Collaboration as Mentorship, Feedback as a Mirror


I’m new here at Fish, and it’s been a long time since I worked in the agency world. I come from a multimedia/front-end design background and last worked for an agency in 2003. After that, I started finding contract or retainer gigs through word-of-mouth.

Ahhh the joys of freelancing—working by my own rules, at my own pace, in my own pajamas. I loved the business side—accounting, managing time and budgets, consulting on larger strategic projects, and developing relationships with clients over the long term. I got used to the perks—working from my new home, taking a 90 degree Tuesday off to head to the river, traversing Europe during the day and working at night (daytime in the US). I could choose when to work while still making deadlines.

Of course, with all that awesome came some downsides. Restlessness from fluctuating income; weak boundaries when it came to me-time and work-time (the effects of this weren’t apparent for years); lackluster social life because of [my] inevitable hermiting; stagnant projects because I’d worked with the same brands for so long; no colleagues around to bounce around ideas or problems; and finally, the realization that my skill set was at risk of falling short if I didn’t have more fire under me. But, what would it take for me to give up the freedom and move toward a more structured work-week?

It all came down to feeling starved for connection. Turns out, solid ideas don’t happen in a silo.

Here are some lessons that I see as opportunities for ongoing internal work:

A critique isn’t criticism, it’s a review

I spent a few hours tinkering with this layout and I’m suddenly LOVING it, but is it really the best way to display this information? Check yo’ self. It’s not uncommon for creatives to get so zeroed in on their artistic path (ooooooh pretty!) that their objective eye can become blind, sometimes losing sight of the original intent. Stopping along the way for inquiry is vital to achieving the desired goal and staying on track. So…

Loosen the attachment to what I’ve created, and lean on others to make it better

This can be hard! It is inherently difficult to give up one’s work to the examination of others—we live in this weird, evaluative society, and constantly negotiate with our inner critic. It’s a process, but in my short time here I’ve learned that collaboration always yields a better result.

Be open-minded; everyone has their strengths

What someone from the Account or Digital team notices about my work comes from their own unique lens. Everyone sees the world through their life experience, value system, and distinct skill set—their wisdom. All of it has merit. To be vulnerable enough to really listen to what others say can sometimes reveal the simplest solution to a problem that’s hidden right under a designer’s nose.

Take care of yourself, so you’re a benefit to the group

There are days when work feels like it’s flowing through me, and there are days when it’s just not. Accept that the sky won’t fall either way. Being on a team means all of us have a support system. I am here to put my best foot forward, but the best foot varies, and so does everyone else’s. Being flexible as a teammate is reciprocal—there’s always someone who needs support, and someone who can give it. I am now held accountable not only for the quality of my work, but the success of the team. If I don’t care for myself I can’t be supportive to the team.

The above lessons could not have been realized working alone, and I’m also not perfect. Fuse these lessons with an appreciative and robust staff, and I got just what I wanted plus some. Working here has rewarded me with new ways to see myself, both as a designer and a person. In the presence of so much talent I’m now compelled to ask, “How can I be better?” and, “How can my work be better?” because I want the team to excel. Before, it was just me talking to my elderly cat, who wasn’t the most imaginative collaborator.

Go team! :)