Field Notes for a Successful Career Transition

The path to a new career is not always straightforward or expected. In my case, I remember studying interior design alongside seasoned professionals from other fields who were making a career change and remember feeling relieved at working toward my chosen career right after high school. Years after completing my first design degree, I found myself in an impromptu staff meeting, where it was announced that after over a century of business, our design firm was now officially closed due to the effects of the lingering recession. This took me on a career path detour which allowed me to develop interests in other design specialties.  For me, architectural lighting design was never a conscious change of careers; it was more a transition from one design specialty to another. 

While exciting, starting out in a new career is challenging in ways that we can’t always anticipate. As a seasoned professional in my previous field, I remember often feeling like I had gone back to kindergarten, spilled my juice and the teacher was out of glitter. Like I was in unfamiliar yet familiar territory at the same time. So, when starting out, again, how do we bend to help ourselves transition? Here are a few field notes that have helped me along the way:

1. Be kind to yourself.
When we see someone who is more fluent in their trade or has more responsibility in their design tasks, we have to continually remind ourselves that the difference between them and us is time.  Time will create the space for you to amass experience, knowledge and confidence. Just as you experienced growth and accomplishments in your previous work, you will also experience them in your new career.

2. Find multiple watering holes.
Accept that as a creative person with a wide range of knowledge, skills and interests, your creative satisfaction needs to be constantly fed by different outlets.  Your current job will not always be the place that feeds all of your creative needs, so be ready to constantly reevaluate whether your career goals haven’t been set too low or your expectations of your job too high.

For me this is a constant struggle because I love so many branches of design. When my involvement is focused on just one aspect of design, creative boredom tends to get the best of me. I manage this through involvement in different trade associations and volunteer work, which provides a way to contribute creative ideas. It also helps me explore design interests in a safe arena and in a place where I can feel support from professionals with whom I’ve shared past successes.  I find that creative development often begins with identifying the creative tasks I enjoy that aren’t part of my daily work, then finding outlets that allow me to develop them. 

3. Make a connection with the task. 
Find ways to make a connection with the design branch or task that you’re struggling with; you’ll better understand it and develop a passion for it once you find a way to make it real to you. With a project portfolio in interior design, lighting bridges is possibly the most different project type I could work on, even though it encompasses the majority of my workday.  Because it’s so far removed from my previous project types, I had to reach deeper to make a connection to it. The first connection was the most apparent—bridges provide connections to people. This worked on the human relationship level, but on the design level I still struggled to relate to the project. One day I thought: a bridge is a structure, what kinds of structures am I familiar with or are found in interiors?  What are the components of a bridge? What do those look like; do they look like anything I know? The image of steel trusses came to mind, which I immediately associated with the metal trusses found in the interiors of theaters and concert venues, from which spotlights illuminate the stage and crowd. Indoor event lighting is something I could easily relate to, and so it helped make bridge structures a more approachable and understandable project type to work on.  My advice is this: find similarities between things you are familiar with that resemble the project’s components, then determine the function of the spaces in your project and think of what a day in those spaces would feel like to help you make a connection. 

4. Listen to the winds.
Consider the hard criticism that will inevitably come, but don’t let it destroy you.  Learn to decipher the constructive, apply the positive and grow from the negative while making conscious decisions about how much of it really applies to you. 

Whatever the challenge: do it, solve it, own it. Remember, your career is about you. Keep you as the main focus.

Photo by Matthew Henry (Toronto, Ontario)

This article was written by Wendy Gonzalez and was originally printed in LD+A Magazine's December 2016 issue, "The Emerging Professional" section.  LD+A is a trade magazine by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES), for professionals involved in the art, science, study, manufacture, teaching, and implementation of lighting. LD+A is designed to enhance and improve the practice of lighting.  Re-printed with permission from LD+A Magazine, click here to view the original article.  Learn more at:

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