Jennifer Sukis did what some of us may imagine only in our wildest dreams: She took off. Leaving a comfortable existence in Austin, TX, and an enviable design job, she hit the road. Destination? Creative inspiration.
On Friday the 13th of April, Sukis packed her car with camping gear, video equipment, notebooks, a camera and a laptop. She said adiós to friends and colleagues at frog design in Austin, where she’d worked for four years. She locked her front door and set off on a 41-day journey to interview five people—people who had reinvented themselves, sometimes several times, in order to build lives of purpose.
Her plan was to listen and absorb life lessons—and then turn those words of wisdom into a documentary film and book. Friends and connections contributed nearly $4,000 via Kickstarter to fund Sukis’s trip and project. As she wrote on her Kickstarter page, “I’m fascinated by those who can live in the present, who can take smiling leaps into an abyss and who are motivated enough to create momentum behind their imagination. And because, really, what’s more important than being able to look back and say, ‘Yep, that was a terrifying, exhilarating, incredible adventure, and I’m so thankful I found the courage to be brave.’”
Sukis did find that courage, to drive away from familiarity, security, stability and burnout, toward an experience she hoped would answer some big questions: What does drastic change feel like? How do people define and pursue their true calling? What do we learn from life (and death)? And what does success really look like?
Thriving on Change
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At 35, Sukis has had other restless points in her design career, seemingly at regular four-year intervals. After graduating in 2000 from Kent State University with a bachelor’s degree in visual communication, Sukis went to work as an art director with Mary Ann Aue’s eponymous design studio near Cleveland. In 2004, Sukis teamed up with Allyson Lack and Pamela Zuccker to launch Principle, a print-focused firm whose three partners collaborated from three different cities.
Four years later, Sukis again found herself itching for new challenges, projects and disciplines. “I was getting interested in designing larger systems and was looking at clients that weren’t traditional Principle clients,” Sukis says. “[I was interested in] large-scale web projects, operating systems, work that was progressively more digital.”
A connection made via Sukis’s mentor, Lana Rigsby, with whom she worked with during college, led south toward an immersion in interactive design. Sukis met Jeff Williams (whose father, Lowell Williams, was a Saul Bass protegé, a former partner at Pentagram and a mentor to Rigsby) of frog design, fell in love with Austin and moved from Cleveland to take a position with the agency as senior visual designer.
The job title was purposefully non-specific, as Williams was keen to hire designers on talent, not on print or digital skill. “When you get out of design school and you’ve only been to school for digital design, you’re really caught up in the software but you don’t have that traditional design background,” Sukis says. “Jeff was experimenting with bringing in traditional designers and getting them up to speed on the software.
“It was like learning a new type of design for me,” she says of her tenure at frog, during which she designed mobile apps, operating systems and software. “Every day here has been an amazing education.”
Lo and behold, 2012 brought about Sukis’s quadrennial hunger for change. “I hope this is just the natural process of my career,” she says. “I felt this coming; last year, I went to Amsterdam with frog for three months—and spring in Europe didn’t fix it. I felt like I didn’t fit into my own life anymore. I’d outgrown what I was doing … at some point, that feeling gets too big to ignore.
“This is about taking responsibility for yourself and doing something about it,” Sukis continues. “Frog has changed, it’s gotten much larger. But I also feel like I’ve gotten very comfortable with the kind of work that I’m doing here. So now I’m interested in marrying print and interactive, and making the leap from digital to film. I see design as more than one medium.”
Asking the Big Questions
Sukis sensed she was ready to move on. But to what, and where? “I just didn’t know what was next,” Sukis says. “Frog is a great place to work. The idea of leaving a place like this is scary. When I started talking about walking away from frog, my dad, who’s a big influence, was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He put forth some really big questions that scared me.”
Friends, though, were a bit more encouraging. As they sat around discussing those big, scary questions, Sukis and her friends talked about people they knew who’d grappled with that same “what should I be doing?” uncertainty. People like Craig and Lisa Kalloch, founders of Middle Earth Healing. A former Marine Corps captain, Craig had an epiphany that his mission was to help others live healthy lives in harmony with the earth. The Kallochs left Houston and established a healing and learning center on 42 wooded acres outside Mobile, AL.
Soon, Sukis had her own “what’s next”—a road trip to visit five friends-of-friends, all people who have created lives of significance through change and trial and error. More to the point, she had her purpose—documenting these interesting lives and sharing them with the rest of us. Formalizing the journey into a design project gave Sukis the structure she needed: This wouldn’t be simply a boondoggle. “These are the questions I’ve asked my whole life,” she says. “It’s about life, it’s about death. It’s about not getting to the point where you’re looking back and regretting anything. It’s my cathartic way of getting this out of my system.”
At the time of this writing, Sukis was just days away from departure and had been preparing for months. She began taking Kickstarter contributions in March, and by early April had exceeded her goal of $3,000. She further padded her bank account by working through the winter on freelance projects, giving her enough money to cover travel and living expenses until she returned to Austin at the end of May.
Knowing that she was in for some pretty intense conversations, Sukis also prepared physically and emotionally. She practiced yoga, she saw a therapist—all in an effort to shed her own baggage, open her mind and learn to be truly present when she met with her inspiring subjects.
Sukis’s game plan is to return to Austin and spend the summer distilling hours of interviews into a short film and companion book that document these five creative and unconventional lives. Both projects are a means to explore design in multiple media, to expand her base of skills and to create a new body of self-directed work. “I can’t remember the last time I created something that was entirely my own. Already, I feel more like myself because I’m doing work I totally believe in, and it doesn’t matter if other people care about it or not.”
Beyond those two projects, “what’s next?” remains an unanswered question for Sukis. She wants to return to Austin following her trip, but doesn’t have another job lined up. Will she work for another creative firm? Set up shop on her own? Still to be determined.
But that uncertainty is, she says, essential to the project. “The people I’m talking to are people who’ve gone through exactly what I’m going through: They were in a stable place and could have stayed on that path and it would have been the right thing to do. But they didn’t do it because it wasn’t enough for them. It wasn’t about building a career or making a ton of money, it was about finding out what they needed to be doing with their time on earth.”
Editor’s Update: Sukis’s book, To Be Brave, is finished, printed and now available on Etsy. View the book and purchase it here.