My first salary job out of university was working as an Accounts Receivable manager. I somehow managed to get companies across Canada to pay their overdue invoices for my employer: a clothing company in North Montreal. By all accounts (pun intended) I was good at it. I recouped a lot of revenue for that company over a couple of years. Who knows, maybe I helped them become the pyjamas and animal-print garments behemoth they are today.
Iron Man © Marvel Comics
You might agree that my first job was a funny way to start to a career in design. I’ve not even mentioned that my degree at university was a BA Hons in Human Geography.
So what does that have to do with design? Pretty much nothing, which is exactly why I don’t tend to mention those details when I’m meeting potential new clients, employers, colleagues, peers and stakeholders. Instead, I need an origin story that better outlines how I got to where I am now.
What’s an origin story?
When you meet someone new and the conversation turns to ‘so how’d you get into this line of work’, roll out your origin story.
An origin story is a popular trope often used in film or comic books. It’s where a character’s backstory becomes the bedrock or foundation of how they came to be the story’s antagonist or protagonist.
As an example, here’s Tony Stark’s origin story (from Wikipedia):
American industrialist Tony Stark was captured by Communist Vietnamese military and was forced to build weapons for them. Instead, he built armour to escape. He uses his armour to fight international crime.
Just like Tony Stark’s, your origin story is hugely important. It defines you. A good one tells others what you’re good at and sends signals that others can hook in to. It builds trust and confidence. It hints at your character, shows your direction of travel, and explains how and why you’re doing what you’re doing.
We all like meeting people with common interests and experiences to us. Crafting your origin story into something succinct and coherent can help create new opportunities that otherwise might not have presented themselves.
Making your own
If you don’t have a compelling origin story yet, don’t fret. They’re a work in progress and are never complete. But a great way to get started is by using a narrative pattern that’s been used in almost every single adventure story since the art of story telling began. Enter The Hero’s journey.
Introduced by Joseph Campbell in 1949, the Hero’s journey is defined in three parts:
In more detail, the hero’s journey sees a story’s protagonist go on an adventure and, during a decisive crisis, win an important victory. Eventually the hero comes home changed or transformed. If you want a definitive, modern example of the Hero’s journey, see basically any Star Wars film, with Luke Skywalker or Rey as the hero.
Your ability to tell a story about your origin and your career is arguably as important as having the skill to do what you do.
When crafting your origin story, start with your call to adventure. What was the moment that defined your path?
Next is where it gets dramatic. What challenges did you face? Consider the moment or experience that started a transformation in you. Think of the tribulations, ordeals and problems that prompted you to focus on your new path.
At some point along the way, you’ll have made an important decision. A proverbial fork in the road. At this point you might have realised that your new path (the one you’re on now) was your destiny.
Finally, after your crucial decision and transformation, you came to be where you are now. This is your rebirth, otherwise known as the hero’s triumphant return. Perhaps this isn’t a return as much as a path forward, and typically it takes you up to current day.
Origin stories matter
A few weeks ago a colleague walked me through how they got to where they are now. Their origin story was interesting, unique and revealing. It helped me gauge why they’re doing what they’re doing and where they’re focusing their efforts going forward. Whilst they might not have realised it, it loosely followed the arc of the Hero’s journey.
I’m not saying you have to follow this format, but I’ll bet that the majority of designers out there came into their careers in interesting, unique ways.
I don’t mention my Accounts Receivable job when I meet fellow designers or potential new clients.
Instead, I talk about my second job, and what followed on from that.
I worked as a digital marketer for a start up in central Montreal. I was already fascinated by the digital space and was building websites in my spare time. Yet digital marketing at the time was focused more on conversions than conversations. I began designing landing pages, micro-sites and email campaigns in order to drive more conversions, to the benefit of my employer.
But I realised I didn’t want to design just for conversions. I wanted to design better experiences. I understood that good experiences can equate to conversions. I made a decision to leave digital marketing behind. I focused on designing for humans, and haven’t looked back, yet crucially retaining the knowledge that conversions and conversations can be one and the same.
Since making that decision I’ve not looked back. Digital design is my calling, my path forward. That’s my origin story. What’s yours?
May 18th, 2018