Last Thursday I was invited to speak at Glug Leeds to talk about What I wish I'd known at 18. Among the other speakers were Kyle Wilkinson, Eleanor Snare, Lou Mycroft, Russ Poulter and Ash Wesley – you should totally check them out!
I was up first (no pressure there then), although on the plus side I got to go straight to the bar after my talk and order a large gin and tonic. For those of you that weren’t there and are interested to know my honest advice (or you just randomly stumbled across this page and figured you may as well carry on reading), here is how my talk went…
The thing is, when you plan a talk you have to know your audience - like, what are they into and what would they relate to? I started to imagine speaking to a room full of creative people and then I thought about what they would have been like at 18. Would they relate to any of my own experiences? Because in my head creative people all look like this at 18:
You were so bloody beautiful, weren’t you? So incredibly cool and fashionable. That’s what all creative people look like at 18, right?
Okay, so if THAT wasn’t you, then perhaps you were a bit of a rebel instead. Perhaps you graffitied a few bus stops while you waited for the X84, or perhaps you were a bit of a Damien Hirst and made canvases out of rotting fish eyes or something. Each to their own.
No? Well, if THAT wasn’t you then you were probably a bit alternative - perhaps you got your first tattoo and joined an indie band. You were a bit quirky but remained aloof so no one dared tell you you needed to brush your hair.
And if THAT wasn't you...
So how do I compare?
Okay, so that’s not me age 18, that’s me age 10 (though, admittedly, I probably haven’t grown much since then), but it’s probably important you have an insight into what I was like before I got to 18 so you know why I would give my 18 year old self the advice I’d give her.
I was a total geek. And I mean, this is back in the day when geek chic was NOT a thing. I was really interested in learning and doing my best at everything but I was also painfully shy. To top it off I was into stuff that wasn’t for ‘girls’ like Transformers and Ninja Turtles and I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with what a girl was supposed to be. Oh yeh, and all my clothes were from Oxfam…
So I got picked on a lot. I didn’t have much chance of fitting in with this notion of a ‘cool creative type.’
So I get to 18 and I’m trying hard to fit in, but I’m finding it tough - I’m still painfully shy and have no confidence. I feel like I don’t have a voice. But I’ve found that art is a way of expression for me and I spend all of my free time painting and drawing. My art was my voice.
So I tell everyone that this is what I’m going to do in life, right? Like, this is all I can do. And I get bombarded with advice – advice about how I should be doing something different; something academic; something that takes less confidence; something that involves me playing it safe. I’m told to focus on ‘getting a proper job’. I get told I am not ballsy enough to make it in this industry. So my first piece of advice is....
I wish I’d known not to listen to shit advice.
Of course, I wasn’t quite sure what shit advice was – I mean it all kind of merged into one pot. How was I supposed to know which was good and which was bad? I took on board everything that was said to me and I listened too much to things that meant I no longer had a voice. Stuff like this:
Shit advice is advice that is given out of fear, jealousy or in order to humiliate. It is advice that has no understanding of who you are or where you are heading – it totally negates potential and isn’t edifying. Confidence is something that is cultivated and developed, not something that you are born with. Telling someone they don’t have enough confidence is like telling someone who is afraid of dogs that dogs smell fear – it’s totally unhelpful and unnecessary. “Oh but it’s well-meant.” No, it’s not, it’s just shitty advice.
On the contrary, good advice has a good agenda. I’ve learnt to take advice from people who are rooting for me and this industry – that doesn’t mean it’s always stuff I want to hear but it is stuff that comes out of a place of understanding. Sometimes good advice means changing direction, giving things up and acknowledging mistakes, but its aim is always to lead you a step closer to where you want to me.
So the second thing I wish I'd know is....
I wish I’d known that fitting in is overrated.
I wish I’d known I could be different, weird and little bit bonkers.
I felt like I didn’t fit in much as a kid and when I entered the world of work I didn’t fit in much either. Most offices I visited with my portfolio smelt of Old Spice and had some sort of sporting memorabilia on the walls. To top it off, ideas seemed to be shouted across board rooms – there didn’t seem to be a place for someone who thought of ideas in quiet.
But I wish I’d known that the very things about me and my work that didn’t fit in were the very things that would make my work stand out – thinking a little differently about things and challenging ‘the norm.’ I wish I’d known that femininity and empathy gave my work a different approach that was needed in this industry. I wish I’d known that I could use feeling like a misfit to my advantage and that one day my crazy sense of humour would actually make other people laugh too.
The third thing I wish I'd known is...
I wish I’d known how to embrace emotion
I often got told I put too much emotion into my work, as though work should somehow be void of all human connection. I experienced many disappointments, only to be told ‘not to let it bother me.’ Are you having a laugh? There still seems to be this very stoic approach to design, which isn’t all bad, but removing all emotion is seriously detrimental to creative work. “just tell them to f*ck off” I’m told when I receive non-constructive critisism. And although they may not actually mean I say it out-loud (unless his name happens to be Bernard), this passiveness in design is what is making design lack soul. I want to be a passionate designer, not a dull one. I want to use emotion to make my work better. I want to make people laugh, cry (and yeh, part with their cash, so….)
Instead of telling people to f*ck off, I create stuff like this out of the things they say to me…
The fourth thing I wish I'd known is...
I wish I’d known that being cheeky will get you everywhere.
I wish I’d known I could get away with being cheeky - to ask for stuff I thought I hadn’t got a chance in hell of getting. I wish I’d known I didn't have to be the ‘good girl’ and instead I could embrace my inner cheekiness.
See the thing is, I want to bring a smile to people’s faces through my work and if I’m not myself I can’t do that. Sometimes being cheeky has no other agenda than to make people laugh, other times it’s a way of making a point - when there are situations where I feel something needs to be challenged I often find it the best way to respond – I think to myself, do I get angry? Do I stay quiet? No, I should be cheeky.
Meet Bernard... the guy who called me infantile, whiny, psuedo honest, unprofessional, too enamoured with myself and my talents and not grown up enough to be in this industry. I could have got angry, I could have stayed quiet, but I chose to write a cheeky open letter to him instead:
(Bernard is still getting me work by the way)
Other examples of comedy social media cheekiness...
After seeing lots of half naked women selling completely unrelated products on my LinkedIn feed, I thought I'd see if I could do it with my own artwork. ;)
Or being cheeky just to be playful!
Like the time I re-did one of Mr Bingo's illustrations...
And the final thing I wish I'd known is...
I wish I’d known that absolutely everyone is winging it.
Seriously, if you say you’re not, you’re lying! ;)
When you get commissioned to do a project you haven't done before this can feel both exciting and slightly daunting, but the best thing you can do is just take the first step and then another, then another until what seemed overwhelming was actually just a series of small steps. One such project was The Herd of Sheffield Project where I was commissioned to paint a giant fibreglass elephant and funnily enough I hadn’t painted anything like that before.
I had no idea where to start but I decided to create a design based on the this theme - big things often have small beginnings. By drawing lots of small illustrations of elephants, I made a big one! I think my 18 year old self needed to know she just had to take small steps - not to be overfaced and to just keep chipping away (or drawing away for that matter).