How I changed careers from Engineer to Designer to Illustrator


I’ll try and keep this as short as possible so you don’t fall asleep, but I feel like it’s an important part of my journey that I want to share. Maybe you’re in the position I was 8 years ago and are wondering how to get into the creative industry, or maybe you’re just curious. Either way, I’ll do my best to explain how I did it.

In 2010 I was working for Ericsson, managing a team of telecoms engineers responsible for the 1st line surveillance of T-Mobile and Three’s voice and data networks. That’s pretty far removed from anything remotely creative I hear you say. Well yes, and how I ended up there is a story in itself so here goes.

From as early as I can remember I’ve always loved drawing, painting and anything creative. My mother has an art degree and she always encouraged me and my siblings to keep ourselves occupied with creative activities. I would sometimes spend hours sat at the Kitchen table drawing, painting or making models. I guess you could say I’d inherited my mothers creative side. There’s a whole other discussion about ‘nature or nurture’ here I feel.

By the time I got to secondary school, art and design were the only subjects I genuinely enjoyed or cared about. Every other subject pretty much felt like something ‘I just had to do’. I was fortunate enough to get into Grammar school, don’t ask me how, I reckon there might have been an admin error. Being a Grammar school meant that it was very focused on academia and the teaching rate also felt too fast for me. I’d start every new school year full of motivation, only to find myself a few months in, struggling to keep up with some of the other kids. There were some seriously smart kids there who made everything look easy. I also felt that the focus on academia made my favourite subjects, art and design, feel somewhat second rate and not quite as important as the other core subjects. Telling people I planned to go to art college would sometimes be met with a sneer and the comment, “what can you do with art?”. Looking back, this still makes my blood boil a little and now that I work in the creative industry, I’ve discovered what a huge industry it is with so many fields and occupations, none of which I was aware of back then. I thought my only option was to be a struggling artist in a cold and dusty attic.

Anyway, I somehow scraped through school and went to sixth form college to study A-Levels. I passed them all, including my Art and Design A-Level which allowed me to start an Art Foundation course, a 1 year course required in the UK to gain access to an art degree. It was during this year that you could say things went a bit wonky. I just wasn’t enjoying it as much as I thought I would. A foundation course is a year spent trying a multitude of creative activities, from pottery to life drawing. I think the purpose is for you to try your hand at as many things as possible before making a final decision on the type of creative degree to take. It was an opportunity to open my creative perspective and discover what I was best suited to. It was by this point though that I pretty much knew I wanted to study graphic design, so as fun as all the other activities were, I felt a bit frustrated as I just wanted to get on with designing.

It was this frustration combined with maybe the naivety of youth and my lack of understanding of the creative industry that left me feeling a little disenfranchised and the thought of another 3 years being a poor student without a clear career path at the end of it just didn’t really appeal. 3 years now is nothing, but back then it was a lifetime. So I decided to take some time out and start working for a while to see where it led me. This was THE DECISION that I don’t regret at all now, but back then I didn’t realise how big a difference it would make to my journey.

You gotta get a job

I spent the next few years working various jobs and pretty much enjoying the freedom of having a little cash in my pocket and feeling like an adult. After a while though, friends began returning from university and I started to feel a little left behind. They all had degrees under their belts and the potential for great careers. Myself not so much. I felt like I’d missed the opportunity to start a creative career and going to university now felt like it was setting me back even further. As I mentioned earlier, the naivety of youth was at play. I’d bloomin love to do a degree now! So I started to look at my options and decided that the best thing to do was to try and find myself a career. Something that didn’t require me to go off and study for 3 years.

At that time I was temping for a UK Mobile Operator called One-2-One, I was responsible for assigning jobs to Field Engineers who were out and about across the country fixing the mobile network. I learned a lot and had an opportunity to visit the head office in London. Whilst there, I got quite excited by the setup. (This is where the nurture/nature conundrum comes into play again.) My father was an electronics engineer and in a similar way to the influence my mother’s creativity had on me, his technical abilities also influenced me a lot. He was always making or fixing things and our garage at home didn’t contain a car, it was full of tools and gadgets. Some of which I didn’t even know what they were, but I used to love browsing through the vast array of shelves.

I digressed a bit there, getting back to my visit to London. Whilst there I spent some time in a department called the NMC (Network Management Centre). It was really impressive and a bit like Nasa, there was a huge video wall covered in graphs, charts, maps and lots of really interesting looking stuff. There were lots of people doing really technical things, speaking about things I didn’t understand, they were all telecoms engineers. Like I said, the environment excited me quite a lot and I thought that maybe this is somewhere I could work.

It was pretty soon after I heard that a junior telecoms engineer position had become available in the NMC, so I started revising. I learned as much as I could from the field engineers I was dealing with day to day. I borrowed lots of technical manuals and read them cover to cover. I taught myself as much as I could about how a mobile telecommunications network worked and I must admit I really enjoyed it, it was fascinating. I applied for the position and was offered an interview and subsequently offered the job. I was over the moon. I felt that I too could get a proper career that required a level of knowledge and skill. Something to be proud of.

I moved to London and started the new position. Pretty soon after, One-2-One started a fast-track training program which I was able to take part in so I spent the next year or two on training courses across the UK, Germany and France. I was sometimes away for weeks at a time, loving every minute of it and learning so much. I completed my training and started putting it into practice. It was a great time because I felt like I had a real purpose. I also got to work with some wonderful people and make some great friends too. Most importantly though, it was where I met my wife.

It was during this time that One-2-One was bought out by T-Mobile, I continued to do the same job, just for a different brand name. I spent the next 4-5 years honing my craft before being fortunate enough to move into a management position within the NMC. I was now responsible for the NMC and a team of engineers! Eek! How did that happen?

Moving into management was a steep learning curve and I still sometimes wince at some of my early rookie mistakes, but I’m still glad to this day that I had the opportunity as it was one of the most valuable periods of my life. I learned so much about myself and people in general. The psychology of managing people I found fascinating and extremely rewarding when I got it right.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that I hadn’t left creativity behind. I was often drawing and painting in my spare time and I even got into airbrushing for a year or two, I started painting motorbike helmets and I remember I even did a custom paint job on my Playstation. I thought I was so cool! I also managed to squeeze in the odd commission or two, my favourite being a full size Spiderman that I airbrushed onto the bedroom wall of a friend’s son.

Anyway, back to the NMC. I had been managing for about 4 years when my department was outsourced to Ericsson and in a similar way to the One-2-One/T-Mobile takeover, I continued in the same position under Ericsson’s banner. The difference with this situation though is that Ericsson also had the contract to look after Three UK’s network too. As such, it meant that there was a team of people in Reading, where Three’s NMC was located, doing the same job as me and my engineers in Hatfield. This meant that of course, at some point, Ericsson would look to amalgamate the two departments into a single NMC in a location yet to be decided.



The turning point

By this point I had started to feel that the technical side of my brain was becoming a little exhausted, for want of a better description. I felt like the creative side of my brain was nudging me and asking “When am I going to get used properly?”. This feeling started to grow and I started to take every opportunity I could to squeeze some creativity into my day job. I would sometimes spend far too long on a report trying to make it look beautiful when most of the recipients probably didn’t care or even notice. I was also starting to spend more of my spare time drawing, designing and teaching myself how to build websites amongst other things. You could say the creative itch had really started to get, well, itchy!

As predicted, Ericsson announced that they would be amalgamating Three and T-Mobile’s NMC’s into a single location which was Reading, I had about 6 months to decide if I was going to stay or go. Reading was over 70 miles away from where I was living, so if I did go, I would have to either relocate or commit to some serious commuting around the worst motorway in the UK, the M25!

It was around this time that I stumbled across an advert in Creative Arts magazine for Shillington College. If you’ve not heard of them, they provide intensive full and part-time graphic design courses in London, Australia, New York etc. The strapline on the advert said ‘Learn Graphic Design, Fast!’. This felt like a little bit of a sign and it got me thinking, maybe this could be my way to get into the creative industry? I was a little dubious if I’m honest as I couldn’t imagine how much you could learn in a 3 month full-time course so I went along to an open night. I’m pleased to say that my mind was put at rest, the training environment was really cool with lots of great creative work on display and the tutors were lovely and really seemed to know their stuff. I was sold! I came away feeling so excited. My main concern now was could I afford the course and could I afford to change careers.

Well, as I mentioned, my job role was relocating to Reading and because it was over a certain distance in miles, legally I was able to ask for redundancy. So I did. It was a really hard decision because leaving a 10+ year career behind was quite a scary prospect. I’d go from being a highly trained individual with years of experience in the telecoms world to a very inexperienced individual at the bottom of the pack in the design world. I’d essentially be starting again. Not forgetting that my salary was likely to drop by about 3/4’s (if I could get a job). Gulp! I also had to consider the cost of attending Shillington, which was around £10k, and how to financially support myself whilst looking for a job after I left. Decisions, decisions!

That said, I was kind of at a point of no return. The thought of never having the opportunity to investigate my creative side filled me with dread. I used to observe my colleagues quite a lot, some of them seemed thoroughly fed up most of the time and came to work because they had to, because they had mortgages to pay and car loans to pay off. I used to find that a pretty depressing prospect. I never wanted to become like that and I was adamant that it was not out of the realms of possibility to find a job that I actually loved was it?

So in March 2010 I left Ericsson and commenced my 3 month full-time course at Shillington. From day one I was happy, happier than I’d been for a long time. I got to do creative things every day and talk about creative things with creative people, it was heaven. I honestly couldn’t get enough. I learned so much over those 3 months and met some fantastic people. The tutors were outstanding and I really do feel that the course was worth every penny and to top it all off, I was able to leave with a portfolio of work that was enough to get my foot in the door of the creative industry.

My first design job

Immediately after leaving Shillington I started looking for a job as a graphic designer. I also made myself a website, got business cards printed and polished my portfolio a little. I was fortunate enough to find a job fairly quickly and I can admit now that it wasn’t my dream job, but it was a start and a start on a journey that 6 months prior, I wouldn’t have believed possible. The job was to design magazines covering subjects from cookery to Coronation Street and although, as I said, it wasn’t my dream job, I did still enjoy it very much. I got to work with some lovely people. I was also high on the fact that I could call myself a graphic designer. Who’d have thought it, at the age of 33 I was finally a graphic designer! The salary sucked though and I was having to supplement my income with the redundancy money I had received from Ericsson. This didn’t bother me too much because I was happy and excited for the future. Something I hadn’t felt for a long time.

Because I’d been in a fairly responsible, senior position in my previous career I was pretty keen to progress a fast as I could in the design world. I worked really hard to gather as much knowledge and experience as I could and spent countless hours of my own time learning, experimenting and developing myself. I also moved fairly swiftly from one job to another. I thought this might seem detrimental on my CV, but as soon as I felt I’d exhausted all of the opportunities to learn in whatever job I was doing, I started to look for the next opportunity. I just didn’t want to hang around, I was still playing career catch-up to some extent.

Fast-forward to 2015, I was starting to feel like I’d learned enough to possibly venture out on my own and go freelance. I was working at an agency where I had been drawn into more of a studio management position and although it was quite good to exercise some of the management experience from my previous career, I started to feel like I was being pulled away from the creative side of things.

Going freelance

My wife and I had returned from a weeks holiday and on the first day I was due to go back to work I thought to myself that the time had come, I’d pretty much decided whilst on holiday that I didn’t want to go back to work anymore. I remember getting up in the morning and asking my wife if she minded me handing in my notice. She was a little surprised, but I’m glad to say that she trusted me and she knew that I wasn’t as happy as I wanted to be. She supported my decision, which upon reflection was quite an amazing thing to do as I had, at this point, no plan in place of how I was actually going to go freelance.

I handed in my notice, worked my last few weeks of employment and got started on setting up a website. I had no idea how to setup a business, but I had read countless books and articles on how to be a freelance designer. So I muddled my way through, started a limited company, got some accounting software, got an account and all the other things that you need to operate. It was a steep learning curve, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. To this day I still enjoy doing my own accounts and all of the other activities related to running a business. Which is pretty lucky thinking about it as I have since met people who really disliked being freelance and reverted back to full-time employment. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

I can say with much gratitude that freelancing suits me perfectly, I’ve always managed to keep my head above water and although things were slow to develop at the start, I have managed to build a client base to keep me permanently busy and give me access to a huge variety of work. I was even at a point after a couple of years where I could start to be a bit more selective with the type of work I did and for who. This was a nice feeling, I felt like I had complete control over my career and ultimately my happiness and although freelancing can bring with it a whole set of challenges and uncertainties that you don’t get in a permanent role, I found those way more exciting and stimulating than the monotony of going to the same place every day and working on things you might not particularly be that into. I don’t mean that to sound derogatory to anybody working in a permanent position at all as we’re all different, I just feel like this life suits me and my personality the best.

How I found illustration

So you may be wondering how I decided I wanted to be an illustrator. Well, working for myself did give me a lot more freedom and free time to explore my creativity and I had started to notice a pattern in my design work that it would quite often contain illustrative elements. Initially I think it was quite subconscious and it was actually other people that made comments about my work. But those comments made me evaluate what I was doing and what was next for me. My freelance business was going well, I was enjoying the work I was doing, but I still felt like there was another step for me. I think by this point I’d also had enough experience within the creative industry to really understand what illustrators do and how the business of illustration works. I also knew what type of design work was most stimulating for me and it was anything that had an element of illustration within it. The penny dropped. I think it was as simple as one day waking up and saying out loud to myself that I want to be an illustrator. That was it, my next goal was set. This excited me very much and to some extent, reinvigorated my enthusiasm.

I spent the next couple of years experimenting, learning, reading, viewing other illustrators work and generally trying to absorb as much knowledge as I could about illustration. I felt incredibly positive about the prospect of making this my next venture. I felt that everything up to this point had happened for a reason and without it, I wouldn’t have learned enough about myself as a creative to understand what made me tick and what made me most happy.

Struggling to find my style

As lovely as it all sounds up to this point, I can say that illustration is hard. I mean in the sense that, to be a successful illustrator, you kind of have to have your own recognisable style and as it was still early days for me on my illustration journey, I was still trying to find mine. I would spend hours pouring over other illustrators work and from that respect the internet is a godsend, but the internet brings with it a huge downside too. I was spending all of my time pouring over other illustrators work and feeling inadequate rather than spending the time developing my own style. When I did work on my own projects I was so heavily influenced by other peoples work I just felt like I was copying. I’ve since come to learn that this is quite a common scenario for a lot of illustrators which does bring with it some comfort, but also the knowledge that this was something I had to overcome and there was no fast-track or shortcut, you have to tread the path and develop your own voice. No amount of life skills or transferable skills could help me here.


So this brings me to the present day, I’m still developing my illustration style if I’m honest, and I’m aware that my style will constantly develop and change as I do, but I do feel like I’m reaching the top of the bell curve. I now have a body of work that I’m comfortable with (minus a few niggles) and I’m excited by whatever opportunities may come my way. Most importantly though, I genuinely feel like this is it. I’ve made it, I’ve found what brings me the most happiness and I’m fortunate enough to make this my career. I’ve taken a really indirect route to get here, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Every experience, good or bad, has ultimately got me to this point and I am truly humble and grateful to be here. I feel like I’ve earned my stripes and I no longer feel like an imposter in the creative industry. I have somehow managed to hustle my way to achieving my dream job, a job that I love.

How the fuck did I do that?


In memory of Paul Millington who is very sadly no longer with us. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and worked with. ♥

Cover photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash


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