Features

How I Got Here… Isobar’s Chirryl-Lee Ryan

In our feature exploring career trajectories, Isobar Hong Kong's head of experience design retraces her journey from terribly-paid first jobs, learning the power of Photoshop to finally embracing her calling as a designer

Education

I owe it all to Little Golden Books. When I was a little kid, my Great Granddad would read me one every night, pointing to each word as he read it out loud. I was observant and a fast learner – I could read by the time I was two.

By four, I demanded to be sent to ‘big school’. Somehow, they let me in earlier than the usual five years of age, and from then on, I was always the youngest in my year. I was getting really good at getting what I wanted.

Throughout school, my parents encouraged me to try anything and everything, including lots of art and drama classes. At 13, I cut my design-chops as the editor of my high school yearbook – which was also an excellent way to get out of math.

Around the same time, I discovered two cultures that continue to influence me to this day: graffiti and raves (there’s a story for another day). Both provided me with life lessons you won’t find in any kind of academic institution.

In my second last year of high school, I told my folks I was quitting to go to film school – in another state. Being the parents that they were, they gave me their blessing (no point trying to stop this train), and helped me find a place to live.

My start

Straight out of film school, I landed my first job as a designer. In hindsight, it was Sydney in the mid 90s, and I was a wide-eyed 16-year-old surrounded by Aussie ad blokes spinning yarns about the good old days at Singo’s and Patts.

In reality, I was a glorified shit-kicker. My most important tasks were the lunch run and answering the phone. It paid $180 a week. After I paid for my lunches and bought a weekly train ticket, I had almost nothing left. My Mum helped me survive.

But I was learning invaluable stuff: the lost art of photo-lettering; how to use Photoshop from real-life guru Charles Mouyat; an appreciation for typography only gained from hand-lettering; learning to code HTML for fun; and above all, grit.

Meanwhile the internet was becoming a thing, and people wanted to pay me to make their websites. By 18, I had figured out that freelancing paid a lot more than $180 a week – but I still had a lot to learn about design.

In the 20 years since, I’ve worked in different companies, countries and industries. I’ve studied and practiced all kinds of design. I’ve made friends, mistakes and a lot of cool things. But no matter how much I think I know, there’s always more to learn.

Approach

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been a maker and doer. I can’t imagine another way of thinking about the world besides solving problems, making things and seizing opportunities. It’s in my blood.

The first thing I do when presented with a brief, request or challenge is ask ‘Why?’. Why are we doing this? Why would people want this? Why does it matter? And then go and spend time with whomever I am making for.

Next, I use the tools at my disposal to craft beautiful stories and experiences. My specialisation – visual design – isn’t limited to logos and interfaces; visual design can be anything that brings a story to life – motion, VR, anything.

Finally, I roll up my sleeves and make stuff – as quickly as possible. Prototyping is an incredibly important part of the design process. It helps get what’s inside your head outside, and produces something tangible to test and evolve.

At Isobar, we call this mindset Invent. Make. Change. Using a human-centred approach, we use digital transformation to help our clients better interact with their customers through beautifully crafted marketing, products and ecosystems.

Highs and lows

As a 16-year-old, I never imagined where design could take me. I’ve worked across the world; met and worked with the smartest, most talented and inspiring people; and designed things that made people’s lives better.

But I didn’t always feel proud of calling myself a designer. For years, I did everything I could to ditch the title. I hated being called the D-word – I desperately wanted to be recognised as a ‘creative’ – an art director or writer.

One straw that almost broke the camel’s back was a boss who told me he’d never seen me do anything creative. What I lacked in creativity, I made up for in spunk – I quit on the spot. That day, I learnt a valuable lesson about the type of leader I didn’t want to be.

I nearly gave up a few times, but I always came back to solving problems, making things and seizing opportunities. Eventually I realised the reason people kept calling me a designer because I am one. My one regret is that I didn’t embrace it sooner.

I’m glad I hung in there, because design has never been more important. Every day, we get to invent and make beautiful, useful solutions that deliver change and value for people and businesses. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Dos and Don’ts

There are no roadmaps for the future – we’re making it up as we go along. Don’t feel obligated to follow people just because they say they know what they’re doing – it’s up to you to invent, make and change the kind of world you want to be part of.

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