Engaging Top Talent: One Designer's Unique Career Path
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- Graphic designer David Nuff built his own design degree by switching between communication, programming, and visual arts.
- His early career taught him valuable skills and helped him win awards, including a project that TIME Magazine named one of the best inventions of 2008.
- A freelancer since 2012, the flexibility and freedom allowed him to pursue a second career as an artist.
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David Nuff knows exactly what does not work for him when it comes to productivity: sitting in an office trying to be creative during an eight-hour block punctuated only by a lunch break and a meeting or two. Instead, his energy and rhythm call for a different kind of work experience and a flexible environment that allows him to be as versatile as he is artistic. That’s exactly what Nuff, a Toronto, Canada-based Registered Graphic Designer (RGD), has crafted for himself. As a freelance professional since 2012, Nuff now has the freedom to pursue two distinct sides of his creativity: as a successful graphic designer—and more recently—as a prolific working artist crafting meaningful interactive fine art installations.
“It’s been just over two years since I started doing self-initiated projects. It wasn't really in the plan,” Nuff explained.
“but at a certain point I had enough stability and structure, and I started to have my own ideas I wanted to produce. Without the flexibility of a freelance life, it would have been very difficult to branch out.”
To get to where he is today, Nuff took a rather circuitous route, ultimately building a thriving career that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Hindsight Is 20/20
Nuff never set out to become a sought-after freelance designer and artist. It was not something he dreamed about as a child. In fact, he enjoyed a nomadic childhood, moving to different locations across the globe thanks to his father’s work at a multinational firm. His family’s adventures took them from their original home in Nigeria to various spots in the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands. He finally settled in Canada and enrolled in St. Francis Xavier University. Even then, he wasn’t sure where his education would take him and struggled to find a single course of study that would play to all of his creative interests.
“I was interested in computers, technology, and the visual arts. Because of my upbringing I was also interested in cultures and languages,” said Nuff, who speaks French, Spanish, and Italian. “I was trying to piece those things together, and design felt like the perfect combination of being able to work closely with technology and programming and, at the same time, visual arts and communication.”
Unfortunately, the university did not offer any design or art degrees, so Nuff began pursuing an array of options. He spent two years working toward a computer science degree and then experimented with fine arts classes during his third year of school. He completed his final year with a degree in modern languages. Although he initially considered becoming a translator or a diplomat, he kept his eye on the design arena.
“I built my own design degree by switching between communication, programming, and visual arts,” he said. It was only in hindsight, he said, that he realized how he had managed to chart his own academic path by trying different areas of study over the years. As a non-Canadian international student, he knew that, upon graduation, he needed a full-time job that would sponsor his visa application and allow him to remain in the country.
From Full-time to Freelance
“It was important to me to find a legitimate firm in the industry to prove myself,” said Nuff, who was a graffiti artist in high school. He quickly landed a position as a junior designer with 8D Technologies. There, he supported the team that created the user interface and motion design for Montreal’s public bike system, BIXI, which TIME Magazine named one of the best inventions of 2008. He used that experience as a springboard to secure other positions within the industry, including as a 2D artist and designer with the video game company Ludia Inc. He also worked as a designer for firms like Guidyu Inc. and Newad. During these early positions, Nuff refined his animation and illustration skills and moved into user interface design and app development.
“I was lucky to be one of the most junior people at a company when the iPhone came out as a platform. No one really thought it was going to go anywhere, so they stuck all the junior people on the iOS projects,” he said. “Fast forward a couple of years, and all of a sudden people who can design for that platform are in demand. I was able to capitalize on that and move into startups.”
By 2012, Nuff had made several lateral movements within the design community and decided that it was officially time to branch out on his own. He took his experience in gaming, advertising, branding, technology, and startups and became a freelance graphic designer and principal of his namesake company, Nuff. “I put those five things together and felt like I was one complete designer,” he said. Since that time, his opportunities have expanded to projects for all types of clients, from the Museum of Jewish Montreal to Canada’s largest volunteer-run nonprofit organization. His projects have run the gamut, with him designing brand identities, digital products, and illustrations.
Nuff’s 2017 decision to pursue his other artistic interests and passions also yielded great success, including the completion of highly regarded fine art installations such as sensor-driven light sculptures like Shard (see image below), designed for the 2017-18 Winter Light Exhibition at Ontario Place. Nuff credits his move into freelancing with his ability to harness his own time, collaborate with others, and explore work that truly speaks to him on a daily basis.
Master of His Fate
According to Nuff, taking the freelance path allowed him to take full control of his career, from the types of projects he pursues to the untapped skills he develops as he moves forward with his design work.
“Since I have been freelance, it’s been a lot easier for me to add new strings to my bow,” he said. For instance, when he began his freelance career, he realized that he needed to know more about front-end development. He dedicated time to learning about it and made sure to accept projects that would fully immerse him in that skill set. “There’s been an upside to identifying gaps in my knowledge, addressing them, and changing my projects to suit that agility. Being able to shape one’s career path is incredibly useful.”
The chance to collaborate with new teams on diverse projects helped Nuff learn to adapt and lead in a way that he never could when he was employed in a full-time position. “Working in-house, you often learn a very specific way of working. Specific jobs have very specific scaffolding around them, and you know the role you play in that particular machine,” he said. “Whereas, as a freelancer, that scaffolding is almost nonexistent. There are potential roles, and you have to decide which ones you’re going to play and whether you’re going to adapt.”
For Nuff, that often means being the person willing to take a risk and make suggestions that will help propel a project—and a team—forward. Of course, he had to develop that confidence, and he knows that freelancing is not for everyone. That’s why he encourages people to take on freelance opportunities incrementally until they feel stable enough to go full-time. It’s the approach that worked for him, and he has reaped the benefits ever since.
“At the earliest stages of my career, I needed stability. It’s like a growing plant. You stake it, and it crawls up and finds its shape. And at a certain point of maturity, the plant really starts to go nuts and vine all over the place,” he said. “You need that initial structure. And even if it’s something that you push against, it will help you find your own shape as a professional.”