Year Note 1–2022

Emma Parnell
6 min readDec 16, 2022
A photograph of the sea and shore in Boradstairs. An overlaid speech bubble says ‘Year note 1 2022’.

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I’m writing this from the same spot, in the same pub, that I was this time last year looking out over a cold but sunny Broadstairs beach.

This time last year I was still recovering from my time at NHS Digital and the stress of quitting my job whilst buying a flat! I’d jumped straight into a contract with Lloyds Bank, which I’d also just quit.

Exactly a year ago today Joy was incorporated as a limited company and I was easing nervously into the wild world of running an agency of one.

I’ve written about my experiences most weeks so this isn’t going to be a blow by blow account of what I’ve done and what I’ve learned but I wanted to take the time to document the end of year retro I just ran with myself and share publically my intentions for the coming year.

Highlights

I’ve worked with some wonderful people on some great projects this year — and I’m really grateful for that. I’ve loved getting back to the variety of working in agency and taking on a wide range of subject matters.

Almost 70% of my work this year has been with the charity sector and I’ve had the privilege to work on some really meaningful work including cancer care services, health and care improvement, gender inclusion and online safety.

One of the main drivers for going freelance was to give myself more freedom and flexibility. I surprised myself by counting up that I’d taken 66 days holiday this year, a figure I still feel is too low. I spent more time with family, supported my Mum through cancer treatment and took some wonderful trips including getting engaged and watching a dear friend get married in the Philippines.

I also got a lot of joy from mentoring this year. I had so many lovely walk n talks with people, helped people secure and apply for jobs and was a sounding board for people — I loved this.

But most importantly I only cried over work three times this year (that’s good for me) and I feel relaxed and much less stressed. I don’t dread Monday mornings anymore.

Learnings

One of the main things my retro showed me was that things go well when projects play to my strengths. I was purposely quite broad with my offer this year and intentionally experimented with the work I took on. But it has become clear there are things I want to leave behind. I’ll be leaving behind brand, graphic and UI design and focusing on service design, service strategy and co-design moving forward. More on that later.

Another big theme was how important the people I work with are. When I looked for the joy in projects it was often when the team/client was collaborative. I worked solo more than I’d have liked this year and I’d like to change that next year.

However, I want to do that by building my own teams for direct client projects. One of my strengths is the flexibility of approach I bring and some of the times I’ve been most uncomfortable this year have been when I’ve had to work to another agency’s approach that jarred with my own.

I also need to do some work on planning, which is not something I expected. I’m a very organised person and I pride myself on my time management however there are two areas that tripped me up this year. Firstly I took on too much at times and as a result of this I imposed my own rigid schedule on others I was working with. This had an impact on relationships that I regret.

I also have a blind spot for long term planning. I plan week by week but not much further ahead than that and consequently can end up with clashes between projects. I managed to navigate it all this year but I need to find a tool, that’s not my diary, for planning how I weave project timelines together.

Refining Joy’s proposition

I wrote recently about my decision to drop the brand aspect of what I do. As I said, I felt like I needed a thing and didn’t have the confidence to recognise that I was the thing people were buying.

This year has really cemented for me where my strengths lie and has also shown me that I need to continue to grow and develop my skills to ensure I’m challenging myself.

With this in mind I’ll be focusing Joy on 3 areas next year:

  1. Service design, with a focus on building the capability of organisations through live projects. With a preference for services with both a digital and non-digital aspect.
  2. Service strategy, whether that’s for existing services or, as I love the most, new services. I love that translation phase from research insight to proposition development. The shaping and bringing to life of ideas.
  3. Co-design will be my growth area. I love working directly with the people who use services, people with lived experience. I’ll be taking training courses and looking for partnership opportunities to refresh my skills in this area.

I also want to prioritise certain subject areas and these are:

  • Cancer care
  • Gender inclusion
  • Healthcare

I’ll be updating Joy’s website over Christmas and into the new year to better reflect this refined offer and showcase more of the work I’ve delivered this year.

Goals

I didn’t have goals last year so this is an experiment. Maybe I won’t have them next year, maybe I will. These goals emerged naturally out of my retro earlier:

  • Focus Joy’s proposition on my strengths and only take on work in these areas
  • Grow co-design skills and confidence. Deliver at least one co-design project
  • Launch a paid mentoring service
  • Launch a substack for my writing
  • Find a permanent home and community of support
  • £150k turnover with 80% from direct client work
  • 90 holiday days including not working Fridays

There are questions I still have floating around in my head that I thought I would have an answer to at this point but some I don’t — and that’s ok.

The biggest one for me is how and if I scale. I’m starting to get clearer on what I don’t want here, which is usually my approach to narrowing in on something, but it’s still emerging and I want to trust that the path forward will happen organically.

I’ve also questioned whether I should specialise in the charity sector. Maybe I will in the future. But not yet.

I also feel like I need to do some work on my brand at some point. There is only so long you can survive on a colour alone! But I figured it’s worked for Cadbury and Coke so I’m going to hold out a bit longer on this. When the time is right I’ll develop the brand — likely with some help.

It’s strange sitting with this dual feeling. On one hand I’m proud of what I’ve achieved this year but also I’m acutely aware that this is just the start and now I have to sustain it. This makes me nervous in so many ways. But I’m also excited. Mainly because I get to design my own work life — to an extent. This feels empowering, scary, fun and everything in between.

I’ve been blown away by the feedback I’ve received this year for my writing. I only hope I can continue to write and share in an open, honest and authentic way.

But for now, I’d like to wish everyone a peaceful holiday season filled with joy.

I’ll see you in 2023.

Thank you for reading today. If you enjoyed what you read please consider buying me a coffee. The money you donate will go towards funding my development as a writer so that one day I can hopefully get paid to write as well as design. Donate here or click the green tip button.

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Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.