Aug 10, 2020 • 7M

A Year of ________.

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My dataviz career journey as an independent. I talk honestly about all the challenges I face as a designer.
Episode details

Fill in the blank: “A Year of ______”

a) freelancing
b) failures
c) growth
d) all of the above

It’s exactly one year since I quit my full-time job to be independent. A lot can happen in 12 months. There were a lot of lows and some highs. Coming to a close of the year, I have changed so much. I feel as though I’ve experienced five years in the span of one. It felt that I was making a major decision almost every other month.

I also had my first episode of depression in these 12 months.

It hits in short-term episodes. I’ve never been formally diagnosed, but I looked up the symptoms and they match up to what I am going through. How did it come about? Perhaps from the lockdown we’ve been going through. Perhaps it’s the pressure of freelancing.

I didn’t have any luck freelancing in dataviz. I had a lot of luck freelancing in social media. I had my first episode early in January. At that time, I didn’t see a future for myself in dataviz. I was stuck and just had no way to move forward. My skills and interests didn’t align with what the dataviz market wanted: interactive work, dashboards, big data, and reports. I felt useless. My negative thoughts took the best of me.

I was sick in bed for several weeks at the start of the new year. I was stuck at home and I didn’t eat well. And then, when I recovered, my first episode of depression hit. It lasted for one week. I wasn’t able to move. I was physically stuck and all my desires disappeared. Nothing could move me during that period. Everything lost its colour and I had no will to get up and do something. It was terrifying. I kept telling myself to stand up and go do something. But I couldn’t. When I got out of it, I found a therapist to understand what just happened. It hadn’t come back until the end of June, which also lasted about a week. It’s not predictable and I don’t understand it yet.

Things didn’t seem to be working out for me. I felt like a failure. Whether or not if I was one, was a separate issue. I told myself that I was and I believed it. I kept thinking whether or not to go get a full-time job. When is a good time to give up? How do I know?

It’s odd. I have low confidence and low self-esteem, yet I am optimistic about being independent. I think to myself: “maybe the right person hasn’t seen my work yet”, or “the next project will help me get to where I want to be”. Maybe I was influenced with this idea from Tyler the Creator:

“I haven't been super successful with [radio], but that time will come. If it's not the next album, then it's the three after that…”

I told myself to wait until the end of August. Don’t think, just make. I put my head down and pumped out work that I wanted to do. Not to please anyone or do what other successful dataviz people do, but do what I wanted to do.

I was watching a documentary of a Japanese mangaka (someone who creates Japanese comics) and it was so insightful to see how they work. One quote from Akiko Higashimura resonated deeply with me:

“When I draw a character’s face like, whoosh, in one go, that’s when I have the most fun. It’s like there’s this moment when you get the face how you want it, like it just fell into place, and when that happens, I think, ‘Ah, I won’t ever be able to give this up.’”

When I finished the Tekken project and held the cards in my hand, I think the same thing to myself: “There’s no way I can give this up”. Because at any point in time, just like this mangaka, I can tell myself to give up trying and just do something else with my time.

Most of my work is met with a confused faces when I show it to potential clients. People have no idea what they mean and don’t know what to use it for. I got tired of trying to fit my skills with the current dataviz market. I didn’t see a path forward anymore as a freelancer.

So I made my choice.

I will stop marketing myself as a freelancer and I will switch gears and focus on solving the world’s problems with dataviz. I will focus on being product-centric, rather than service-centric. Just like the Tekken project, I’ll go into various online communities, listen to their problems, and get really good at problem solving. My work is too unique for client work, but it makes sense for end-consumers. I think if I can solve a big pain point with my skills, then I can find a way to sell it to people. I don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s worth a shot.

The Tekken project was a safe way for me to try this out. I went on Reddit, took the time to listen to the pains the players had when they were learning to play the game, and made a tool that allows them to truly understand the mechanics of the game. The medium is unique. I used physical cards to visualize a series of small multiples for people to compare different moves in the game. When I shared the final version on the Tekken subreddit, players saw potential for what I made and I felt hopeful in this new path.

One of my life goals is to get better at Chinese, and I learn slowly by absorbing the culture and stories from Chinese dramas. I’ve been watching a new series and one of the protagonists left her small hometown to find success in Shanghai. Her parents wanted her to return home, get married, and settle down. She said she would 认命 when she turns 30. 认命 is a new phrase I learned from this story. The literal translation is to “admit life”. It means to accept one’s fate. The way she used the term, she said she would accept whatever fate had in store for her and give up trying to build a life in a big city. Later in the series, she had to quit her job and return home. She was home, but it didn’t feel like home. She eventually confessed to her parents that she wanted to go back to Shanghai and 拼命, which means put your all into something. There is a character for life (命) in this phrase, and I interpret this phrase as using your own life to achieve something. Putting your all means to put your life, your time, your energy on the line. I identify with this protagonist in that I don’t feel ready to 认命 yet. Maybe that day will come, I don’t know. For now, I’ll just put my head down and put out work that only I can make.

About Jane

I am an independent data visualization designer based in Toronto, Canada. Through personal projects, I have taught myself how to create data visualizations. To see my latest work, check out my website.

Ever since I became an independent designer in 2019, I’ve had many insights about life, work, data visualization, design, and creativity. I have been documenting these insights as much as I can through various mediums. In 2020, I decided to start a newsletter where I can put all these insights in one place. This newsletter is meant for people who want to learn more about what it’s like to be an independent data visualization designer.

Feel free to send me questions or topics you’d like me to explore by replying to this e-mail or by commenting to this post.

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