San Francisco, & a new identity beyond design

January 25, 2016 |  Category:   life travels









January, so far, has started off quite busy. 3 weeks into the new year and it’s already been a full month of travel. A week and a half after we landed from Seattle, I got back on a plane to the West Coast, this time to San Francisco. I’ve never been much of a conference attending person, even during the height of the blogging years, but last week I flew to San Francisco to attend a live stream video conference called SummitLive. I’ve been meaning to write more about my “other life” as a community and growth manager at the tech start up I’m working at. If you’ve stuck with me through this blog for the past few years, then you know that I’ve been wanting a career change from design for quite some time. I finally did just that 15 months ago, though the way it came about was fairly gradual and circuitous as you may remember.

What I didn’t expect was this sudden feeling of identity confusion. I have always worked as a designer and an art director my entire adult life. As much as I felt indifferent about it at times, I’ve identified myself as a designer for the past 20 years. But suddenly, I was not anymore, and I was meeting hundreds of people online and in person through my tech job who have never known me as a designer or as a small business owner of a bakery. On the flip side, most of my friends assumed I was working as a designer at the start up and would express surprise when I would tell them that I wasn’t. “So…what do you do then?”

If I experienced a double career life when I was running our bakery business and working as a freelance art director before, I feel it even more now because my role at the start up diverges so far away from my old career. My identity as a small business owner was so tied to my identity as a designer and even as a blogger that it became part of our story and brand. Now, when someone asks me what I do for a living, it’s hard to explain in a concise way because it’s gotten rather complicated (never mind that some people still think that I’m the one baking away in the kitchen!). Depending on who’s asking, I might have a different answer every time.

So, why does this matter? It doesn’t. But I’ll admit, it feels strange. Sometimes I wonder why I hold on to my identity as a designer when I’ve wanted to move on from that career for years. Although I still freelance (it helps pay for summer camp, after school care and lessons for the kids), the one client I’ve held on to isn’t work that is particularly creative. I don’t feel like I’ve designed anything for a long time and I do fear that my skills will get rusty from lack of creative work. Part of it stems from wanting to keeps things in place “just in case” since start ups can be so volatile. Another part of me may not want to admit that I still wonder sometimes about this new career direction (there are some days when I still think I should be committing all of my time and energy towards our business). And maybe – this could be the most truthful of all – I’m afraid of losing my identity as a creative person to the outside world.

So yes, there it is. Am I even a designer anymore?

As time passes and I meet more people through my tech job, this question crosses my mind. While I still have a (smaller) circle of friends from the old days of Twitter and Flickr, my day to day interactions online are now mostly with new people I’ve met through the livestream community who know me from my startup. My community from the early Twitter days have shifted. I used to converse daily with other small business owners, designers, artists and bloggers, but now my circle has widened to something that is far more diverse, and that’s been a very good thing. As it turns out, online communities can be like a lot like real life friendships – people constantly shuffling in and out of your life. Since I never established additional social media accounts that were separate from our business accounts, I’m left once again to mull over the right balance between brand and personal posts, especially since my Twitter is increasingly followed by people who know me through my tech job. In a way, despite the fact that I’ve had an internet presence for a really long time (15 years), it feels like starting over. Or maybe…it’s starting fresh again.

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  • Jen January 25, 2016 at 11:32 pm

    I don’t think it’s strange to want to hold onto the “designer” identity. What I hear from artists and creatives over and over is that if you have that spirit in you, it will poke and poke at you until you find a way to express it. As someone who didn’t indulge that part of myself until very recently, I’ve found that I am a much happier person now that I am being creative on a regular basis. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the niggling dissatisfaction I’ve felt with life for a very long time stemmed a lot from constantly suppressing that side of myself. You went to art school, and you’ve been a designer for 20 years. That’s not, I think, something you can just turn off. Maybe at some point when time and opportunity present themselves you’ll find a new way to express that part of yourself. Like, maybe you’ve always wanted to try ceramics, or weaving, or whatever, and that will feel good in a way that web design no longer does! It’s always daunting to be staring at a blank creative canvas, but who knows what the future holds, right?

    • Jenna January 26, 2016 at 9:19 am

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jen. Yes, you are right, it’s not something I can turn off – it’s always there, but it’s fairly dormant right now, for lack of time and the kind of work I’m doing at the moment. I know that there’s a lot of weight behind the theory that if something is important, than you’ll make the time to do it. I generally want to believe that it’s true, but I don’t think it’s particularly easy for some people’s situation. It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me at the moment when I’m struggling to make everything on my plate work. But, yes! The future is open…

      • Jen January 27, 2016 at 12:39 am

        Oh I definitely hear you about it being difficult to fit into a busy life. You have more than most on your plate with a demanding job, kids, and a small business to help run. I do believe that if you have that urge, being creative is a form of self-care, and our society is so damn pressured that it’s not just hard to find the time, it’s also frankly sometimes hard to find a justification for it! Self-care can feel selfish or overly indulgent especially when things are particularly busy. Also, you’ve talked about being pretty introverted and your new job sounds like it demands a lot of public face time, which as an introvert myself I know can be exhausting in a special kind of way. So maybe the self-care that is more essential and thus higher on the priority list right now is finding quiet downtime! Just hang onto whatever pieces of the designer identity make you feel most like you for as long as you need to. It may be a ways into the future but I have no doubt that so long as you keep your heart open to it, something else will eventually come along that clicks 🙂

  • Karin January 28, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    If you ever feel like posting about it, Jenna, I’d be interested to hear more about your ambivalence toward design. (Was it always there? Asking as a young(er) designer myself.) I’ve been reading the blog all throughout your new job and I totally missed that your role wasn’t design!

    • Jenna February 1, 2016 at 1:36 am

      Hi Karin! Yes, I’ve written about this before throughout the years. Yup, the ambivalence always there. Design was a career, but not a passion. I was good at it, so I was able to support myself and my family, through freelance no less, but that’s mostly how I saw it – a job and a means to earn a living. I studied fine art and then music, so design, though related to those disciplines, wasn’t my major in school.

      But the need for change mostly came about because after 20 years, I grew tired of it and the industry was changing – so I wanted to get out before I felt like it pushed me out, if that makes any sense. When you’re working as a freelancer, it’s hard to really “advance up”. You can’t really manage a team or move up any career ladders unless you’re on staff. Web design was changing, and the need to outsource big design teams for the sort of work I was accustomed to doing was disappearing. The last few years, I was doing more print and branding work, which I don’t particularly care for and wasn’t my design specialty. Like most things in life these days, you have to adapt in order to survive. My way of adapting was attempting to switch careers.

  • Brenda January 29, 2016 at 12:21 am

    You know something funny, from the moment I found your blog, I’ve actually always thought of you as a photographer !!! Your design sense shines through your photography, you have an excellent eye.

    • Jenna February 1, 2016 at 1:37 am

      That is funny, Brenda. I’ve never worked as a photographer! Always protected it as a hobby.