By Jacob John Stone, Tuesday 3rd of May 2016
I feel incredibly lucky to have known what I wanted to do since I was 12 years old. At 13 I was designing and coding very basic websites. I got my first taste of what you could call freelance 'work': getting paid in virtual currency on web forums to design graphics for other users, or, doing design work for bands at my school and getting paid in gig tickets. 8 years later I'm almost 22 and I am still doing freelance work. Now, though, I get paid real money and have had a whirlwind of a time getting to where I am now, which still isn't quite where I want to be. My journey has been one filled with uncertainty and risks; I haven't always had enough money to be comfortable. I would like to make a case for the delights of 'The Road Less Travelled' or 'The Unbeaten Path' which hasn't let me down yet, and is the more rewarding path to take.
In 2012, aged 17, I was instructed by my school teachers to apply to university. It wasn't optional; they sat us in a room for an hour a day until we had completed the application. With some experience as a designer I knew that I wanted to work in the creative industry but I didn't know which role (or roles?) I wanted to be in. I looked into Web Design & Graphic Design courses but wasn't enthused by the standard of work and felt I could learn it myself, through tutorials. I decided to take the road less travelled and take a 'gap-year' in order to find out for sure what was the best option for me personally.
I took on a part-time job to support myself while refining my craft. I reached out to agencies where I live (Leeds, UK) and was offered 3 months’ unpaid work experience with HOME Agency, which is one of the top Advertising Agencies in the country. They liked having me around so much that in my first week I was offered a salaried position as a Junior Designer. In this role I got to work on some international household brands and learnt a lot in terms of design theory/practice and visual problem solving. Working alongside marketing experts and developers allowed me to enhance my skills in those areas too. A little over a year later I was again considering university and so applied to what, in my opinion, were the best courses in the country. I received offers from all of the universities and so went for my first choice: Interactive Media Design BA at Northumbria University. Northumbria appealed to me because the course is current and relevant to modern Design and Human Interface Design. The fact that Sir Jonathan Ive is a Northumbria alumnus was just the icing on the cake.
Feeling accomplished, I decided that I would try to get an internship over the summer with a leading agency in the US. At first, it seemed like an impossible task. No one in my family had visited America before. Regardless, I knew it would be an amazing opportunity and I had to take the plunge. I was compelled by New York City as if I knew it from my dreams. By crafting emails to over 100 agencies I managed to secure an internship at a coveted Manhattan agency. It didn’t seem real until the day I arrived at JFK airport in the prime of NYC summer. It's near impossible to encapsulate the extent of my experiences there in writing but in short, this was a monumental catalyst for change in my life. My aspirations were multiplied infinitely. Two months into my internship and I was in love: with the city and a girl, both of whom I wanted to see more of. My stipend from the agency didn't stretch very far so I decided to leave my internship early and take on a freelance project to finance my last month.
Returning from NYC with a new perspective I had to quickly decide if it was still in my best interest to move to Newcastle to study for a BA. I felt that I was at a more advanced level of practical ability, and had a greater appetite, than what I thought 1st year study could cater for. I decided to defer my placement in order to gain more valuable experience and build my portfolio.
The freelance project from my last month in NYC turned into work that I am still involved with. Two entrepreneurs came to me with an idea for a nutrition coaching startup and asked me to develop a brand identity and build them a website. This became the company 'EvolutionEat' and you can see the site I designed and built at www.evolutioneat.com. After impressing the co-founders I was appointed Head of Creative and Tech and went on to design the EE app for iOS. I then decided it was time to build my 'physical' work experience and so started a job as a Designer and Developer at multi-channel agency 'The Space People’. At this point, I knew it would be a step backwards if I were to move to Newcastle to study for a BA and so cancelled my place in order to maintain the momentum I had built.
For the next seven months I worked flat out - nine hours a day in the office and then three or four hours of freelance work at home. This effort proved both prosperous and injurious. Within the space of a month I found out that my relationship with the girl in New York was over, and received an offer to move to California for the summer and work alongside Dan, CEO of EvolutionEat, under the guidance of Steve Espinosa. Steve is a serial entrepreneur whose startups have been funded by Eric Schmidt, Dave McClure and Google. Like my experiences in NYC, this helped me develop my knowledge, ability and character immensely. I learnt a lot about marketing, design and startups over the 3 months and had some unbelievable experiences like a private tour of Googleplex Silicon Valley. I am now trusted by Steve for contract design work for several of his startups.
When I returned to Leeds I found a new focus to get things done and put all my effort into my freelance work, with fantastic results. A few months ago, again feeling productive and wanting to make the most of the momentum I had built, I decided to apply to study for a Master's Degree in Design at Northumbria. It seemed a long shot given my age and the fact that I don't have a Bachelor's Degree. I searched the internet and couldn't find anyone who had accomplished it. My mother's friend who was a Head Lecturer at a University had told her in no uncertain terms that I wouldn't get in. But I did. I start the course in September and it lasts a year. This summer, I will live in Los Angeles and work with Rich20Something, a startup based in Santa Monica, who I have built up a rapport with through remote freelance work. Most of what I have achieved to date and will achieve in future, I believe, can be attributed to my Taking The Road Less Travelled.