When people make a decision to dramatically change their course in life, it is seen as both admirable and inferior. Perhaps it is admirable because it involves making oneself ‘inferior’—materially depriving oneself and taking oneself out of a linear career path. Dreams are not always enough when healthy salaries and CBD offices are on offer. Doing what you are passionate about can mean less nice clothes and less restaurant dinners. And being held in lesser esteem by people with ‘real’ jobs and mortgages.
What does it mean to make such a decision? Once you ‘work the restlessness out of [your] system,’ can you ‘settle down and get a job at a good firm somewhere’? Will Holman believed as much, and set off in search of adventures rather than accepting a standard architecture job following work placements. His essay in Design Observer is lengthy, but worth the perseverance. He details the incredible experiences he has had in ‘social design’ in place of a corporate graduate role, the endless loading of his old Corolla and criss-crossing America to take up internships and longer term positions at Arcosanti, Rural Studio and YouthBuild, followed by some freelancing and furniture-making. Though he had every opportunity to do things the sensible way, Will forged his own path, driven by a passion for getting his hands dirty and by a belief that design can respond more ethically to the needs rather than wants of the world.
His choices echo the catchcry of the First Things First manifesto, originally penned in 1964 and updated in 2000 in Adbusters, signed by ‘graphic designers, art directors and visual communicators.’* Any recent graduate might find themselves crying, ‘There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills!’ when faced with the sheer futility of the corporate job they have taken.
There are pursuits more worthy of our problem-solving skills. Unprecedented environmental, social and cultural crises demand our attention. … We propose a reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication—a mind shift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning. The scope of debate is shrinking; it must expand. Consumerism is running uncontested; it must be challenged by other perspectives expressed, in part, through the visual languages and resources of design.
Reading this declaration, the beginning of a critical, theoretical design book (a rarity amongst the pared-back descriptions of colour theory and typography), brought back a flood of memories from my first effort at design school, a time of reading dystopian zines and anarchic cookbooks and Adbusters, of sitting in the library reading Marx and critiques of consumerism. This was the first time I made a hard left: On being told by my lecturers that I was destined for advertising, I signed up for a degree in philosophy.
Caroline Fryar, whose endless sock-knitting I ploughed through bemusedly, and whose enthusiasm for spinning I sympathised with, turned a hard left from academia. Destined for postgraduate research in all manner of classics and ancient Greek and linguistics, Caroline happened upon her plan B of ditching university to be a shepherdess. Having innocently found her blog while searching ‘knitting,’ and seeing that she described herself most prominently as ‘farm manager,’ my curiosity was piqued—how did she get here? The answer is simply this: She saw an ad. She applied for the job. She got it, and, brushing off the constant questioning of ‘aren’t you wasting your education? your brilliant mind?’ accepted it.
How crazy is it to walk into class and answer your professor’s ‘So, how’s your future looking? Hear from any schools over break?’ with, ‘Um well actually I am going to go be a shepherdess instead!’ ?
‘Well, that’s a surprise! …and I did just have you all read the Eclogues over break.’
While the world at large says things like, ‘good on you for following your dreams,’ it stomps on us as it turns its back on us. Following your dreams is good because it makes you happy to do what you most want to do. Following your dreams is admirable because it’s hard. Following your dreams is hard because most people don’t, and because most people put up with something else, that something else becomes the norm which then makes it hard to stray from the standard path.
Yesterday, I quit my job. Which is to say, I gave notice, and will finish in two weeks. This means my days will soon be freed up to do all the things I most want to do—productive, creative, challenging things that are rewarding for me but not considered of equal monetary value as the screwing around I have been doing in my highly-paid job. Leaving that job is in every way unconventional, reduces my security, and makes my life thoroughly unpredictable. But for now, that hard left feels good.
Will Holman admits, ‘My unconventional resume has proven to be a liability in a competitive job market; architecture firms I’ve interviewed at are looking for people with traditional commercial experience and advanced software skills. … This situation is of my own making, and I don’t regret any of the steps I’ve taken — forward, sideways or backwards — but I do wish there was more allowance in the licensure process for unconventional paths like mine.’
I don’t know how things will work out for us unconventional types with ‘holes’ in our resumes and educations—presumably we succeed or we end up homeless, with nothing. Then again, I was homeless for several months during the past year despite my job security and respectable income, so who is to say that one path is more stable than the other? I know that I’m doing what I need to do, because with only one lifetime in which to be as rad as possible, I don’t want to disappear into the faceless piles of perfect resumes.
* Looking Closer 4 Critical Writings on Graphic Design. 2002. Eds: Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller. Allworth Press: New York.