December 9, 2020

Falling into place

Read time Min.

*This is part two of a series it will make a whole lot more sense if you read part one.

In 2019, I left Germany and moved to Sweden. Regardless of how much of a cliché it may be, I always take those big, changing moments as an opportunity to turn my entire life upside down and reinvent myself. So I decided, at 32, to go back to school for an undergraduate degree. I wanted to learn new things and fall in love again with the parts of my job that I loved from the start.

I enrolled in Jönköping University’s School of Engineering’s New Media Design program, an informatics program with a curriculum that seemed tailor made for me: part graphic design, part development, a good dose of HCI research and a colorful dress code.

Right now, I’m wrapping up my second year on the three-year program. I have learned so many new things, updated so much of my knowledge (so much has happened in the past decade, wow), and felt like I belong in a natural history museum exhibit after spending so much time with 18-year-olds.

Charging back up

When class started, I was both excited by the new experiences that were coming, but also very jaded about the industry. Every time I learned something new, my inner monologue would have the same snarky remark. “You know the real world is not like that. Clients want what they want. They’ll force you to churn out sterile and uninspired designs to trick people into clicking so they can get their money or metrics. This will never fly.”

Just like a decade of working with agencies, businesses and nonprofits, slowly chipped away at me until I hit the wall; the lectures, projects and conversations with students and teachers started charging me up. Hope is contagious.

It wasn’t a naïve hope, either. There was no sweeping things under the carpet and looking the other way, what I was seeing was optimism about design and technology and business even in the face of everything that can and has gone wrong.

This past two years I’ve worked with amazingly talented young designers and developers who make me want to do better and work on my skill set. I’ve seen a new generation look at tech and design with fresh eyes and look at the world with a better understanding of the issues and what it means to “be the change” than I could’ve ever dreamed of having at their age. Hell, some of them at 18 have a better understanding of it than I do right now in my 30s.

It wasn’t just the students; the teachers brought up all these things that I had been missing from the industry. Having a teacher acknowledge the lack of female representation in traditional design history, acknowledging the Eurocentric and westernized approach of the curriculum, being transparent about not having the background information to cover that material, but encouraging us to search and educate ourselves. It was a whole new experience.

A syllabus where accessibility and sustainability are actively taught, professors acknowledge the importance of diversity and the gaps and shortcomings of the curriculum, and the hopeful excitement of people fresh into the field started building me up again and gave me a positive outlook on what can be done.

Something shifted

As is often the case in school, the most important learning doesn’t happen during lecture hours. I will, for the rest of my life, remember a conversation I had with one of my professors. It took place across an empty hallway during the early days of the pandemic. Classes were taking place online for about two months, so I went by their office to drop off a project for grading and, instead of a quick drop-off, we ended up chatting from one end of the hallway to the other.

We talked about music and art and design, and then we moved into talking about the industry and our work. I ended up being my usual over sharing self and letting all my frustrations pour out. Their reply was, to paraphrase it from memory, quite simple:

“There is a reason I teach. It takes a certain personality type to ‘make it’ and it just doesn’t sit right with me.”

That was what I most needed to hear, that I wasn’t the only one who felt burned out, that I wasn’t the only one who found industry practices objectionable, that there is a way to sidestep these requirements and pick your projects and work in-line with your principles. That if someone I respected so much could hit a wall like I did, maybe there wasn’t anything wrong or shameful in me needing to make a change. I wasn’t failing; I was growing.