Going to college for art was the logical thing for me to do. I loved art for as long as I could remember and was obsessed with creating new things. I spent four glorious years exploring all the weird unknowns of my creative mind through drawing, printmaking and, my favorite of all, graphic design. I loved working with digital elements, solving complex visual problems and learning new programs. Once I graduated, I landed an internship as a graphic designer at an exciting advertising agency, which later turned into a full-time position. Feeling on top of the world, I honestly thought I would be a graphic designer forever.
Fast forward almost two years into my dream job as a designer, I began to feel the infamous agency burnout. I was designing all day and then at night working on my own personal creative work, starting to define my illustration style. Long hours coupled with a sizable workload and the occasional daunting task made me begin to wonder “what’s next?”
Curiosity has always been a driving force behind my creativity. I wondered a lot about the life cycle of projects I worked on at the agency, specifically how they came to be and what happened to them after I released the final files. My knowledge felt capped at a single stage of a much larger process, and as someone who is knowledge-hungry, this felt discouraging. I knew I was ready for a change. I began taking a shot in the dark with my job search, applying for opportunities that I didn’t necessarily have the background for but encompassed my interests and would equip me with skills I wanted to learn.
When a recruiter approached me to interview for a position on the brand management team for the largest communications company in the US, I had no idea what brand management was. I went into the interview with a Googled definition of brand and asked specific questions to help myself get a better idea of what exactly I’d be doing. “We just want to make sure you understand that in this position you will not be designing,” the senior brand manager said during my interview, and I distinctly remember this moment. I remembered how badly I had originally wanted to be a graphic designer, and how hard I had worked to land my design position at the agency. Was I really ready to move on to something else?
As a young creative, I think it’s important to understand that as we evolve and get older, so do our dreams. When our interests change it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re giving up on what we loved to do, but that we’re not afraid to start growing in new areas. As much as I loved being able to create every day, I loved the curiosity of a new challenge even more.
So, I accepted the offer.
Today, my days involve a lot of planning, strategy, and analysis to help inform and maintain decisions made to improve the brand. I was assigned to help manage the brand’s visual identity to meet targeted KPIs, help develop branded solutions, improve guidelines and, with the use of data, report areas where the brand can do better. A typical day for me consists of meetings with other marketers, most with MBA degrees, slinging around acronyms and industry terms I’ll have to later Google for future reference. I’ll review countless pieces of marketing materials to ensure brand alignment, and partner with leading advertising agencies to execute brand development projects. Even after a year and a half into my job, I still don’t walk the walk or talk the talk of a traditional brand marketer. However, I’m able to use my creativity to offer fresh perspectives that don’t fall into the traps of conventional techniques.
I believe that at the root of the best solutions is a creative problem solver. No matter what industry you work in, whatever your background may be, having the ability to assess situations in an innovative way will give you a competitive edge. Creatives are unique in the way we can see the possibilities before we see the limits; sometimes, we see the limits as possibilities. We’re trained to find the best possible solutions while working within tight constraints.
Although I sometimes feel like I traded Creative Suite for a Google Drive full of project plans, trackers, and status sheets, I realized growing in one direction didn’t mean I had to abandon the growth I had already made in another direction. At my current job, I’ve been able to repurpose the valuable skills I gained while working in a fast-paced agency environment.
Deep down, I know I’ll always be an artist at heart. There’s really no better feeling to me than coming home after a long day at work, cracking open my laptop and spending hours working on an illustration in Adobe Illustrator. Over the years since graduating college, I found myself cultivating a love for abstract compositions with surreal contrasts and bold colors. My work is inspired by conversations, human connection, and the experiences of living in a digital world. My illustration style was evolving based on a lot of experiences I was having in my new “adult” life, and my switch to a challenging non-creative day job played a large role in that. I was focused on the narrative of my work, incorporating empathy and occasionally social commentary. I was inspired to not be afraid to push or challenge the illustrations I was creating.
Since I’m no longer creating 24/7, I’m mindful to carve out time for myself to work on creative projects. Luckily, the demands of my day job come to a screeching halt once 5:30 PM hits, and I’m able to use my nights and weekends to work on whatever my imagination thinks up. I don’t feel restricted by what I do during the day. I still feel just as creative, if not more, than I did when I was working as a graphic designer. I honestly can’t say what my “what’s next?” will be from here. I’m not sure what my creative future holds or what direction my career might go in. But I can say that through my belief that curiosity leads to greater creativity, I no longer feel limited by my degree, my previous experiences, or by my current skills.
Illustration by the author. Shani Pleasants is an illustrator, graphic designer, and brand management analyst working in New York City. Follow her illustration work on Instagram @shani.cmyk and at her website, built using Format.