Mimi Hammill is a surface pattern designer but this wasn’t her first choice of career. Mimi was encouraged to study “proper subjects” at school and ended up pursuing a career as a dentist before falling into the creative industries via a prize-winning silk scarf.
So what is a surface pattern designer?
Put simply, I make patterns that decorate stuff. There are patterns on practically everything – your pencil case, your t-shirt, your notebook, your bedcover, your sofa – patterns are everywhere. Take a look around you just now… do you see some patterns? Somebody, somewhere designed all of ‘em. So far I’ve put my designs on stationery, leggings, fabrics, silk scarves, bags, cushions, wrapping paper, business cards, websites, even recently on a carpet. I work predominantly using software called Adobe Illustrator.
Surface design wasn’t my first choice of career.
I was fortunate enough to go to a big fee-paying school. But I studied GCSE Art in a shamefully feeble art department. Because despite being well respected and (presumably) well financed, at the time my school placed very little value on creative qualifications. At 15, when I had to choose subjects for A-level, I wanted to study Maths, Art and Biology. But I was told that it wasn’t possible: Maths and Art were taught at the same time so it was one or the other. End. Of. Discussion. I was encouraged to drop Art (“you can draw pretty pictures in your spare time!”) and so I studied Maths, Biology and Chemistry. I ended up leaving school with good enough grades to start a degree in dentistry. Great for the school statistics I imagine. Not so great for me.
From Dentist to Design…
I graduated with two degrees, BDS and BSc (Dent.Sci), and started working in an NHS dental surgery, like everyone else in my year. But it was barely nine months before I quit. My purely science-based education at school had lead to a vocational qualification and a clinical career that I absolutely hated, and it was making me anxious and depressed. After quitting dentistry I moved to London, went to evening classes to learn proofreading, and got a job as a health editor for a medical company called Bupa. It was a much better fit for me and I was really pleased that I was able to use my clinical knowledge in a different environment. At Bupa we hired brilliant freelance designers to create beautiful page layouts for our customer magazines. I loved watching them sketch out graphics and manipulate illustrations, and I always tried to get on the projects where I could work closely with them.
Fast forward a few years and I was married with young children and living in a new city with no medical publishing opportunities to speak of. I fell across a blog talking about this thing called print-on-demand: it listed all these sites where anybody could upload artwork and turn it into printed fabric or wallpaper. Anybody! And apparently the go-to software was called Adobe Illustrator, which is what I remembered the designers at Bupa using. So during the evenings and my baby’s naptimes I studied Adobe’s Creative Suite through an online school based in California. Six months later I entered a competition to design a silk scarf, and I won it! I remember running up and down the stairs screaming with excitement before sitting down to tell my husband that it was time for me to call HM Revenue & Customs, because I’d just earned some money from my new job.
There are always challenges… its part of the journey.
The biggest challenge was undoubtedly taking the plunge and quitting a well-paid, respected “proper” career when everyone around me appeared to be succeeding at it. A professor at uni who knew that I was applying for different jobs (in an effort to escape dental school) said to me: “The trouble is that you just think you’re more interesting than the rest of us. You’re not, so get over yourself.” With hindsight it was a very damaging thing to say to a vulnerable student, and very far from the truth.
Twenty years later I still often think about him saying that to me. And I remind myself that the clinical path is simply one that I should never have started down. The advice on subject choices that I blindly followed at 15 was flawed; clearly some of the careers advice and psychological support that I needed at dental school was flawed too. I try not to blame myself. I was so young, and I just made a wrong decision.
Happily, most of my pals from university are now wonderfully successful surgeons, orthodontists and consultants, and far from thinking I’m “more interesting than the rest of them” I think they’re all absolutely incredible. They do something important everyday that I simply couldn’t. But the most important fact for me is simply that I’m here. Had I continued with dentistry, I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be telling you this story. Though it breaks my heart to say it, not everyone from my graduating class is around to tell their story any more. This stuff really matters. Stress, anxiety and mental wellbeing are important. And if you need to make a change, that’s OK.
Ask questions, be strong, strive for what you really want.
Obviously I’m no role model when it comes to making good career choices! But I would urge you to have a questioning state of mind when subject choices and careers advice are imposed upon you at school. Is the careers adviser/guidance teacher really listening to what you’re saying and really taking your personality and temperament into account? Is anybody, knowingly or otherwise, encouraging you down a route that you’re not 100% on-board with?
And what about parents?!?
Let’s just talk about parents for a minute. My parents were delighted when I declared that I was going to be a dentist. (I used to talk in detail about how I’d decorate my future waiting room, yet I remember being completely disinterested during several bouts of work experience – maybe that should’ve been a clue…) They encouraged me wholeheartedly. (I mean, why wouldn’t they? There’s the job security, the money, the prestige, the brass plaque on the wall.) And of course, encouragement makes you feel good, that’s what it’s for. But my parents are an artist and an architect duo so, while they may have known ME inside out, they had less than zero idea what it’s like to work in a dental hospital. And the truth is that it couldn’t have been worse for me. Your parents will, like mine, have the very best of intentions. But bear in mind that it is not THEM who will be working on those life choices for the next 50 years – it’s YOU! So I’d encourage you to truly own your decisions.
No wrong path!
And lastly, making the wrong choice happens. You might take a career turn that doesn’t work out so well. But you know what? None of it is ever a waste. My surgical experience led me straight to a brilliant editorial job. (I went to the interview at Bupa and told them there were crucial errors in their online information about wisdom tooth surgery. They had no idea, gasped in horror, and the job was mine!) So while I had once felt like my qualifications were only good for drilling and filling, I slowly came to realise that I had developed a wealth of transferable skills along the way. Close attention to detail, multitasking, critical appraisal, time management, communicating complex medical info to a consumer audience – it was all stuff I could use. And working as an editor led me directly to exploring the design aspect of publishing, and ultimately to surface pattern design. I’m excited to find out where it takes me next!