“It felt like a weight was being lifted off my shoulders”: When this flight attendant was fired, she started her own design business
In 2010, Cecily Carlyle started working as a flight attendant until she found a steady career in fashion design. Then a decade passed and she was no closer to her dream. When she was laid off during Covid, she finally had the opportunity to continue her side appearance as a web and graphic designer full time.
– As Andrea Yu tells
“In 2007 I started a fashion design school at LaSalle College. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do after graduation. I knew I didn’t want to be a model builder or click on a computer doing technical drawings. But I enjoyed designing patterns that can be printed on fabric.
“Around the time I graduated, some of my friends became flight attendants. I’d never thought about it before, but I liked the idea: I could travel while paying off my student debt. In the end, I got a job with an international airline with a few bases in Canada. I started training the day after my final exams. They made me Toronto based so I moved here in 2010.
“When I started working as a flight attendant, I never thought it would be a career. I thought moving to Toronto might give me the opportunity to network and explore fashion jobs. But that never happened because I was so busy in my job as a flight attendant. I’ve flown everywhere, from London and Paris to Cancun and Montego Bay. Most of the time I flew there and back home on the same day, but sometimes I got a 48 hour layover and had the opportunity to explore the destinations.
“After a few years the schedule started to wear me down. I’ve hardly been to Toronto so it was difficult for me to maintain friendships and a social life. When I was in town I was exhausted. I would just buy groceries and sleep. Above all, I missed a creative outlet.
“I had heard from other senior flight attendants that I should always have a plan B. These were people who had been through events like 9/11 and SARS and they knew the industry could be capricious. I explored the possibility of going back to school for web design. I’ve always enjoyed playing around with Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator and turning an organic drawing into something digital. I was looking for my opportunities in Toronto, but I wasn’t ready to leave my career entirely. So I signed up for some advanced training courses at OCAD. I signed up for courses in UX, UI, and coding. After studying part-time for two years, I got my certificate in web development and design in 2018.
“My plan was to build my freelance clients and reduce my working hours at the airline. I was able to win my first customer through friends. She was a Reiki practitioner so I designed her website and logo in exchange for Reiki sessions. This led to a referral to a naturopathic doctor. I created a logo and website for her and she was my first paid client. It was exciting to see how it all came together. I was so proud of what I had built and how I had helped these companies grow. I only had one or two clients a year which was nowhere near enough to make me quit my job. I was still working full time for the airline, about 85 hours a month.
“At the end of February 2020, I was on vacation in Arizona with a friend. When I flew back to Toronto on March 9th, I found out that many of the flights I was supposed to be working on had been canceled. My schedule had been reshuffled many times. Things came to a standstill. I took it day in and day out, trying to keep up to date without feeling overwhelmed by the stress.
“In the early days of the pandemic, I did some return flights for people who were vacationing in places like Cancun and Montego Bay and had to return to Toronto. My colleagues and I were also concerned about our own safety. But the airline provided the crews with plenty of PPE on board. But at the end of March my schedule really started to wane. I was then temporarily released in early April.
“It felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Suddenly I had the opportunity to continue my career as a web designer. I figured now is your chance to take this and run. You’re an idiot if you don’t.
“I spent a lot of time working on my website and networking. I would call people who do design services and slip into their Instagram DMs for advice. I’ve also joined a few online workgroups. We would have zoom sessions to discuss running our own business during Covid. I also started listening to some podcasts like the Brand Designer Podcast and Creative Pep Talk.
“By the end of April, a few customers had landed in my inbox. They came through my network in the aviation industry – because suddenly many flight attendants also had to find work. They needed websites so they reached out to me. I’ve built a small niche in the wellness area. I ended up creating a website for a therapist and business coach who were both laid off from airline jobs.
“I get a sense of accomplishment with my web design work that I never had as a flight attendant. I love taking a client’s vision and digitally translating it to serve their business. Sometimes my confidence fluctuates and I think about my abilities. But then when things get going, I think, no, I’m really good at it. And I love it when my customers tell me they are happy with my work.
“My previous life as a flight attendant has also helped me in my new career. After so many years in customer service, it is easy for me to get into a meeting with a customer or talk to someone on the phone and find out what they need. Whenever I was out I would go to museums and art galleries and notice graphics or typography in subway stations. I think I tucked away all of these mental images to use once the right customer came in.
“If I were still a full-time flight attendant, I wouldn’t be in a great place mentally or physically. I no longer get migraines and after 10 years of shift work and flying between time zones, my sleep schedule is back on track. That gives me more energy for my design career and that changes the game. “