The story of my personal and professional history, from then to now. The future is an unwritten chapter.
The early years
When I was a kid, I was really into drawing. And planes. I think my interest in planes came from my first family holiday when I was five years old. It blew my mind that you could walk through a door into a metal tube, sit down for a couple of hours, then walk back out of the same door and be in a different part of the world. Still does.
But art was always my main thing. I was a precocious drawer and received a lot of praise for my drawings as a child. At some point, drawing, art, and creativity became a part of my identity.
My Dad’s passion is photography. In my early teens, he gave me one of his old SLRs and taught me the basics of photography; exposure, composition, depth of field. Keen for us to have a shared interest, he was happy to pay for my film, so I got subsidised practice along with my free photography education. I burned through rolls of film taking photos of anything and everything, trying to find my style, and developed a solid skill foundation in the process.
Photography was interesting, but it was never my true passion. Graphic design was. By my mid-teens, my heart was set on becoming a brand designer. I wanted to design logos. When I applied to University, I intended to enrol on a graphic design course. But for that, I would first have to complete an art foundation course, which meant staying in my small hometown for another year. At 18, I had outgrown the place. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I found a Design Studies course that didn’t require a foundation certificate and successfully enrolled in it.
The university years
I arrived in Nottingham to start university in the autumn of 1996 as a naive, wide-eyed eighteen-year-old eager to explore the city.
Two things shaped my university experience; music and internet subculture. Before coming to University, I had read Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, a book set in America’s tech industry at the dawn of the internet explosion. It became a formative book for me, sparking my fascination with Silicon Valley and the internet. (I still have the hardback somewhere on my bookshelves).
I had never used the internet before moving to university. But the idea that you could connect to the rest of the world and access information without gatekeepers fascinated me. The university had a computer room with dozens of computers that provided 24-hour online access. By the end of my first term, I pretty much lived there.
I started reading books and articles about the internet and its implications for society. Then I found William Gibson and cyberpunk. At some point in 1997, I discovered Amazon (still just a bookstore back then), and there was no turning back. I read everything I could about online culture.
My degree course was structured around self-directed learning, with only had a handful of timetabled hours each week. That suited me perfectly as it gave me lots of reading time.
The course curriculum wasn’t focused on a specific design discipline, such as graphic design. Instead, we were taught design principles and technical skills through modules that explored different domains. I learnt about design semantics by designing products that had to be intuitive to use without instructions, narrative and storytelling by writing a children’s book, desktop publishing (as it was called back then) by designing a magazine, storyboarding and video production by making a short film, etc.
It was a mishmash that went broad rather than deep. Still, I learnt the fundamental principles of good design, developed an appreciation for nuance and details, and picked up some valuable skills along the way. In 1998, I wrote my undergrad dissertation, Breaking the Virtual Border, on the impact the internet would have on early 21st Century society, focusing mainly on global online communities. It foreshadowed social media in everything but name and the more dystopian elements we see today.
University, as it should be, was a time of accelerated personal growth. I liked the spontaneity and opportunity that came with the student lifestyle, and I was always on the hunt for creative projects to get involved with.
In my second year, I answered an ad from a film student looking for someone to create a film soundtrack. (I had played the guitar and owned a four-track portastudio since my early teens.) I got the gig, which connected me with some wonderfully creative people. I recorded some demos and began collaborating with a cellist from Arizona the director had put me in touch with. The project fizzled out before the final edit was completed, but, as the saying goes, the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.
Life became all about music at this point. I began DJing around the city and rented a flat above a record shop in the city centre, which soon became home to a menagerie of local creatives and musicians. We became a creative circle of friends, all working on various overlapping projects together.
I got involved with a local recording studio and started hiring a practice room on a dead-end street behind my flat for weekly jam sessions. It was a large space full of equipment, old sofas, and music-triggered lighting — a perfect musicians’ hangout. For a few wonderful weeks, a parade of local creatives came by, hung out, formed friendships, and made music together. We had great fun, but it was too chaotic and unstructured to last.
The creative circle that had become such a big part of my life over the previous couple of years disintegrated once university finished. Those who remained were suddenly hit with the reality check of finding jobs and paying the bills. The music would have to rest for a few beats.
I graduated wondering what I was going to do with my life beyond my vague goal of becoming a graphic designer. There were two problems with this idea. First, my degree wasn’t in graphic design, so I had minimal portfolio work. Second, the internet explosion was yet to happen, and your geographical location still mattered. At the time, the design industry was very London-centric, but moving to London didn’t appeal to me. Undeterred, I decided to stay put while I figured out my next move.
After graduating, I landed a job designing page layouts and typesetting adverts for a newspaper publisher. It wasn’t particularly creative work, but composing dozens of pages and adverts every day helped me quickly develop my technical skills. And having multiple daily deadlines gave me the discipline to ship projects on time with consistency.
I remember being on the bus one day and seeing an advert of mine on the newspaper page a guy in front of me was reading. Knowing that my work was out there being seen by other people gave me a thrill. But there are only so many newspaper ads you can design before the shine wears off. So after a few months, I began looking for a more creative role.
I still didn’t have the kind of portfolio that would land me a design agency job, so I applied for in-house publication design roles. I ended up taking a position at one of the local universities, designing their student newspaper. There, I found myself working out of a small back office with an editor and a team of student writers, and full artistic control over a publication. It was another small, creative community, and it soon felt like home.
The creative freedom that came with this role was just what I wanted. I immediately rebranded the publication, giving it a new visual identity and switching the format from a black and white rag to a full-colour tabloid magazine.
I became obsessed with graphic design, and this was when I really got my design education. Making dozens of design decisions every day and shipping a fortnightly publication is a recipe for rapid learning. I learnt everything I could about print design and poured it into that magazine. Within a couple of years, I transformed it into a well-respected publication and was ready for a fresh challenge.
When a senior design position at an affiliated education charity became available, I took it, leaving the magazine behind. The company had no brand manager or marketing department at the time. So I suddenly found myself solely responsible for a multi-million-pound organisation’s brand communications, with nobody setting any direction. This gave me a chance to shape their visual identity, and I went through a period of experimentation while working on extremely varied briefs.
From design to direction
The flipside of complete creative freedom was a frustrating lack of strategic direction. I wanted to work higher up the decision tree, writing design briefs and developing a consistent brand. I got my chance when an external auditor identified the organisation’s need for a communications strategy. After a conversation with the CEO that quickly turned into an interview, I was given a new role creating the company’s brand strategy.
That meant trading design for direction. I hired a couple of designers to create artwork from my briefs while I wrote the brand marketing strategy, and a reasonably solid brand began to take shape. Leading a team of designers was fun. It was interesting seeing how different people tackled design briefs, and I enjoyed directing and mentoring my team.
Social media was just getting going, and I was early on the train. I set up the company’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and began to spend most of my time copywriting and focusing on social content. I was still leading on comms strategy and PR, writing project briefs, and managing the design team, and I got stretched real thin for a while.
We brought in a guy to handle social, which freed me to ship a rebrand I had been pushing for. I had been at the company about six years at this point. I had achieved a lot and learnt even more, but I was pretty close to burnout, especially as I was always working on side projects in my spare time.
All the while, I was building a roster of freelance design clients, intending to switch to working for myself once it became viable. My design skills were solid, but I didn’t have a good handle on lead generation. I relied on network referrals and had this romantic notion that if you did good work, people would find you. That was true to a certain extent, but it wasn’t a reliable way to grow a business.
I began publishing my work online, uploading designs and illustrations to Flickr. Later I started a blog called Pick Any Two to showcase my design work and write about my process. Despite zero marketing or promotion, client requests trickled in worldwide, from Europe to Canada. The internet was a much less crowded space back then, and you could cut through the noise without doing half the work required today.
During the noughties, I started doing work for LeftLion, a local culture and media startup. I created their visual identity and helped them launch a magazine. I joined their magazine team as art director and lead designer and, once again, found myself at the centre of a community of young creatives.
Over the next six years, I designed every issue of their magazine. I got to work with some crazy talented writers, photographers, and artists, and I built a strong network of illustrators for work commissions. It was a fun, inspiring project to be involved with, though production weekends were gruelling round-the-clock affairs, and I felt a sense of relief every time I shipped an issue to the printers and could get some proper sleep.
Before I stepped back from my duties at LeftLion, I organised a retrospective exhibition in the city centre, looking back at the first five years of commissioned artwork. It was a fitting send-off. Over the time I worked with them, they grew from a small team of volunteers operating out of a flat above a newsagent to being the go-to guys in the city for cultural event organisation and promotion. They began sending freelance design clients my way, and I became real busy real quick.
This was a really creative period for me. I had established a decent freelance presence while I still had my day job and was working 60 hours a week between the two roles. As if I wasn’t already occupied enough, I had started a couple of online publishing side projects and was trying to set up a t-shirt printing business.
I was being pulled in a million directions at once. I couldn’t work out if I wanted to be a graphic designer, an illustrator, or a photographer, and I was simultaneously trying to be all three. I thought that if I got involved in enough creative projects, one of them would take off. Instead, I spread myself too thin, and around 2010 I got burnt out on design.
Then a perfect storm happened. The stock market crashed, causing my freelance clients to tighten their belts, and I had some surgery that put me out of action for a while. By the time I recovered, I no longer had any clients. The prospect of generating new leads for work I no longer enjoyed wasn’t very appealing. I made the tough decision to roll up my freelance business and create some mental space to figure out what I wanted to do next. During the downtime, I got married.
Around this time, I read Freakonomics, which opened my eyes to a new way of thinking. It introduced me to economic principles such as supply and demand, risk vs reward, opportunity cost, and incentives. I was fascinated by these concepts, and I soon went down a rabbit hole learning about economics and investing.
It wasn’t long before I needed to scratch my creative itch again, so I started a fanzine to share what I was learning about economics and data visualisation. I made four self-funded quarterly issues with small print runs and distributed them around the UK with the help of friends in various cities. There was a funny moment when I gave a handful of copies to the Occupy Wallstreet crew that had temporarily set itself up in Nottingham’s Market Square. They took them eagerly, immediately scribbled out the “FREE” on the front cover with a marker pen, wrote “50p” above it, and began selling them from a stall. There was probably a lesson for me in their hustle.
While creating the fourth issue, I realised that I hadn’t yet recovered from my design burnout, and I needed to kill the project before it buried me. I vowed to put my foot firmly on the brakes and wait until I found something worth giving my time and energy to. At the same time, my wife and I began experiencing infertility problems while trying for our first child, which took the wind right out of my sails.
I stayed away from creative work for a while. The combination of burnout and the emotional toll of dealing with infertility left me with no appetite for it. But I’ve never been one to sit watching TV all evening, and economics was heavily shaping my thinking at this time, so I started playing online poker to keep my mind occupied.
This wasn’t totally out of the blue. I had played recreationally with friends for years, and my Brother-in-Law is a professional poker coach. Still, I am not naturally inclined to be a gambler. But I found learning and applying poker strategy an interesting intellectual pursuit. It brought things like game theory and philosophy into my mental sphere and was a great training ground for sharpening my thought process and strategic decision-making. I was consistently profitable at low stakes, but poker was a far cry from my previous creative pursuits, and it wasn’t my natural home. After three years, I decided to cash out my roll, a few thousand pounds richer.
My wife and I were several years into our infertility journey at this point, having experienced multiple unexplained miscarriages. It was a really dark time, and I felt numb and empty. I put what little energy I had into home improvements and maintained my health and wellbeing by lifting weights and training martial arts. We sold our house and moved out of the city to a small village to start over.
Back to work
While creative projects took a back seat, I focused on my CPD and pushed myself to excel as a digital marketer. I enrolled on the CIM’s Level 6 Diploma in Strategic Marketing and passed with merit. I read non-fiction books like crazy. Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile was a particular highlight that helped me build on my poker education and develop more sophisticated thinking around risk, first principles, and strategic decision-making.
At work, I began leading the customer insight function. I restructured my team around a data-driven digital marketing strategy and designed processes so they could deliver consistent quality without me being too hands-on. That freed me to focus on what I liked best: developing brand voice, content strategy, and creative campaign ideas.
The next couple of years of work were the most fulfilling in a long time. My team was a well-oiled machine. I spent my time doing market research and thinking more deeply about creative campaigns, segmentation, targeting, and copywriting. The work of Rory Sutherland became a big influence on me.
I have always found it fun to play with words. With my focus on brand voice and copywriting, I began to play with them a lot. I studied the craft of writing everything from ad copy to narrative non-fiction and, somewhere along the way, read John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. That book taught me so much about the writing profession and made me view my writing with a more critical eye. It also got me itching to write something longer than ad copy and campaign slogans. I was about ready for another creative project.
I had been on a big personal development journey during my thirties and had figured out many life lessons I wish I had known earlier. Working on a university campus, I saw plenty of people in their early twenties struggling with similar things, especially the transition from academia to the professional world. So I began writing articles to help people in the early stages of their career and published them on Medium.com. Soon after, I built this website to collate my work.
“Writing is thinking on paper”, says author and teacher William Zinsser. Publishing regular articles improved both my writing and my thinking. I gravitated towards the self-improvement niche and started writing about decision-making, smart-thinking, wellbeing—whatever I thought would help people become the best version of themselves.
To marry my interest in personal development with my marketing expertise, I began delivering marketing workshops and mentoring business school undergrads. Then I enrolled on a Coaching and Mentoring course so I could become a qualified coach.
Training to be a coach taught me a lot about what drives people, what holds them back, and how to help them achieve their goals. So much of it echoed the underlying psychology principles of sales and marketing; get people to articulate their problems then help them find solutions. It taught me how to be a better listener, build stronger relationships, and be a better manager. It also helped me establish a reflective practice and develop greater self-awareness—both of which have proved very valuable.
I had some incredibly insightful, rewarding experiences working with my coaching clients. But, while these experiences were enriching, I decided that becoming a full-time coach is not currently the right move for me as I need to work on creative pursuits to feel fulfilled. So, I am currently working with a select number of clients part-time while continuing to manage an education charity brand and exploring my options.
My journey has brought me full circle, back to where I was over two decades ago—compelled to work on creative projects where I can follow my curiosity and use technical execution to express my ideas.
Steering the long-term evolution of a brand over the last few years has been extremely enjoyable and rewarding, but I’m ready for a new challenge. I want to focus more on idea generation and directing marketing campaigns for a creative brand. This could either be as an in-house Head of Brand or as part of a digital marketing agency creative team working with other brands. Both types of role excite me. I also want to support the personal and professional development of people in early or transitional stages of their careers.
The most important thing for the next stage of my career is to work with other creative people at an organisation that lives and breathes brand identity and digital marketing, with a culture that places high value on creativity.
I think the reason I find creative pursuits so compelling is that they are a way to make sense of the world. As a creator in any domain, you deconstruct things, reverse engineer them, ask questions, explore ideas, find what works, and express yourself in the process. That expressive, exploratory process is like a form of magic that keeps me coming back.
My infertility journey may have stagnated my life and career for the best part of a decade, but I have a beautiful son now. Having started a new chapter in my personal life, I am keen to start one in my professional life. So here I am — 43 years wise with the hunger of a 23-year old. And I feel like I’m just getting started.
April 2021, Nottingham, UK
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