I have a long and winding history with both design and Japan, and this year they finally met in the middle.
As a kid I was always obsessed with drawing. I have a giant callus on my middle right finger as proof. From tracing Betty and Veronica in the Archie comics, I progressed to sketching doe-eyed girls with upturned noses, who all needed beautiful and elaborate outfits to wear. I loved coming up with these over-the top outfits, until eventually I was just drawing the clothes. By the age of twelve I had my heart set on becoming a fashion designer. My mum likes to pull out the swathes of yellowing paper covered in my designs from that period, and proudly boast how creative I’ve always been. I just cringe.
Japan entered the picture a few years later when I was sixteen, when home from school sick for ten weeks with glandular fever I discovered Sailor Moon. Suddenly I became obsessed with drawing the Sailor Scouts and teaching myself to read Japanese from the trading cards. My bedroom walls were covered with pictures I had drawn of them, as well as characters I had created myself.
After graduating high school I decided to forgo university and move straight to Japan where I got into acting and modelling, and got over my obsession with Sailor Moon and lost interest in anime in general. I still loved to draw, though. The internet was still pretty new at that time, but I decided to create a Geocities site where I would post my drawings and blog about my experiences in Japan. It had animated sparkles and everything. At the time it was amazing.
Web and graphic design wasn’t even on my radar as a career that existed.
I was coming up to to five years in Japan at this point, and drawing was still just a hobby. Fashion design had been forgotten (partly because I discovered that I hate sewing) and I had no idea what to do with my life. Looking at my lovely sparkly blog, one of my friends made the offhand remark that “maybe I should think about web design.” Back in 2003, the idea had never occurred to me. Web and graphic design wasn’t even on my radar as a career that existed. But something had clicked in me, and a month later I moved back to Australia and enrolled in a web development and network engineering course.
Ok, so 23 year old me didn’t like the network engineering part, but I still loved designing. I switched into a graphic design and advertising course, and it seemed I had found what my had been looking for.
A couple of months before graduation my school had an open day where industry professionals could come and look at our portfolios. The Creative Director of a multi-national advertising agency was there and mentioned that he was seeking a junior art director. I jumped on this opportunity and asked if I could do a week of work experience with him. And so, the week after I graduated design school, I started (unpaid) at McCann Erickson.
In this week of work experience they put me to work on creating campaign concepts for actual clients (under the supervision of a senior creative team), and somehow a couple of my ideas were chosen over those of my mentors.
“We really should start paying you.” “Yes, please.”
The Creative Director asked if I’d like to continue with them for another week. And then another week, and another week, until eventually after three months of full time unpaid work, the managing director took me aside and said “We really should start paying you.” “Yes, please.” I replied. And that was that. I had my first real adult job.
I’d like to think I did pretty well while at McCann’s; I was the youngest person on the creative team and while there I enrolled in, got accepted, and got the top prize in my state at AWARD school. I was working on campaigns for national companies, designing television commercials and billboards, casting models, meeting with directors. It was hard work but so much fun, and to this day, being on set is my favourite place to be. But after a few years at McCann’s I really started to miss Japan. I decided to go to university part time to study Japanese (and other languages), while continuing to work part time as a freelance designer for various companies.
It took me nine years, but I finally graduated from the University of Queensland in 2016, and came back to Japan in 2017. It had been 14 years since I’d lived here, but it still felt like home.
I came back to Japan on a visa sponsored by an English school out in Gunma. The job appealed to me because the school I would work for also created and published their own textbooks, which I designed for when I wasn’t teaching or lesson planning. I really love languages and enjoyed teaching in general, but I spent more time disciplining children who didn’t want to be there than teaching, and ultimately I wanted to spend more time designing than anything else. I stayed out there in Gunma for almost a year and a half. It’s a nice enough place, but it’s hard to meet people and I felt lonely and unfulfilled in my work. So I gave my boss three months notice and planned my move to Tokyo.
After the move I began networking and applying for design jobs. I got lucky in the first week of January when I was invited in to meet with Kikuchi and Alex of Repro, who I’d met at a design meetup a few weeks earlier. I’d just been offered a job with a different company a couple of hours before my interview at Repro, and so they rushed me in for a trial the next day. I was caught totally off-guard when they invited me to start the following week.
I remind myself that these moments are how we grow
And so I’d finally managed to combine the two things I’d only ever really been sure about in my life: design and Japan. I still get homesick at times, and I still have moments where I doubt my skill as a designer, but then I remind myself that these moments are how we grow and then I think of all the cool stuff I’ve been lucky enough to work on. And now I get to do that cool stuff in a place that I love, so that’s pretty awesome.