Matej Latin

Being a designer was a dream I had to fight for

Should I take the pill or not? I might get some relief if I do. It might numb the pain in my chest that had been corroding me for months. I could continue with my life and I could go on with the passive role I had in it. It was an easy choice to make but deep down I knew it led to self-destruction.

Aged 13 I joined an after-school class and designed my first website. It was fascinating, I wrote a few lines of code and created something out of nothing. I was hooked. By the time I was in high school I was designing and building websites for local customers and earning some money from it. It was like a hobby to me, something that I did besides playing video games. By the end of high school I started to realise that even though it’s something I love, I won’t be able to live off a hobby. I had to get a degree which will land me a job that pays well.

So designing websites remained a hobby through the college years. There’s no way to get a degree in design in Slovenia so I decided to study something generic—I chose economics with a focus on management. One day I was presented with an offer—I could join a well-known company and do design work for them. I had been collaborating with an entrepreneur that decided to join forces with this famous company. He liked my work and wanted me to join so they offered to pay well. It was too good to be true. I could keep designing things and I’d be paid well for it? Something didn’t feel right. I turned the offer down. The guy was a bit shady so that served me as a perfect excuse. I told them I needed to finish getting my degree so that I can some day get a proper job. Well, I got the degree and that proper job followed soon. It was a fancy job at a bank where I’d work with technology, but not websites. I felt relieved, I finally got to do what I have a degree in.

“You’ll be working with mortgages and collateral, so branch employees will call you to help them with that.” What? How do I do that when I don’t know anything about those?

My first job didn’t start well. They put me in an office with five other people. The atmosphere was terrible, almost depressive. They all sat there in silence, working and occasionally answering their phone. Even though I was excited and my perception distorted, I could see that they were miserable. “Oh yeah, you have to do support as well” they told me. “You’ll be working with mortgages and collateral, so branch employees will call you to help them with that.” What? How do I do that when I don’t know anything about those? I never received any training and I was offered little help. I rarely asked for it as it wasn’t that type of working environment. It was one of those where if you asked things, you weren’t competent enough. Not to mention all the different bosses I had to work with and navigate the complex corporate hierarchy. Being an introvert, whatever I did felt wrong. I felt lost and alone.

A couple of months into my first job I realised I missed designing websites so I decided to start a side business. I had already been getting projects to work on when I received a phone call from the HR: “We see that you opened your own business, is that right?” “Yes, that’s correct.” I replied. “You can’t do that. Not without our permission.” I was still in my probation period, scared that I might lose my job, I never tried to get their permission, I just quickly closed my business down. I was heartbroken but my family depended on my job—we had a rent and a car loan to pay. I didn’t have a choice. I put my brave face on and pushed through.

The worst thing about my “proper” job was that it was full-time but with a temporary contract, limited to six months. So my whole life hung in the balance every time my contract had to be extended, based on whether I was performing or not. But without any training and simply dropped into the deep end, I was set up to fail. One year in, I started to despair. I knew my performance had been slipping. First I became apathetic, then miserable. I was slowly becoming one of them. That’s also when I started to feel a strange burning pain in my chest. I was a nervous wreck, had anger outbreaks for trivial things, I started behaving destructively. I could feel the cold sweat in my armpits every time I drove to work. I couldn’t sleep, I started having problems with my eyes, I had trouble breathing. I decided to go to the doctor and that was the moment when she offered me the pills. I didn’t know what they were. Anti-depressants? Tranquillisers? Is this what my life became? One year into my “proper” job that I always wanted and I completely lose my shit? What do I do? Take the pill, hope it helps and try to go along? Give up and join my coworkers in their misery? That’s what “proper” jobs are right? They get you loads of money, they don’t make you happy.

That’s what “proper” jobs are right? They get you loads of money, they don’t make you happy.

— I thought to myself

I didn’t take the pill. I took two weeks off which was enough to get a fresh perspective—I could go on and continue destroying myself, or I could do something about it. This was the moment in my life when I first realised that if I wanted to be a designer, I had to fight for it. It’s not worth having a well-paid, “proper” job and being a wreck. I’d rather do what I love and struggle financially. I decided to go back to designing websites, become a freelancer full-time and commit to it. I was all in. So by the time of the next contract extension, I told them I wasn’t signing it. There I was, 25, fresh out of the university, picked for the job out of 170 candidates, and I was telling them to piss off? They were shocked. My family was sceptic about it— they couldn’t understand how I’d pay for rent and the car loan with my “hobby.” Two weeks later I received an offer to join a Luxembourgish startup. It would be my first full-time and in-house design position.

I doubled my salary with our monthly costs remaining similar. But I had to move abroad. Away from my family, away from where I was comfortable. This was the sacrifice that I feared. But being comfortable and miserable at the same time wasn’t an option. I finally realised what life truly is — you have to fight for the things that are truly important to you, nobody will just hand anything over and you aren’t entitled to anything. The path of least resistance is also a path of misery. Ten years later I’m a designer at one of the best companies to work for. I lived in Germany, London, and in Edinburgh. I work remotely now so I was able to come back home. I don’t regret declining that first design job that sounded too good to be true. I don’t regret my first “proper” job and all the pain I had to go through there. It was hard but it taught me valuable life lessons: you can be self-taught and still become a successful designer, but you need to fight for it.

Short bio

Matej is a Senior Product Designer at GitLab and the author of the Better Web Type project and the Better Web Typography for a Better Web book. Originally from Slovenia but his passion for simple and usable design took him on a journey through Germany, Luxembourg, London and all the way to Edinburgh in Scotland. He thrives in the grey area between design and software development.

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