The struggle with being a maker

Posted April 16, 2014  /  Reading time: 8 minutes


What did you want to be when you were growing up?

My best friend at the age of 16 was Spencer, whose father owned a prominent design studio.

I remember visiting the studio office once or twice and – being completely emerged in that ocean of large and shiny computer monitors, colorful sticky notes, and the occasional action figurine – decided that’s the type of place I wanted to work when I grew up. I wanted to be a designer.

Like most young teens, the world then seemed full of just as much magic as misery. Why couldn’t I be a designer?

So enamored was I with this world of creating something digital from thin air that Spencer and I established our own design agency that same year, at the naive ages of 16 and 15. We called it Saosin and even had his dad print out business cards for us to hand to our youthful peers. Of course the studio was more imaginative and fun than a real, fully-fledged business.

While Spencer kept his eyes on more realistic aspirations I kept believing that I could be a real designer.

I ended up spending both weeknights and weekends sitting in front of a small Apple laptop to design. Rather than going out to parties or to do drugs – as many of my youthful peers did at that age – I spent my time looking up Photoshop tutorials or doodling in a notebook. My grades in school suffered too.

As a result of all of my anti-social behavior, I took on my first paying design client at the age of 17. It was a logo design for a popular DJ somewhere overseas. He had to send the $1,000 to Spencer’s PayPal account since I didn’t have one at the time.

I remember Spencer handing me the stack of cash after the job was done and thinking to myself: “Of course I can do this, I can be a designer.”

Shortly after I got paid, the logo design began making waves online. It showed up on design gallery websites, in design forums, in conversations with people I was looking up to. Those conversations led to even more logo work. Even without a formal design or art education, I recall thinking: I’m a designer, I’m on my way.

Eventually I realized that I was going to need a portfolio to show off my work and attract new customers, the logical next step was to learn how to program a website.

I stopped spending my weekends in front of a computer screen and instead spent them sitting with my face buried in books at the nearby Barnes & Noble. My mother used to take us to that bookstore often. She was fond of the value books provided (or possibly the escape they offered) and she instilled in me the understanding that, if there’s ever anything I want to learn about, the ideal best place to start is in the words and experiences that come from others.

Then, one summer evening after weeks of reading book after book on web development, my mother explained to a distant cousin how I was a web developer. I heard that and thought I wasn’t a web developer though. I had barely touched any real code and only understood the very basic fundamentals of HTML.

Not wanting to disappoint my mother, I spent six hours that night programming my first personal website.

I became a developer

I realized that web development is quite a lot like design, in that you have to envision what it is you want and then move your fingers – either hovering over paper or mashing over keys – to create it. What you create comes from practically nothing. A few minute things, a line here or a letter there and something begins to appear; it’s magic in the most adult sense.

After finishing my first website (which my father had to host for me at the time, as hosting was an entirely different maze from development) I realized that I had a natural love for programming. I began researching computer programming, a long and winding path that would take me from creating a hit (albeit free) Mac OS X app to consulting with actual computer programming studios.

Yet I was still drawn to the world of design and illustration. Flashbacks of the design office belonging to Spencer’s father would strike me randomly throughout the day. Design was a world I wanted to be a part of. The magic of beautiful colors and lines, the ability to take an idea and make something the world could someday recognize.

Years passed and I continued to dabble in freelance design, web development, and computer programming.

Eventually a flyer hanging in one corner of my college campus caught my eye. Two large words printed in black and yellow specifically drew me in: “hiring” and “logo” I didn’t care what the company did or was, or what they were exactly hiring for, I tore the flyer down so there would be less competition and applied for the job.

I came to realize that the job was for a marketing position, specifically an entry-level SEO role. And the company wasn’t necessarily a design agency, per se. It was a design factory that putout hundreds and hundreds of logos for small businesses and entrepreneurs around the world. That company was Logoworks.

Suffice to say, I got the job.

Of course I didn’t care that I wasn’t doing design work, or that the company wasn’t a typical agency. It was my first real job, surrounded by the creative wonder of design.

Very shortly after I began working, Logoworks was acquired by the Fortune 50 company HP. The mission of the acquisition was, as I understood it, to link HP’s massive print and design empire with Logoworks quick output. But as the company began to shift, corporate bureaucracy started rattling things around. Designers I knew and worked closely with were let go to cut back on costs. Suddenly red tape appeared where there previously was none. I watched managers go from being intently focused on creative output to instead worrying about whether or not their BMW was the latest model.

As the attributes of the company that I admired most began to dissolve, fortune intervened and I was offered a marketing role for a small startup on the other side of the nation. HP counter-offered with a unique proposition: I was to become the second youngest marketing manager in the 70 plus-year history of the company.

I declined the counter offer.

I didn’t want to work for a corporate giant, I wanted to work somewhere that cherished the magic of creation. I winded up spending several months working with the new startup before we realized I wasn’t a very good fit. They wanted me to move across the country, I wanted to stay put. They wanted me to focus more on marketing, I wanted to focus on simply making cool shit.

Unfortunately, from there, I followed the path drawn-out for me from that startup. I became an online marketing manager for a small town newspaper, then later ended up as what’s called a “content strategist” for a small, but rapidly expanding, company called CLEARLINK.

For the past three years I’ve been at this job my role has been ill-defined, almost impossibly so.

While I still do a great deal of marketing &8211; researching competitors, identifying opportunities in the market, outlining business strategy, and all of that bullshit – I still spend a good chunk of my time designing, developing, and writing. Most of my creation takes place outside of the office though, where I find myself a mirror image of my high school self: sitting in front of a laptop to design or program new work.

This makes it difficult to explain to people my value as a worker. “A jack of all trades,” the saying goes, “master of none.”

Not very long ago, at a job interview for an esteemed company I had dreamed of working with for a long time, I was asked what it is that I want to do with my career. Do I want to be a writer? A designer? Stick to marketing? Improve with developing? Lead a team? Where did I see myself being of the most value for a company?

My answer was sorely taken: I want to create amazing things.

I didn’t get the job.

Dreams crushed. Life goes on.

Unfortunately you can’t put “I Make Neat Things” as a title on a resume. Which leaves me in a really difficult place, torn between a world of unstoppable creation (hey, if I can do anything, why not?) and the ability to have a quality career with a singular focus and enough money to happily pay the bills.

But I have a feeling that if you were to stick me in any single role for too long, where I don’t have the ability to explore and tinker and make neat things, you’re going to find me very unhappy.

And I believe a lot of this generation and those coming up after us are in a similar boat. Never before in history has it been effortless to pickup a tool and create something. We’re all photographers, designers, and writers now. Programming is quickly becoming just as popular as reading and writing too.

Those who want to create have the means to do so. But who is going to let them? Where are the businesses that want to hire change-makers, doers, shakers? What happened to the innovative businesses that were all about making neat things?

Entrepreneurship is of-course an option for people like me, but it’s not for everyone – particularly when it comes to numbers like contracts and financials, networking and marketing, etc. We want to make things, not dance around paperwork or advertising dollars.

I believe we need more businesses that are exploratory in nature, that are willing to take more creative risks, and that can look at someone with a history like mine and see the value. Companies like Elepath or Studio Neat.

I just want to be someone who makes neat things. Is that so much to ask?

Tools designed by Alexandra Hawkhead from the Noun Project