GO UP

Local creative director Kelley Cheng's advice to young designers


(Photo: Sarah Choo)

Suddenly i am 47. I misunderstood that I was still young-ish for a long time. But a recent health crisis became an awareness of my own aging. We all thought we will never grow old, but then suddenly you realised you are old. Not the most delightful enlightenment but one you have to deal with nevertheless. You will start reflecting on your life so far and I am consoled that at least I can say that I am proud to have arrived at where I am today, but being successful and moderately well-off comes with a lot, a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and even just recalling these years of building a design company bring tears to my eyes, partially tears of joy and partially tears of pain.

Being a designer is tough but if you are working for people, when things get too much, you can just walk away. But if you are on the other end, no matter how difficult things get, you have to stay strong - find solutions, find compromises, find help, and most importantly, find friends - to ride through the dark times. I can totally understand why successful entrepreneurs like IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad is so frugal because if you have built something from scratch before, you will know that every penny you make is so hard-earned.

Everybody hopes to start their own company but it is not for everyone. Running a company is hard work, it is even harder than working for someone. Especially when you first started, you must be ready to work day and night, you must be ready when there is no job, and you must be ready when there are too many jobs. You must be ready when there is not enough staff, you must worry when there are too many staff. And as with all small companies, you will grow to an optimum size where you can physically and mentally manage, then you have to decide if you will grow or downsize. There will be multiple critical decisions to be made everyday, and you will get lots of white hair and wrinkles, so don’t think that starting your own company is the ultimate goal, some people are happier working for someone else, and it is totally okay, you can do well too. I have seen many young designers, who tried to start their own company, and not many manage to succeed in doing well.

And I am also qualified now to warn you that karma is real. I used to work for a boss who was penny pinching, mean, dishonest and occasionally sexist. In a power trip sort of way, he enjoyed openly sharing his philosophy that “everyone is replaceable”, basically telling you that he can get rid of you any time. The last i heard about him - he was vastly in debt and near bankruptcy. And I think it is sad that almost every ex-colleague who has heard about his predicament literally laughed out loud and agreed that he deserved it. Hahaha.

And yes, Karma is really a bitch, it can bite you in oh-so-many-ways. In my “wild” days, I could never stay in a relationship for long. Some are few weeks, some few months, but the “longer” ones are 1-2 years, and the longest relationship i had was 3 years. In love, I move from person to person frequently. I don’t really know why, though i convinced myself that it was in the hope of searching for the perfect one. But the truth is in the course of each relationships, sometimes I get bored, sometimes I get irritated, sometimes I get paranoid, etc - nobody was ever a good match. And before I know it, suddenly, I am not the one who has the right to choose any more. I am too old for the young ones and the old ones are all happily settled. I am left you a choice of either that plumpy 40-something, that braggy narcissistic deluded 40-something, or the very sweet but buck-tooth thirty-something. The kind of choices that leave me regretting all the good people that I have left. And finally I realised there is no perfect one. Now you wonder why I am telling you this right? Because my staff always leave me after 2 years, 3 years and simply never stay longer than that no matter how minimally assholey of a boss I try to be. And the reasons for departure are so creative and varied that I suspect they even surprised themselves. So I am accepting my karma that came in the form of young enthusiastic designers who will always end up leaving me. But if they keep job-hopping after every 2 to 3 years, one day, in their 40s, they too will be in a situation of a company that has the qualities of that plumpy 40-something, that braggy narcissistic deluded 40-something, or the very sweet but buck-tooth thirty something - whereby they are too old to fight with the younger people for jobs, and too old/highly-paid for good companies who would prefer to either stick with their older staff or hire younger staff.

So after being aptly long-winded (a trait expected of older people), here are some advice to young designers:

Have a mentor

It helps to get some advice from someone who has been there, sometimes they can offer you a solution you did not think of, or it helps just to get a second opinion when things get difficult.

Have a support group

I’m grateful that i have found true friendship in my life, some i went to school with, some i got to know through the course of work, and it always makes me feel better when things get rough, we can bitch and laugh about it in one drunken night, and the next day you will be more ready to face the challenges.

Learn not to take clients’ comments personally

This is easier said than done but you have to always remember this - never take clients’ comments as a personal attack. I know it is difficult because sometimes we are so attached to our designs as we have spent so much time on it, and it is extremely hurtful when someone just brush it aside or consider it as not good enough. But remember your work does not define you as a person; you have to recognise it as two different things.

Pick your battles

You will meet some unreasonable and impossible clients along the way, and when that happens, just try your best to finish up the job quickly and don’t fight him/her, because with such clients, the outcome will be the same. This will not be a job that you will win award, it is just one of those jobs that you have to finish and move on.

Find ways to relax

There will be extremely stressful or painful days. Be it taking a walk, going to the beach, meditation, yoga, etc, you need an outlet on those days. Constant stress really has a negative effect on health and you will get all the problems in your 40s.

Learn to say NO

Clients can be unreasonable and ask for the impossible sometimes, or they can be unfair and ask for multiple rounds of changes, or they can be tyrannical and try to “art direct” you. If it gets to a point where it is too much, you can say NO, but do let your boss know the situation first and any reasonable boss will stand by you, and more often than not, if a boss is aware of a client from hell, they are more than happy to lose them.

Learn to say YES

If your boss ask you to go the extra mile once in a while, and as long as it is within reasonable limits and you can handle it, say yes. Because bosses remember these little moments and during times of promotion, these are the things that count.

Don’t stop learning

Success comes with hard work and practice. So don’t ever stop learning, til the day you die.

Inspiration comes from everywhere

Go to the museum, go watch a dance, go for an afternoon walk, go for a morning coffee.

Eat well and Exercise

I am guilty of NOT doing this enough but you should. Don’t wait until you fall sick. If you don’t have a healthy body, everything else doesn’t matter really.

Lastly, when things get tough and days get dark - Don’t give up. Because i promise you, it is true that when things hit rock bottom, it can really only get better, but only if you try to make it better and NOT stay in the darkness. Stop waiting for a tall, dark, handsome stranger because he might not even exist; make the best out of who you are with, because it might lead you to places you could never imagine and that is the beauty of commitment. And believe in karma, so always be kind to people no matter what.

TOPICS: design tips
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