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How I Became Head of Design: Ryan McElderry, Evolved

Ryan McElderry

Ryan McElderry joined Newcastle-based Evolved Search in 2019.

He initially joined the performance marketing agency as a senior digital designer until being promoted to the role of head of design in 2021.

Evolved Search, which was founded in 2014, was named as one of Prolific North’s Top 50 Digital Agencies in 2022.

With lots of career tips and advice, McElderry shared how he ventured into the world of design…


How did you first get into your industry?

I was always creative but wondered how to channel that into a career, so decided at the age of 16 to plunge straight into a Graphic Design course at Newcastle College. That process actually turned me from a shy, quiet kid into someone confident enough to present their work to a group of strangers. Some might say I leaned into that transition a bit too much as it’s hard to shut me up now!

What do you love about your job?

There’s plenty to love about my job. In all honesty, I feel pretty lucky. I have a great rapport with my team and am able to contribute to plenty of creative ideas from all sorts of different brains. I enjoy playing a pivotal role in our company’s growth within the senior leadership team, as we look to expand our offering year on year, and it fills me with pride to see how my team has developed. Of course it helps that I get to do all of this with my dog Juno by my side, she offers a lot to the creative process…

Who – or what – has inspired you in your career?

Professionally, I was struck quite early on by a creative workshop I attended with Adrian Shaugnessy. You don’t often get celebrities in the world of graphic design but he’s certainly one of them. Author of ‘How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul’, Adrian has always been one to highlight the trials and tribulations of the design life, so it was fascinating to spend direct time with him and get an insight into the future challenges.

Early in my career I also took a trip to New York where I visited several design agencies of some pretty big-name creatives. Dropping into their environment and seeing how they operated definitely pumped me up. What struck me most was how different they all were, their variety of personalities and approaches to work all lead to a form of success, which ultimately gave me the confidence to be myself as I progressed.

What are the biggest challenges about your job?

I’ve always said that with design there’s never a right or wrong answer, and that can be both a blessing and a curse. It can mean that often the thing you’re trying is untested and can create a lot of subjective feedback, a pressure that is amplified when you put it through the lens of a growing agency. My trickiest task at the moment is to understand where is best to apply our creative skills, what service offerings to break into in an ever-changing market and where we can make the most impact.

What skills have been the most crucial to you succeeding in your career so far?

As a designer you won’t get far without some resilience. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, you’re always going to encounter a LOT of opinion. Whether that’s creating some initial visuals or implementing new design initiatives, It’s your job to filter the constructive criticism from the subjective bias. The ability to be confident in your creativity while maintaining an open ear and some humility is key. An unwillingness to change can lead to stagnation.

What was your first salary and what could someone getting into the industry expect to earn nowadays?

We’re going back over a decade here, but I believe my initial salary as junior designer was around £17-18k. I don’t think that has changed too much over the years sadly, and juniors now would still be looking at the £18k – £22k bracket.

That early step into an agency is vital but unfortunately it’s a very competitive industry, so getting your foot in the door is important. It’s worth noting that there is often a trade-off between working at a design-led marketing agency and in-house for a larger company. The in-house jobs might offer a bit more in terms of salary but, in my opinion, you’ll likely be looking at less creative freedom and variety in your work.

What education or training would be most useful for someone looking to follow your career path?

I think a design degree is absolutely key to learning the fundamentals. Bear in mind that most people can learn the tools, but an absence of talent honing and training of that creativity is usually easy to spot by a senior designer. Key appreciation of the design basics is the best starting point.

I’d also say that your first few months in an agency environment will teach you far more about your future job than academic training will. You’ll learn about realistic deadlines, time management and also be exposed to the enigmas that are clients. Which leads me to communication skills – these are paramount to healthy working relationships. Most of the creative curveballs, awkward explanations and design opinions will come from those that are paying you, so learning how to appease or push back where necessary is vital.

What advice would you have for someone looking to follow your path?

My advice would be to follow your instinct and go for it. If you have that creative itch that won’t shift, or if you view the world by agonisingly analysing the spaces between letters, then I’d say give in to it and embrace a career that lets you explore it. It can be challenging, yet it’s endlessly rewarding.

When it’s at its best it doesn’t feel like work at all, which by the way, is exactly how other disciplines will see it sometimes! Prepare to be called a crayon-wielder like you’re some sort of wacky free spirit. It’s fine, be different, let them mock. We know deep down that we’re tidying the world up one logo, visual or app at a time, what a mess it would be without us.

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