*This is part two of a series about the changes in me, my business, the way I structure my services and where I draw my lines in the sand. It will make a whole lot more sense if you read part one.
In 2019 I left Germany and moved to Sweden. And however much of a cliché it is, I always take those big changing moments as an opportunity to turn my entire life upside down and reinvent myself. So I decided, at the age of 32 to go back to school for an undergraduate degree. I wanted to learn new things and fall in love again with the parts of my job that I loved from the start.
I enrolled in Jönköping University School of Engineering’s New Media Design program, an informatics program with a curriculum that seemed tailor made for me: part graphic design, part development, a good dose of HCI research and a colorful dress code.
I’m currently wrapping up my second year on the three year program and I have learned so many new things, updated so much of my knowledge – so much has happened in the past decade, wow – and felt like I belong in a natural history museum exhibit after spending so much time with 18 year olds.
Charging back up
When I started attending class I was both excited by the new experiences I was about to encounter, but also very jaded about the industry. Every time I learned something new, my inner monologue would have the same snarky remark “You know the real world is not like that, clients want what they want, they’ll force you to churn out sterile and uninspired designs to trick people into clicking so they can get their money or metrics, this will never fly.”
But just like the decade or so of working with agencies, businesses, non profits and clients slowly chipped away at me until I hit the wall, the tasks, projects and conversations with students and teachers slowly started charging me up. Hope is contagious.
And it wasn’t a naïve kind of hope either. There was no sweeping things under the carpet and looking the other way, what I was seeing was optimism about design and technology and business even in the face of everything that can and has gone wrong.
This past two years I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazingly talented young designers and developers who make me want to do better and work on my skillset. I’ve seen a completely new generation look at tech and design with fresh eyes and look at the world with a better understanding of the issues and the meaning of being the change that I could’ve ever dreamed to have at their age. Hell, some of them have a better understanding of it than I do right now in my 30s.
And it wasn’t just the students, the teachers reflected back to me all these things that I had been missing from the industry. Having a teacher acknowledge the lack of female representation in traditional design history, acknowledging the Eurocentric and westernized approach of the curriculum, being transparent about not having the background information to cover that material but encouraging us to search and educate ourselves was a completely new experience.
This combination of a syllabus where accessibility and sustainability are actively taught, professors acknowledge the importance of diversity and the gaps and shortcomings of the curriculum, and the hopeful excitement of people fresh out of high school and getting started in the industry started building me up again and gave me a positive outlook on what can be done.
As is often the case in school, the most important learning doesn’t happen during lecture hours. I will for the rest of my life remember a conversation with one of my professors that took place across an empty hallway. It was the early days of the pandemic and classes had been moved online about two months before, I went by their office to drop off a project for grading and, instead of a quick drop-off, we ended up chatting from one end of the hallway to the other.
We talked about music and art and design, and slowly we moved into talking about the industry and our work, I ended up being my usual oversharing self and letting all my frustrations pour out. Their reply was simple, to paraphrase it from memory it was something along the lines of
“There is a reason why I teach, it takes a certain personality type to ‘make it’ and it just doesn’t sit right with me”.
And that was exactly what I most needed to hear. That I wasn’t the only one who felt burned out, that I wasn’t the only one who found industry practices objectionable, that there is a way to sidestep these requirements and pick and choose your projects and work in-line with your principles. That if someone I so deeply respected could hit a wall like I did, maybe there wasn’t anything wrong or shameful in me needing to make a change. I wasn’t failing, I was growing.