What’s it like to leave your stable agency job behind to become a creative freelancer? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Polly Aspinall, a former Creative, Producer and Account Director at London-based agency turned freelance Set Designer shares her thoughts on the importance of creating connections with a diverse set of people and allowing yourself to be open to new ideas. I also share some thoughts on being open to opportunities, even when they’re not exactly perfect.
- The best things happen in your career when you stop saying “no” all the time and instead start saying “yes” to new opportunities.
- Meeting up with everyone you can allows you to expand your network, to make connections with people who may just turn out to be surprisingly helpful.
- Sometimes, saying yes to imperfect opportunities can open up new doors and uncover unique career ideas that never crossed your mind
Tweetables to Share
- Polly referred to an “Opportunity Mindset,” where you say yes to things and remain open to new ideas. Here are a couple articles on this topic:
- Entrepreneur article on Recognizing Opportunity is the First Step to an Entrepreneurial Mindset
- Inc article on How to Change Your Mindset to See Problems as Opportunities.
Free Tool: Saying Yes to Opportunity
About Polly Aspinall, Set Designer
Polly Aspinall spent nearly 8 years working in a hybrid marketing role as a creative, producer, and account director for brands such as Johnnie Walker, the BBC, ASOS, Smirnoff and H&M. After taking a course at Central Saint Martins, part of the University of the Arts London (UAL), Polly recently made the move into set design, prop-master, and junior art director for film and tv, including projects for Episodes and a new TV Show by the makers of Inbetweeners. She also does freelance set design for window dressing, photoshoots, and interior designs.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): The more open you are to opportunities, the more likely things will happen to you. When you’ve been stuck in the same role or the same industry for a long time, you tend to sort of be very comfortable, so you say no to lots of things, and actually, the best things happen when you say yes.
Joseph: Hey, Polly. I know you had a really busy few weeks, filming until midnight on most days, so thanks so much for making time to join us here on Career Relaunch.
Polly: No problem. Happy to be here.
Joseph: Can you start off by telling us a little bit more about the work you do as a set designer?
Polly: Of course. I have just started off in a lot of set design, and I’m currently working on a TV show. Basically, what I do day-to-day is anything from going out and buying props. I can be given the color scheme and the design of a room, and then I have to go off and find the perfect vase for example that will fit or the tea towel that one of the actors would use in that kitchen.
Other times, I can be making things. Just this week, I made 100 fake hamsters for a scene that is coming up.
Joseph: A hundred fake hamster. Hang on a second. How does one go about making a fake hamster?
Polly: Obviously, they have to look like they were moving and have to look semi-realistic even if they’ll only be in scene for sort of 10 seconds on camera. I needed to make 10 hamsters that would move and 90 that would just sit and look like hamsters. I bought a whole load of cat toys, and then I bought some plastic eggs and some fake fur and basically covered 100 plastic eggs in fake fur and then attached some to cat toys so they move. They were surprisingly realistic actually.
Joseph: Wow. Are there guides to making fake animals or do you have to improvise and come up with this yourself?
Polly: No, and actually that’s the really good point about the job. I would say that the main thing about the job is that it’s all about problem solving. You will be given a problem like, ‘We need 100 hamsters, and we need them in a week,’ and you have to work out what the quickest, cheapest, and most realistic way of creating things is. It comes down to things like making fake wine and find a liquid that looks most like wine that obviously won’t mean that the actors are drinking alcohol whilst they’re acting. There’s all kinds of things like that where you really have to use your brain to creatively problem solve, which I absolutely love.
Joseph: What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked to do as a set designer?
Polly: A few weeks ago, I had to make fake ashes, as in human ashes. There’s a scene where, sadly, one of the characters’ fathers has died, and they are presented with the bag of ashes to sprinkle somewhere. They throw them up in the air, and then they blow back into the actor’s face, so we have to use something that is safe to breathe in. It has to be something that’s not too disgusting or gritty that might hurt the actor.
There’s a particular type of earth that the theater industry used to use to make ashes, and it’s now been proven to be carcinogenic, so I again had to go off and problem solve about how to do this. I ended up dying a whole load of baby powder, talcum powder, and I dyed it gray. Then you have to let it dry, and I had to measure out exactly the amount that a human man makes. Now, we are the proud owners of 2.5 kilograms of fake human ashes.
Joseph: Wow, very interesting and stuff that I have never really thought about. I feel like we could spend this whole time just talking about all the different stuff that you make. Set design is very interesting, but we are definitely here to talk about you career, so let’s come back to the set design—because I’d love to hear a little bit more about your current projects—at the end.
When you and I first crossed paths, you were doing very different work. At the time, you were working as a creative producer and account director at a marketing and advertising agency in London. Can you take us back to what you were doing before you got involved in set design?
Polly: I used to work at a lovely, little agency. It was an integrated agency where we did a bit of everything from strategy to events to publishing. We even created and developed a few mobile phone apps. I’d actually been there for seven years, and being such a small company, I’d done a bit of everything. I dealt with clients on a daily basis. I wrote strategies. I came up with the ideas for campaigns, and then I actually produced them.
It was a background that taught me to do a lot of different things and to be very chameleon-like and to sort of become an expert in something very quickly, but it was very much focused on the world of marketing and advertising. Clients were alcohol brands, so I spent a lot of time talking about nightlife and cocktails and things, which is really, really interesting, but I got to a point where maybe it was starting to not challenge me as much.
Joseph: Can you tell us a little bit about how you started to realize that you weren’t being challenged and you weren’t growing or that you were stagnating?
Polly: I did architecture at university. When I left university, I was searching around for what I wanted to do, and I found this amazing agency. I kind of never looked back because it took me low end, and I learnt so much, and I loved the people. I found that I was quite good at what I was doing, which is kind of intoxicating, but I think I looked up after probably about four or five years and thought, ‘This is great, but actually, if I had sat down and thought, “What do I really want to do?” would this be it?’
I think I started thinking back to my more creative, more design roots, and more about creating spaces and places. I really started to hanker after that. I realized that the world of marketing and advertising, although I loved it, it probably wasn’t my first love as it was. I think I really felt this need to try something different.
Joseph: You mentioned something there: being good at it was sort of intoxicating. Obviously, you were good at your role. Can you take us through what it was like to walk away from something that you knew you were pretty good at but maybe wasn’t something that your heart was in?
Polly: It was about this time last year that I handed in my notice, but it took me a good six months to come to conclusion that I should. I have to say it’s pretty terrifying because you’re walking away from a place you love, the people you love. A lot of my friends in different industries complain about their jobs a lot and are day-to-day quite unhappy in their work, and I had never once been unhappy in my old job. I was very lucky. Compared to most people, a lot of my friends said, ‘Why are you doing this? You already have the perfect job,’ and it was sort of the perfect job. Also, not to mention, walking away from being paid quite well into an unknown abyss of being very junior again. It was really scary. Telling my boss who had been my mentor as well is also somewhat terrifying.
Joseph: Do you remember the moment when you finalized your decision that ‘now is the time to go’?
Polly: I found a course at Central Saint Martins, which was actually in set design. It was a week-long course, and it didn’t cost a huge amount. I took a week as holiday and did the course, and I said to myself, ‘By the end of this week, I will know if I really love this and if I should do it or if actually I hate it.’ It’s going to be a whole load of drudgery to get there. I did the course and absolutely loved it, so on the Friday night, I just thought, ‘Monday morning, I’m going to do it.’
I was pretty emotional the weekend actually. I may sound like such a baby, but I spent the whole weekend on and off crying. It’s like going through a breakup.
Joseph: Oh, wow. What do you think was making it so emotional?
Polly: I think because my old agency was such a small team, and I’ve been with them for such a long time, it’s like a family. Because the world of set design is entirely freelance, it’s not like I was leaving to go to a permanent job. You leave to basically put yourself out there. It was also probably quite terrifying.
Joseph: So you make the decision, you resign, what were the next few weeks like for you? Can you just take us through your new life and how you started to build your new life as an independent freelance set designer?
Polly: When I handed in my notice, I had a three-month notice period. Then after that, basically because of staffing and capacity issues at work, they actually asked me if I could stay for another couple of months until Christmas and go down to two or three days a week on which the other days, I could do set design work. Actually, that was sort of the perfect launch pad for me because it gave me half a week to go off and meet people, do work experience.
I basically started by making this huge list of people I knew, people I knew who knew other people. I stalked a lot of people. I would watch TV shows, find out TV shows I loved, find out who the designer was, and then basically send them an email and say, ‘Hi, I’m now free,’ and I did a lot of free work experience for people.
I basically said yes to everything. I worked on theater things. I went in to watch a TV show being filmed for a couple of weeks. Basically, by Christmas, I got a whole load of experience and a whole load of meetings with various people under my belt, which set me up really nicely for the moment that I left work permanently. That’s what I was doing – making lots of contacts.
Joseph: What do you think was the toughest part of recreating your life as a set designer?
Polly: As a freelancer, you are continually looking for the next job. Therefore, it really relies on you being very, very proactive and also very good at networking. Networking was never ever something I ever prided myself on. I think I’m naturally quite shy. I define putting myself out there and meeting new people quite terrifying. Obviously at the beginning, it was all that. I didn’t know any of these people, and I have to just put myself out there.
I think as well, combined with that, there’s the moments when you write a really well-crafted email or you call someone or you have a coffee with someone, and then you never hear back from them again, and you chase them a few times. I realize now that that happens. You have to send 20 emails to get one response. Coming from a world where I spoke to clients all the time and clients have to call you back, that was probably one of the toughest parts – the rejection combined with constant, relentless networking on your own behalf.
Joseph: I think when a lot of people talk about networking, they’re thinking about going to an event with a nametag that says, ‘Hi, my name is…’ with the wine glass in one hand and you’re shaking hands with the other, which can be really terrifying for people. How did you get through that period? Because it sounds like you don’t love networking, yet at the same time, you were doing it. What kept you going?
Polly: For every few rejections, I would get a real breakthrough. One memorable breakthrough was I went to go and see an incredible exhibition at the V&A, and I came out and I just saw the design was wonderful. I researched the guy that had designed it, and he’s won awards for films, and he was this complete hero and sort of idol of a man. I write to his agent, and I actually met up with him for coffee. I’m now in quite regular email contact with him. If I was going to aspire to be anyone and realistically never get there, he would be the person. I think victory is like that. It really kept me going through the rejections, I guess.
Joseph: Is there anything in particular that you’ve learned about networking that you think would be valuable for someone to hear if they are struggling with trying to figure out how to get started with networking?
Polly: Meet up with everyone that you can in the sense of, sometimes, a friend would say to me, ‘You should meet this person,’ and at the time, I think, ‘Are they really relevant? They’re in theater,’ or, ‘They have nothing to do with a lot of set design,’ but actually I think, everyone you meet has interesting story. You never know what connection they might make. Also, it’s just quite interesting to meet all different types of people. I think meeting up with everyone that you have the opportunity to is really, really great.
The other one is always say thank you. When people give you their time, whether it’s an email or a coffee, I’m always very, very careful to obviously thank them lots of the time but also to always follow up and say thank you, A. because it’s obviously a great way to get back in contact, but B. because I just really am very, very grateful. One day, if I do get somewhere in this industry, I will very much do the same for other people starting out in the industry. I think it’s quite important to keep that circle going.
Joseph: One of the questions or one of the skepticisms I get from people who are trying to change careers is this idea of having to deal with starting over. When you were approaching these people and describing the fact that you wanted to get into set design, even though you hadn’t really done it professionally before, what was the reception like amongst those people?
Polly: Actually, one thing that I continue to get even now, now working on the TV show I’m working on now, is people saying, ‘Why are you leaving the well-paid world of advertising for TV?’ People can’t believe it because I think a lot of people go the other way. They work in TV for 10 years, and then they move into advertising. There’s a lot of people saying that. Some that are more mentor-type figures in set design are saying, ‘It’s really great that you want to do this, but are you sure you don’t want to stick with what you’re doing?’ People have been generally quite receptive.
I think what people find quite hard with me is that, because I’ve worked for seven and a half years and I’ve gotten to a relatively senior position, I think people find it really hard because technically, I should be in a really junior role. I don’t know if they feel guilty or they feel like they’re not using me properly if they put me in that, because they can’t give me a senior role because I don’t have the experience. I’ve actually had to really battle and say, ‘I’m very, very happy to be junior. I promise.’
I suppose what people might worry about is that I might be very arrogant about it or get angry about the fact that I’m so junior, but actually, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s quite nice to not have the responsibility for a little while.
Joseph: Has there been anything else that’s been really surprising about going from a more experienced role to a more junior, what I’m going to call an entry-level role?
Polly: I think what anyone changing industries at my age would find is that a lot of the people in charge of me tend to be younger. At first, I found that not difficult, but it made me realize how late I’d come in the game to this. I’m technically fine with that. I have some friends who I don’t think would be. I’m very happy to be told what to do. I also like to be in charge as well, don’t get me wrong, but actually, age and experience are two quite different things. Age doesn’t necessarily mean experience and vice-versa, but it was a bit of a mental leap at first.
Joseph: The other thing I’m curious about is what it was like to go from working predominantly in an office setting into what I’m going to guess is a much more hands on job. What was that like to make that sort of transition?
Polly: TV shoots tend to be, let’s say, eight weeks long. You just get settled, and then you’re moving on to the next thing. Not only is it not in an office, but you’re working with a team who are only your team for a couple of months. It makes it quite exciting.
At times, it makes it quite stressful because, for example, we’ve been filming on location this week in a house, a very, very huge, beautiful house. Obviously, when we’re at the studios, there were dedicated offices that I can spend time in and do my research or whatever it is I’m doing. On location, you just have to find anywhere you can and just set up there, which can be quite strange. I always find the first day is a bit disturbing and you don’t really know where you are, but by the second of third day, you’re really settled, and you’re actually quite sad to leave that place.
Your life is never stagnant, and it does mean that the days and weeks, in a good way, go a bit slower, because I did find that working in the same job for such a long time, I would look up and a whole year would have gone past. Whereas actually, the last two months have gone very, very slowly but in a very good way because I’ve just learnt so much and seen so much and heard and met so many people. It puts the necessary jilt or that electricity into your life, which is great.
Joseph: Do people understand that you weren’t doing this for your entire career, that this is something new for you? Does that even come up at all?
Polly: People assume, because I’m doing such a junior role, that I’m quite young. They might realize it’s my first or second job, but they think that’s because I’m in my early 20s, which is great.
Joseph: Added benefit.
Polly: A lot of people are quite surprised when I tell them that I’ve had a whole other career. A lot of them say, ‘Wow, why are you doing this?’ It’s not something that many people do. It’s definitely not something where people go, ‘Yeah, I know other people who’ve done that.’ So far, I’m the only person I’ve met who’s ever done this route.
Joseph: You’re certainly the first person I’ve met who’s made this sort of change, which makes it very unique.
The other question that I get from people sometimes, when they’re thinking about making a change, is they have this fear of losing all these skills and experiences they had built up before they made the change. Have you found that your experiences as a creative producer or an account director, has that shown up or has that helped you in any way in your current role as a set designer?
Polly: There’s a lot of intangible things, like obviously dealing with clients a lot and then also managing teams to get things produced in my previous job. In what I’m doing at the moment, I am constantly talking to people and persuading people to do things. I had to call a pizza restaurant yesterday and try and persuade them to open two hours early to make pizzas for us on a shoot on Monday, and I feel like the skills that I’ve learnt through my previous career really helped me to be able to have those kind of conversations. I think if I was coming fresh out of university, I’d be very scared to have those conversations, and I also just wouldn’t know how to do it.
I also think the creative thinking that I used to have to do has really helped with this kind of problem-solving aspect of things. Whenever I’m not going set design work, I am freelancing back in the world of marketing just because it’s a world I know, and it’s an easy way to pick up two to three weeks’ work at a time. Actually, what I found when I go back, I write a lot of presentations when I’m in the world of marketing, and I’m so out of the habit of it now, it takes me a few days to get back into writing and marketing speak. It’s this weird duality in my brain of being very, very formal and strategic versus very hands-on and very creative.
Joseph: I know that at the very start of this conversation, you were talking about back in your old role, you started to feel like things were getting a little bit stagnant, and you weren’t growing as much. Can you describe what it’s like now to be doing work that you’re really enjoying and really engaged with? What’s that like for you on a day-to-day basis?
Polly: I never ever watch the clock. I didn’t do that that much at my old job, but I was very aware, ‘It’s Wednesday. It’s two days to the weekend.’ I felt quite often quite stressed at my old job. I’m perfectly happy to have lots on and not have much time. That’s fine, but I think when you’re stressed and you really don’t care about the outcome in a way—I mean I’d be working on things that I’d written the presentation 100 times over but in slightly different ways for different clients, and yet I have a deadline and yet there’s various stressors to add to that—when you don’t really care, I think that starts to really get to you.
I think the fact that my days go so quickly, the fact that I’m learning so much every day, I mean there’s all these vocabulary that people use in TV that I had never heard before. Every day, I’m just learning something new, doing something new, meeting new people, and I really feel like I am constantly growing. I’m feeling challenged a lot of the time. Quite often, I’ll get asked to do something, and I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to achieve it, but my brain is never kind of asleep. It’s exhausting, but it’s really great. I feel like I’m in flow to use one of those business terms.
Joseph: Very cool. The other thing I was wondering about is whether or not this new life that you have for yourself, this new professional life, has that had any sort of impact on the rest of your life at all? If so, what impact has it had?
Polly: A couple of my friends simultaneously to me, there’s about four of us who all sat down about a year ago and said, ‘We like our jobs, but we’re not that happy. Let’s make a change,’ so actually, we all changed jobs. Amongst them, it’s really great because we can compare notes and say, ‘This is really hard. This is great,’ etc. I think amongst my friends who are still doing the same thing, in a sort of friendly way, I guess there’s a bit of jealousy and a kind of, ‘You’re so brave. I can’t believe you’re doing this. I wish I could be brave enough to do it,’ that sort of thing. I think generally, the reaction amongst my friendship groups and my family has been very, very positive.
Joseph: The final question I’ve got for you before we start talking a little bit more about your current project is, what’s the best career advice that you’ve ever received?
Polly: This is something I was doing unconsciously, and then someone said it to me, and I was like, ‘This is the best thing,’ which is basically saying yes to everything. I’ve heard it being called an opportunity mindset before. Basically, once I handed in my notice, everything single opportunity, every single meeting, every single bit of work experience, I said yes to. I found myself in some very weird places, being invited to some very weird lectures and parties and to meet some very random people, but actually, every single thing has led to something.
I think the more open you are to opportunities, the more likely things will happen to you, and I think when you’ve been stuck in the same role or the same industry for a long time, you tend to be sort of very comfortable, so you say no to lots of things, and actually, I think the best things happen career-wise and life-wise when you say yes.
Joseph: Just to wrap up today, let’s go back to talking a little bit about fake hamsters and ashes and things like that. Can you just tell us a little bit more about your current set design project? I understand you’re working on a sitcom right now.
Polly: I’m working on Episodes, the American sitcom, which is mainly filmed in the UK. That comes to screen, I believe, either the end of this year or the beginning of next. That’s been a really, really exciting project. I really feel like I’ve landed on my feet, that being my first proper set design job because it’s a very big team, and there’s a big art department team, which is what I’m part of, which is great because there’s lots and lots of people to learn from and lots for me to do, which has been really, really great. I’m a double role again, very hybrid person, always.
I’m the Art Department Assistant, and I am a Buyer. Basically, the Art Department Assistant part means that I am available to do anything. Sometimes, I do a bit of food styling.
Joseph: That is not easy.
Polly: It’s weird. I thought I was terrible at it, but I’ve been asked again and again to do it. The irony is I’m a terrible cook, but apparently, I can make food look good. That’s fine.
Joseph: Also important.
Polly: Exactly. Making props, and then also being available on set to run on and do things and make sure the continuity is always preserved. The Buyer side of my role is what I was talking about earlier where I’m sort of briefed to run off and buy a prop, and then there’s Senior Buyer who’s been in the business for years, sort of assisting him to buy the big pieces, like huge bits of furniture and carpets and lamps and things like that. It’s been a very varied role.
Joseph: Is there something that you’ve learned about set design that you never fully appreciated or just never really noticed as a passive viewer before you got into this industry?
Polly: I think it’s probably the amount of care and attention that is given to the details. If there’s a scene that takes place in an office and there’s a notice board with lots of notices on it, the casual viewer wouldn’t probably even notice that. The secret is that every single notice on that notice board has actually got copy on it, and that copy is relevant. Someone will have sat in an office and thought about, ‘What will be in an office notice board? There’s probably some takeaway menus,’ so I think the level of detail.
For example, when I’m doing food styling, if I have to prepare a salad, I have to research what kind of fruit and vegetable you can get in that particular part of the US. I can’t put something that they wouldn’t eat or the actor would never eat because he loves meat, ‘Why would he ever have a vegetable salad?’ that kind of thing. I think it’s the level of thinking that goes into every single detail and details that 99% of people will never notice, but if they were missing, they would.
Joseph: Very interesting. I can talk about this all day, but I’m going to let you go here. If someone’s looking for help with set design, either for TV or film or photo shoots or interior design, how can they find you and contact you?
Polly: If you go to my website, which is PollyAspinall.com, that’s the best place to find out more about me. On top of that, my LinkedIn profile is also very detailed.
Joseph: Thank you so much, Polly, for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us and share your thoughts on the power of networking and how you went about creating your new life, this idea of the opportunity mindset, and also just a glimpse into the fascinating world of set design. I’m going to keep an eye on those fuzzy hamsters next time. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the new role.
Polly: Brilliant. Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.