Should designers learn to survive recessions?
Issue 133: How I endured the 2007–2008 financial crisis
Happy Sunday. This week I spent a few days in San Francisco and the energy of the city was incredible. I’m usually in the city for work, and this time I took a few days off to catch up with friends, wander around, and connect with people I’ve been wanting to meet.
Some of these old friends were around when we endured the Great Recession of the late 2000s. In this issue, I’m sharing a bit of my story during that time in the hope there’s a nugget of information that might help people navigate this recession.
The recession of 2007-2008, also known as the Great Recession, was a period of economic decline that began in December 2007 and lasted until June 2009. It was caused by a combination of factors, including the housing market crash, high levels of debt, and the failure of financial institutions. The recession led to widespread job losses, a decline in consumer spending, and a decrease in GDP. It had a significant impact on the global economy, with many countries experiencing a slowdown in growth and an increase in unemployment. The recession was one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Every recession has its factors and each person has their own circumstance they inherited. However, they all hit people the same way when job seeking.
My Great Recession experience
I graduated college in 2006 and earned my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio art. My plan was to take a year off to work on my artwork to earn my Master’s Degree (MFA). My dream at the time was to teach at the university level. With that goal in mind, got an administrative office job and moved to Seattle with my four-year-old cat Wilson. Initially, the recession didn't hit me much. It turns out that going from a broke college student to a broke college grad wasn’t that different from a lifestyle perspective.
Eventually, I applied to grad school and was accepted to California College of the Arts (CCA) to pursue my MFA. However, there was one problem. Attending CCA would have meant moving to San Francisco and paying a hefty tuition fee. I was paying student loans from undergrad but they were manageable because I decided to go to a public state school. After reflection, I decided to put the dream on hold. Now that one path closed, I needed to figure out what to do instead of the office job, and design in tech felt like a natural move. Pivoting into a tech job in a recession proved to be more difficult than anticipated, and I encountered a few challenges.
The first lesson was that being a professional was more exhausting than attending school for me. Each payroll period and month’s rent felt like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill, only to begin again. Is life simply paying bills until you die?
The second challenge was getting a job without any actual professional experience in the field. The top question people early in their career wonder is, "How the f*ck am I supposed to get the experience I don’t have a job to get that experience?" It’s one of the most annoying paradoxes in the world. Between applying to jobs on Craigslist, The Seattle Times, monster.com, LinkedIn, I was rejected by 400 roles. Among those roles, I probably only received a few dozen calls back to have an initial interview or two.
Months became quarters, and quarters became a year. I began losing hope that I'd never find a job. I missed school so much; why did I even graduate? It turns out that in getting your start, you need a bit of a spark; something, or someone, who could build some forward momentum to get you out of the rut.
Sparks come in many forms in your career. It may be an inspiring talk that pushes you in a new direction. Sometimes it’s a new device or technology that invoked a paradigm shift in the industry. It could be a person who was your first believer.
Skill building (with a lot of coffee)
There was a realization during this recession that I needed more skills in my portfolio to share. Our graphic design professor at school taught primarily InDesign and Illustrator because he didn’t think web design was going to go anywhere (I’m not joking). Fortunately, I had more interests than art, including Humanities and Computer Science. In those classes, I learned skills like HTML, CSS, and Flash. Instead of going back to school, I turned on auto-didactic mode. In Seattle, hanging at a coffee shop is basically part of the culture. I found third place and started working on new skills.
In addition to skill building, I was desperate for more work in my portfolio and make-up projects in hopes to get a bite. Even though it wasn’t a case study, I needed more things, so I created my own experience.
The paradigm shift of the iPhone
On July 10, 2008, apple launched what was called the App Store for the iPhone—a device now over a year old. The app marketplace introduced something new to my iPhone 3G device. In addition to having amazing apps like a calculator and checking the weather, you could download apps that other people made. What I didn't realize until later on was mobile was the paradigm shift that changed everything; the most since the internet was launched to the masses in the 90s. Because of my experience in Photoshop, I was very good at creating skeuomorphic UI patterns. The iPhone launched my career.
My first mentor
To augment my office job, I started taking on contract work as a production artist. I tried many talent agencies, and the one that stuck was called the Smart Department. There was a woman named Meghann who was a talent advocate I connected with through a post on Craigslist. Though I’m certain she knew how inexperienced I was, she always went above and beyond to help me position myself to land smaller contract projects. After a few successful (and epic failures) projects, one of them was placed with Marie, a long-time industry UX professional who was running her own agency.
Marie hired me as an entry-level UI designer. She mentored me when I started my own agency—one I ran for five years. I’d reunite with her at HTC on the Global Digital Creative team. Marie to this day is still one of the most important advisors in my career.
Takeaways from one recession
After a lot of effort and part-time freelancing, I finally received a full-time offer on August 28, 2009 to join ExactTarget—my first full-time tech role. Little did I know at the time it was a company that was embarking on its hyper-growth phase, eventually IPO’ing and getting acquired by Salesforce years later.
I shared this story, not as a testimonial or playbook of exactly what to do. In fact, I’m not sure it’s the common story arc. Many of my classmates never landed a design job and did something else in their careers, and that’s okay. Hope is not a strategy, but it’s a motivator and momentum builder. It may give you the edge to keep going when any other rational person would give up. I just knew I loved design and wanted to find a way to do it for a living.
Have a plan B-Z
Your passion for getting into design or tech will not be enough. In volatile markets, so many people are trying to break in. With all the layoffs happening now, entry-level people are competing with industry vets. You have to play the numbers game and go for an extremely high volume. Like a single woman in New York City, the odds are heavily stacked against you. If you can't land the dream job, find a job you'd be okay with, and finally, find a job. Set a high standard, but compromise when you need to.
Invest in upskilling
Your portfolio and current skills may not be enough to get a call from a recruiter, especially in moments when it’s highly competitive. Don’t let your pride get in the way of this potential reality. I know it’s stressful enough to find a job. However, it’s important to make time to invest in upskilling to make your candidacy more attractive to people. Start with small projects; a study, hackathon project, or exploration. Though these projects aren’t ideal case studies, you have to start somewhere. The time I spent at coffee shops learning helped me land my first job at ExactTarget—a role primarily focused on building HTML emails and landing pages.
Make human connections through networking
I often wonder what might have happened if Meghann didn’t make an effort to help me. It may not have led to me finding my mentor and other connections. Make time to connect with people to help broadcast your search. You can do this in a way that respects people’s boundaries and they’ll keep you in mind. This isn’t speed dating. Take time to build an authentic relationship. Your human relationships are going to be a huge asset for you down the road, and you for them.
Persist and build momentum
You cannot control what happens in the market, but if you show up every day with persistence to invoke those sparks, I know you'll make it. There are days when it'll feel hopeless, and it’s okay to feel that way. Find a way to take care of yourself and get back at it again. If you’re job seeking in this wild market, I’m wishing you the best. Maybe you’re someone who is fortunate to be in the position you are. Perhaps you can find a moment to help someone out!
Tweet of the week
Mickey Friedman is crushing it with her demo of Flair AI—try the demo!
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There are so many people I want to meet and it’s going to take time to get through the list! Just because I didn’t see you doesn’t mean I don’t want to meet you!
Hilariously, both have an Ajax
Awesome role at an impactful company
Thanks for this, David! It’s what I needed to hear and exactly the fuel I needed to keep me moving forward.
Thank you for sharing your story and your words of encouragement!
I’d love to meet up with you some day in San Francisco, David!
Your newsletter has had a big impact on my career. I look forward to it every Sunday. :D