A Conversation with Sierra Duffey

All images are © Sierra Duffey

“It’s important to have hobbies or skills that fulfill you, but whether you get that fulfillment from your day job or your free time is up to you.”


ODC: Tell us a bit about yourself, have you always lived in Ottawa?

Yep! I grew up in the west end of Ottawa. I actually had a pretty fun childhood because I lived with my mum in the suburbs and on weekends I would visit my dad who lived in the country near Kingston. I got the best of both worlds! I’ve lived all over the city but now I call Centretown home.

ODC: What’s your background? What have you studied?

When I was a teenager I really wanted to become a photojournalist. Although I didn't end up in journalism, it did lead me to study public relations which was quite similar. I loved my program because I went to the University of Ottawa for 2 years and then Algonquin for 2. I still graduated with a Bachelor degree but got more applicable education from college and didn’t have to suffer through 4 years of pure academia that is university haha! I’m not working in PR now, but that program gave me a wide range of skills that allowed me to forge my own career path in design and tech.

I also started photography when I was young, and I carried that with me, at first as a hobby but now as an integral part of my business. It’s a nice intersection because I can bring that visual aspect of communication to all my work.

Ottawa Design Club

Notebooks are my best friend. They help me organize all my different ideas, and put these ideas on paper and out of my head.

ODC: You are currently working for the government, correct? Can you describe your work position?

I currently work for Public Services and Procurement Canada. I was super lucky and started working for the Government as a student during summer of my first year. The public service has treated me well, so I’ve stayed, but I’ve worked at 4 different departments and changed roles quite a bit. It’s a blessing to have the stability of a government job but also some flexibility to try different things.

Right now, I work for an outreach program that helps small businesses sell to the government. I’m at HQ so my work is more operational and focused on coordination rather than working with clients. Even though I’m not working with clients directly, the job fits my values of supporting small businesses in the Canadian economy. Before, I worked for teams that were internal to the government (e.g. internal communications) so it’s nice now to work on a program that actually serves the public and gets that visibility.

In my role, I’m focused a lot on web content - so I am building new tools and pages to help our clients get the resources they need online. I also worked on emergency operations during COVID-19, answering emails and seeing the front end of how businesses were pivoting during the pandemic.

Ottawa Design Club

A sneak peek into my old home office. Here I did a lot of photography and design work, but also did my day job from home on a regular basis.

ODC: Is there a particular project you worked on at the government that you are really proud of?

One of the biggest learning opportunities for me was leading the development of the Aurora design system. This project was great because I got to work with an interdisciplinary team and used my skills in project management, design and writing to create a system that we used to build new web applications. At the time, design systems were becoming popular in the private sector and governments were trying to build something similar for their own websites. It generated a lot of discussion and created some waves in the design and development community in the Government of Canada, which led to other groups to improve existing web standards (e.g. for Canada.ca).

ODC: Have you ever felt judged by other creatives because of where you worked?

Occasionally, but once I explain that the government gives me the stability I need to pursue my other interests on the side, people get it.

Really, I’ve been my own worst critic of the career choices I’ve made. I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve sought out and the initiative I’ve shown in my different roles. Despite that though, I do have a transition plan to work on my own creative projects full time and I find I still judge myself for not leaving the government fast enough or not pursuing my “dream career” by now. In reality though, who has their dream job in their 20s?!

It’s important to have hobbies or skills that fulfill you, but whether you get that fulfillment from your day job or your free time is up to you. Because I do identify with my career a lot, I want my creative pursuits to be my full time gig. But at this point in my life, I’ve accepted that a bit of financial stability and experience working in an office environment is doing me well. Some days are harder than others, but as creatives a lot of us are our own harshest critics.

ODC: You are doing so much outside of your day job, can you tell us more about your side projects?

Totally! As I mentioned, I do fulfill a lot of my creative energy from side projects, and I’m lucky enough to make money from them too. Recently, I started thinking about that transition plan and what my business would look like as a full time career. Originally when I started making money from photography - it was a paying hobby but wasn’t much more than extra change. As that has grown, I’ve also started venturing more into web design and content strategies for clients, in addition to streamlining my photography services. When you have so many interests or skills, honing in on what you like best is key.

On top of design and photography, I am also a yoga teacher, read a lot about psychology, and love traveling and the outdoors (I'm telling you, it's too much for even my brain to handle!)

My side projects go through phases, one month I focus on offering content workshops, the next month might be more focused on photography or developing my yoga practice. I have divided my activities into 2 different brands, my content strategy / photography business, and Adventures & Asanas, an outlet for my adventures in yoga and travel. Even then though, they are just brands and don’t encompass the entirety of who I am. I try to remember to accept that, fit in projects to those brands where it makes sense and focus on what I find interesting, whether it makes money or not :)

Ottawa Design Club

I like to experiment with my photography style when I am travelling. Usually, my paid work focuses on high exposure and soft colours. When travelling, I give myself creative liberty, like focusing on this bold blue from the shores of Big Sur, California.

ODC: How do you feel about the word generalist?

Generalist is a complicated word for me because in some ways it implies you are “master of none”. But I don’t think that is true at all. My mastery actually comes in the form of finding connections between different topics. It might not be the traditional concept of mastery, but being able to make connections and bring different perspectives together is actually a skill in its own right.

Being a generalist is also hard to market to potential customers. Even as someone who studied PR and marketing, I struggle to fit my different skills into a single or even multiple brands that are easy to promote and sell to people.

I recently read a book called How to be Everything by Emilie Wapnick, who also has a famous Ted Talk. She uses the word “multipotentialite” which I don’t really love either, but it does capture the idea that having a lot of interests can be an advantage. Her books give some frameworks for building your career around different interests, and I found that helpful.

ODC: We love that you are allowing yourself to explore all of your passions! You seem to have a thirst for knowledge, how do you stay curious?

Curiosity is never hard for me. It’s actually just part of my DNA. I recently completed an online course from Yale about psychology and well-being and one of the tests that they ask you to do is to find your Signature Strengths. It came as no surprise that my first one was love of learning.

What’s more important for me is to make sure I actually fulfill this love of learning. It’s actually a need that I have to feel satisfied and I am constantly looking for new ways to learn. I think one of the biggest keys to staying curious is to experiment with different learning styles and to follow topics that peak your interest even just a little. If you are excited to talk about something, look for ways to go deeper.

ODC: We really enjoyed reading your blog post about Yoga Training and Digital Design, can you tell us more about that?

What Yoga Teacher Training Taught Me About Digital Design is actually one of my favourite and most popular blogs! It did so well because I took two very different aspects of my life, and made interesting connections between them that might be a unique perspective for many designers. At the time I did my yoga teacher training, I was working on the Aurora design system, which required me to step back and look at the project from many perspectives (design, writing, development, management). It was just natural for me to apply my yoga teacher lens to it too!

Ottawa Design Club

Yoga has been a great source of joy for me. I love the physical aspect of yoga, but also the philosophy and mental peace that you get with years of practice.

ODC: We are firm believers in allowing ourselves to disconnect and make time for hobbies and activities we love. How do you make time to disconnect from it all?

Yes! During university / college the disconnecting part was hard. Even though I was creating ALL THE TIME at work or at school, I was constantly burnt out and exhausted. Especially this year, with being home more, I’ve made it a priority to set aside time to disconnect from creative projects and focus on other hobbies like nature, cooking or yoga. I’m so much happier and my creative work turns out more thoughtful and focused. It’s important to dedicate specific time to activities that give you a refresh, even if they don’t make money or aren’t producing a specific creative output. Schedule it in a calendar if you have to!

ODC: Any advice for our members?

Don’t let anyone else tell you how to build your career or find your own balance. My unique melting pot of interests doesn’t make sense to everyone but it makes me happy and that’s what counts. I also think finding a bit of financial stability is important so that you can also pursue some things that are simply meant to fulfill you. Easier said than done of course!

ODC: Where can we follow you, read your blogs, reach out to you?

Like the theme of this blog, follow my stuff based on your interests!

For my photography and design business:

Yoga, travel and life:

For anything else you want to chat about, send me an email! Cheers!

Read More Blogs!

Connect with us!

Got a question, comment, or just curious?