Broadening my skills; a breakthrough in my project

Learning web design, building a new routine, working with client's contracts.

Spring is here and daylight savings time is kicking my butt. It takes me up to a week to adjust to the time change. I really don’t believe DST is necessary in life, but here we are adjusting clocks and sleep schedules.

For this issue, I am going to add some more structure. My newsletter is a work-in-progress so if you have feedback, do let me know.

What I’m Working On

Broadening my skills

I mentioned in the last issue that I am updating my career and was thinking of going into web design or maybe web development. I’ve taken the last couple of weeks to double down and fully explore web design. It’s really hard to make this jump, but it’s necessary for me to stay relevant in the market. My goal is to work towards providing web design services and adding social media consulting as a way to provide more value.

I’ve suddenly become a beginner (again). It’s so overwhelming with the endless choices I could make. I sent cold e-mails to people in the field hoping to find some guidance on my next steps. Luckily, I got one reply from someone on Reddit. I sent them a personal message after I read their replies on a thread from many years ago about freelancing in web design. He offered me some pointers to start off and the best advice he said was “what does your ideal client look like”. Suddenly, I felt more calm. This whole time, I was chasing a moving target. It’s a feeling of constantly changing my mind on how to proceed without any resolve. If I identify a target, it’s a lot easier for me to focus. I’ll need to brainstorm this a bit, but I feel more confident if I work backwards this way. Once I know who I want as a client, I can think about the type of problems they need resolving and figure out the communities they are part of.

The other side of the coin is understanding the skills I am strong in. What can I bring to the table that I am confident to show? I think I am strong in consulting and really listening to people’s problems. I can put them into words in ways the client would struggle with. I help them affirm their value in the market. I think I can stand out in this way as a designer.

Two key learnings here if you are confused about your career:

  1. Work backwards and think about what the end result is like. If you are looking for a job, what type of company do you want to work at? Maybe IBM? Google? If they don’t have relevant jobs, are there other jobs you could do? For example, when I was at Kantar, we had a couple of juniors join the quality assurance team. These roles didn’t require a lot of education or experience. Most of the folks who joined just graduated and didn’t have a specific direction in their career. After 2 years of working there, some of them transferred to the client accounts team. The company is more likely to hire internally, even if you don’t have relevant experience.

  2. What are skills you know you can outshine others in? What gets you going? What is something that others rarely think about, but you do every time? This is what will make you unique and will help guide your career choices.

A breakthrough in the “Making It” project

I’m about one month into this project. I’ve decided to rename it from “Project 1” to “Making It”. This is the project I talked about in my last issue where I am coming up with a physical card product that incorporates data visualization to help handmade businesses start and grow a business. It’s a long-term project and my first dataviz project of 2021.

Since I am spending a huge chunk of my time learning web design, I am dedicating less time to this project. Here’s my schedule recently:

I am still testing this routine out, but so far, I like it. It feels focused and I get to work on things at length, rather than in parts. I either focus the day learning web design and spend the evenings doing this project, or I group them by days. I find that I am more effective doing it as a chunk, then into parts. Shifting my brain everyday into a new project at night feels too much. There’s always this time I need to transition into a project and it’s hard to do it all the time. I rest on Sundays. It’s my only day off in the week.

My goal with this project is to help someone conceptualize how to think about building a handmade business. I’ve been reading so much about the topic and synthesizing all the information.

Last week, I had a huge breakthrough. Here’s a sketch that will structure the project at a high-level.

Here’s how I understand this diagram.

At the very beginning, we start with the individual, the self. They are defined by a set of interests and aptitude that lead them to certain types of crafts. This activity starts to manifest as a hobby. A hobby is an activity where you expect nothing but joy. You gain personal satisfaction engaging in it. Your hobby only exists in your personal time, so naturally, it’s a part-time commitment. Over time, you develop a skill that not everyone has, you have become different and can offer something unique. Sometimes, you might sell your pieces here and there to family or friends. You might start making enough to cover your costs. At this moment, it is still a hobby. It doesn’t matter if you make sales or not, your goal is to derive joy from it. The moment you want to make profit, which is when sales exceed your costs, you are thinking about it as a business. So what’s a business? A business exists only if you have customers. The focus is no longer with you at the centre, you now need to meet the needs of customers. At this point, your focus should not be about what you want to make or the joy you can derive, it’s about how to increase sales. Understanding a business requires a new set of skills. At the hobby phase, you focus on craft. Once you get to a business, you must build on top of the craft skills and learn marketing, branding, customer service, shipping logistics, and so much more. This is how someone should think about their career if they want to convert their craft hobby into a business.

It’s so interesting how much you can understand about a business with a diagram. I see so much power in them to help us understand how to think about the world. I haven’t included the data portion yet, but I cannot wait to see what I come up with.

Working with client’s contracts

I’m currently engaging with one dataviz client. I signed the contract to work with them in February. They saw an interview I did and reached out to me on LinkedIn. They are a non-profit from British Columbia, Canada. Honestly, during the first call, I didn’t think they would hire me. Since I had nothing to lose, at the last minute, I pitched an idea using cards. I had a case study that I walked them through. To my surprise, the client was pretty excited about my idea. After the call, I sent a one-page proposal breaking down the project overview, deliverable, and cost. I even sent a mini-prototype of what it could look like. I sent everything to them and just didn’t expect anything from them. I followed-up a week after and guess what, they wanted to hire me. I was baffled. I didn’t know why they would want to hire me, and it feels like they are taking a chance on me. It’s hard to explain this feeling. The mangaka, Hajime Isayama, got rejected by many publishers for his story Attack on Titan (a very popular manga series and anime boasting worldwide success). When the editor at Kodansha said they liked his story, his first thought was “What’s wrong with this guy?”. Hajime was rejected so many times in the past, that he couldn’t comprehend why someone would like his ideas. In hindsight, it seems crazy that he thought that way. But in the moment, it never feels like it makes sense.

The client drafted a contract and sent it my way. I printed it out and took a pen to mark up places I wanted them to change. I marked up things for clarity. I specified that I required a 50% up-front payment (which they already agreed to, but I wanted to make sure it was on paper). I also added a section that my work was intended only for educational purposes. If they wanted to sell them, then the structure of payment would change. A helpful book I referenced while reading through the contract was the “Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines”. It is written in plain language and it is so easy to reference relevant information. For anyone who is just starting out, don’t be afraid to change the client’s contract. You should take the time to carefully read them and make sure that it aligns with how you work.


Ask Jane

This is a new segment for the newsletter where I post questions I get asked from people who are curious about my process and work. These will be pulled from this blog post. Feel free to send me new ones for me to answer by replying to this email.

The following question was asked as part of a student’s UX research project. Their research topic is about finding new ways to combine qualitative research with data visualization. They asked about my professional experience and process as an independent designer:

Do you think willingness to be uncomfortable is a way to measure creativity?

To some extent yes. Being creative is not comfortable. It’s a lot of unknowns to decipher. I am sure this isn’t the case for everyone. Maybe it comes easier to others. For me, it is always a struggle. I think about musicians a lot. When they write music that can move someone’s soul, they first need to reach in the depths of their inner self and understand the shape of their feelings. They need to somehow put all of that into lyrics and sound. In that way, they have translated a human language that becomes universal. It can move you in a way like nothing else. The process to achieve something like this doesn’t always come easy. Understanding how we feel and think, it’s a hard thing to do. It requires awareness and strength to look at them with honesty.

When I make something, I don’t go as deep as a musician would, but I still need to think deeply and reach into myself to invent something new. Creativity is about making something that has never existed. To do that, it comes from an internal source that is unique to each person. Inevitably, it expresses who we are. And this is how people develop a personal style.


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About Jane

I am an independent data visualization designer based in Toronto, Canada. I design hands-on learning experiences with data visualization that is user-driven. 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.