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Transferable Skills: From Policy Analyst to Graphic Designer

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    Geneviève Lépine

Geneviève is a graphic designer at Initiate. Before venturing into the creative industry, she spent 15 years working in policy analysis.

Creativity is a circuitous path

Like many designers, my path to creating hasn’t been a straight line. I came to Ottawa to study journalism, political science and public administration in 1994, and spent 15 years working for think tanks, associations, and government departments as a policy analyst. It was interesting, but oftentimes dry work.

Along that journey, I happened to hire a design firm to help my team develop visual communications tools, and it was a revelation: for the first time, I was able to point to a career and say “I want to do that.” Still, it took me a few years to gather the courage to set aside policy for design—it felt a lot like jumping out of a plane with a parachute, but not knowing if the ground was really there.

Ultimately, what drew me to design was as much the culture of the industry as the dose of creativity it would inject in my daily life. I was craving a work environment that was friendly, flexible, and—dare I say it—fun.

The beginning of my graphic design journey

Once I was admitted to the Graphic Design program at Algonquin College, I knew I’d found my place. I had to make sure the ground would be there when I landed: through tornadoes, ice storms, and a six-week instructor strike, sometimes working four part-time jobs to make ends meet, I poured myself into learning, and I thrived. 

I was days from graduation, in the middle of my end-of-program internship, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Just like that, the ground was gone. The industry was in turmoil, scrambling to shift to remote work. No one was hiring. 

Have skills, will travel

After a few months of freelance work, I found a spot as Project Manager at a tiny design studio. I convinced my new boss to split my position into two roles—I was the liaison between clients and designers, and dipping my toes into design as well. Over time, the role became more evenly split, until eventually, I became the sole designer.

The years spent in this dual role were incredibly rewarding. They taught me what clients were looking for, and how to speak up for my design ideas and present them most effectively. They taught me to negotiate delicate conversations with designers when giving client feedback—we can be a sensitive bunch, because we care so much about our work and put so much of ourselves in it. They also taught me that I carried with me the knowledge gathered in my previous career.

All is not lost

When making the transition from policy into a creative career, I worried that all those years would be “wasted.” What I found instead is that my experience as a professional has served me well, and that many, many skills are transportable, for instance:

  • Looking at a problem and analysing it from a strategic point of view, asking those who, what, where, when, how questions, and most importantly, why, is crucial to responding to client needs.
  • Knowing a little bit about a lot of things (trivia, culture, geography, history, anthropology, politics, language, etc.) makes any design infinitely better.
  • Spotting trends and making connections between concepts gives your design meaning.
  • Distilling key information from complexity, and simplifying it for maximum clarity and impact, makes for impactful communication.

Finding solid ground

There is great comfort in knowing that you can make big moves in your career and that the time and effort you’ve invested doesn’t just evaporate. One of the many highlights of Initiate’s culture is that those sometimes intangible skills are valued and nurtured. Initiate recognizes that prior experience brings richness to the workplace. It’s a team that is welcoming of diversity in all its forms, including, in my case, of designers whose trajectory hasn’t been a linear one.