There’s no one way to be a ‘proper’ designer: Ellen Turnill Montoya on being multidisciplinary
As senior creative at creative agency, and our sister company, Anyways, Ellen Turnill Montoya turns out ideas and solutions for a huge variety of projects. From one brief to the next, she could be programming a series of talks, allocating animators and illustrators for a set of videos, or creating immersive installations – be that with miniature train sets or bespoke soft-play constructions. Her role is truly multidisciplinary, and relies on her ability to switch between specialisms. But cut back to her first few years after graduating, and this desire to work in this way felt like a problem. Ellen tells us how she let go of the idea that a ‘proper’ designer specialises in one thing.
Not wanting to specialise
I come from a place of liking doing a bit of everything. During my studies in visual communication at Glasgow School of Art, I was able to work in multiple disciplines, and didn’t feel any separation between illustration, graphic design or photography.
Alongside studying, I also worked in a real variety of places – from work experience at an animation studio (working with the production team), to being part of the Tate Collective, where I learned about working in the galleries and on their events. I interned at a product-design studio and discovered research and trend reporting, then on top of that, I worked at a graphic design studio.
“When I graduated, people would always ask me what I wanted to specialise in... [But] I didn’t really know.”
When I graduated, I went for meetings with lots of studios, and people would always ask me what I wanted to specialise in. But I was so used to doing so many different things, that I didn’t really know. Plus, when you’ve never worked at an agency before, you just don’t understand what roles even exist.
I ended up getting a job at a major branding studio, where I went on to work for the next five years. After a while, I realised I was getting pulled back and forth from different projects. I’d be working on a range of tasks – from concepting ideas, to running workshops, to copywriting, as well as the design - but I often didn’t stay on a project until the end.
At the time – because I’d been given all this feedback to specialise – I felt this was because I wasn’t a good designer. It took me time understand this was because I had skills that were complementary to the team. My input was extremely valuable in a studio like the one I was in, and it was my thinking and ideas that were required on a variety of different projects.
As a result of this, I started to do loads of personal projects and other things that excited me in my own time. Doing this outside of work meant not having to worry about what was expected within that environment. I was also having a tough time in my personal life, so making and creating became a way of escaping, and led to understanding more about myself and things opening up.
Feeling like I wasn’t a proper designer had made me feel very split and conflicted. But at some point, I realised that this also related to my own cultural background: I am half English and half Mexican. At times, I don’t feel properly English, or properly Mexican, but that’s because I’m both. And even though that can sometimes be difficult, I know that the best comes out of feeling like both at the same time – so why would I not feel like that with design too?
It was from that point that I became a lot more confident. I stopped hiding the things I was doing outside of work and just started embracing it. It’s also clear to me now that doing that stuff outside of work, alongside the studio projects, was what helped me land a far better suited job.
“Feeling like I wasn’t a proper designer had made me feel very split and conflicted.”
Embracing multidisciplinary work
I’ve now been working at creative agency Anyways for the past three years, in a role that relies on me being able to work in different ways. Instead of being specialised in just one discipline, I have to be able to apply design thinking and a creative approach to a whole range of things.
Our team is quite small, and while we might have expertise in a particular area, we’re all generalists in terms of our design practice. In my time here I’ve worked on video, campaigns, made stickers for Google, writing, installations, pop-up takeovers, building and architecture, and event programming. Every single project that comes in is so different.
All of my past experience seems weirdly specific to my work now, whether that was learning how to put on an event at the Tate, or running workshops and structuring presentation documents in my previous job. But I didn’t realise how useful this knowledge would be until I was here.
“Our team is quite small, and while we might have expertise in a particular area, we’re all generalists in terms of our design practice.”
Your output attracts more of the same
I now feel lucky to have reached a point in my career where being good at lots of different things is an important part of my role. For anyone who, like me, enjoys doing lots of things, you might well come into contact with people who believe you have to specialise. But I do think the perception of multi-skilled working is changing for the better, especially amongst younger creatives.
When I’m looking for creatives to join the Anyways team, I love to portfolios that are indicative of the work someone wants to be making more of. I don’t believe that everyone needs to be doing personal projects all the time, but that was the thing that helped me most. That way, if a job comes up that you’re interested in, you’ll have something that you’re passionate about.
If you’re in a situation or job where you’re frustrated, work out what actually inspires you. Think about the kind of work you want to do, and then see how you can create it. That could be within your current job, or in personal work. As soon as you’re doing something you’re really excited by, doors can naturally open – it’s almost as if your energy for it attracts opportunities, and builds a path to where you want to be. So don’t worry about the final destination too much.
Mention Ellen Turnill Montoya
Interview by Indi Davies