Living the dream

What are your goals? Are they within reach or light years away, and how can you make them happen? Digital Arts talks to leading creatives about how they got set for success.

We analyze, manage and plan almost every area of our lives. Relationships, finances, family and leisure time all receive considered attention, yet one area is curiously – sometimes disastrously – neglected.

Work hogs two-thirds of our time on Earth, so why do so many of us drift from post to post, following a crazy paving career path that’s rarely fulfilling, and frequently frustrating?

Since design is, in part, vocational, the student designer should have a far clearer notion of what he or she would like the future to hold than, say, a history or philosophy undergraduate.

The reality, however, is that designers can drift aimlessly from first job to carriage clock presentation as readily as anyone else. Some may even drift to the top, earning a pretty wedge as they go, yet still remain creatively unfulfilled.

Far more will hopscotch through the industry, on a never-ending quest for creative nirvana. According to one theory, the secret to a happy career – whether in design or anything else – is to find your ‘red thread’: the thing that motivates you above all else.

The notion of designers finding this motivating factor was recently examined in a Digital Arts blog ( by Huey Nhan, a production director at London-based creative agency Digital Outlook.

Nhan believes that the red thread can be as broad as “making things that people love, or helping others achieve their potential... A good creative would surely have a bit of the former, and a good manager will always have a bit of the latter.”

Whatever the exact characteristics of a designer’s personal red thread, Nhan believes that the principle itself is essential.

“The most passionate, successful and, ultimately, fulfilled people will stick steadfastly to their purpose, whatever they do.”

This approach has helped Peter Tennent achieve his creative goal. He runs Factory Design (, a product design agency.

“My red thread is to run a successful design agency, and sustain it for the next generation, while remaining recognizable to my wife and children when I walk through the front door.”

But of course, life is rarely simple, and what motivates us can shift over time. US-based Mike Tunney, an art director with OgilvyOne ( a top interactive agency, says his red thread has changed over the years.

“After college, I wanted to do the most creative work for the coolest clients, but over time I’ve realized this isn’t always going to be the case. Since then, I’ve tried to create work that’s rewarding for myself, but also equally rewarding for my clients.”

Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim started their design studio Fuzzco ( in Charleston, US, in 2005. The pair says their creative drive comes from “being playful and young whenever we are allowed”, adding that “we have a lot of interests outside of design that influence our work and keep us engaged.”

Having confidence in this process, they say, is what brings clarity of purpose. Nailing precisely what is creatively satisfying can be complex and, at times, almost impossible.

“I’m not sure I’ve found my red thread, but I know I’m getting there,” reveals John McFaul ( one of the UK’s most sought-after illustrators and designers.

“The reason for believing this is that I’m not after a particular thing, but an understanding of my ability and my team’s ability to constantly evolve as designers, down avenues not necessarily open to us previously. We want to be challenged every day. We don’t want an easy life.”

However, seeking a life filled with challenges is no easy task, he says. “It’s tough... the design industry is so blinkered.” For others, design cannot be separated from other aspects of life, meaning that the creative red thread becomes interwoven with other goals and aspirations.

“I no longer want to be a top businessperson by the age of 30,” explains multi-disciplinary designer and artist Adriana de Barros ( “I want to be successful, to be the best designer and illustrator that I can be, but being happy is my number one priority, and this means having a balance of other elements in life, such as family, friends, love, hobbies, and travelling. I also want to enjoy the small things in life.”

While understanding what is personally fulfilling provides direction, is it necessary to have a clear plan on how to put this into practice? “Not necessarily,” believes McFaul. “But it pays to be aspirational and to know the industry, because only then can you determine where you want to go.

"This was the biggest thing for me. Recognizing that the industry I wanted to be part of didn’t hold everything I wished for was eye-opening, to say the least. That’s when my business started to call the shots. Everyone needs some appreciation of what they have to offer.”

De Barros believes that having a clear sense of who you are is a prerequisite to knowing what you want. “From there it will be easier to reach your goals. It is important to have dreams, but sometimes we don’t know how to reach the end goal, until we take the first steps.”

Tunney emphasizes the need for planning. “If you don’t have a plan, you’ll end up spending far too much time in a place that isn’t benefiting you, your career or your happiness.”

Tennent is less sure. “The consensus is to plan, but I know a lot of people who plan madly and don’t get anywhere, and a lot of successful people who were just in the right place at the right time. But I guess if I was starting out again I would have a better plan – it might have helped me get where I wanted to go faster.”

However, he does believe that any plan should be flexible. “Make it a living thing that changes with you, and don’t stick to it too rigidly.” Fuzzco’s Rice and Nissenboim agree with this, adding that it’s important to aim high.

“You have to constantly redesign your plan as you go along, and part of your goal should be something far-reaching, and you must recognize that this goal is possible.”

Of course, putting a plan into practice is a different matter. If you fail to maintain career momentum it’s just a matter of time before you slip into a creative rut. In retrospect, Tennent feels he should have been more demanding when younger, with a greater sense of his own worth.

“Having been an employer for the past decade I now realize the importance of keeping good people. Looking back, I should have been more bullish in my requests to past employers.”

Tunney believes that self-assessment is important, too. “If you feel like you’re not getting what you need from a position in terms of compensation, work, responsibilities or happiness, then those are all real reasons to start looking elsewhere.”

Stuck in a dead-end job?

Few designers are fortunate enough to love every job they land, and some will end up in roles they actively dislike. How you cope when faced with professional frustration and even anger will affect your career.

When Peter Tennent ended up in a job that offered no room for progression, “working with people I didn’t like, on projects that gave nothing and took everything”, he leapt at the first opportunity that came his way.

With hindsight, he admits it was not the best course of action. “Rather than having the patience to wait for something more considered, I just wanted to get out.”

As the manager of a copy centre for years, Adriana de Barros also found herself “trapped and unhappy” – but she was determined to take positives from the situation.

“I used my frustration in a positive way, creating new projects, Web sites, and paintings.” For John McFaul, the first six years as an illustrator after graduating were “hellish”.

“You can be so typecast as an illustrator. I was doing the same job day in, day out. I was quick to utilize the computer back then. I suppose I got off my arse and learnt a thing or two – not in order to ‘get on’, but because I wanted to get myself out of the tedium of my bland situation.”

Some, though, do avoid downturns in their career. Mike Tunney says advice from his first creative director to not keep a job longer then two years has stood him in great stead. “He said jokingly he’d fire me after two years for my own benefit if I was still there. I quit after one-and-half-years for a small, award-winning shop in Los Angeles.

“Now I’m getting older my priorities have changed, and I don’t jump around so much. But working in various places – everything from large agencies to small design shops and even in-house positions – has given me invaluable experience.”

He advises designers to “look in the rear-view mirror at least twice a year, to see if you are still on track for the goals you set when taking the position”.

Pushing the creative envelope is McFaul’s anti-rut protection policy. “Constantly evolve. Push yourself. Keep fresh. Do what you believe is right. Don’t follow the crowd – they probably don’t know where they are going. Make them follow you. If you know your subject you should be able to direct yourself. Your opinions and beliefs will guide you.”

Few dreams – creative or otherwise – come true without hard work. Tennent confirms that design is no career for the lazy. “It’s a time-based industry, so the more time you put in the more you get out. Effort versus reward in the creative industries does not match a career in finance, say, so there needs to be other rewards than just money.”

“I’ve worked as hard as I could to make it to the next level at whatever job I was in,” says Tunney. “I’m still applying the same principle. I’ve missed out on some fun things because of work, but it’s been worth it. But there has to be a balance between life and work, else you’ll just burn out.”

Not McFaul, whose creative dream has been built upon a 24/7 philosophy. “That’s how it has to be. But it’s what we’re happiest doing. It’s not a job, this. It’s life! We love it when we have interns who want to ‘do what we do’ and crumble spectacularly on yet another all-nighter.”

But he concedes that Tunney has a point about striking a work-life balance. “The past 15 years have put a huge strain on my family, my friends and my health. It’s hard.”

All are agreed that part of that hard work must involve education – technical, professional, personal or otherwise. “Education has played an enormous role for me,” reveals McFaul.

“I was a senior lecturer in graphic design for eight years, and it enabled me to finally find myself and understand my capabilities and what was actually out there for me.”

“Education is very important,” agrees Tunney. “Self-education or more traditional education – whatever works best for you. I try to learn something new every year in order to stay current. It’s important to challenge yourself.”

“It’s essential to learn and keep learning,” stresses Tennent. “Education can be as simple as reading the paper and discovering a new fact or figure. It is all about the gathering or gaining of information and when this stops, others go past you.”

“Staying up-to-date is critical,” explain Rice and Nissenboim. “There are always new trends, practices and pieces of software that change the game. Also, be aware of what is going on outside of your industry – as if to cross-train your brain.”

And what about Lady Luck? Does she play any part in the realization of one’s creative goals? “You need to make things happen to find luck,” says de Barros. However, not everybody agrees. “The idea you have to make your own luck is, frankly, bollocks,” contends Tennent. “How on earth can you do that? Luck is unpredictable.”

“A good education, hard work and networking play more of a role in career development, but a little luck never hurt anyone,” concludes Tunney.

Cash vs. Creativity: The balancing act

Living the creative dream may not always be compatible with paying bills and mortgages and supporting a family. So is it possible to put one’s creative goals to one side for a time for, say, a higher salary, and still go on to achieve what you want in your career?

“Sure,” says Mike Tunney. “But you have to really understand why you’d want to compromise yourself in the first place.”

When Tunney found himself in a well-paid position with an interactive firm, but unhappy with the work and clients, he took a position that paid less but that involved much more responsibility.

“It allowed me to be the person in charge,” he says. “It was a great opportunity for me to grow creatively and get a better understanding of how a business is run. I knew I’d never get another opportunity to build a global brand from the ground up, especially aged 27. The pay cut was only temporary, but the experience has been life-changing.”

Peter Tennent contends that it is always dangerous to take “just any job”. “There must be a reason – a few, hopefully – why the job is right,” he says. “This may well be that it provides you with a stepping stone of experience, but anything fewer than a couple of years in a job will just look on your CV like something went wrong.”

John McFaul insists that the choice of which jobs to take and which to turn down depends entirely on who you are. “There will always be a line not to cross. For me, there have been difficult decisions from time to time, and earnings lost at times when money was actually everything. We’re a lot more selective these days.”

For de Barros, the wisdom of taking on a role for reasons other than job satisfaction depends on the job and the person. But, she says, “you can end up working in another field to make ends meet until you can pursue your dream job”. She adds that this can be considered a “sacrifice to reach the next step in your life”.


This New York-based design, illustration and photography practice was founded in 2002 by Jonathan Kenyon and John Glasgow, who met on the London College of Printing’s graphic design course.

In little more than five years the practice has built up a stellar client list spanning global brands from Greenpeace to Honda, taking in Pepsi, Coca-Cola, MTV and the BBC on the way.

Their fashion collaboration with label Artful Dodger has propelled their designs onto the shoulders of Kanye West and Ludacris, among other stars. Their route to success has been enviably direct; a fact that Jonathan Kenyon attributes to their determination to please themselves first and foremost.

“We achieved success by always designing for ourselves first and not caring too much about what we thought would sell,” he said.

“Whenever we find ourselves losing our spark, we always seek to regain that same focus on designing for our own enjoyment first, and it continues to work for us.”

They have applied this principle even to the most fundamental aspects of running their business, such as where to base themselves.

“The move to New York was based on our personal desire for a change in lifestyle, and once again the decisions we made for our own self-interest always seem to be the best business decisions too. What makes us happy makes our business successful.”

Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim founded Charleston-based studio Fuzzco, and have developed a hand-crafted, playful style for their illustrations, Web site designs and graphic designs.

Over the past nine years, Mike Tunney’s career has led him to clients as diverse as tattoo studios and pharmaceutical companies, taking in heavy hitters such as Levis, Sony and Universal Studios on the way. He has provided graphic designs for skateboards, T-shirts, movie logos and Web sites. He is now an art director for Ogilvy One, and says that it’s essential to both plan ahead and keep an open mind.

Peter Tennent’s product design agency, Factory Design, produces multi-award winning designs for clients including Remington hair products and aircraft designers. He says that it’s crucial to him that his company’s success is balanced by a happy home life.

Adriana de Barros runs Breathewords, a design agency providing illustration, Web design, paintings and graphics. She believes that it’s all too easy to lose perspective when chasing the dream career, and tries to maintain a fully-rounded life.

Despite claiming he’s still in the process of discovering his red thread, John McFaul runs the successful illustration agency McFaul. Its clients include Virgin Atlantic, IBM, Orange, Nike, British Airways, Casio, Vodafone, Carhartt and Penguin. He says that his background in lecturing was crucial to his development as a designer.

illustration Vault49 Photography Michael Creagh at Vault49

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