First Hand — Follow your interests, not a career path: Why it’s ok to chop, change and zig-zag
The pathways taken by Nils Westerlund towards his current role as design director at Doberman agency are multiple, criss-crossing, twisting and far from predictable. From DJ work and interactive installation design to being part of SoundCloud’s original team and founding a DIY community, Nils has a huge variety of experiences between different industries, all of which have fed into his creative work, his skill set and his passions.
For Nils, frequently switching it up has been the key to succeeding in the position he holds now, as well as feeding his interests. He talks to us about why a more fluid understanding of your career trajectory is ultimately beneficial when it comes to broadening your knowledge and outlook.
It’s easy to think that you have to set yourself on a path and stick to it, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. This is something that Michael Burkin, managing director at Doberman, put perfectly when he said, “I have no career. I have a set of experiences.” If you focus on your interests and what makes you most excited, you will have endless energy to source from when cross-pollinating ideas, technologies and approaches.
Take, for example, my own career. My first consulting work was as a musician and DJ, making music for a fashion show. After dabbling in a bunch of different spaces, I’ve spent most of my time in product development working at, starting, and consulting for startups and technology organisations.
I joined SoundCloud when the team was less than 10 people. I co-founded a company, How.Do, and in the process raised funding from top tier investors such as Mr. Li Ka-Shing. I had an advisory board with Charles Adler (Kickstarter co-founder) and it grew to a one-million person strong DIY community. I have also worked on interactive installations and design systems for remote communication using maneki neko cats.
“It took me a long time to be okay with the idea of switching industries – I thought the jumps I made were somehow setting me back.”
While there are ways to retrofit this into a story, truth to be told, the only aim has been to have fun and to work with people I looked up to – people who have great ideas, a drive to change things for the better, or simply want to make things more interesting.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the connections between experiences until after they've happened. It took me a long time to be okay with the idea of constantly switching industries – I thought the jumps I made were somehow setting me back. But with time I’ve come to understand that it has been the contrary; every shift has brought something new and exciting, and even my earliest experiences keep on influencing the designer I am today.
My former co-founder at How.Do, Emma Rose Metcalfe – now a renowned design researcher who studied at Central Saint Martins – puts it beautifully: “I believe every experience provides an opportunity for you to dive deeper into the topics that you find interesting.” She continues, “design research didn’t exist when I went to school. Instead I studied fashion and ceramic design through which I explored material and culture. Now, I identify as an independent design researcher, working on high-profile projects for big organisations like LEGO, but there was no way for me to plan that.”
What led Emma and myself to where we are today was not a set path but rather a series of experiences that helped us develop a point of view, a craft and an expertise.
“Going for opportunities related to your passions and interests will always be the right choice.”
Today, I’m working as a design director. If it weren’t for my experience raising money and running a business, I probably would not also have the role I have today as an investment manager at ‘Doberman Forward’, the investment arm of Doberman (the design agency where I currently work), nor would I be able to advise a startup client on what to focus on.
If I hadn’t spent hours in front of the turntables I wouldn’t have the same understanding of rhythm in typography and animation. I’m humbled to be able to draw from all these varying experiences, and to put them to work in highly diverse teams at a design studio with amazing clients.
In writing this article, I thought about what I wished somebody had told me ten years ago. Going for opportunities related to your passions and interests, over what sounds like the right title, will always be the right choice. It will also make your work more fun and rewarding. Rest assured, whatever you have planned will change, and that’s alright because it will be all the more exciting for it.
As Marcus Engman, formerly head of design at IKEA, puts it: “If you try, you will fail. What else is there? The worst thing would be not trying.”