Designer and papercraft artist Magdalena Ksiezak talks self-doubt, burnout and pushing past the fear that never goes away.
What happens when, in the midst of an economic recession, you just can‘t fathom staying in your safe design job one minute longer?
If you’re anything like graphic designer and papercraft artist Magdalena Ksiezak, you quit—and turn to hospitality despite having two tertiary qualifications under your belt.
“I really should have hung in there,” Ksiezak admits of the job.
“But I was naïve. I soon realised leaving was a mistake because I couldn’t find another design job.”
But when you consider the point at which Ksiezak is in her career now, it’s hard to see that decision as anything but the right one.
Ksiezak’s meandering path begins in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, where she was born. At the age of five she moved with her family to Canberra, where she would eventually study photography at ANU’s Canberra School of Art. But the degree left Ksiezak full of doubts for her chosen vocation, and she felt lost upon graduation.
That prompted a move to Melbourne in 2005 to study graphic art at RMIT University—which, again, left her feeling lost.
“I think I really lacked confidence,” Ksiezak says.
“I was comparing myself to all these awesome designers I admired and was like, ‘How can I compare to that?’”
It was in the midst of this self-doubt that Ksiezak landed at that ill-fated design job. Though she concedes she was fortunate it was “not a boring design job”, she soon found herself feeling a familiar discontent.
“After a couple of years at that job I thought, ‘Ugh’,” Ksiezak recalls.
“I was really unfulfilled and just sort of had to get out.”
Unbeknownst to her at the time, it was this move that inadvertently got Ksiezak out of the design industry altogether for a couple of years.
But Ksiezak’s eventual reentry into the design industry was far from all she’d hoped for. She managed to find a job with an American company that involved “a lot of secret work”, but, again, something was missing.
“It wasn’t everything I thought a design job could be,” Ksiezak says.
“I was like, ‘What am I doing? This is not where I thought design would take me’.”
So, unhappy with her existing body of design work, Ksiezak decided to start from the bottom again. She completed internships at Melbourne letterpress studio the Hungry Workshop and design studio Function/Form, and focused on meeting as many people in the design world as she could.
That’s also when she began dabbling in the craft for which she’s arguably best known today. While Ksiezak insists papercrafting is ”quite easy”, that assertion is belied by the intricacy and dynamism of her work. With bright three-dimensional forms that often incorporate suspension, Ksiezak’s work is thoughtful, whimsical and smart.
So it’s little surprise her early papercraft work won her a scholarship—and rent-free studio space—at influential art and design complex Magic Johnston. It’s an experience she describes as “amazing”.
“I met a lot of designers, gained a bit more confidence, and realised that I wasn’t the only one trying to do interesting work for a living,” Ksiezak says.
One of the designers Ksiezak met during her year-long tenure at Magic Johnston was the man who’d change her career irrevocably: Matt Willis from Yell Design.
“For a little while I was too shy to ask if I could work with him,” Ksiezak recalls.
So, working under the pseudonym Okay Kiosk, Ksiezak threw herself into the freelance life. As a young designer wanting to go above and beyond to make her name in a competitive industry, she burnt out—fast.
“That’s when I thought I needed to do something about this, so I approached Matt to see if he needed any help,” Ksiezak says.
Now a senior graphic designer at Yell, Ksiezak says she “can’t even begin to explain” how fulfilled she is in her work.
“I’m so happy I left all those other jobs, even though I thought I’d probably end up where I started,” Ksiezak says.
Even though Ksiezak has, by her own admission, a ”dream job that I didn’t know existed”, she admits she still contends with feelings of inadequacy.
“It’s easy to get lost in the self-doubt,” she says.
“You need to stop thinking about what other people think and ask yourself if you’re happy with [what you're making].
“If it’s coming from what you feel and your gut, and all these subconscious influences, there’s a place for you.”
But interestingly, Ksiezak admits she didn’t always feel that way about her own place in the design world.
“When I first started freelancing I was a bit worried that maybe I didn’t belong in this industry,” she says.
“I read up on imposter syndrome and went, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’”
After years based in Footscray in Melbourne’s west, Ksiezak moved in mid-2016 across town to an apartment in Fitzroy North. The space, which she shares with whippet Ruby (who, unfortunately, recently lost an eye 😢) is as warm and bright as Ksiezak herself.
Part of Ksiezak’s charm also lies in how candid she is about her struggles and doubts. Despite what appears to be a fairly prolific output, Ksiezak admits she’s intermittently struck by inertia; a kind of inner resistance to pursuing her creative goals.
“It’s an interesting feeling; a hard thing to articulate but basically comparable to procrastination,” Ksiezak says.
Recalling her time in corporate design—the job with the secret work—Ksiezak explains that resistance kept her from getting her design folio together for years.
“That first step is always the hardest step to take,” she says.
"I didn’t want to be [in that job], but for some reason I just put it off and put it off.
“Even now there are projects I want to do but I put them off because of the fear.”
So how does she get past it—feel the fear and do it anyway, so to speak?
“You just have to start and not even worry about what that end piece looks like,” Ksiezak advises.
“You have this goal in your mind, but halfway through your whole concept changes because you’ve had a revelation based on just starting.
“Just to start is the hardest thing, but once you do it can be a really rewarding journey.”
Virtual pep talk
Just hang in there! Don’t settle for what doesn’t feel right. I’ve experienced it, and I know other people who’ve experienced it—just feeling stuck, like it’s not how it should make you feel. To not feel like you’re thriving, or making work that excites you.
If that’s the case, make work that excites you—for yourself. It’s hard to make a career in the creative industry, but you have to find your niche. There’s no point going to a job you hate day in day out, even if it’s in the creative industry.