5 Reasons Why Established Creatives Are Changing Their Disciplines
WORKING NOT WORKING
We surveyed the Working Not Working community last month to see if it was at all common for our members to change disciplines. Given that Working Not Working members are a discerning, talented, and successful bunch, and established enough in their existing roles to rack up awards and formidable client lists, we didn’t expect all that much movement. But then we took a look at the results.
Amongst both freelancers and full-timers (two relatively loose terms based on these insights from last week), about 40% have changed their discipline in the past three years. This doesn’t mean that 2 out of every 5 creatives are undependable or flighty. We see these changes as commendable, and it is clearly paying off for many of them. These full-time creatives have redefined themselves in the past few years and are now in salaried positions, presumably within their newfound discipline.
After following up with survey participants, it seems like 99% of the 40% are in constant dialogue with themselves and their craft, and possess enough self-awareness or industry-awareness to know when it’s time to make a change. Our members are willing to unbridle their creativity and lend themselves to alternative disciplines after hours. This explorative process can sometimes lead to a breakthrough and even a new career path. And if it only confirms that you belong where you currently are, the effort is hardly a waste. As Creative Director Lucy Sole puts it, “Don't be afraid to take projects that aren't necessarily in your wheelhouse. You'll miss out on a lot of opportunities to create cool work and learn new skills which either way will only help your career.”
Below, several WNW members share what led them to make a change, what that experience was like, and how they feel now that they’re on the other side. They also offer advice for fellow creatives looking to make a switch.
Are my audience and clients trying to tell me something?
No one knows your work better than you. Right? After all, you’re the one piecing together those infinitesimal thought fragments that lead to a more fully-formed and recognizable idea. And then taking your idea and using your unique perspective to pull everything into a cohesive and relatable final product. You should have your finger on your pulse more than anyone else. Yet sometimes a discipline shift can arise from realizing trends in what clients consistently ask of you and tuning your ear to what your audience is applauding most passionately.
“Although I had gone to college for graphic design, it turned out that most of the freelance and in-house work I was getting post-graduation was for apparel companies,” Designer Leanna Perry noticed. “After years of self-reflection and trying to figure out how it kept happening, I finally realized why people had been leading me down a fashion path--my detailed, pattern-based aesthetic lent itself really well to print design. At that point I decided that I should refocus my practice on designing clothes and see where it took me. When I first got interested in working with fabric, I would stretch canvases with patterned fabrics and paint graphics on them. Eventually I took the jump and started working full time at apparel and accessories brands. Turns out, apparel design is a really steady and fun field to be working in and I can still paint murals, make posters and do traditional graphic design stuff after hours.”
Some creatives commit to a clean break when they make the shift, but others are able to further support themselves by keeping a hand in their previous toolbox.
Does my current discipline contribute to what’s most important to me?
There’s inherent privilege in having a creative career that both satisfies your curiosity and pays your rent or mortgage. But even a discipline that checks both those boxes can be an ill fit. Our members are constantly wrestling with the balance of sustaining a creative career and creating in a way that works toward a sustainable future. Sometimes the switch to a new discipline can clear your conscious and in the process make room for a more productive imagination.
That’s what led New York-based Designer Simi Mahtani to make a change. “A few years ago I was creating highly specialized environmental graphic design & branding for events and pop-up experiences. While I enjoyed what I was doing, I was always making my own fine artwork on the side. I cringed at the fact that the type of work I made my career off of was so temporary, and not at all sustainable for the environment. Most of the collateral would be up for a short amount of time, maybe even a few hours in most cases, and then go to the nearest landfill. I knew in my heart that I did not want my skillset to contribute to waste. I have transitioned more into the fine artwork world, creating custom installations for brands spaces that have a more permanent intention.”
Who does my industry’s breakdown by discipline actually serve?
Why do creatives even bother concerning themselves with defining their discipline? Part of it is in knowing how to brand themselves. It’s also a way of aligning their focus under an existing structure so that their work is contributing to a specific, perhaps higher-level conversation. But at the end of the day, you should feel empowered to join a new conversation when the previous one has run its course, or when you feel like you no longer have something to contribute to it. “Disciplines are somewhat of a fake construction,” Anthony Clune, a Brooklyn-based Writer and Director (for now), notes. “They help companies know which chair to put your butt in. But creativity is more expansive. So don’t worry about it.”
Can a smaller change yield a bigger result?
If you want to step outside of your forte and comfort zone, you don’t need to overreact and dive headfirst into the polar opposite. Sometimes even a subtle transition can yield a breakthrough. As Creative Director Luke Williams explains, “Designer to Creative Director doesn't sound like a change of discipline at first, but the transition helped me shake off the pursuit of style. All of a sudden I was focused on bigger ideas that were not contingent to a look or wedded to some aesthetic, but would launch long-term thinking and lead to holistic measures for how brands should behave or exist over time.”
Will I have the time to go deeper with a different discipline?
Changing disciplines is a personal choice that’s dependent on your unique creative interests. It can sometimes take a few years of doing what’s wrong for you to discover what will be a better fit. Take Art Director Haley Stark, who started her career in editorial at Nylon and Elle. “I was very young and very eager to design 200+ pages every 15 days.” Getting to feel both the immediacy and ownership that comes with that sort of design process is an ideal for some. But with that rapid-fire creativity, you might start to crave a more measured approach and holistic experience.
After a few years of pushing issues at a fast pace, Haley began experimenting with longer-term freelance gigs with fashion brands. “I was immediately drawn to this new style of working, as I was able to invest good periods of time into projects (read: two months, instead of two weeks), carefully tying creative decisions to longer-term brand goals instead of rushing to beat a countdown clock. I went through a few more transitions—quitting editorial, opening a studio, trying out fashion advertising—and now I’ve settled into developing content for beauty brands. I still use a lot of the tools I learned in editorial (i.e. beating insane deadlines, quickly ragging 2000 words), but I love diving deep on creative ideas and giving them the reflection they deserve.”
Artwork by WNW Member Sam Rowe
Have you changed creative disciplines? Let your community know why you switched and what advice you have in the comments below.