A Series of Unfortunate Designs

My life was pretty regular ‘til I turned seven. Divorce tore my family apart, custodial hearings unfurled, and everything became uncertain. Then, suddenly, everything was certain. Jehovah was our lord and savior. 144,000 faithful people would get into heaven. There would be everlasting life. So began my teenage years flitting between Jehovah’s Witness halls and various Christian congregations, largely isolated from society.

An abusive adolescence ensued, causing my lofty grades to plummet. I had to switch schools. I spent a couple of weeks living on the streets, and an early end seemed a little too inviting.

My father — I use that term loosely — moved to America and married a Coloradoan. I moved in with my mom, and managed to scrape together enough school credits to get into college. One of the courses I took up was IT. During the cult years, my only consistent channel of communication to the outside world was through a computer I bought with a compensation claim against my old school after my ring finger was crushed in a door hinge.

And so, my computer skills were my only skills, and I figured IT would be the next logical step. It wasn’t. It was a year-long course on using Microsoft Office.

I must highlight something here: when you spend your teenage years having sporadic contact with people outside the religious sect you’re locked into, it fucks you up. You don’t realize it at first, because it takes a while to break into regular patterns of society, so you don’t get a mirror held up to you straight away. There are many, many things which are very natural, obvious, and ‘common sense’ for most folks, which I’m still entirely oblivious to. I’m lucky to have encountered some incredibly patient and understanding people who have taken my situation in stride and created opportunities for me to latently figure all this stuff out. Even so, some things can’t be learned — you’d forever be playing catch-up. Some things develop on a deeper emotional level, not a textbook knowledge level, and those are things I’ve mostly accepted I’ll never be able to enjoy. Religion can give people hope, but it can also be a crippling disability.

Where does design come into all of this? Being good with computers allowed me to complete an hour of class work in 20 minutes. I’d then go around helping others figure shit out, so I naturally became the class nerd. In a good way, for sure — none of the boring bullying I’d endured at school.

One faithful day, a dude a couple of years older than me saunters into the class looking for “someone who can design posters.” I stared at him blankly. His eyes landed on me. He later told me he picked me out because he noticed a few people’s eyes flickering my way when he told us what he was looking for.

This guy was directing and producing a couple of plays at the local theater, and needed to print off a run of auditions posters, and then a number of larger posters promoting the play. By sheer anxiety, I sputtered out a “yes, I can do this.” He asked me how much I’d charge. In a panic, I said £50. We sweatily shook hands.

My first paid job was secured. I couldn’t wait to start.

“Hold up,” my brain interrupted. “How the fuck do you start?”

I went home and fired up the PC (Windows XP, ladies). I’d previously used PowerPoint at one of my churches to create the lyrics slides for hymn singing sessions, so I figured that’s where I’d start. That is correct — my first paid design job was completed using Microsoft PowerPoint.

Are you ready for this?

Okay, here it is:

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I was ridiculously proud of this tragedy, much in the same way that a parent is proud of their kid for taking its first shit on the toilet.

Somehow, the director liked it. So I made the promo poster:

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Again, the director somehow liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that he asked me to design the programme for the night. The lil magazine that would be handed out to patrons. He saw my poster — grunge metal fonts on a nightclub background — and asked me to do more work for him.

Alrighty then.

In the same phone call, he invited me to come and check out the posters displayed in the theater’s lobby. I’ll ask you once again to put yourself in the shoes of someone who was, for all intents and purposes, entirely new to the world, who had no real hobbies, no notable skills, and very little hope.

Walking into a theater and seeing something I’d made plastered on the walls was like watching the Northern Lights. In that moment, something clicked in me. A spark ignited.

I wanted that feeling again. I wanted to do more, and I wanted to do it better. I arrived back home, launched Google, and began surfing the Internet superhighway, dude.

Within a couple of hours, I’d downloaded illegal cracks of Photoshop and InDesign, and began working away. A few days later, and I’d produced this:

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I took all the photos. I designed all the ads. I even created some puzzles! Most importantly, my love for yellow sans-serifs was born. The director handed me £50, and that was that. In the space of a few months, I’d gone from making posters in PowerPoint to producing brochures with InDesign.

Two years passed before graphic design started making blips on my radar again. A year after that, I started considering it as a legitimate career path. And another year after that, around 2015, I began shouting about design as a service I could provide.

Design has given me the freedom to make things a bit clearer and a little prettier. A very necessary achievement for me, to counter the hatred and spite I endorsed during those years of closed-minded isolation.

Over the past year, I’ve shaken off the weight of imposter syndrome and begun being much more outspoken about my processes and passions on Twitter. This led to a small group of fledgling designers coming to me for advice. Some recently included me in their list of mentors. That blows my mind.

Most of my design work has been brand-related to date. The next step includes developing product-focused design skills. A stronger focus on user interface/experience, apps, iconography, semiotics, and broader design systems. Creating solutions bigger than one-off brands. Solutions bigger than myself.

I’ve got a few ideas. Time to really get started.