Job seekers usually divide Canada into big and small cities. Before you decide where to land, don’t forget: size doesn’t matter
By Nicole Vallée
I recently made what could be one of the final moves of my career. After decades in Ottawa, I had my sights set on the bright lights of big-city Toronto. And yet I ended up on Vancouver Island, surprised and happy in an even smaller market than the one I was leaving.
Every career path is long, winding and unpredictable. One step often does not lead logically to the next, and that set me to thinking about the decisions we make along the way about where to pursue our careers as designers. If you’ve ever thought of moving to a new area of the country, what factors did you keep in mind while listing the pros and cons?
To begin, let’s agree to toss out the classic analogy of big fish in a small pond, or small fish in a big pond. Its quaint logic falls apart for young and aspiring designers who start out as small fish no matter where they decide to swim.
If you’re young and want a piece of the action, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal are the natural first choices in Canada. They feature thriving and diverse business communities and long lists of successful, powerful and intriguing creative agencies. These cities also boast more resources such as design incubators and business development centres that foster networking and help guide your career development. If you’re fresh out of school and willing to pound the pavement and the keyboard, lining up interviews can be easier in larger centres where there are more job opportunities at just about every level. Just remember that competition for those jobs can be fierce as there are often many other people applying.
Big cities can be expensive. Your overall cost of living will likely come at a higher price point, although this is often balanced by wages that dwarf those offered in smaller centres.
Larger cities tend to offer more diverse cultural activities and institutions including theatre, museums, galleries and festivals. I’ve found these an invaluable source of inspiration over the years. Then again, inspiration comes in many forms. Maybe you get yours in the wild. One of the joys of life in a small city is that you’re usually close to the great outdoors. In Ottawa, I was never more than a fifteen-minute drive from a totally natural setting.
My advice is to consider two things: quality of life and career aspiration.
True to life
If you’re comfortable with the big city—the pace and the action, and the challenges that come with that—go for it. If you want a low-key lifestyle that plays down the urban trappings, scope out the opportunities in medium and small markets. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that there’s no pressure associated with work outside the big city. Deadlines exist everywhere, and so does the demand to deliver the best possible work. The key is to determine the conditions under which you can do that work.
Consider, too, the value of family and friends. Don’t take them for granted if they are currently by your side. Do you need them close? Do they need you close? I planned to start my career in Toronto, but I stuck to hometown Ottawa due to the failing health of a relative, and ended up staying.
Factor in your adaptability. How good are you at making new friends? If you’re from a small town, are you ready for the transition to—and shock of immersion in—a metropolitan environment? The hectic lifestyle, the traffic, the on-the-go people with little time for eye contact, the lack of personal space? On the flip side, if you’re a child of the city, will you be starved for urban amenities in anything but a major centre?
Getting down to business
If you’ve lived in a small town long enough, you may have already built a solid network. You may have become the go-to design person because everyone knows what you’re capable of. When you move to a big city, you can’t always take that network with you. No matter where you’re going, make it part of your pre-move homework to get a network started. Connect with people from home who have gone on ahead of you. Plug in to industry networking groups wherever you’re headed. One or two contacts may be all you need to learn about that first great job.
When I started out my passion was corporate design— logos, annual reports, branding systems and so on. I soon figured out there was plenty of opportunity for this type of work in the mid-sized market I called home. I had the freedom to be a junior, work on my career, and grow at a pace that I could easily control. Now, with more than 30 years of experience under my belt, I’ve downsized to a small market location as part of an in-house team. My experience gives me the opportunity to lead, to mentor the designers on my team and to help grow the brand; but I’m also a newbie in an unfamiliar industry with a national audience. I’m continuing to learn and I love every minute of it.
I based my decision to take this new job on the opportunity, not the size of the city. (Mind you, geography played a role. It’s stunningly beautiful out here.) I opted for a job that keeps me passionate about my work—and I encourage young designers to do the same. Let the opportunity guide you. When you’re young you’re also more likely to be free to move. Do it while you can and if it’s what you want.
Whether you’re starting your career or trying to advance it, the truth is that the advantages and disadvantages of every market—big city or small—tend to balance themselves out.
Figure out what you love to do most and where you have the best chance to do it. Working in a fun and creative group, surrounded by good, talented, intelligent and accomplished people will always make wherever you are feel like exactly the right place.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.