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How I Got Here: The Design Files’ Managing Editor on how she landed her dream gig

PHOTOGRAPHY BY AMELIA STANWIX FOR THE DESIGN FILES AND JEREMY BARR
WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

And why you should never wait for someone to give you an opportunity.

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how on earth they managed to land that wildly impressive job? While the Internet and social media might have us believe that our ideal job is a mere pipe dream, the individuals who have these jobs were, believe it or not, in the same position once, fantasising over someone else’s seemingly unattainable job.

But behind the awe-inspiring titles and the fancy work events lies a heck of a lot of hard work. So what lessons have been learnt and what skills have proved invaluable in getting them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?

Welcome to How I Got Here, where we talk to women who are killing it in their respective fields about how they landed their awe-inspiring jobs, exploring the peaks and pits, the failures and the wins, and most importantly the knowledge, advice and practical tips they’ve gleaned along the way.

This week, The Design Files’ Managing Editor Sally Tabart tells us how she landed her dream gig. After studying media, Sally started out interning and writing for a variety of publications, before becoming a production assistant for a fashion film company, a job that involved a lot of menial tasks, but provided her with the foundations – hard work, the ability to read a room, and perseverance – that would serve her well throughout her career.

From knowing Sally personally, I can attest to the fact that she is an absolute powerhouse. Not only does she manage all things editorial for Australia’s most popular design publication, but she’s also one-half of Ladies of Leisure, a Melbourne-based creative collective.

I’ve watched her run workshops for Ladies of Leisure countless times and have marvelled at her ability to put a room full of strangers at ease with a well-timed joke or a thoughtful compliment. Sally’s the type of person who won’t hesitate to put you in touch with someone she thinks you should meet – she’s passionate about connecting people, something that undoubtedly makes her excellent at her job.

More than anything, I’ve always admired Sally’s kindness and honesty. While she makes it look easy, there were years of working odd jobs, fetching coffee for directors and struggles with anxiety on her journey to where she is now.

She doesn’t sugarcoat things and she’s honest about how difficult this industry can be to break into, but she’s also great with advice. She knows from experience that careers are rarely linear, and sometimes it’s more important to create your own opportunities rather than waiting for someone to notice you. Here’s what she’s learnt along the way.

What do you do and what’s your official job title?

I’m the Managing Editor of The Design Files – that means I organise everything you see (and lots of things you don’t see) on the website! This involves developing our content schedule, sourcing stories, interviewing people, coordinating shoots, and making sure our team is on track to deliver everything on time.

Take us back to when you were first starting out. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start out with an internship/entry-level role and climb the ladder? Tell us the story.

I studied media at RMIT, majoring in Film and TV. I met a lot of great people at uni but honestly didn’t really appreciate it while I was there – I was the person handing in every assignment late, not showing up to lectures, and bluffing my way through tutorials. I really regret not understanding what a privilege and blessing it was to go to university. But I could never bring myself to feel passionate about hypothetical situations – I was ambitious (and precocious!) and wanted to be in the real world, not the world of essays that went nowhere!

I started interning/writing for free when I was 19 at a bunch of now-defunct online publications, but it all changed for me when I interviewed filmmakers Adam Murfet and Jessie Oldfield at CKOL. If you can believe it, short-form video and what we now know as branded content was only JUST emerging at that time. Instagram was barely a thing, and there certainly wasn’t video or stories! I was obsessed with everything they were doing – short-form film in the fashion space – and convinced them to let me work for them as their production assistant for a few years from when I was 21-24 or so.

I learned so much in that role, and unlike my time at uni, I loved every single menial task I was assigned. Being on sets (and in particular, being the lowest-ranked on set) gives you an amazing foundation for hard work and perseverance. I maintain that anticipating the *exact* right moment to hand a director their coffee still helps me today!


Sally at The Design Files’ office

Around the same time I started at CKOL, my friend Savannah Anand-Sobti asked me to help her start a publication called Ladies of Leisure (LOL), which began as a zine where we could showcase our friends’ work, but over the last eight years has grown to something a lot bigger. We’ve published three zines, run heaps of workshops, and until very recently had a gorgeous space in Fitzroy where we would run weekly-ish events. LOL has been such an amazing project to work on for the last eight years because it’s given us the space to make our own work instead of waiting for other people to give us permission.

Anyway. When I was 24 I moved to New York for a couple of years – really the only thing I ever KNEW I wanted to do – where I worked all over the place. In retail, hostessing at a restaurant, babysitting famous people’s kids, assisting stylists and producers… I was doing a different thing every day! Shortly after I moved back to Australia I got a job as the editorial assistant at The Design Files, which was only supposed to be three days a week, but after a few weeks, I went straight to full time. A couple of years went by and when the previous managing editor left, I was asked to step up! I’ve been at TDF for three years in total now.

What challenges/hurdles have you faced getting to where you are now? Can you tell us about one in particular? 

I’ve been very privileged at every point in my life. I know I’ve worked hard, but I can’t ignore the things that have worked to my benefit from earlier than I was ever aware of. One thing that I have struggled with over the years is anxiety. I wouldn’t say it’s completely stopped me from doing anything work-related, but at times my career has significantly impacted my mental health. I’ve been completely miserable at times when I should have been over the moon. I’ve had panic attacks in back rooms and walked back out with a smile plastered on my face. I think that the longer I’ve been working and the more senior my position has become, I have been able to dictate my time and workload a lot more, and so can better accommodate for the days when I feel like shit. 

What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?

It’s bloody hard work. And you have to look at the computer screen for about a million hours a day. You will be under-resourced and often will not be able to spend a lot of time thinking. You need to trust your gut and make quick decisions – which gets easier the more you do it. I excel at being a bossy boots so what I really thrive on is organising everything, even if it is a bit fast and loose, it will get done and delivered on time (this does NOT extend to my personal life… hello unpaid parking tickets)! Another part of my job that I take very seriously is team morale. I firmly believe that people will give you their best when they feel happy, supported and listened to, and I do my best to make everyone I interact with feel valued.

What’s the best part about your role?

I adore my team. We have a small team of seven women at TDF, and everyone is so good at their jobs. That makes MY job so easy. I love that we have access to an audience of people who want to spend their money on locally made things and that we can really help elevate someone’s business or creative practice with a feature. I love working with creative people every day – my life has gotten a lot better from realising I’m not supposed to be the one making the things, but [the one] helping the people who have done the things get them out to the world!

What would surprise people about your role?

The funny thing is that the higher up you get in editorial, the less writing you actually do, because you spend your whole time organising what’s coming next! The writing is kind of the last step and unless it’s something that is really personal to me, I assign it to one of my team so that I can get on with attempting to make it through my inbox (I’m an ‘inbox 3000+’ person). That suits me just fine at the moment – after 10 years of writing on the internet and decades of journaling, I’m pretty sick of my own voice and slightly freaked out about my online footprint… it’s so cringe to read stupid articles I thought were hilarious when I was 20!

What skills have served you well in your industry?

It sounds cheesy but being hardworking and proactive is something I am very grateful for. I know that I will always do a good job of whatever task I am given no matter how big or small – I would never allow myself not to! I also think that being a positive, compassionate person has been a big part of getting me where I am. Rarely have I been the most qualified person in the room, but I think that being a good vibe has been more attractive than my resume at times. Although I have a lot of anxieties and am prone to depressive thoughts, I really try to lift myself and those around me up by being supportive and encouraging.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a role like yours one day?

I’m not going to lie. There aren’t enough jobs out there for the amount of people that want them. It’s really hard and I’m sorry it’s like that. Just know that even if you didn’t score your dream job, you are on a journey and will find your way, even if it looks different to how you thought it would. I think it would be beneficial to anyone who is interested in working in the media to think about what it might look like in five years, or think about interesting ways to present content, events and ideas. This industry is getting smaller every day and you will be valuable if you are looking at ways to innovate and change.

What about a practical tip?

Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity – do your own thing on the side! I realise this is a given these days – everyone seems to have some sort of side project – but aside from giving you something to show and add to your resume, it will get you closer to figuring out who you are, and what you love. And that’s more important than any job title.

@sallytabs 

Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.

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