Correspondence with an Ex-Designer

This month I want to share a letter I received from ex-designer, now sheep farmer, Ruth, in reply to my post from a few months back where I wondered what comes next after being a designer. Ruth kindly shared where her life led, and what the other side might look like. I was moved by what she wrote, not only because of her direct experience, but just to hear that I wasn’t alone with my own fears about exhuastion and nourishment.

One letter happily turned into numerous replies back and forth. Ruth graciously gave me permission to share our correspondence, in the hopes that it might also provide comfort and insight for others.

Hello Jason, I just completed reading your article “What’s next”.

Just to let you know — there is life, beyond design, though you never quite let it go 100%.

When I went to college to learn design and print, I learned hand setting, then on to Linotype / Monotype machines. My first job, out of college and they were introducing film set typography (Berthold machines) — learning curve again. A number of years later and I was running my own design business and along came… computers and that was an exceptionally steep, self taught learning curve. In order to keep up with the ever changing technology you do have to learn and that takes motivation and desire from an individual point of view.

I enjoyed that “learning” — but what did it for me in the end — “repetitiveness” — my ability to “train” my client became a drain — each client seemed to require, at some point, the same explanations of what was and was not possible with the technology available at the time. It became so draining I called it a day.

I am now a sheep farmer in the northern Highlands of Scotland — and this has also been a challenge of a very different kind — man against nature — but, I have enthusiasm, motivation and a desire to learn something new, something “different”. But — yes, I keep learning about design — web design, which was in its infancy as I was leaving the design field 15 years ago.

What’s next — all depends on you, what motivates you and what makes you happy — there will always be new challenges, but that is what life is all about, isn’t it.

Kind regards
Ruth (now 60 years old — lol)

Ruth’s note warmed me, and after some exchanges, we got onto the topic of exhaustion. I replied back with my personal thoughts on the matter:

Hi Ruth,

The main things I keep coming back to are primarily about exhaustion. I used to think I was working too hard, but even as I found ways to work less, I realized it was something else. I think my exhaustion comes from the industry often taking more from us than it gives, and I’ve only found this to be escalating with how disconnected we’ve become, even in the midst of things like Twitter. Everything feels just a bit thinner than it used to, or at least a bit less nourishing. But when I throw myself in another direction, whether reading, or teaching, or other crafts, I feel nourished again. I’m still working through my own thoughts, and don’t mean to sound so dour about the practice of design, but I think just being aware of what feels good for my mind versus what doesn’t, makes me feel better.


Ruth’s reply was spot on again. Particularly insightful to me, and something I try to continually remind myself of, the expectations of others are their own, and I don’t need to share them:

Hi Jason,

Ah — yes — exhaustion — equates to my being “tired” of the industry — I fully understand where you are coming from.

I found the move to computers a difficult one — I was so familiar / used to working at a drawing board and creating with my own hands — using a mouse and creating on screen was a tough hurdle. Once I overcame that I began to see new possibilities and regained some excitement — however, that was relatively short-lived. As with many things in life — with advantages, came the disadvantages — time scales and demands / expectations of clients. Time scales got shorter — where once, it took 4-5 people a month to put the artwork together for a 1k page book — it became 1 person in a week. I suddenly found I was getting nothing in return — sure, I was paid, but that, somehow, just was not enough. I had the “trappings” — nice home, super sports car and had the ability to fly off to Colorado for long weekends. But it did nothing to fill a gap that had somehow arisen. I took up wood turning — something “creative” I could do with my hands, but even that never quite made up for my working day.

When “new technology” arrives on our doorstep, we do work hard, very hard, to learn it well. I remember being taught to use a ruling pen in college (pre rotrings) and that was so hard to master — my lecturer stated — a designer must master their “tools”. I did that all my working life in design — from hot metal, to film setting to full computerisation — but the “craft” and the mental reward diminished.

I tried “twitter” in it’s early days — but I felt disconnected, did I really want to know if someone was at an airport waiting to fly to XXX — most posts from people seemed utterly irrelevant, so I gave up. Okay, so I am on facebook (reluctantly) — but that is a way of keeping in touch with my brother, sister and their families.

I do believe you are working out, by trying to throw yourself into different things (teaching, reading, writing) — just what is missing. Eventually, something will click into place for you. Just try to remember, no one expects you, as a person, to remain “static” — to always do the same thing, day in, day out — that can lead to stagnation, not just for ideas but for you as a person. I am absolutely NOT advocating that you go do something as dramatic as I did — from designer to sheep farmer (though that was accidental, they were just a way to keep 40 acres of grass down). Also, perhaps try to remember no one has expectations of you — but you have to have some “reward” for your efforts — and I don’t simply mean monetary.

Keep working on it — it is important to you, in your own personal development — that development is important — not the expectations of anyone else. Self-worth is so important.


Thank you, Ruth. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with me. It has already served as inspiration for whatever comes next.

This piece originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project.