One of the questions I get the most is how I became a designer. To be honest, my story isn't really something you want to follow and it's everything else but romantic. But let me tell you the story as good as I can remember.
At 15 I dropped out of high school. I was a troublemaker in school and constantly at the edge of repeating the class due to horrible grades.
I think generally there are many reasons for that, but one of them was that I grew up in a rather poor family, well financially at least. I'm not taking this as an excuse, but let me give you some more context.
We just moved from Germany to Austria into a tiny village. And besides having little money, this of course made me & my family the perfect outsiders. I mean, just imagine this German family with a strong German accent moving into a tiny village on the Austrian countryside. My nickname was essentially "Nazi" or "Piefke", which is a slightly friendlier version of calling you a Nazi. Getting insulted & called this way was kind of part of my childhood there, but I eventually got used to it. It also started to get better once I learned the proper Austrian dialect so I could hide the fact that I'm from Germany.
Probably one of the first pictures I took in my life. My mother, my two brothers and my sister. And of course, the house we grew up in in the middle of fucking nowhere.
I figured early on that these kids are just being kids and have no idea what they're actually talking about and did a good job ignoring them. But I do believe all of this made me become someone who always rebelled against something.
I rebelled against everyone, especially teachers who also loved to make fun of me. Ultimately, this very much influenced my grades & willingness to be any part of a system that I increasingly started to dislike very much.
Another reason might be the fact that my father passed away very early on and I grew up without a father figure who could guide me a bit in the right direction. But honestly, I still try to deny the truth of that. I'd say I was pretty okay with not having a father. I did have the best mother I can imagine. But still, rebellion was always part of my life from early on, and my single mother very much supported that.
At the age of 15 I didn’t really know what to do. My main interest was skateboarding and being outside. I loved skateboarding because in the skateboard community no one gives a shit where you're from. Everything that counts is that you skateboard. Skateboarding is the ultimate sport for outsiders. You don't rely on a team and other skateboarders are usually also outsiders who can't deal with organized team sports.
Like I mentioned, my single mother was busy raising us four kids. I still don't know how she managed to do that. We struggled to pay for the books we needed for school, so you can imagine going to a more fancy school wasn’t even an option for me. Besides that, I really sucked at school.
But still, a couple friends of mine went to a college highly recommended by my high school teachers, otherwise “I wouldn’t be able to make it in life” they said.
I decided to give it a try. But my grades were so bad I had to do an application test first, which I of course failed at and got declined from entry into the school.
My only alternative was to join a special school made for the so called “trouble maker kids”. The school seemed promising with the hope to find a job after just a year or two — At least that’s what I thought.
After about 4 weeks at this school I just stopped going, it was horrible and I felt like a criminal for just being there. I mean, I thought I was a trouble maker, but this school was a whole different level of teenagers. The teacher told me that if I drop out now, I will never be able to make it and won’t find a job in the future. Of course I said fuck that, and dropped out.
At the time I had a high interest in everything technical, I loved taking computers or other devices apart or repairing them. This mainly came from my passion for playing computer games such as Half Life, Counterstrike or Warcraft.
Me, around 2003. Damn, I have a chin!
So I figured, maybe I can do something with computers? My new goal: Find a job in the IT industry, some sort of apprenticeship maybe? At the time there were only about 2–3 companies in my country who hired apprentices for these kind of positions. I sent an application to each company.
I never heard back from any of them. I mean it makes sense, I had absolutely nothing to show. I was devastated.
At the time, I had to move out of my mothers apartment. She simply couldn't afford us four kids anymore and I was now an annoying 17 year old.
I honestly don't even know how I survived the first couple months, but I think I had about $500 available from savings that helped bridge some time. These $500 mostly came from child support. Because my father died early on, the government in Germany helps single mothers with a little bit of money until the child is 18 years old.
My new apartment room was $250 a month. So I figured I can survive about 2-3 months if I make sure to only eat instant noodles for 99 cent a package. I was also in front of the computer most of the time, so my body didn't really need much. Internet and instant noodles, I was so low maintenance, it was almost funny to watch. But I didn't care, I was playing computer games and hanging in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channels most of the time.
After I did some research, I found out that there is a program led by the government that hires you as a “fake apprentice”. It pays you about $150 a month and basically bridges the time while you’re looking for a real job. It's like a welfare program for young people who never even managed to get a job in the first place.
You have to show up every day eight hours a day and they do weird team exercises with you, help you with writing application letters and stuff like that.
Most people who end up there come from much more troubled backgrounds, kids on drugs or with really serious family issues. I was certainly not one of them, well, unless you count my Internet addiction as a problem. My plan was to get out as soon as possible. If I would stay there, I would probably get into heavy drugs myself.
I finally found an IT company who said they promise to take me on as a real apprentice after a one year unpaid internship (while I still stay on the government program for $150 a month).
I obviously agreed and started working at this company as a "computer scientist" intern. Or let's put it simple: Work as a second level support person fixing blue screens for old people who can't use a PC.
Unfortunately that company went bankrupt 10 months later, right before they promised to hire me full time. I quickly found a new internship at another company, but they kicked me out ofter 3 months. I found another one, they also kicked me out after 2 months internship.
I first got into design because of computer games. I designed websites for my own Counterstrike clan or clans of other friends. I loved it!
Then, I found another company, but this time they promised me to take me on as a real apprentice and pay me $350 a month in my first year. Unfortunately they said, it's not a computer scientist apprenticeship but I have to learn software engineering.
That was fine with me, I was just happy to finally find a job.
One and a half years later I was almost at the end of finishing my software engineer apprenticeship. To successfully finish your apprenticeship you have to do one final test at some government institution, otherwise it’s not official and not valid. I failed the test and decided to not repeat it. You had to pay $1000 for the test, and I simply couldn’t afford it. Did I ever mention that I really suck at tests in general?
My old boss told me that if I don’t repeat the test, everything is for nothing and I won’t be able to find a new job.
At the time the company I worked for also threatened to let me go because I was such a horrible engineer, which I kind of agree with. But because I was already teaching myself on the side how to design (Photoshop & Dreamweaver), I convinced them to give me a chance and find a role in marketing for me. My interest was mostly print & web design so marketing seemed like an obvious fit. I was very thankful that this company gave me this opportunity, for the first time someone treated me like a normal person.
Some of my first professional design work. Here some interface/software design for the healthcare industry.
Fast forward a couple months, I decided to take a huge risk and quit the job anyway. It just didn't really work out, I was unhappy and depressed. But within a very short amount of time and lots of responsibilities I learned a lot at this company. Mostly because they pushed me a lot to learn myself. My boss (who wasn't a designer) would say "Design this marketing folder" and I would just do it. I was the only designer there for a while, so I literally designed everything. The software, the marketing materials and even the door signs in the office.
After I quit, I had very little savings left and needed to apply to welfare for the time being. That looked familiar to me. If you would have asked some of my non-existent friends, they would have told you that I’m crazy for quitting my job and going on welfare. Welfare works fairly well in Austria if you had at least 10 years professional experience, which I didn't have. So for me it wasn't really paying the bills.
Because everyone told me I won’t be able to make it as a designer without proper education, I tried to apply at a university to study design. As you can already guess, I got declined because my work wasn’t good enough and my portfolio was lacking traditional drawings. I also didn't had a high school degree and I lacked pretty much all requirements.
So I started to apply at some more design agencies for a traditional design job, no one got back to me, which made sense. It was a hard time for me, I essentially had zero education on paper, no portfolio and just quit my job. I was an idiot.
Then I found an educational program provided by the government which would cost me about $2000 but promised to train me as a designer within 10 months. It would also give me a certificate (if I make it) that is validated by the government, exactly what I needed I thought.
I took all my savings, borrowed some money and joined the program. I never spent this much money in my life so far. Everyone around me told me that I NEED to do this for my CV, otherwise I can not prove that I’m a certified designer.
The program lasted 10 months, I barely showed up 3 months which was the minimum required to receive a “Participated” confirmation. When I was there I felt like I was back in school, with arrogant teachers telling me how much I suck and that I will never make it as a designer. I was easily the youngest there as well, most people there were in their 30's. I had a hard time to connect with people. The whole thing was too much like school, too theoretical for me with weird tests I needed to pass every two weeks.
So far everyone always told me what I cant do, but never what I can — I don’t blame anyone, I didn’t know better at the time.
During the 10 months where I was supposed to be at the program I started to work on a lot of side projects to build up a little portfolio. Deep in my gut there was this feeling that I CAN do it, even though everyone else was telling me the opposite.
The moment the program ended, I knew I have no more options available. I was back on fucking square one again. I did some research and found another program offered by the government, but this time it was a program that teaches people about business and marketing while paying them, but with some strings attached.
At that time I was in full survival mode. The requirements for the program was that they will pay you for 10 months $500 each month if you deliver a fully written business plan within the first 3 months, but also commit to attending 70% of the marketing & business classes they provide. The goal: Make you a business owner after one year.
If you don't attend 70% of the classes and don't finish your business plan within 3 months, you will get kicked out the program. That was the deal.
I applied immediately - All I saw was $1500 for three months. Fuck the business plan, fuck the classes. I joined the program, attended roughly 70% of my classes for three months, never wrote a business plan and then got kicked out of the program. But I still cashed in the $500 for each of the first three months.
And these $1500 plus some of these classes eventually pushed me to open my own studio. So after all, the program achieved what it was meant for. I opened my own business after 3 months, rather than staying 10 months.
While attending some of these business/marketing classes I also met some other people who planned on opening their business. Two of them became my first clients, because they of course needed a logo and a website. The first website I did I charged $400 for design, coding and everything. The second project was a logo for $150. The third was a print magazine for $300.
My "Studio" website around 2008-2009 - A few years after I went freelance.
In between I did dozens of projects for free to build my portfolio and just try to "get in". From there the rest is history, all I did was working day and night as hard as I can. It was a slow, painful but steady process. I did went into a little bit of bank debt the first few years, but luckily I recovered. The good thing in Europe is, if you have no money, banks won't give you any credits anyway. So the system is set up in a way that you can't really go much below zero.
In the first years, even well before I started my apprenticeship as software engineer, I loved designing the most random things. I was part of many "GFX forums" where I designed banners for peoples signature. I designed Clan websites, icons, Winamp skins and probably re-designed my own website every second week.
Luckily my burn rate was very slow. My apartment/room was $250 a month. I never went out, so the rest of the money I spent was on food. I mostly lived on instant noodles (99cent for 6 portions) or other frozen instant food.
I also remember eating McDonalds for one year straight. (the quality of McDonalds in Austria is surprisingly good by the way, and it's cheap!)
The reason why I wanted to tell you this story is to show you how I became a designer. At least for me, there was no perfect way and my path couldn’t be more weird and unromantic.
In the end, everything that counted was that I trusted myself. Or let’s say I was too stupid to know what is right or wrong anyway. For me the obstacle became the way and the art of not knowing how to do things “the right way” helped me to think differently.
I'm very thankful for all these programs offered by the government. They kept me alive and especially the last one helped me take the jump and open my own studio. Ironically, opening my own studio was the only path that worked out for me, even though I'd have never thought that this is what I want.
My story shouldn't be a template for anyone. Everyone has a different path, there is no right or wrong way. But I hope this story gives you a little perspective and maybe helps you with some of the decisions you are facing today.
Thank you for reading & keep creating,
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!