How I Accidentally Became a Designer

by Margaret Ryland

Early Business Inspiration

In retrospect, there were many things that pointed to my interest in entrepreneurship throughout my formative years.

Watching my father start a software company and seeing it support dozens of people throughout its 30+ years of existence has made a lasting impact on me.

St. Beans Bakery, My First Taste of Entrepreneurship

It was with St Bean’s Bakery that I had my first taste of entrepreneurship. I’m not sure actually why it was called that, but my oldest sister and I ran it for a couple of years in the early 2000’s.

We took orders by phone, and delivered by hand, most of the orders within walking distance. It started with friends, and in its height we were making 1-200 loaves of bread every Friday.

We’d rise in the middle of the night, and spend a solid 15–20 hours kneading, proofing, waiting, baking, delivering, cleaning. We would take over my family’s kitchen and every available bowl would be filled with dough, every single cookie sheet in and out of the oven as the loaves grew, baked, and then cooled.

The Importance of a Good Process

I learned so much from watching my sister. We ordered supplies from our local co-op; and I watched her manage inventory, make calculations, balance accounts, explore viable products, and refine the process.

If you start with good ingredients and make a good product, people will line up for it. However, good things take time to make: you canNOT rush the bread making process, as every step—including the waiting—is essential for a good finished product.

The College Years and a summer in the vineyard

After the Bakery, we both eventually went off to college, and aside from occasionally dreaming of being a real estate magnate, any entrepreneurial instincts I had were mostly fallow for years.

In fact, I would say they never actually returned, and this time around I became a business owner “by accident”—definitely a happy one, and at some point I chose it and am so thankful this is my profession.

What happened was this.

It was the summer after graduating from college; a freshly-minted BA in liberal arts, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. (Surprise, surprise 🙂 But I’d spent years focusing on the life of the mind—with my head in the clouds you could say—and I wanted to take some time to process it all and be outside instead of a library.

So it was that I ended up on a vineyard in South Dakota of all places. It was a side project of some commercial farmers; and I spent that summer tending the vines, replanting, training them to grow properly, pruning them for maximum efficiency and health, working like I’d never worked before in my life.

When a sprained ankle became the best thing that ever happened to me

When an accident left my ankle in a splint and assigned by my doctor to the couch for 12 weeks, I had to leave just before harvest, and spent 3 months on my family’s couch. The first few weeks I was in heaven: an endless supply of books and doctors orders to do as little as possible? Count me in. However, the novelty soon wore off and I began to think again about what to do.

A friend of mind was working as a magazine editor for a non-profit in my town, and they needed someone to do secretarial/research-type work part-time, so once my walking ban was lifted, I began doing this a few hours a week.

The first book

To make a long story short, a year+ later, I was travelling through Italy with some friends. I’d met them in Rome, and spent 3 weeks driving from Rome to Paris, exploring and visiting friends along the way.

It was while in Assisi that the head of the aforementioned non-profit asked me if I would try my hand at designing a book cover for them. Having acquired a small publishing house, he’d been working with their freelance designer, but they were struggling with one particular cover.

So I would wake up at dawn, and spend hours trying to figure out InDesign and how to make something that looked like a book cover. Somehow I managed to pull it off; the publisher likes it, and from that moment, in a villa set in olive groves just above Assisi, I become their book designer.

I would then spend the days exploring as we wound our way along the coast of Italy, then the south of France, finally arriving in Paris; and the early mornings and nights designing.

My gypsy years

I continue to work for the publisher as a freelancer, learning as much as I could—growing by leaps and bounds with each project, always feeling like two steps behind, making mistake after mistake (but never the same one twice!), and the publishing team was amazingly patient and supportive.

I worked from home, from airports, coffeeshops, friends’ houses, Airbnbs, as during this time I was travelling a lot: between California, Ohio, Connecticut, my three home bases, and then spending months visiting friends and family in Europe.

The strangest place I ever worked was sitting on a rock at the base of Mont St-Michel—a book we’d just sent into print production needed a last-minute change, and with my laptop always crammed in my bag I was ready.

These were my gypsy days, in retrospect, they were the days people work for years to attain—as with many things in my life, I did it the other way around. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, as those places and people all shaped who I am today, but for now I’m so thankful for stability and a place to grow roots.

When I decide the most logical thing to do is move to Italy to become a better designer

3 years of designing under my belt, I was confident and an expert in book design, and was thriving career-wise. Yet, the entrepreneurial part was missing, and after years of thinking of starting a business but not knowing exactly what, I knew this could be it.

While my self-made education was great for the publishing world I was in, I knew that to pivot to focus more on Brand design and strategy, I needed to take a big step back, look at the bigger picture, and do some serious learning.

So I found a design school in Florence, Italy—chosen solely for their curriculum and the fact that I liked Florence as a city—uprooted my life, and moved across the ocean.

This year design filled my world. I was learning both in the classroom and out; my professors taught me the fundamental principles of design, color theory, marketing et al—things that I’d grasped only intuitively before.

The business side of things I learned through reading voraciously; listening to podcasts about entrepreneurs, start-ups, and how to run a thriving design studio; last, but not least, I learned about business by observing the many businesses—from Louis Vuitton to the Cafe on the corner of my street—that fill the city of Florence.

New beginnings

So now I find myself back in the States, settling in my first home: Connecticut. My business is taking shape; the unique combination of my interests, skills, and the people who come to me forming it in ways beyond my imagination.

While it is still in the early stages, I have exciting plans to grow this business in its scope and ability to serve clients from all around the world.

My long-term goal is to focus on working with businesses in the food and beverage industries. Being passionate about good food and its ability to create community, I am excited to learn more about the business side of things as I move towards niching to this sector.

So far, I’ve been able to work with some clients doing really wonderful things and I’m thankful for the opportunity to partner with them in their growth as businesses!

2020 is shaping up to be an exciting year, I have no doubt! If you have a business or an idea for one, never hesitate to reach out to me if you want some feedback and a possible partner to help you bring your brand to life!