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Mentoring Matters

08 September 2020

Mentoring Matters


Mentoring Matters - Learning from Experienced Practitioners

by Nicky Shaw 

As a freelance creative practitioner there is no blueprint on how to forge a career. There is no clear path to follow. We have literally to make it up as we go, learning along the way which types of design projects are for us or not, either artistically or financially. Often, especially at the beginning, it may feel like there is no job choice, that you must take any work offered (and perhaps at the start this may well be the only and best strategy). Indeed, even once established it can seem like there are no choices. There are times throughout nearly every career, no matter how successful a designer may be perceived to be, where you are navigating what is always an intrinsically insecure profession: not knowing when or where the next project/s may be offered; perhaps with one or two projects on the horizon, but nothing in the present or one current project, but nothing after that and combinations in between.

Yet successful, fulfilling freelance performance design careers are forged and sustained in many guises. Some solely by working in theatre design (in all its forms), others combining theatre work with commercial projects, like exhibition design or pop/rock concerts or with teaching in the arts to working entirely outside of the performance world: all valid choices.

So is it true so say there is no path to follow?

Artistic talent and working hard are important and necessary traits to possess, but these alone do not (necessarily) give a designer a sustainable career. Also required is the tenacity not to give up when times are bad, perhaps by working in some other field completely to make ends meet. Plus, having the stamina to keep trying, making time for ongoing networking and self improvement and yes, there are definitely elements of luck to some careers; for example, making a partnership with a director and becoming successful together or designing a small project that then transfers to a larger venue, getting more notice.

How then to make a sustainable career?

A good place to start is to ask, what have designers with a sustainable career done to get to where they are now? Are there strategies to be emulated? Are there more skills to be learnt? What has worked, what has failed? What can be learned from failure?

By looking at the career journeys of already established designers and knowing what has worked for them is to be highly recommended – and this is not about directly comparing careers (that way leads to unhappiness) – but by doing so, you have the potential to learn how their careers grew by the choices they made and thus, how you might apply this information. It certainly won’t have been straight forward, that’s for sure. In nearly all circumstances it will have been a winding road of highs and lows, often with the lows unseen or not noticed by others – it is all too easy to see people’s successes, in whatever field, but not be aware of how they were arrived at (as many an autobiography testifies).

There are of course many rewards and benefits to being a freelancer, but it does also come with much uncertainty (and that is before Covid). The freelance working world can feel stressful and lonely at times; however, you can learn different coping strategies to overcome difficult situations, most especially with advice and support from others in the industry further along in their careers – a mentor. And we all need a mentor no matter our level – a champion, an adviser, a sounding board and more…

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.”
Oprah Winfrey

Professional life becomes easier when you are truly supported by someone who understands where you are coming from and where you wish to go, by offering practical advice to help steer you towards achieving your dreams. Helping you to set goals, you will come to realise that you do have choices as to your career direction. For some these choices will lead to the career first aimed at, for others, as aspects of life change – like becoming a parent, moving location or having responsibilities where more security is desired – you may take another direction entirely different from the original plan, but with support and dialogue it is easier to work through these.

It is all too easy to become isolated as a freelance practitioner, especially from other designers. The world of performance has suffered greatly since Covid, but there have also been huge positives, not least how designers and other freelance industry professionals have come together via video talks to listen and support one another and importantly to discuss how to make things better on return to business.

I know directly from speaking to many professional friends and colleagues from within the performance industries and also from outside, how much support and guidance mentors give and how useful it is to learn by hearing the career stories of others.

It took me many years before I began to analyse my career path and look more closely at what I really hoped to achieve and how I might go about achieving these dreams. Rather than just letting your career happen by chance, it is immensely productive to review what you have achieved to date, look at what has worked in terms of networking and forging new professional relationships, and then deciding how best to be proactive in order to be offered more design work.

To reiterate, creative freelance careers follow unique and diverse paths, times change, but there is much to be gained from hearing what choices others have made and having the support of a mentor.

I hope you will join us at the Coffee on the Kings Road events to hear how our leading industry professional speakers came to be where they are today.

The SBTD Mentoring Group

Are a mixed team of experienced, mid and early career designers who meet informally by zoom twice a month on Tuesday evenings. If you are interested in joining please do contact us.

For more info, please have a look at our web page;

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