Dear Burnt Out Art Director…
Lauren Hom / Letterer, Illustrator, & WNW Member
It’s easy, if you’re just now coming across my work, for it to look like I have my shit together. I’ve done lettering work for big clients like Google and Target, my Instagram following has grown past 150K, and I teach hundreds of people how to sharpen their lettering and creative marketing skills through online workshops each year. But what you can’t see is that this business took five years to build. And it definitely wasn’t always this peachy.
Let’s take it back to June 2013: I had just graduated top of my class from SVA with a degree in Advertising, and my partner and I had just landed our dream jobs as junior art directors at a big NYC agency. It ticked all my boxes: great salary, reputable agency for my resumé, and snacks all over the place. This was the job that was going to make all those late nights working my ass off in school worth it. I could feel it.
By October that year, I was drunk crying to my best friend in the back of a cab. Sobbing, I admitted to her that I felt drained and uninspired at the agency but also felt guilty for feeling this way because it was supposed to be my dream job. That was my conundrum: finally acknowledging I was unhappy with the long hours and mundane work but feeling obligated to stick it out. I found myself making lots of little excuses for why I couldn’t quit at that point.
“It’s only been 5 months...5 months isn’t long enough to know whether something is right for me.”
“Just keep your head down, work hard and pay your dues. Once you’re a creative director comfortably making six-figures, THEN you can quit and find something else.”
“You get a steady paycheck, health care, and snacks. If you leave, you’re going to look entitled and ungrateful for this opportunity.”
“At least they pay for dinner and a taxi home from the office after 9pm.”
“This is just a rough patch. It’ll get better. It has to get better.”
A month passed, and it didn’t get any better. Work was sporadic, and even when we did get a brief (which always seemed to come through riiiiight at 4pm), we'd end up with nothing to show for our late nights at the office because the project would get killed or the client would decide to "go in another direction." But still, I stayed. Another month passed. Then another.
Shortly after ringing in 2014, I reached my breaking point. We’d been working on a pitch for 3 days straight, getting into the office at 10am and not leaving until 2am (but hey, free cab home, right?). On the third night, I arrived back to my apartment at 3am, exhausted, hungry, and completely defeated from designing decks and searching for stock photography. I opened the fridge and realized that I hadn’t had time to grocery shop that week, so all I had was a pack of cheese ravioli (the kind that only needs to be boiled for a few minutes). I was so deliriously hungry that I opened the package, sat down on my kitchen floor, and took a bite of uncooked ravioli.
It took some cold hard ravioli to hit me with the cold hard truth: if the job wouldn’t change, I needed to make a change.
All this time, I had been working on creative lettering projects on the side for fun, but once I knew I wanted to leave my job, I started seeing them as my ticket out of the advertising industry. Over the next few months, I started producing more personal projects, beefed up my portfolio with the type of work I actually wanted to get paid for (hello hand lettering, goodbye banner ads), sent cold emails to 20+ illustration agents and prepared to make the jump from full-time to freelance.
Within a few weeks of making the decision to leave my job, I booked my first big editorial job for Los Angeles Magazine, which led to more gigs, which led to signing with an illustration agent and planting the seeds for the thriving lettering business I have today. It’s incredible how the stars seem to align when you decide what you want and take action towards achieving it.
I hope YOU don't ever have to hit rock/ravioli bottom in order to realize that the career you initially chose might not be the right path for you. I wish I’d had someone to tell me it was okay to change my mind, so if I could go back in time and say anything to 23 year-old me (and anyone else feeling burnt out from their job), this is what I’d say:
Dear Lauren / Burnt Out Art Director / Designer,
Uncooked ravioli for dinner is NOT a good look on you. How did it come to this? You aren’t happy (you haven’t been happy for months), and I want you to know that it’s okay to acknowledge that unhappiness without shaming yourself for it.
There are other options. You don't have to stay if you don't want to (and we both know you don’t want to). Having an advertising/design degree or experience is SO useful for other business ventures. You literally majored in creative problem solving. The same skills you're currently using to make crappy work to sell a crappy client’s crappy products can be used to sell WHATEVER THE FUCK ELSE YOU WANT (like your portfolio to a new client, your own line of products, workshops, etc). You are capable of figuring this out.
You got into advertising in the first place because you wanted a job that paid you to work on creative things. Technically, you got what you wanted. It just turned out to be the wrong kind of creative work for you.
How can you change that? GET CREATIVE! Creativity isn’t limited to what genius campaign idea you can come up with or clever tagline you can write. Start getting creative with how you approach your career, your goals, and your life. Yes, it’ll take some extra work, but when has that ever stopped you?
You don’t have to quit right away, but you do need to get the ball rolling on an exit plan. Listen to inspiring podcasts, read business-savvy books, and surround yourself (in real life and online) with people who are working towards similar goals. If you want another full-time job, start looking at job postings. If your dream is to freelance, start looking for and taking on a few more clients. Start filling your website and Instagram with the type of work that you’d rather be doing (starting a passion project is a great way to do this). Give yourself permission to have some fun with your work again.
Think back to the long hours you spent working on your advertising portfolio, the late nights you stayed at the office to prove yourself, and every other time you hustled to get your foot in the door of this job you no longer feel called to. Remember how hard you worked because of how excited you were? You are more than capable of channeling that same excitement, ambition and dedication towards shifting the tides of your career towards something better suited for you.
Do not let shiny things like an office ping pong table, summer Fridays, and getting to eat free food leftover from meetings coax you into staying for longer than you need to. And certainly don’t let obligation be the reason to hold onto something that makes you miserable. You are not obligated to stay at a job to please anyone but yourself. You can have a job that fills you up AND has the sparkly shiny things (and more, if you end up being your own boss). Though you might be feeling down now, please know that you are creative, strong, and more than capable of having your ravioli and cooking it too.
Your Future More-Fulfilled Self