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Brighton, England

2019 in review

2019 began as 2018 ended; fatigued by freelancing and fed up with an increasingly inward-looking industry. A half-hearted search for work continued, but with little urgency and a stringent set of criteria that limited my options.

This state of despair had few upsides, but it did inspire an article that would appear in New Adventures magazine. In return for this act of handwringing, I was invited to the associated conference, where I continued a decade-long tradition of pissing off the organisers.

Returning from Nottingham, thoughts were of “criticism, and whether I have an aptitude for it”. If a drunken tweet served only to upset, and measured articles made little impression, it seemed best to remain silent. Given the worsening state of public discourse, an unhinged culture war and incendiary debates about JavaScript, perhaps that was no bad thing.

Seeking sanctuary

Such concerns would soon be put to one side. The blissful ignorance in which I carried out my job search came to an abrupt end with an email from my accountant asking about an unpaid tax bill. I could just about settle it with the remainder of my savings, but it meant I was now flat broke.

Despair could have spiralled into desperation were it not for some financial support from my family and bolstering from friends. A restated call for a “role with an organisation instigating meaningful change where I can make a worthwhile contribution” found its way though various online and offline networks, and I embarked on a round of job applications and interviews with the sort of open mindedness that had previously escaped me.

When a role at the Department for Education landed in my inbox, there was no harm in finding out more. They needed an interaction designer to help deliver a service to allow potential teachers to apply for training courses. I can’t say I was overly enthused – I knew little of the sector or the problem space – but helping people become teachers was certainly more worthwhile than designing websites for cryptocurrencies. For example.

My first day in Westminster was oddly unnerving. At my first sprint planning meeting I was introduced to a small agile team, and partnered up with a content designer and user researcher, dedicated roles I had spent embarrassingly little time working with in previous jobs. Confident that I had made the right decision, I got to work.

Working with an existing design system, rather than attempting to build one myself was an unexpectedly freeing experience. Instead of worrying about the latest design trends, or being distracted by font libraries, I was able to focus on the problem at hand, while furthering my skills in prototyping and inclusive design. Surrounded by knowledgable and talented colleagues, the pang of imposter syndrome repeatedly reared its ugly head, but when it did, I could identify the unique qualities and experiences I brought to the team.

Mission patch for Apply for teacher training pilot This has been a year of professional development I would have missed had I continued taking on smaller piecemeal projects. Having long dismissed anything smelling of management, working alongside brilliant role models has made the idea of moving in that direction more appealing. A positive experience working in a large organisation presents options for the future, too.

Being part of the ‘Becoming a teacher’ team (whose number rapidly grew in the later half of the year) and rising to the challenge of delivering a service against a series of immovable deadlines, has easily been the most enjoyable and rewarding experience of my career to date.

Returning to Europe

With my finances needing repair, and with continuing uncertainty around Brexit, I spent less time travelling than I did in 2018.

In June, prior to attending my fourth CSS Day in Amsterdam, I opted to see the city whose namesake treaty created the European Union: Maastricht. I enjoyed finding my way through its meandering streets – with glimpses into lush gardens – stumbling upon watermills, medieval walls and churches, one of which had been converted into a book shop unlike any other.

View from directly below the dome.
Dome of the National Pantheon in Lisbon.

In September I visited the home of another signifiant EU treaty, the one containing Article 50. This was trolling by train!

There’s no greater pleasure than travelling great distances by rail, and I can often romanticise such journeys. The 27-hour long trip to Lisbon was not one of them – though not helped by it coinciding with a heavy cold.

Further slowed by the heat and the political developments at home, I spent the first part of my week seeking shade while being glued to Twitter. Only as I regained my energy could I venture out across the city and its nearby attractions and finally put my phone down.

Lisbon is dirty as it is beautiful. The light grey soles of my shoes turned black as I ventured round the narrow sun kissed streets of the Alfama district with decoratively tiled and brightly painted buildings to be found around every corner. Nearby Sintra, with its assortment of fantastical palaces and castles, and Belém with its beautiful monastery, where equally captivating. Lisbon’s main shopping district was something entirely different. Like a scene from a horror movie, here unsuspecting bystanders would suddenly reveal themselves to be drug dealers, invading your personal space to make whispered offers of hash, cocaine or marajuana. Sorry, my only drug is Pastel de nata!

A welcome distraction

When not working, travelling or sleeping, I was building IndieKit, the Micropub server I use to publish notes and photos to this site. Progress stalled when I attempted to build something with a far grander vision and complexity.

As I resist the urge to delete all the code and start again, it’s gratifying to see how far I’ve come. At the start of the decade the thought of writing any JavaScript terrified me, yet it ended with me having built something others are not only interested in, but in a few cases, actively using.

Losing my voice?

Right now, thoughts of the future seem futile; it’s hard to look forward with any great deal of hope or optimism when the far-right is in ascendance, the planet is literally on fire, and another destabilising war in the Middle East is on the horizon. Brexit is a sideshow.

As I reflect on the year gone by, one of enjoyment at work and distractions at home, I wonder if my contentment came at the cost of inaction and silence.

Rather than write about the cowardice of Tim Cook in Apple’s dealings with China, or how Jony Ive’s work failed to adopt the critical principles of good design (such as long-lasting and environmentally-friendly), instead a few scrawled notes remain untouched in a drafts folder. Instead of questioning friends and colleagues far flung flights around the world in the face of a worsening climate crisis, I silently disapproved and shook my head.

Entering this new decade, and as I approach my 40th birthday, I’m noticing changes to my behaviour that might best be described as a managed retreat. More mellow, measured and mature; all character traits to be encouraged. But passive? Ambivalent? I’m not sure I like the sound of that.