The lowliest moment in my early career was when I worked as a gofer in the London headquarters of a died-in-the-wool Scotch whisky company. The day would start by sweeping the pavement outside and cleaning the none-too-fragrant gents toilets. Only then could I contemplate my Herculean task – polishing the brass banister which ran from the basement all the way up to the third floor. When I’d done, I had to start from the bottom again, catching any sticky fingerprints that had gathered in the meantime. And so on, until the achingly slow clock finally struck 5.30pm. As you can imagine, I have been a stranger to Brasso and a lint-free cloth ever since.
But this was the least of it. During my precious 15-minute mid-morning break, I was confined to a small, dank basement room with a boiler, a chair and a telephone in it. I was instructed by my boss, the maintenance manager, that if anyone called down needing an errand running, I was to answer the phone thus – ‘Hello, Boiler Man’.
In my mind’s eye, of course, I was no Boiler Man. I was a raw talent just out of university with a glittering writing career waiting around the corner. All I needed to do was get off at the next motorway exit and find that particular corner. This was in the middle of the last major recession, and however scarce jobs were at the time, being forced to define myself by someone else’s criteria made me doubly determined to follow my own path and do things my own way.
So far from urging recently graduated designers to cut their losses and seek their fortunes elsewhere, as was mooted by Ian Cochrane, managing director of Ticegroup, in these pages, I say stick to your guns. If you truly have design running through your veins, you must go for it 100 per cent. It may take you longer than you want to land your dream job, you may have to follow a tortuous route, but if you have determination and self-belief, you’ll get there. If you’re dithering, dilly-dallying, not quite sure, that’s a different matter. But most designers I’ve met are hugely self-aware and know exactly what they’ve been put on the planet for.
As a greenhorn, it’s hard to get a foothold in any industry. Design has always been more competitive than most, so nothing’s changed there. But remember this – if the creative sector is to remain creative, it needs a constant stream of new talent, fresh ideas and energy to keep coming through. And that’s where you come in.
However, you’ll need patience to be able to brush off rejection letters and possibly do something else in the short term. In a way, that’s no bad thing. Seeing the world from another angle – even one that isn’t that agreeable – gives you a sense of perspective. One valid point that Cochrane makes is that ‘if you want to design restaurants, it is good to have worked in one or two’. Getting to know any business from the bottom up, particularly in a relevant sector, will undoubtedly provide valuable insight and ammunition further down the line. But nothing’s a waste of time if you learn from it and save your observations for another day.
My Boiler Man experience – and all the other dodgy part-time jobs I took on shortly after I graduated – may have been hellish at the time, but they helped me appreciate my lot when I managed to escape them. And by the looks of this column, they’ve finally come into their own.