Engineering Success

Creative Careers & Adobe Creative Residency

By Isabel Lea

engineering sucess adobe creative residency

Most interviews with successful creatives make reference to a ‘lucky break’. I’ve never believed in luck, and the times I’ve come close to doing so have often involved luck of the unfortunate kind. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m thinking about how only last night I got hit by a car just trying to walk home. However, the more I think about my own luck, the less simple it seems.

Luck is something that we have more control over than we think. At the core of it, you can make your own luck by identifying and developing opportunities in advance. Thinking back to that phrase ‘lucky break’, it’s often associated with other phrases such as ‘overnight success’ or ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. I firmly believe that a lot of these phrases miss what goes on behind the scenes in order to engineer those serendipitous opportunities. It’s something people talk about in business, but rarely in the creative sphere.

8 months ago, I started a creative studio, ATYPICAL, and 6 months ago I became the first UK Creative Resident for Adobe. Over these last few months, both of these things have led to incredible opportunities for my creative work and growth to my business, and I have found myself apparently luckier and luckier with my opportunities. I was grateful for these, but I didn’t really understand why they seemed to be happening, so I decided to interrogate the circumstances around these ‘lucky’ breaks.

At its core, the Adobe Creative Residency offers me the time and financial backing to create the kind of experimental work I’ve always wanted to make – pushing the boundaries and blurring the lines around what ‘design’ is. However, over the last 6 months, I’ve discovered that it’s often more than just that. The programme bills itself as a ‘career accelerator’ for creatives and aims to not just give creatives the space to make great work, but also to act as a catalyst for career opportunities. ATYPICAL gives me an avenue to capitalise on these opportunities and build a strong network of clients and collaborators long term. In a way, the residency has actually been teaching me how to engineer my own luck within my creative career.

As a way of sharing my experience of the last 6 months and passing on some of the ‘luck’, here are six things that the Adobe Creative Residency has taught me about engineering your own luck in your creative career:

If you don’t take the risk, you’ve automatically lost

Lucky breaks require behind the scenes effort, and then they require risk. If you analyse the trajectory of successful creatives, all of them take risk. And risk can be terrifying, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start small. For me this was experimental projects, trying out new skills and collaborating with new people. These small wins teach you things about what works for you and where you can ‘engineer’ luck, and failures can often help you to engineer success later by knowing what to avoid. I believe in trying everything at least once, which has helped me to build up a good idea of what works for me and what doesn’t in my creative work and my life. This readied me for the big risks like starting a design business and applying for the Adobe Residency.

I applied with a project that was really important to me, and what I loved to do, but was very niche. I also applied with type design, which wasn’t a speciality that the residency had hired for before. I applied as one of the first applicants from the UK, and I applied whilst having recently started a design business that would also need my attention. All of these were risks. But if you don’t take the risk then you’ve automatically lost – and if you aren’t honest with yourself about which risks you choose to take, then who are you doing it for?

It’s ALWAYS the wrong time – and that’s ok

By nature, successful people tend to want to ‘plan out’ their careers as the best method for success. There’s definitely a place for this, but I realised often having too rigid a plan can blinker you to opportunities which might be better. It’s very easy to second-guess yourself, your situation and whether you are right for the opportunity. A lot of creatives I know (myself included) suffer from imposter syndrome and a desire to feel ‘perfectly prepared’ before doing something. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing something that will stretch you. Opportunities never come at the time you want them, but sometimes, in the long run, that’s even better.

If you’d asked me 12 months ago about my long-term goals, I’d have probably spoken about how I hoped that one day I’d have the opportunity to share my work and the way I think about design. Maybe I’d be 45 and have a well-established agency with a large body of creative work. It turns out these opportunities came when I was 23 and 4 months into my business. It came in the form of a talk at TYPO Berlin shortly after starting the residency, followed by a summer of similar events. I didn’t feel prepared, I felt too inexperienced and I was worried no one would care about what I had to say or the kind of work I was making. I felt awkward; I made a joke on stage, people laughed. I got a reputation for being awkwardly funny and honest in the way I do talks. I got invited to do similar other things. I’m pretty sure that had I been 8 years older and perfectly prepared that the outcome would have been different.

Trust your gut instinct

A lot of luck is based on being in the right situation. The right situation brings out the best in you and being in the wrong situation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But you can make sure you’re in the right situation by trusting your gut more. I’ve worked in a lot of agencies in different kinds of internships and jobs. In all of these experiences, if I was honest with myself, I knew where I fitted in and where I didn’t. There were many opportunities where I stuck it out because I felt obliged, rather than being honest with my gut. Eventually, I stepped out and was honest about the kind of work I wanted to make and the kind of career I wanted to pursue, even when it was difficult.

In the past, I’d spent a very happy amount of time training in Copenhagen, and I found that I felt more suited to the creative style and the design ethos there than I did in some of the UK based internships I had worked in. I discovered that I liked to work somewhere in the convergence of art direction, type and design. I found that I cared most about projects revolving around language and social themes. When I embraced those things and went with my gut, good things started happening. I realised that when you’re working on things that you’re passionate about, it shows – people will notice and those lucky opportunities will come. In my application to the residency and in the opportunities I’ve chosen to take, I’ve tried to stay true to that. Appealing to a small subsection of people who love what you do, rather than having a large amount who are indifferent, is much more effective.

Interrogate your successes, not just your failures

Making mistakes and learning from mistakes is something we do. But recognizing the circumstances of successes, then trying to replicate and enhance them is how we engineer repeat ‘luck’. Mapping out the good opportunities you’ve had so far and recognising the underlying themes can really help to figure out which parts of your creative work, your career and your personal life make you ‘lucky’.

For me, this is built on three principles, which have taken me a while to figure out. Firstly, using my sense of humour in my work seems to make me ‘lucky’. I found that people engage with it more and that they’re more likely to do things like come to my talks or commission me when I do so. A full talk or a big product order can just seem like a lucky break, but recognising that this aspect of my personality was improving my work, and reception at talks, helped me build it in as a cornerstone to my work. There’s something also profoundly nice about realising that people relate to your creative work.

Secondly, collaborating with people makes me ‘lucky’. I started ATYPICAL with Jacob James (a documentary travel photographer), and together we made and photographed the BRIT(ISH) product series which combined our styles. I also collaborated with New York-based, Adobe Resident Aaron Bernstein, where we made a language & food project, working at the intersection of our interest. Both of these have been successful in the creative communities and the wider public during my residency – and I believe a lot of that is down to the quirks that the collaborative process brings out. Finally – honesty makes me lucky. I try to use any platform to be honest, in my encounters with people, when I do talks and with my social media. I find that by being open helps me to find the people and opportunities that really work for me, rather than trying to be someone different for an opportunity that’s not quite right.

Keep intern mentality – play and respond

Scott Doorley, a creative director at Stanford University’s Institute of Design is quoted as saying “If you just think of serendipity as an interaction with an unintended outcome, you can orchestrate pleasant surprises,”. The key word here for me is unintended. I spent a lot of time at university feeling under pressure. I was working part-time jobs, freelancing and interning while studying. I was working towards a rigid outcome with little experimentation because I lacked the time and mental space to play. I had a small crisis of faith, then hit the reset button and used my savings to go and intern full time in Denmark for a year and a half.

As an intern, you’re seen as a good source of ideas because you’re young, and have playfulness and a slight level of naivety. Having said that, you’re also required to be disciplined, work hard and be very in tune to your own work, responding to feedback and improving. When I returned to the UK I found that a balance of  these intern principles were the key to creating serendipitous outcomes throughout my creative career so far.

At times throughout the residency, I’ve found myself drifting back to an ‘under pressure’ mindset, and setting myself too rigid parameters. Then I remember that the aim of the program is to create this ‘playground’ where the best ideas come from. You can’t schedule ideas, but you can engineer situations where they’re more likely. My best work during the programme has come out of the things I’ve done purely because I was playing. A font which responds to music which went viral on Twitter, clocks which visualise different philosophies. Ironically, my most playful projects are the ones which have led to the biggest opportunities with large brands.

Frame your own experience (or let someone else do it for you)

Luck is also a state of mind. Like the time old phrase about the glass being half full or half empty, your perspective on things also changes how you respond to potential opportunities. There’s a theory that people who believe in good luck are ‘luckier’ simply because they think they are. I had a great internship lined up when I was studying that fell through at the last minute. On the face of it, it looked like pretty bad luck. However, this happening led to me to go to work elsewhere, eventually kickstarting my interest in experimental typography. It was this experience that in turn led to the project which eventually landed me the adobe residency and acted as the cornerstone for my design business.

You can always change the framing of your experience – and if like me, you struggle – there are always people to help. As part of the residency, I work with a mentor, Tina Essmaker, who is often pivotal in helping me change the way I see scenarios. As the first UK Adobe resident, as someone trying to run a new business and as a young female from a very ordinary background I often found scenarios intimidating and felt like an outsider. When articulating a particular worry, I had someone ask why I would feel like an outsider when I was actually a leader. While I would be reluctant to embrace labels like that, it helped me to shift my thought process in my experiences and think about how I frame my own experiences.

In networking events, in talks, I now try to frame my own experience in a more positive light whilst still remaining honest. Everyone is faking it till they make it – but that’s the beauty of it. How you present yourself and your situation to others is something you can always control. By controlling this, you help control the kind of opportunities you want and in doing so, also controlling your ‘luck’.

Over the last 6 months, these concepts have been at the core of how I navigated the Adobe Creative Residency and my business. Reading about these things is really easy but putting them into practice in a creative career can seem difficult. However, for anyone who’s open to taking a risk that could really pay off and finding out for themselves, the Adobe Creative Residency applications for next year are open soon.

Go on, I dare you.

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