As a creative, I am always making things after work hours. What is a pro tip on balancing this and avoiding burnout? It is hard to “turn off” and I often find myself not doing enough. I know there isn’t an absolute answer, but I think in a culture where content is king on social media, it feels like burnout is always on the horizon.

I work in a field I do not have formal education in, so I try to prove my credibility by pumping as much work out as possible. A lot of the work are just personal projects, and work doesn’t see them. My current job is not my ideal one and not where I want to be in 10 years; it’s 10-20% design work, and 80-90% project management. I want to do work where it is a bit more even and there is more variety. I work on powerpoint reports and that is very limiting in what is possible. The personal work is to learn and develop my style, I do not have formal education so I try my best to learn and practice on my own time.

I know your question is about burn out, and I’ll get to that, but I think the more important thing to focus on here is to consider what your career goals are and develop a specific plan to reach them. Posting to social media probably won’t get you anywhere; I know there are lots of designers on Instagram that just post cool work all day, have tens of thousands of followers and appear to have a lot of success. But for the majority of us, social media fame (or as close as we can get to it) won’t change our careers. A high follower count won’t get you a job offer at a great agency. So don’t pressure yourself to be constantly posting, because it likely isn’t the right strategy to get you where you want to be (even if being famous on social media were the best way to find a job, there are more effective marketing strategies than posting constantly to achieve that).

There are a number of different jobs you can get as a designer at a variety of places, so think about what you would like in a design role. What kind of things do you want to focus on, or learn? I will say that project management isn’t usually part of a designer’s job in studios or agencies; there are usually Project Managers who do that. But it’s not totally unheard of if you work client-side for responsibilities to be mixed.

I understand it can be intimidating to move into a field that you don’t have formal education in, but a lot of designers didn’t go to school for design, so don’t let that discourage you! Something I’ve heard from people who came to design the “non-traditional” way was that it took them a while to figure out that design isn’t just about pretty images: there are rules about visual communication to follow, and research is very important. Look online for courses that teach design principles and the creative process (you can access lynda.com for free with your Toronto Library card). This is the kind of thinking that Creative Directors look for when hiring, especially if you want a job where you come up with creative concepts. An internship can also be helpful; I understand doing an unpaid internship isn’t possible for a lot of people (there are a few paid ones out there!), but it can be a great place to learn and ask questions in a working environment with less pressure than if you were working as a junior designer. Portfolio Review Nights are also a great chance to have your work reviewed, get tips on how to improve, and meet other professional designers. You don’t know what you don’t know, so when learning something new it’s best to refer to people who do know, to cover all your bases. You’ll learn more if you take your time to think ideas over, rework them, and really do the brainstorming and research to determine that your design is the best visual solution for the problem. I’m going to bet you aren’t doing much of that if you post something new every day. Focus on the quality of your ideas, not the quantity.

As to your initial question of burn out: I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to take a break. There are weeks sometimes when I don’t post to the TDD social channels, ‘cause I don’t have anything important to say, and that’s okay! I would rather post content that’s relevant and timely than post boring, generic, or cliche filler just for the sake of posting. Doing your own side projects to beef up your portfolio can be helpful, especially if your current job isn’t giving you portfolio-worthy stuff, but those should be projects that take at least a few weeks of development to complete, where you’ve done thoughtful research, gone through multiple creative options, and conducted thorough tests. It’s not the kind of thing you quickly pump out, and the thoughtful work is what Creative Directors will be interested in.

So take your time. You can afford to slow down and really think about the personal work you’re doing – that should help you avoid burnout. Take a break. Relax. There’s no rush. Go for a walk so you aren’t tempted to open Photoshop, and listen to an audiobook, podcast, or music so your mind can rest. Create stuff when you feel inclined, and stop when you don’t. Reading, watching, and listening to non-design stuff can even help your creative process and brainstorming, and expose you to new ideas. We’re all much better off for having rested, both physically and mentally; there are no prizes for having the highest output.

Ask your own question for advice on careers in design and advertising, developing good ideas, and the ins and outs of this industry. Submit a question →

The El Mocambo is a long-standing and historic music hall in Toronto, and Array of Stars took on the challenge of updating it’s identity and website while still remaining true to the El Mo’s history.

“We wanted to fuse the power of nostalgia with the excitement of what tomorrow can bring, fostering a tasteful collaboration between the ghosts of past and future.”

See the full project on Array of Stars’ website.

Local 4 Local is a blog series featuring the work of Toronto creative agencies and studios for Toronto clients, and highlighting how our local talent contributes to and changes our city.

Toronto & Everybody is an interview series with creatives who have worked in Toronto and in other cities. We seek out the similarities and differences between cultures, industries, and people, to see how people’s experiences abroad can help us improve and grow in our work and lives here in Toronto.

I spoke with Caitlin Wharton about her experience working as a graphic designer in Calgary and Toronto, how she runs a design studio across two provinces, and what different kinds of clients you find on the east and west sides of the country.

So to start off, tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I’m Caitlin Wharton, the founder and creative director at Trout + Taylor, which is a branding agency based in Toronto and Calgary.

And you have a business partner in Calgary, right?

I do. Our agency is purposefully split 50% business and 50% design, because we found that our experience with agencies is that they’re notorious for slow timelines and bad communication, so we saw that as an opportunity for us to really capitalize on having amazing timelines, amazing communication, amazing client care. So the business team is in Calgary and design is here.

How long have you been running this agency?

Trout + Taylor is three, just a baby!

And you moved to Toronto about a year ago?

Almost two actually, Halloween 2016.

It’s pretty unusual to be divided across two provinces (and so many time zones) – many agencies have multiple offices in different countries, but they don’t always operate across that border. How do you find that’s working for you guys?

Um, good. I think it would probably be a lot more difficult if we had designers in Calgary as well, but I think because it’s split across two cities and split across two departments, that makes it a lot easier. When I first moved out here we still had our design team in Calgary, and the communication time zone thing was just too difficult, so we were like, nope, too hard, move the design team here.

Tell me about why you moved here in the first place, what started this whole divided operation?

Well this is a lame story, I wish it was more interesting, but my husband got a job transfer to Toronto. Prior to moving here I’d only ever visited for a weekend. I think we just were relying on good will and chance that we were gonna love it here. Aislinn [my business partner] and I were working full time, in an office, and then we just made the call to split it up. I joined a coworking space here and just started from scratch, without ever having set foot in Toronto. So it was kind of a leap of faith to be honest.

What was your impression of the city before moving here?

There are inter-city rivalries, and I lived in Vancouver prior to living in Toronto. Vancouver hates Calgary, so we moved to Vancouver we were like “why do you hate us?!” and then when we told our friends and family that we were moving to Toronto they were like “why would you go there?!” I’ve never been a part of this – it’s mostly sports based rivalries – but when we moved to Toronto, there was this impression that everybody here was stuck up, thought they were the centre of the universe – I didn’t know what to expect before moving here. But I have been so pleasantly surprised at the warm embrace of the community and how interconnected even diverse pockets of design are. Copywriters know designers, know web designers, know developers, it really is connected here. I don’t know if it’s just the point in my career right now that I’m starting to meet those types of freelancers but I didn’t experience that in Calgary or Vancouver.

So then what’s the industry like in Calgary and Vancouver in terms of networking and scale and diversity of skill and that kind of thing?

So we’re in branding so I can only speak to that little portion of it, but I think that the entrepreneur community is strong in Calgary. So many people starting up larger scale businesses than the circles that I know in Toronto. A lot of tech, a lot of social good or innovation type businesses starting up there, and because the industry in Calgary is mostly oil and gas, geology, engineering, a lot of the branding agencies are supporting those types of industries. Vancouver I found had a lot less money – people don’t have a lot of funding when they’re starting a business – but a lot more lifestyle, so a lot of the more sexy brands are there. Tons of restaurants, bars, and a lot of people in Vancouver had side hustles, so a lot more small scale branding opportunities there. You would be a backpack designer at MEC but you would also have a lentil grain company on the side, or you would be working at head office in accounting at Lululemon, but you would also have a dog accessory line. So that was more small scale but a lot more fun. Then in Toronto what we found is that it’s kind of everything: there’s a huge tech industry here, obviously huge finance and wealth management here, and a lot more of the big players are here too. So you get experience in all these different pockets; there is that sexy restaurant and bar industry, and then you can also have one client in Rugby Canada and one person starting the dog accessory company, so it’s a little bit of everything and that keeps it fun.

Once you moved here – since you didn’t know anybody in Toronto – how did you meet people here?

I cold called people! For me what’s important is community, I need to know my design crew, so I actually did what a student would do when they’re looking for a job and I would seek out people that had amazing design portfolios and I was like “Can we meet for coffee? I just wanna be friends with you”. So I just went on blind dates with various designers, and we’re friends now! I think it is unconventional, but you almost have to be aggressive with finding friends in the same way that you’d be aggressive in finding a job.

So now that it’s been about two years, do you feel pretty comfortable here? Do you consider this city home?

I do consider it home. It feels like a cold embrace, ‘cause it’s a city with no ocean and nature, and so you’re like “what is here?” but as soon as you break into those circles, people really are amazing here, so wonderful. So we’ll stay, haha.

Would you ever move your business operations here?

Oh my god I would love to! At the same time it’s been really cool having at least two people on the ground. A lot of the big design events come through Toronto, some come through Vancouver, but almost never go through Calgary. So it’s been great to have at least [the design team] here to attend the big conferences. But it’s also great to have a different perspective and different people going to different events. Our business team goes to a ton of pitch competitions, startup events, startup networking drinks, and we go to events to be inspired.

You kind of have a wider reach that way.

Yeah for sure.

You’re right, a lot more design events do come through Toronto than the rest of Canada – do you feel that’s impacted your output and your work?

Yeah, I think from an inspiration standpoint for sure. We have a running joke with some design friends that there’s literally an event to go to every night of the week. And if you attended every event you would basically burn out from inspiration overload, and I think that’s so cool. You have the opportunity to go to one of the greatest museums if you’re feeling stuck or hit up a cool event in the evening if you’re feeling like you need inspiration. That is an invaluable tool, and we have set up a specific “inspiration fund” for our team to be like “here’s $120 a month, go to whatever inspires you” and to know that those opportunities exist in Toronto. You don’t have the same design communities and art communities in Calgary as you do in Toronto.

So when you were living out there what did you do for inspiration?

Calgary has a wonderful home base for nature retreats, so if you’re inspired by the greater world around you… that is one thing that I miss so much about being in Toronto: nature. For me, when I’m feeling stuck I know I have to go find a mountain somewhere, find some trees, and walk around in them. That was really instrumental for our business. We used to go to Canmore when we were feeling stuck, and just go on a retreat. There’s not quite the same nature here.

Yeah, I think a lot of Torontonians are envious of the west coast mountains. They’re gorgeous!

Yeah definitely, I would take pictures of the same mountains and the ocean every day on my walk to work. I’d have 365 pictures of the mountains and ocean on my phone, it’s so beautiful! And I’m not giving Calgary enough credit ‘cause I think the design community there is small but emerging. There’s new cool restaurants in Calgary that are cropping up and there’s really cool smaller agencies in Calgary that I think are doing a phenomenal job of servicing those emerging businesses. So many craft breweries in Calgary! How are there still craft breweries popping up? But there is an emerging thing happening there which is cool to be a part of.

So knowing that it’s growing, would you move back there?

Um… no. And said with so much love for the city that I was born and raised in. But, no.

Are you ready to settle down in Toronto or would you go somewhere else after this?

I would love to live in Toronto for a while. And I think the next step in the journey would be to live in Europe. I’m really inspired by Scandinavian design, and I would love to just live there for a year. I think I would come back to Toronto though.

What’s kind of the feeling overall between Calgary and Toronto, based on your experience? You said there’s a lot more nature in Calgary which makes sense, but there’s a beauty of its own kind here as well. And Toronto is obviously a lot bigger, so what would you say are the overall differences between the two?

That’s a hard question. I think the sense of Calgary is – I don’t want to say more of a community but maybe more of an obvious community? There’s really great strips in Calgary, like Inglewood is the place to be. When you go to Inglewood you know you’re going to run into everybody you know and love. The stitching of Calgary is a lot tighter in that way. And I think Toronto is a much looser net to cast over everything, and I think the beauty in that is that you get to find what interests you and you get to hang on to those pieces versus like, Calgary’s community is pretty… it is what it is.

Is there anything you would tell somebody coming from Calgary, or even Vancouver, moving to Toronto to look out for or do when they get here?

Definitely events, there are so many. Go to events, follow designers that you love. I’ve been so surprised that people are just willing to meet you for coffee, or a glass of wine. And everybody wants other people to be successful. So go to events, cold call designers, go on blind dates with people, that has been really great in my experience.

Do you find that this community is really supportive? That people look out for each other?

Yeah. I don’t know if that’s a Toronto thing, or if that’s just a design thing. In Calgary we shared an office with our biggest competitor, and we would often refer clients to each other, we’d go out for drinks with them all the time, same thing here. You’re always pushing people to each other. I think it might be a design thing, and that’s so cool to me, community over competition.

That’s definitely what I try to champion.

Yeah, and I mean I think it’s just where Trout + Taylor is in terms of our growth. But we’re also working with a lot of students, and I feel bad for students right now because it’s so competitive. It’s really hard to get your foot in the door. We didn’t work with a lot of students in Calgary so I can’t speak to the student perspective over there, but there are great art schools here, so I’m sure OCAD and George Brown attract students from all over Canada. I don’t know if I have advice for students, ‘cause I see the struggle of trying to break into the industry and the agency world here and it’s just really hard. Where possible I’ll go for coffees with students and look at the resumes and see if we can get their portfolio up to snuff, but it’s really difficult.

It’s definitely really difficult, I felt the same way when I graduated from school years ago. Part of that was not knowing where to go, which is the story behind why I started the Directory, but the other half is having the skills to get somebody’s attention, which is it’s own challenge. There are more agencies around here than I would’ve thought a few years ago, which I see now having done the research to build the Directory, but there’s even more students, and more people moving to this city. There’s definitely a lot of competition.

You’re right, and I think it’s really obvious to go and find the huge agencies, so I think you graduate with the idea that “I’m gonna go work for Blok or the huge guys”, and maybe that’s why it seems harder to break into jobs, ‘cause of course it would be harder to go with those guys. But in Calgary or Vancouver there aren’t really the big guys, they’re not really there.

You’ve hired in both cities, so in terms of how many resumes you get, is it different between Toronto and Calgary?

Yeah, I think more here. Definitely more graphic design and art students here, Calgary there’s a lot more informational design, kind of hybrid degrees, especially out of Mount Royal University; they have an amazing program for communication design. We were in that community really heavily in Calgary. And here it’s like, artists who go to design school to get a degree to be profitable.

It’s interesting that you find such a contrast between here and Calgary in terms of education.

Yeah, I think there’s also maybe a lot of self taught designers in Calgary, which are great as well ‘cause I think, if you have a degree in English for example and then you teach yourself design, it positions you in a different way than if you know acrylic versus oil painting.

What was your education in?

I have an English degree.

So you speak from experience.

Yeah, I’m self taught in graphic design. I worked in marketing, I was doing invitations for an interior design firm, and then I realized I loved graphic design. So I started going to school at ACAD, and that’s when I got a job transfer to Vancouver, so I stopped that. But I started working at Lululemon without a graphic design education, so I had a lot of experience-based learning. I actually went to school at Parson’s after I quit Lululemon, and I decided to go there because of the level of education. I took a program remotely at Parson’s while I was living in Vancouver, and actually I have one class left.

Really?

It’s an internship. And I was like “can I intern at my own company?” and they said no, you can’t. So that was about six years ago, and I haven’t finished my design degree.

You have to get that internship!

I have to get that internship! And I’ve actually been talking to my team about it, I would love to intern at my own company, I would love to get an inside perspective and be the intern of like our senior graphic designer. Teach me! So I’ll see if I can do that. But my education is very random. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way.

Yeah, I’ve known people who did English, history, biology, and ultimately came to design in their own ways as well, and they’re just as talented – you can be, I think, stronger having a background in a different field, you see connections between things differently. Having a foundation in something completely different like the sciences can be a huge advantage.

Yeah I totally agree. One of the founders of the big agencies back in Calgary has a degree in microbiology in ferns, and he says he’s so inspired by the shape of ferns! That’s so cool! And now he’s running this incredible agency. So yeah I agree, and I’ve made the plea to Aislinn my business partner, that the next hire I want to be a copywriter, and teach them design. ‘Cause I think there are gaps that are missing from a traditional art background, where people don’t really know how to write any more, and a lot of what we do is writing and messaging.

Since you had friends from Calgary and Vancouver who commented “why would you move to Toronto” when you told them your decision, what would your response to them be now that you’ve been living here for a while?

Just that there’s way more opportunity in Toronto. In a way it feels like an aspiring singer from a small town moving to Nashville to try and hit it big. There’s just more opportunity in everything, there’s cooler tennis leagues and there’s more events, and the volume is bigger. So if you were interested in a city with more energy – it’s louder here, it’s dirtier here, it’s –

It’s windier here right?

It’s way windier here! What the hell is with the wind?! That’s something I could do without. But yeah it’s just that there’s more here than there is Calgary. And I love Calgary, and if the Leafs are playing the Flames, am I gonna wear my Flames jersey? Hell yes! I’m still a Flames fan (and a Raptors fan, and a Jays fan).

What’s one thing you would tell Torontonians about Calgary? If somebody was moving there what would you say?

The ease in which you can find a community is amazing. Everybody knows everybody in that community, and that is really cool. A lot of cool things are coming out of Calgary right now. If you were to move there from Toronto, there would be a really great base to land on, and I think it would be a lot easier to meet people. You probably wouldn’t have to cold call designers like I did here. It’s so friendly.

We go back and people ask us how it’s going in Toronto, and we’re like “it’s great” and they say, “No, how’s it really?” and it’s just awesome. We love it here.

What do you think they expect you to say?

I don’t know. Maybe there is that illusion that it’s business and banking and corporate here, but I think because of that or maybe in spite of that there is also an amazing creative community here, it’s just another thriving industry here that isn’t immediately apparent.

I think there’s a natural artistic wave that moves to either Toronto or Vancouver. If you know you don’t belong in Toronto you definitely belong in Vancouver. I have friends who moved from Vancouver to Toronto and just immediately went screaming back to the west coast. I think the trends that come up the east coast are fashion, and publication, and music and art, but the trends that come up the west coast from LA are like green juice, yoga, meditation, so there are trends in Vancouver that still haven’t started in Toronto. The two cities are like fraternal twins. Both great, both beautiful, but one likes green juice and one likes tattoos.

Because of the proximity to Vancouver there are a lot of people in Calgary that are picking up on really cool trends, and that’s why there’s a really cool community building in Calgary. I remember coming home at Christmas from Vancouver one time, and somebody had just started cold pressed juice in Vancouver, and I was like “Dad I need to borrow thirty thousand dollars, we have to start a cold pressed juice company in Calgary! We could be first to market here!” And the first juice pressed juice company started in Calgary about five years ago. I think there’s a lot of really smart, really inspired entrepreneurs there that are picking up trends from all over the world, and they get to start it there. So if the fraternal twins are Vancouver and Toronto, then Calgary is the younger sibling that’s picking up on everything and has the potential to be really smart and rad and cool, and gets to be humble and friendly for now.

I would move back to Vancouver, I will say that.

What do you miss from there?

Nature, pure and simple. It’s so pretty there.

I love living in Canada. It’s been cool living in three cities, they’re very different. Every city that I’ve been to has been phenomenal, I’m so proud to be Canadian.

How does a designer make the move to a different province without any contacts? I’m a recent grad from Edmonton, Alberta. I work in graphic design and illustration. I’m going to the Design Thinkers conference in Toronto and want to start making connections to potentially move there in the near future. I wouldn’t want to make the move without a job lined up so I’m trying to figure out how to make some connections. The difficulty for students is so much of their network is established where they did their program since there were 4+ years to develop it.

Coming to Toronto for the conference is a great opportunity to network, and it’s good you’re thinking of this already. Talk to as many people as you can at the breaks and cocktail hours and let them see you as an interesting and enjoyable person to be around. If you have a couple days in Toronto before or after the conference, reach out to people or agencies you like over email or LinkedIn and ask if you can buy them a coffee and have a chat about your work. It’s a great way to make connections and get advice on your work and your career.

Don’t discount your Alberta connections though! People move around Canada all the time, and it’s completely likely that people you know in Edmonton have contacts in Toronto that they can introduce you to (this will likely be your teachers or other designers working in Edmonton, less your classmates). One of the worst things anybody can do when networking is only focus on a contact’s current role, and disregard their work history, or possible future. They might not be at an agency/in a city you want to work at right now, but maybe they were two years ago and still know some people there. Or they might be working as an Art Director now, but used to be an Illustrator, and still have connections. Or maybe they’re a classmate in the same position as you, but in a couple years they’ll get a job at your dream studio, and you’ll want a referral. Careers can vary wildly and unpredictably, so it’s best to not take people or their careers at face value.

As for getting a job in Toronto before moving here… I have to admit, that can be pretty hard to do, especially when applying for junior roles. It’s certainly not impossible, but when hiring it’ll be an extra small point against you that could be the deciding factor between you and another candidate. You’d need time to move here before starting, but somebody local could theoretically start tomorrow. When interviewing, it’s easier to get a read on somebody in person than over Skype or the phone. It’s not a deal breaker, but it can be a factor, and the competition for junior roles here is high. If you don’t have a timeline for moving, do your best to network and apply from afar and see what happens. But if you want to move here sooner, you might be better off saving your money so you can move here first and job search for a few months in person, as making personal connections is probably the most helpful thing you can do right now.

Ask your own question for advice on careers in design and advertising, developing good ideas, and the ins and outs of this industry. Submit a question →

Working On It

I started this website about six years ago, and back then it was simply a solution to a problem I was facing, one I shared with other recent design grads: how do you find a design job if you don’t know where designers work? So I did some research, made a list, designed it, coded it, and put it online. In the rainy spring of 2012, I purchased torontodesigndirectory.com.

When I first designed this site, I was actually really scared. I knew the concept was good – I was definitely solving a problem in a useful way – but I also knew that a lot of people in the Toronto graphic design industry would see my project. People I respected and admired, people I didn’t even know yet, and people I might ask to hire me someday. I was only a couple years out of design school and I felt like I was establishing my design reputation with this one project: if I didn’t get the design right, I would be laughed out of town. Or at least, I’d never be hired for the good gigs. Honestly, it still feels like that sometimes.

I was still nervous once the site was online and running, but I was ready for it to be out there. It took maybe six to eight months before people really started taking note and spreading the word – I think probably the biggest boost to traffic was when I gave a business card to a former teacher of mine from OCAD, to pass the word on to his students and colleagues. It was just a couple months after that that I saw my traffic go up, and the Directory really started getting attention.

Over the last five years this project grew in unexpected and messy ways. The first couple years was just a matter of adding new agencies to the list as I discovered them or people shared them with me – I launched with about 100. I attended tons of design events in the city, very awkwardly meeting people and mentioning “this little website I’ve been working on”. People even started to recognize me after a while, although my purple hair (at the time) probably helped with that. I got to know the industry and its people in my own unconventional way, and I’m so glad I have, ‘cause these people are wonderful.

After maybe a year of running the Directory I launched the first Swash & Serif show with Ligatures. I approached them about running a typography and lettering show, but none of us had any idea how to do something like that. So we put our heads together, did some googling, and figured out that renting a gallery space isn’t actually all that difficult. Ligatures had developed a wonderful budding typography and lettering community that we shared the event with. Any turn out would’ve been great in those early days, but as it was we had over 50 people participate in the show, and over one hundred people came to opening night. I met dozens of new people and was inspired by so much beautiful work. “The Toronto creative community wants to celebrate good local work,” I thought, “there’s gotta be some other ways to bring us together more.”

Fast forward a few years and I’ve launched the annual Portfolio Review Night, the talk series Cool Concept, and the (potentially) bi-annual Hue Shift pop up shop. Along with Swash & Serif (which I run solo now), the Directory has a nice series of regular events under its belt.

The Toronto Design Directory is no longer a simple interactive list of agencies, it’s more of a basecamp. Out of this camp, I create resources, events, and opportunities, that help or bring together Toronto creatives in various ways: they can show off, sell, learn, speak, network, and more. I develop different events and programs, filling gaps I perceive in our community, and work on problems that interest me. And honestly, the TDD is also a place where I can express my own creativity and use my own design skills. I get to speak to my favourite audience, and design for people who really care about design and understand it.

I never would’ve imagined that I’d be in a place like this when I was brainstorming about this project years ago. Back then I wanted to create a static site that I could build once and forget about, so updating it wouldn’t take up my free time. Funny how things work out.