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My Frustrated History of Becoming a Designer, and Why People are your Greatest Asset

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Art was always my favourite subject growing up. But I didn't go to art school because I knew I wasn't good enough. A lot of people know what it's like to feel like a fraud, but it's something I've felt since I was 8 years old.

Even though I've spent my life sketching, painting, doodling, cartooning and designing, I was always overshadowed by one boy in my class, Jamie. Jamie was a naturally gifted artist, and whenever I saw his artwork I knew I'd never be good enough.

He was in my class when we were 8, drawing maps of the Lord of the Rings universe, and he was in my painting class when I was 17 studying fine art. And I was always number 2.

So I went to University and studied psychology, philosophy, German and biology. These were all subjects that fascinated me, so not all was lost. At 22, I graduated with a BA/BSc and left New Zealand. I ended up in Japan teaching English, but when I was 32 years old, something was gnawing at me.

I loved living in Japan, but I knew I didn't want to be an English teacher for the rest of my life. So I spent a day writing down everything I was good at and every remotely interesting job that I could train for. At the end of the day, it hit me like a lightning bolt - graphic design! It was unbelievable that it had never occurred to me.

I knew I'd never have Jamie's raw talent, but I decided I'd rather be number 2 doing something artistic than to never try. The next day I called my dad, borrowed enough money to pay for design school, and immediately enrolled.

3 years later, I was working as a freelance designer, but 90% of my income was still coming from teaching, and my design wasn't improving. Something started gnawing at me again. I didn't feel like I'd ever progress if I didn't commit.

A year later, I made the toughest decision of my life. I left my job, my friends and my life to take a full-time design internship in Beijing. I'd never been to China before, I didn't know anyone here, and I didn't have much money or any guarantee for the future, so I was terrified as I got on the plane.

A woman from the placement agency picked me up from Beijing airport and took me to my host family's house. I sat down with 2 strangers and they offered me a bowl of noodles. I tried to make small talk, but I burst into tears at the dinner table. Very embarrassed, I went to bed.

My internship was a nightmare. The agency had accidentally placed me 90 minutes commute away from the company, and the company was a cheap plastics factory in the middle of nowhere with awful working conditions. Most of the underpaid staff lived in the run-down, company-owned dormitory across the road, and ate the low-quality, mass-prepared food in the cafeteria, served from giant metal pots.

After 3 months, the general manager came into our office and announced the entire design team was fired. My coworkers didn't seem to mind; some of them even seemed relieved. I guess they thought it would be easy to find a job better than this one.

I started working like a maniac on my portfolio and asked everyone I knew if they had heard of any design jobs. Luckily a friend of mine, Lisa, said she knew a small agency that was looking for a designer, and I nervously applied. This was finally my chance to become an actual professional designer.

The creative director, Nickie, said she saw some untapped potential in my portfolio, and I was hired! I had a living wage, and started doing real work for real clients. I thought, "I've finally done it."

A year later, I had a terrifying realization - agency work was extremely limited and it didn't inspire me - did I actually want to be a graphic designer? I was doing repetitive commercial work for brands that I had no emotional connection with; but - wasn't this what I'd always wanted? That old gnawing feeling was back.

I started looking around for what other kind of design jobs were on the market, and I came across one that I didn't know existed - designing products for blockbuster movies at a company called Mtime. I've always been a huge pop culture fan, and when I saw the products they were designing for Warner Brothers, Marvel, Disney, and Blizzard, I had found a new dream job.

I met the creative director, Rebecca, and she gave me a homework assignment: design a series of Star Wars products for the brand new J.J. Abrams movie that was soon coming out. This was the single coolest assignment I'd ever been given in my life.

I worked fanatically for a week thinking of the most creative ideas I could, trying to combine the rich storytelling themes and unique aesthetics of Star Wars with popular products that people might actually buy. I sent my deck to Rebecca and she said, "I love it, welcome aboard."

I absoloutely loved that job. I worked harder than I'd ever worked, and did some of the best designs of my career. But 6 months later, disaster struck - Mtime was downsizing to prepare for their sale to a large conglomerate, and first on the chopping block were new hires. I was devastated.

It took me about a week to process my disappointment, and then it was time to hustle again. I desperately wanted another job like the one at Mtime, and began meeting with anyone I could. A month later, I got lucky again - Rebecca showed my portfolio to Guenther, an ex senior executive from Disney who was now working as a consultant, and he really liked my work. He introduced me to China's biggest film company, Huayi Brothers, who were interested in creating products and doing licensing for their own IPs.

I worked under Guenther's guidance and he became my mentor. He taught me everything about creating style guides, visual consistency in product lines, how to deliver value, and how to be professional at an executive level.

After 2 years, my contract was coming to an end, and I thought it might be a good time to leave China to try out my skills in other markets. I met Guenther and talked to him for 2 hours about what possibilities there might be in my future. At the end, he just asked, "If you had an amazing opportunity in Shanghai, would you stay?"

He asked me to design a series of products for Game of Thrones, another IP I was obsessed with. Again, a very cool homework assignment, but I wasn't sure why I was doing it. It turned out he had been helping engineer a deal to bring Dark Horse Comics to China, a licensee of Game of Thrones, and 2 weeks later he offered me the job of Creative Director. So, I had to stay.

I learned a lot about licensing and IP creation at Dark Horse. After a couple of years, I designed a couple of cutesy kissing fish and thought they might be marketable. I started talking to various people about how I could develop the IP and get licensing deals. The answer was: it's not easy, and usually takes investment.

Enter my fairy godmother, Debbie, a Dubai-based investor. My designs caught her eye and she asked me how much it would cost to develop the IP. Thanks to a fellow manager at Dark Horse, Dennis, I was able to find an agency that would be able to create animations, develop the designs, and run social media channels. They gave me a quotation which was reasonable to Debbie, and a few months later we set up a company (Floob Creative) that would own the IP.

Over the next year I learned so much. Debbie, her husband, Dennis, and many others guided me through everything I needed to do to run a business. Unfortunately the IP didn't take off as quickly as we'd hoped, mostly because of poor assumptions we made about the market, but it's still in our wheelhouse, and it's something we might be able to develop in future as a kids' IP. The experience certainly taught me how important precisely targeting the right demographic is.

My contract with Dark Horse was coming to an end, and I had more and more people asking me to do design work for them. Suddenly it occurred to me - Floob Creative could be more than just an 'IP warehouse' - it could also be a creative studio! I had already designed the logo 3 years before with that hope in mind, so a latent dream became reality.

There are tons of design studios out there, so I needed some kind of differentiator. I had been sketching characters since I was a kid and now had 5 years of professional experience at Huayi and Dark Horse developing IPs. I realised that creating brand mascot characters was something most studios didn't do or know how to do properly, so I left Dark Horse and started working for myself, which was immensely freeing. I contacted the best designers and illustrators that I knew, and asked them to join me.

If I was going to run an agency that specialized in brand mascots, we'd better have our own, right? We already had a silly but fun and unique name, so I thought carefully about our branding and began to develop Floob, a mascot that represented our values and aesthetic - creativity, fun, colourfulness and excitement. You can read about the beginning design stages here.

Debbie has helped all along the way. She continues to believe in me, and we still speak on a weekly basis. She always has great advice, and is probably the single most generous, warm-hearted, kind, calm person I've ever met.

Unlike our first attempt with the kissing fish, and thanks to the lessons learned, the 'Floobiverse' IP is really starting to take off, and I'm slowly establishing Floob Creative as THE brand mascot studio in China. I also met an amazing licensing agent, Sarah, who has helped put Floob and his friends into shopping malls, art galleries, NFTs, and soon consumer products.

I've had quite a ride, and am so happy to be running a company doing the stupid thing I love. It didn't come down to talent, risk-taking, or good old fashioned hard work. It came down to Lisa, Nickie, Rebecca, Guenther, Dennis, Debbie, Sarah, and so many other people. Maybe even Jamie. If it weren't for them, I'd probably be broke in Beijing.

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