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Staying relevant in times of change

I was suddenly irrelevant. My skills were no longer useful. This really scared me. I really did not see a way I could get back doing what I once did so well.

An abandoned decaying motor vehicle left to rot

I want to start with a little story.

I was a voracious web designer back in the days. Back in the days meaning around 2007-2010. I had mastered the art of designing websites (or at least it got the work done) using tables and using the now infamous 1×1 spacer.gif. I did a bit of Flash here and there. Man, Flash was so cool! A lot of the works that I got was because I had designed this fancy-ass Flash website and all my leads wanted the same/similar stuff. I still believe those were the days that I could not have done it better. There were not a lot of dedicated visual/web designers out there, let alone designers who could pull off fancy looking webpages.

I made a decent earning and also won a bunch of website design awards for the work I did. I was also listed in a number of local directories where people came looking for web designers and I used to get contacted. I am very proud of the people I met and the work I did back then, and when I look back, it brings a smile on my face.

Then something changed — I got into movies.

No, not the acting, becoming a hero part. I was the “parda pachadi ko nayak”, as a leading newspaper once put it. I was fortunate to do publicity and poster design works for some of the best known Nepali films there are out there from 2011 to 2015. Somebody who was a Dreamweaver and Notepad++ regular had suddenly abandoned his tools of trade and adopted Photoshop and InDesign to be his favorite go-to instruments. I was churning out movie posters: from 2 inch pocket calendars to 110 feet billboard. I did a bit of social media but back in my days, publicity were still predominately printed stuff. The larger-than-life print-outs of my designs stole my breath away every time I looked at them. What a life!

Then something changed again — I got out of the movies. After a lot of struggles with reality between 2013 through 2015, I finally realized that doing movie posters full time could not become a long-term viable career option. I was also frustrated by the attitude of people who I worked with, and how little regard they had for my department. Somebody could just come in and pay to throw in a large bottle of vodka (promotion) on top of my design and we all had to learn to be happy about it. Hello no! I began to look for alternates.

I couldn’t think of doing other things that I could possibly do. Perhaps move to a different country and start all over again? (That thought did cross my mind though.) I got into a career slump. I did not know how to do other things. So the only place I could go to was doing web all over again. So I decided that would be the most natural course of action. So I came back to do the web.

Shocked Donald Glover GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Wait a minute. What’s a div and where are my tables?

Browsers were getting fancier. Internet connections were getting faster. Mobile phones were becoming more and more powerful. People were doing all sorts of new things with the web. The beloved tables were gone and div-based webpages had taken over and it needed to be controlled through a separate document called a CSS. This was odd. And now you needed to make sure your designs work not only in the browser and OS you designed it in, but also a host of devices including tablets, phablets and mobile phones. You had to make sure it worked conveniently across the platforms and they’d even coined a word for it “responsive”. I was horribly late to this party. The web had transformed into something entirely different that I did not recognize.

I was no longer relevant. My skills were no longer useful.

This really scared me. I really did not see a way I could get back doing what I once did so well. This was a big big bummer. However, there wasn’t much to go back to. So the only way forward was to update yourself. I really needed to polish my skills. So I decided to catch up on everything that had changed while I was doing film posters so that I could make a comeback to the domain of technology design. I went through a steep learning curve and updated myself with the most recent tools and techniques available.

In due course, I recognized that it was not just the responsive web I needed to focus on, but also the quickly emerging mobile technology. I could really see that a mobile app was superior in every way than a mobile web, and that’s where designers should be focusing. Even if you looked at the bigger picture, we had a severe crunch in human resource in Nepal who could design for mobile devices. Coincidentally, right at the time I was struggling, Google launched Material Design in 2014. This was a very good reason for me to learn a principle that was fresh and came with no extra baggage.

Screenshots from Dribbble Some of my first Material Design works on Dribble. Source and Source

The first many experiments I did was with Material Design. It was fun, and something totally unique and something we had never seen before. I also installed this new software made for digital design called Sketch. At first, there was a big of looking around to do, but it did not take a lot of time to pick up speed. So here I was, somebody who was virtually rendered “irrelevant” had found his mojo and was ready to make a comeback.

That’s exactly where the idea of co-founding a design startup came in and things worked out in the right direction and you know rest of the story.

Staying relevant is stayin’ alive

Stayin' Alive GIF by Bee Gees - Find & Share on GIPHY

So what I am really trying to say here is the moment you stop learning you’re dead. I’ve written this previously and cannot emphasize enough. Things change very quickly in this world. Be it design, or anything else that you’re doing. So the best thing to do is to stay in the loop. I learned the hard way what happens when you’re out of the loop. Never stop finding out, never stop learning. Things had changed so much in a matter of 4-5 years where I wasn’t paying attention that something I knew and was proud about was worth pennies.

My transition from being a web designer to a movie poster designer then to a web/mobile designer had a lot of hiccups. This was simply because once I jumped into something new, I completely abandoned things behind me and they slowly began to fade away. This could be a very dangerous thing. If you keep learning and keep in touch, you will be able to flatten the learning curve considerably. Not every time we will have the same amount of time or endurance to do something completely new, so keep that in mind. It will really help you stay on top of things you know (and don’t yet know).

I really urge to remain open to change and embrace it. Just because you know something very well does not guarantee that it will be as useful in the next five years. That’s why even the smartest people keep learning and keep reading in order to remain relevant.

I wish I had known this sooner.