Kerry Lyons on not being afraid to change course, even if you've built a successful venture
It was aged two years old that Kerry Lyons created her first "masterpiece" using crayons on her mother's hall wall. Her love of doodling led to a successful career in graphic design for over two decades before going freelance, launching her own products and, later, a coaching business. Now she's come full circle, calling herself a "born-again illustrator" ahead of the release of her flagship wallpaper range. We sit down with Kerry to find out more.
A creative career is never dull, nor is the task of running your own business. Both paths require passion, determination and flexibility to progress. But if neither feels right for you, what's the solution? Many of us become stuck, particularly when responsibilities and overheads inevitably increase with age. Not for Kerry Lyons. The Birmingham-based creative has continually changed her focus and taken many risks, so it's interesting to hear she's about to transform her life again.
Following graduation, Kerry worked as a designer and art director for 20 years, servicing brands as big as Uniball, Heineken and Disney. Although she threw herself into the profession, there was always this itch she wanted to scratch. And so she went freelance and created her own giftware and stationery range. That was nearly a decade ago. It proved so successful that her products were sold via high street retailers and inspired the launch of her own podcast, The Imperfect Life.
With so much experience, she became a qualified creative coach, working with creatives looking to reignite their creative spark. Given Kerry's drive and entrepreneurial spirit, it's no surprise that she has turned this latest venture into a six-figure practice. We chatted with Kerry to hear more about her story and what she has planned next.
How did you get into design? Was it something you always knew you'd pursue?
Well, I've always been obsessed with drawing, doodling and making patterns. I was that kid that always had smudgy graphite or ink down the side of their palm from leaning on what they'd been drawing that day. And friends at school used to line up, waiting for me to doodle their pencil cases with permanent markers.
In 1994, I had a 20-minute conversation with a contract careers advisor at school that I'd never met before. They deduced that I enjoyed art and suggested I become a graphic designer. (Apparently, that's "what artists do if they want to get paid"). So off I went, hell-for-leather, working my tail off to secure A-levels and a Bachelor's degree to get me my first job as a Graphic Designer fresh out of university, assuming that was the Holy Grail of art and money. When I "got there", life would be smooth-sailing.
The design career that followed connected me with some incredible people, super-proud achievements, lifelong friendships and a sense of belonging that's hard to describe. But it just never scratched my creative itch, and I knew I wanted to have a more meaningful impact on the world through my work, too.
So what happened next?
Eleven years into that career in 2013, I decided (pretty much overnight) to quit my agency job working with a team I adored to go freelance, create some physical and mental space, and find out how I could get this creative itch, scratched.
That season involved trying out an interior design diploma, making wedding cake toppers, discovering and loving the personal development space, and creating a greeting card and giftware range that I sold via trade shows.
I actually managed to get my creations stocked in some incredible retailers such as Eason & Son in Ireland, and for a moment, I thought, maybe this is 'it'. Until I got offered a deal from a dream UK retailer that I'd been working towards for two years and felt...nothing.
This wasn't "it". Still unscratched. And my daughter then entered the world, so the idea of being responsible for designing, packing, shipping and tracking inventory for hundreds of SKUs with a newborn (basically a glorified factory worker) was just not the one.
I can imagine that was a crossroads. What did you do?
I leaned into the personal development work I'd begun a few years prior and decided to combine my design and manufacturing experience with my love for personal development to create a new kind of product – The Imperfect Life Planner. I started a Kickstarter campaign and managed to raise over £21k to get the first edition made (it's a bit cringe when I look back, but I was and still am crazy-proud of myself for it).
It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but my mind was blown. This was a moment. The Imperfect Life was my thing! I then spent the next five years building the TIL brand brick by brick on the side of my freelance career, creating more planners, building online programmes, becoming certified as a coach and working with clients, and launching my own podcast that became one of the top 3% of all podcasts globally, building a team and blasting past my new Holy Grail of a scalable, six-figure business.
Until I realised my creative itch was not only not being scratched, I'd barely given it the oxygen to be able to itch in the first place. I'd poured all my focus into creating a business that made the kind of meaningful impact I wanted to make; I'd removed pretty much all creativity from it in the process. It became glaringly apparent that things had to change, and drastically so.
We're all part of the same fabric, and nothing is permanent. Good times will come, and I genuinely believe the good in humanity will always prevail.
Have you finally scratched that itch now?
I hope so. I'm in brand new territory – creating a business that allows me to scratch my creative itch all day long and have a meaningful impact on the creative community.
I pivoted my coaching practice to focus on 1:1 work with high-achieving creatives who've lost their mojo for what they do. I support them in recovering their true creative call using crazy-potent coaching modalities.
And my creative sanctuary, the Kerry Lyons Studio, is where I get to be the illustrator and pattern designer I always wanted to be but just never thought I was good enough to try.
It almost feels like I needed to go on that path, experience everything I experienced, and learn what I've learnt about how the human mind works to recognise that I absolutely can be the illustrator I always wanted to be. My Studio officially launches next week.
That's incredibly exciting. It sounds like you've been on quite the adventure. It's ok to change and pivot, isn't it?
Oh, my days, absolutely! In truth, in the times we now live in – it's arguably a little criminal not to change and pivot. The world has so much to offer us, especially as creatives.
When I even just think about a snapshot of some of the people I've personally helped: I've supported a brand designer to write, produce and release their own Top 10 music; I've supported an architect to build their own online crafting business; I've supported a journalist to become an international bestselling author, and I've helped a VFX Coordinator on big-budget Hollywood movies begin writing their first screenplay.
To think they could go their whole lives burying those dreams under their bed, never sharing their multi-faceted creative magic with us all, just because of a belief that it wasn't ok to change and pivot?
Like I say, criminal! Multi-hyphenates for the win!
Where does this hunger come from? It's inspiring. What drives you?
I think it's a compound effect from a few things, to be honest. My mother was a homemaker until my parents separated in the '80s. So seeing my mother become a single parent and return to work, grafting her socks off for us in jobs she disliked for years, has always driven me to prioritise fulfilment over most things.
I also lost a dear friend in my mid-20s to breast cancer (I have a pretty giant wrist tattoo in her honour), and knowing the opportunity to live was taken away from her at only 26, when I got to keep mine, just makes me crazy-hungry to live it for the both of us and not take a second of it for granted.
On a side note, I also recently discovered Human Design and found out I'm a 1/3 Emotional Projector – from what I've learnt so far, my life is pretty much a play-by-play textbook for that type. Which explains a lot!
The lows can shape us just as much as the highs. There's ongoing doom and gloom right now. How do you feel about the future?
It's a great question. I'm personally really freaking excited about the future. I don't really fear change. I firstly believe this contracting, collective energy we've all been experiencing is simply the prelude to the inevitable, expansive energy that's to come. Just as contraction and expansion work in nature – seasons, breathing, childbirth – it works within us as a collective too. We're all part of the same fabric, and nothing is permanent. Good times will come, and I genuinely believe the good in humanity will always prevail.
I also make it a personal choice not to "wait" for good times to come to me either. I feel life is very much "in session," as I mentioned, and I intend to live mine regardless of the patriarchy! I have an example to set for my daughter too.
I focus on what I have agency and autonomy over, I'm militant about not watching or reading the news (I stay connected with world events through fact-focused sources like Simple Politics), I stand for causes I care about, and I make play and joy a priority as much as I can. I've even started learning rollerskating tricks this year – and I've never felt more in my forties.
I've come to learn that my creativity and drawing are the glue that really holds me together, though. If things ever got uber-apocalyptic and I could only take four things, I'd grab my daughter, husband, sketchpad and pencil, and genuinely, I'd be happy!