Juggle the struggle

Learnings from working as a self-employed designer, studying and doing 1000 other things

I have never been a big fan of juggling but I’ve always admired – or rather envied – people who were juggle pros, even as children. My fear of failure also regarding fun things (such as juggling) have been enormous, so I haven’t even tried to juggle in a proper way. When reflecting what happens in my professional life nowadays, the picture of juggling balls and seeing them drop on the floor regularly comes up in my mind quite often. Within the following lines, I share my experience of working as a self-employed designer, studying and doing too many things at once.

Passion meets limited time

I’ve been working as a self-employed experience designer (read more about experience design in this article by Patrick Newbery) for almost four years now, working with teams and small businesses to help them shape their vision and creating digital products and experience-led services.

In addition to my self-employment, I participate in the master’s degree programme Content Strategy at FH JOANNEUM, co-organise CreativeMornings/Vienna, support entrepreneurs as a design coach at the Impact Hub Vienna, share thoughts in lectures, contribute to On The Grid and visit several events that caught my attention: re:publica, Webclerks, UXvienna, Wiener Vorlesungen, iamgood and others. During spring 2019, I also took part in C hoch 3, a coaching programme by the Austrian Economic Chambers for people working in the creative industries, which led to the start of the cooperation project Participation Pandas.

As you see, many passions and interests meet limited time. It’s a juggle with (a lot of) ups and (a few) downs, a struggle against disappointment, anger and expectations that aren’t met.

Some time ago, I wrote down five principles that guide my professional life. Sometimes it’s easy to follow up to them, but sometimes it’s extremely hard to stay true to yourself. I decided to take those principles to do a personal reflection.

Simple is beautiful.

I see design as a way to simplify things – this helps to make them specific, authentic and understandable. We should try to make our world simpler. A lot of effort is mandatory to achieve this and it’s often underestimated. The projects I am involved in demand a high level of focus to break things down and have a close look at what’s actually the essential piece of it.

What I’ve learned:

  • Simplifying things also means to simplify processes and whole forms of collaboration.
  • Connecting the dots is not always as easy as I’ve thought, but getting new insights and sharing opinions during university courses enrich my professional life (have a look at the curriculum here).
  • Simplicity is also about narrowing down the professional focus. It’s not always a good idea to do everything but to put emphasis on what you like to do most.

Good things take time.

Change is what makes our lives exciting. Just think about the technological development over the past few years and its influence on how we go through life now. Crazy! But this is the result of critical thinking, making mistakes and constantly learning. We need time to create amazing things. Great ideas may pop up in a blink of an eye, intelligent solutions grow and thrive over time. Especially critical thinking is needed to come up with options and solutions that add value to people’s lives. During the past months and years, I surely made a lot of mistakes and they caused trouble – trouble I have to cope with as they have an influence on my business (and therefore my financial and professional existence). Sometimes it’s hard to keep track and to prioritise.

What I’ve learned:

  • Long-term commitments help to maintain better planning and to realistically define and prioritise tasks.
  • Breaking up challenges and tasks into smaller pieces allows for better balancing time for thinking and time for getting things done.
  • I’ve always known that a designer has to learn on a constant basis, but I’ve realised that there are even more areas to learn from.

Work for money, design for love.

This title of a book by David Airey tells the truth about the profession of a designer. Design is passion. It’s a way of thinking. But it’s hard work too. And hardly any other profession brings so many disciplines together or requires so much empathy than design. Being interested in a lot of things and being curious brought me to the decision to join a study programme where familiar topics mix with completely new ones.

What I’ve learned:

  • It’s crucial to know your own expectations – whether in commissioned projects or a task during a study programme course.
  • Although an accumulation of hurdles and difficulties during processes, in projects, with clients or with collaborators reduces motivation and dedication at some places, I still love what I do.
  • Having a lot of interests doesn’t help to focus on just a few things, but it feels good to get insights and ideas across topics without having the pressure to do so with effort.

Make yourself proud

Design always shows a bit of the personality of the designer. I try to listen to my heart and to use my mind when I do things and also to have fun while doing that. Hard work and being nice make it possible to do epic things. If basic parametres are set and everybody follow the same (or at least a comparable) vision, the boat can faster move into one direction.

What I’ve learned:

  • It’s not always easy to fully dedicate yourself to a specific task. If time is short, the feeling of having delivered something that might lack the expected quality is a permanent resident.
  • The expression “stay true to yourself” is a good start to reflect about how things go and why.
  • Optimism and kindness make it easier to cope with troubles and to find solutions for them.

Be truthful, gentle and fearless

These wise words by Mahatma Gandhi sum up what is essential for a meaningful life. It’s not too much expected to tell the truth and see things as they are. We all live on the same planet, so kindness and empathy are elementary for each and everyone of us. Being brave allows us to create beautiful things, because: On the other side of fear is freedom. Pleasing everybody is nearly impossible, so it’s important to address issues in an honest way and to be transparent towards everybody involved in a project.

What I’ve learned:

  • If problems or delays occur, it’s more important to share these issues openly than putting yourself under pressure of unrealistic deadlines (I actually dislike this word).
  • In experience design, empathy is key. And empathy should also be key in everything you do, especially when other individuals are involved.
  • Don’t fear conflicts – if something doesn’t work properly, there is a reason for it.

New day, new chance

Juggling the daily struggle is part of the game. And you can see life as a game. Games are fun and challenge you constantly. I’ll take the upcoming challenges as they come and try to consider all the things I’ve learned during my professional career by now, during the coures at university and as part of the many other great things I do (and still want to do). So: Don’t forget to play!

Special thanks to Andrea for helping me keeping track of what matters most and for reminding me not to sell myself short. 💛

Experience designer, aspiring content strategist, humanist, world citizen, traveller, mountain hiker, Cuba Libre aficionado, fairness advocate. www.ejochum