Things I Learned from Being a Career-Creative

2 years ago by

I can’t remember a time when I was not doing art in some context….painting, illustration, sketching. My mother owned an art store in our small town in Maine, and it gave me access to a seemingly endless amount of mediums and tools to try out. As my skills evolved, I started applying to art colleges — initially for illustration, but then I switched to graphic design when I realized that I could learn a more “marketable” skill (*sigh*) and still use my illustration skills.

After a decade in the graphic design industry working for brands like Chanel, The Row, Rolex, Ralph Lauren, Birchbox, and more, I started a small NYC-based design studio, Wildes District. We specialize in emerging women’s and e-commerce brands (Margaux, Chief, Andie Swim, Aurate, Elix Healing, Kin Euphorics to name a few) and we work closely with founders to build meaningful experiences that span multiple touchpoints — including brand, web, app, print, packaging, and more.

When I think back those earlier days when I first decided to pursue a career in the arts, I remember that jolt of excitement I felt when I’d imagine my future self…Sitting in a sun-filled loft, coffee cup in one hand, ink pen in the other, doodling the morning away on some high-profile commissioned illustration piece. And also in a lot of people’s minds, this is what my day-to-day life looks like.

Indeed, there are times in my life where I’ve realized that glimmers of this vision have become reality, and feel extremely grateful and incredibly fulfilled. However, the reality is also very different. Because ultimately, creative jobs are jobs just like any other.

And now that I run my own design studio, my day-to-day reality is even more different than what I ever thought it’d be.

Here are some things I’ve learned along the way about making not just “a living,” but a career, out of creative work.

1) Guess what! You’ll always have a boss.

A lot of creative people imagine working for themselves or starting a studio as the ultimate expression of freedom. I get these questions all the time:
-“Are you just making cool sh*t 24/7? Must be so nice to have the creative freedom!”
-“So do you work whatever hours you want?”
-“Is it nice not having to answer to anyone? No boss breathing down your neck!”

The answer to all of these questions is…no.

Creative work is not something that you chip away at in between watching TV and surfing the web. Most creative projects span 3-6+ months, with weekly client (/investor/board member/team) check-ins. And if you have multiple projects at the same time, that’s very little time to both take meetings and do the work…not to mention unbillable, administrative work. And those meetings? They happen 9-6, Monday – Friday when everyone else in the world is in their office. So while theoretically you can work “whenever”, you will most likely work a normal workweek — and then some. This gets even more cemented in place when you hire a team. You will need to make yourself available to them when they are working as well…which means…regular working hours.

Finally, at the end of the day, you’ll always have a boss. Whether that’s a client, investors, board members, or the customer, there’s always someone who ultimately will be consuming your work. Even if you become a famous painter, you’ll likely be represented by a gallery which will have input on your work and process.

2) You have to be both left-brained and right-brained.

Having a successful career in the creative world requires the perfect alchemy of business and creative skill sets. Many people and businesses fail because they either lack creative vision, or lack business acumen. As a creative individual in the field, you need to deliver beautiful work, and hit your timelines. Sometimes, this means that you can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you need to sit down at your desk and simply start…the inspiration will come.

To run a design studio you need to have a strong creative vision, but you also need to be business-savvy enough to speak about process & deliverables, produce proposals, review contracts, and manage your team.

3) You need to protect your most personal work.

One of the sayings you hear the most in the creative field is the mantra: “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”. It’s important to understand that the quote is about picking a job — not a passion. If you already work in the creative field, I think there’s extreme value in saving a piece of your world just for yourself. I love to paint flowers and though I’ve had many inquiries for commissions, I don’t ever paint for commissions…that part of my creative self is just for me. It sounds pretty cool to charge for something you’d be doing already, but the minute you do that, it will evolve from being a passion to a job. And if your passion is what ignites you, be careful of burning out by overdoing it.

4) Don’t confuse doubt with apathy.

Careers in the creative field can be difficult to stick with long-term. As a creative person, you tie so much of your self worth and identity to your creative output.

I’ve spoken to many of my peers who, at one point or another, have said they’re “ready to quit” and “try something different.” Feeling let down and deflated, they begin to doubt their creativity and feel totally apathetic to their career.

Sometimes, this feeling stems from a company that makes them doubt the quality of their work. Sometimes, it stems from a client who doesn’t value their creative input. Sometimes, it stems from an agency or studio that doesn’t allow them to fully express their creativity.

I’ve been here too many times, and it can feel soul-crushing. It’s helpful to remember that one person’s opinion is just that — an opinion. There are infinite ways to approach a creative problem, and unlike math, there’s typically not a black and white answer that’s “right” or “wrong”. And if you’re constantly hearing one opinion that you’re “wrong”, get another opinion. Sometimes this means changing jobs, or taking on different projects/clients.

It’s easy to let negative feedback seep into your psyche and make you feel ready to quit, or like you’re not good enough. But give it time — your creative flame will reignite in the right environment. Don’t give up. Eventually you’ll find that spark again and pick up again where you left off.


Caley Adams is the Founder & Creative Director of Wildes District, an NYC-based design studio that specializes in emerging women’s and e-commerce brands.

Caley has over a decade of design experience working for some of the world’s most celebrated brands, including Chanel, The Row, Rolex, Warby Parker, Birchbox, Ralph Lauren, and Barkbox.

After spending years building larger brands, she turned her focus towards working with early-stage companies to help them navigate the many phases and challenges of brand development, from pre-launch to post-launch life and created Wildes District in 2018.


Add yours
  • As a graphic designer, I found this post to be super relatable and spot-on. Thanks!

  • Gail A Jauregui December, 16 2021, 10:57 / Reply

    This article spoke to me so clearly. A lifetime creative, I spent 25 years in the garment industry as a technical designer and patternmaker. I branched off 10 years ago to become a fashion design professor. We are both blessed and cursed to possess a creative spirit. Thank you for bringing the highs and lows to our attention and relating your experiences.

  • It helped me a lot. Thank you!

  • Lovely to hear this perspective – thank you for sharing, Caley!

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