It was no more than a couple of years ago when I was sitting on a flight on my own for the first time. I think I’ll always remember that trip as the one that changed my career. My trip to Helsinki as a speaker at a conference was the first time I felt good at what I was doing.
Nowadays, flying is something I’m more than used to. As I sit on the flight back from my vacation, I feel comfortable. Unlike many of my fellow passengers, there’s something about the 9-hour flight that relaxes me.
And then it hits me. Some 30,000 feet in the air, I experience a sobering realisation; I’m chasing the sun across the sky with a hundred other people in an air-conditioned tin can. There’s another tin can cruising across the landscape outside the window. We crush through the swelling, folding, cotten clouds, and I feel something unexpected – guilt. When did something as extraordinary as human flight become so nonchalant? I should be doing something momentous, I thought. If this flight were to tumble to the ground in some kind of freak accident, I don’t want to be found besting my score on Ridiculous Fishing. I want to take in the clouds, the orange sky, and create something amazing.
I have a suspicious feeling about the guilt creeping over me – I’ve felt it before. And recently, too.
My first trip to the United States was for an interview. I was in a city I loved, talking with people I admired, but who weren’t intimidating, and felt pretty good about my situation. Comfortable. And then came the guilt. It came to presenting my portfolio to these talented people, and I suddenly felt about 30,000 feet away from the room my body was in. As I flaunted the work I was most proud of, I slowly realised that my rate of production had slowed tremendously. The work I was showing was fine by any standard, but it was a narrow view of my skills. I suddenly felt like both curling up and hiding, and calling all the accomplished designers I knew to come and take my place before these fine people became aware of the imposter they’d let into their office.
The guilt passed as the interview process developed into a mixture of exercises, conversations, and getting-to-know-you’s. It stayed that way until I returned home. Jet lagged, exhausted, and brewing an emotional storm, I crawled into bed and felt the hidden guilt surge over me once more. I browsed my work history and found myself surprised yet again at the severe slowing of my output.
It would be easy for me to blame this stalling on my degree, but the truth is, it’s my own fault. I was perfectly capable of creating complex user interfaces, solving problems, and learning more about my tools of choice along the way. But I chose to invest my attention in typography, color, and layout. The work I’ve been making has been rich in theoretical design, but has been setting expectations too low. The problems solved are petty and simple. And that doesn’t sit right with me.
I found the reasoning behind the guilt during the conversations I had with other designers; I’ve spent the last couple of years “taking a break” from the intense problem-solving my earlier work demonstrates, in order to learn the things that will make my work stronger. My portfolio may’ve suffered as a result, but I’m back now. I’m back, carrying with me a dangerous set of skills.
I’m writing all of this somewhat pre-emptively. I have no idea if that reasoning will pay off and turn out to be true. It may turn out that my work will now and forever be rich in typographic and theoretical aesthetic, but without pushing boundaries. But I doubt it. I think joining one of (in my humble opinion) the greatest design teams in the industry will give me a chance to put the theory I’ve picked up to the test in unchartered territory. Solving real problems on your own is tough, but in a team, there’s a camaraderie that lets us build without limits.
The plane sinks below the clouds over the country I’ve called home for twenty-two years. The usual grey and rain follows, but I touch familiar ground with thirty thousand feet worth of perspective, several years worth of knowledge, more excitement than I can handle, and a sense of readiness. Calm.