How my experience made me the professional I am today

How often do you compare yourself to your idols and wonder how they got to where they are today? What kind of magic elixir did they drink that took them to a level that seems impossible to us mere mortals?

The most common advice is don’t be afraid to fail and learn from those failures. There you have it, nice and simple and yet most of us think to ourselves “You want failures? Here’s my list and it hasn’t done a thing for me”.

I agree with the whole second paragraph but only recently realised that one needs a bit of perspective to see the light. I’ll try and explain exactly what I mean in this article and hopefully some of you will see the light too.


My Journey

 As far back as I can remember I’ve always doodled and from a very young age I had the strong feeling that drawing was going to be in my future.

Photo courtesy of Max Klingensmith


Fast forward to 1994 when I get accepted in the NSA (National School of Arts) in South Africa as an Art Major. Suddenly I’m immersed in a very artistic and alternative world. Sports are not a priority and bullying is almost non existent. All of my free time goes into drawing, photography, painting, sculpting… in fact anything that hones my artistic skills. For 3 years I live and breathe art and my work reflects this with huge leaps of quality.

During this time my fellow students and I hear about the idea of the starving artist and that only a small few manage to make a comfortable living. This is the time when computer arts and the internet are slowly building and although I love art, I’m just not the starving type. Having fallen in love with Photography, that becomes my first career option and Graphic Design a close second. Both seem like careers that can at least support me. Unfortunately photography has quite high startup costs so I settle into the idea that I’m going to be a Graphic Designer.

After doing intensive computer courses on DTP, Graphic Design and 3D animation I decide to make the move to Portugal because my thought is that I’ll be in Europe which opens up the world for me and I have family there.

photo-1422479516648-9b1f0b6e8da8Let’s get working:

Offered my first job only a month after arriving in Portugal thanks to a cousin of mine, I was to become the assistant of a freelance Graphic Designer. Different to most jobs, we work from his home office but still manage to have some very well known national clients such as Martini, Vaqueiro, FIMA, Entreposto and many more.

Lesson learnt: How to pay attention to little details such as text alignment and page layouts.

Unfortunately revenue begins to run low with a few customers lost and my boss can no longer pay me.

The advantages of working one-on-one with my boss is also a disadvantage as I haven’t built up many contacts in the industry. Far from today’s job market where you can find hundreds of  offers online, at that time it was a lot harder and depended on classified ads in newspapers or word of mouth.

Luckily I barely have time to begin worrying before I am approached by a friend that has started up a small agency with some colleagues of hers from College. They need someone to come on to take the creative reigns, so I accept the position of Art Director.

The agency let’s me take on the creation of various corporate brands and supporting materials. Every day presenting incredible challenges that push me to new levels of design. The best part, it’s like we’re a group of friends working together.

Lesson learnt: How to take a project from nothing all the way to a finished product. Working in a startup environment taking on more than my job description entails.

Around 6 months in I get a callback on an interview I’d gone to during my very short time unemployed.  It’s for a well know Spanish company that had recently expanded into Portugal. Their first real internationalisation of their department store concept. I reluctantly go to the interview and am offered the position earning quite a bit more than what I earn at the agency and it seems like a great opportunity so I accept.

My first 5 years at the company are as a senior art finalist consisting of posters, catalogues, ads and so on. I admit for my ever curious mind, after a while I become pretty bored with the work. To keep myself upbeat I take on a few side projects such as adaptation of comic books from their original language into portuguese for national publishers (Loved this and still look fondly at my collection of comps.).

I also decide to take on giving Salsa dance classes for six years which leads to incredible things and even a little international recognition for some of our work.

Lesson learnt: Public speaking, leading groups, event organisation and do more than just work. I also re-visit my childhood passion for comic books

The one big problem was that I was bored at my job and felt like I’d spread myself too thin with everything else on my plate, so I took a step back, took stock of my priorities and taking my cue from an opening to lead up the digital creativity department, I decide to show my interest and make some major changes.

I leave the dance classes in order to start a family and dive into this digital world. Moving into the department, it’s still a small one man team with very little work and responsibility. It gives me the chance to grow with the department. I create a few habits that have helped me to keep reasonably informed of developments in the digital realm and have grown the department to 4 strong and with a lot of work and constant strive to keep the team evolving and motivated.

Having learnt my lesson previously I take on the hobby of coloring comics whenever possible and continue my training in Wing Tsun.


Photo courtesy of Angelo Amboldi


Looking back at the above autobiography, many people will see it as a success story and an incredible journey that some might even envy. So why until recently did I just see it as one big failure? Because of my lack of perspective.

I was measuring my success/failure against my peers and especially against those that had positions I wished I had. I thought that I was light years away from being any kind of professional, especially in the digital realm. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with new fresh professionals entering the industry.

What changed? What was my AHA! moment and the whole reason for this article? A very simple occurrence that put things into perspective for me.

One of my team members came to me with some trouble he was having on a project. He’d been working on it for a few days and although parts of the project were approved, the overall project was just not meeting the stakeholder’s desires.

We sat down at his computer and I asked him what images/material he had and what brief he had received while also asking the stakeholder what their feedback was and what they desired.

When I had all the information I thought I needed I quickly created the base for the creativity of the campaign to be presented. I also explained to my team member how I thought it should be adapted to the other formats depending on the approval or not of the initial creativity. I left him with the presentation of the creativity to the stakeholder for later in the day as I had to get back to my work.

Later in the day I received a call from my team member saying “How do you do it? Teach me. You are the master.” The stakeholder had approved the creativity right away and all adaptations as well. The problem had been solved and our response time had been reduced to a few hours.

There it was, suddenly I was a master at the top of my game. I had managed to respond because of two things my experience had given me:

  1. I could more easily understand what the stakeholder wanted associated with what I already knew of the company and the place where the creativity would be used.
  2. The years of having to adapt to various trends and design changes over the years in various areas of design, gave me more tools than if I had just started working and only had today’s trends to depend on.


Most of what I can do today is because of all the previous experience I’ve had and I would not be able to respond as quickly and efficiently as if I didn’t have those experiences. That means we are all a “master” at some level. Even if we feel we have a lot to learn, we all have knowledge to impart to others and there will always be someone that would “love to know our secret”.

Luckily I am the type of person who gets a kick out of sharing my knowledge. It also means that I understand the importance of constantly learning and evolving and even when I feel like I’ve failed, I never stop trying to learn new things and experimenting with new areas.

So take a minute and write your own autobiography. It doesn’t have to be very extensive, but right down the experience that has been crucial to your development. Share it with others or keep it to yourself, but I’m pretty sure you’ll see incredible things just by jotting it down as I did writing mine for this article.

My latest projects?

  • Being a family man
  • UX Discuss
  • Networking more with my peers
  • Becoming fully versed in UX and the incredible world of problem solving. Something that I feel speaks to me personally
  • Developing the weekly open learning sessions for my team and other interested departments that we just implemented
  • Taking on Bootstrap and becoming friends with it
  • Project management
  • Teaching Wing Tsun
  • And occasional comic coloring

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