni

Andrea Huspeni is a New York City-based freelance journalist and editor. Prior to freelancing, she was the Special Project Director at Entrepreneur.com, where she oversaw staff series, along with contributors’ posts.


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