“It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders”: When this flight attendant got laid off, she started her own design business
In 2010, Cecily Carlyle started working as a flight attendant until she could find a permanent career in fashion design. Then a decade passed, and she was no longer closer to her dream. When she was laid off during Covid, she finally had the opportunity to pursue her side gig as a web and graphic designer full-time.
—As told to Andrea Yu
“In 2007, I started fashion design school at LaSalle College. I didn’t have a clear idea of what to I wanted to do after graduation. I knew I didn’t want to be a pattern maker, or clicking away at a computer making technical drawings. But I enjoyed designing patterns that could be printed onto fabrics.
“Around the time I was graduating, some of my friends were becoming flight attendants. I had never considered it before, but I liked the idea: I could travel while paying off my student debt. I ended up getting a job with an international airline with a few bases in Canada; I started training the day after my final exams. They based me in Toronto, so I moved here in 2010.
“When I started working as a flight attendant, I never thought it’d be a career. I thought the move to Toronto might give me the opportunity to network and explore job opportunities in fashion. But that never happened, because I was so busy in my job as a flight attendant. I flew everywhere, from London and Paris to Cancun and Montego Bay. Most of the time, I’d fly there and back home on the same day, but sometimes I got a 48-hour layover and had a chance to explore the destinations.
“After a few years, the schedule was starting to wear me down. I was barely in Toronto, so it was hard for me to maintain friendships and a social life. When I was in the city, I was exhausted. I’d just buy groceries and sleep. Most of all, I missed having a creative outlet.
“I’d heard from other senior flight attendants that I should always have a Plan B. These were people who’d been through events like 9/11 and SARS, and they knew the industry could be fickle. I explored the possibility of going back to school for web design. I’d always liked playing around with Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator and turning an organic drawing into something digital. I researched my options in Toronto, but I wasn’t ready to leave my career entirely. So I registered for some continuing education courses at OCAD. I signed up for classes in UX, UI and coding. After two years of studying part-time, in 2018, I had my certificate in web development and design.
“My plan was to build up my freelance clients and start ramping down my hours at the airline. Through friends, I was able to get my first client. She was a reiki practitioner, so I designed her website and logo in exchange for reiki sessions. That 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 thrilling to see everything come together. I was so proud of what I had built, and how I’d helped these businesses grow. I only had one or two clients a year, which was nowhere near enough to quit my job. I was still working full-time at the airline, about 85 hours a month.
“In late February 2020, I took a vacation with a friend to Arizona. When I flew back to Toronto on March 9, I found out a lot of the flights I was supposed to be working got cancelled. My schedule had been reshuffled many times. Things were coming to a halt. I was taking it day by day, trying to stay updated without feeling overwhelmed with stress,
“In the early days of the pandemic, I worked a few repatriation flights for people who were on vacation in places like Cancun and Montego Bay and needed to come back home to Toronto. My colleagues and I were worried about our own safety too. But the airline supplied the crews with plenty of PPE on board. But by the end of March, my schedule really started to dwindle. Then, in early April, I was temporarily laid off.
“It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. All of a sudden, I had this opportunity to pursue my career as a web designer. I thought to myself, now’s your chance to take this and run. You’re an idiot if you don’t do this.
“I spent a lot of time working on my website and networking. I would cold call people who offer design services and slide into their Instagram DMs, asking for advice. I also joined some online co-working groups; we’d have Zoom sessions to discuss running our own businesses 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 clients had dropped into my inbox. They came through my network in the airline industry—because, of course, a lot of flight attendants suddenly had to find work too. They needed websites, so they reached out to me. I built myself a bit of a niche in the wellness space. I ended up creating a website for a therapist and a business coach, both of whom were laid off from jobs at airlines.
“I get a sense of fulfilment with my web design work that I never had as a flight attendant. I love being able to take a client’s vision and translate digitally to serve their business. At times, my confidence wavers and I second-guess my abilities. But then, as things get going, I’m like, No, I am really good at this. And I love it when my clients tell me they’re happy my work.
“My past life as a flight attendant has helped me in my new career, too. After so many years in customer service, it’s easy for me jump into a meeting with a client, or hop on a phone call with somebody and figure out what they needed. Whenever I was travelling, I always went to museums and art galleries, and noticed graphics or typography in subways stations. I think I’ve been tucking away all these mental images to use once the right client came along.
“If I was still working as a flight attendant full time, I don’t think I’d be in a great place, mentally or physically. I don’t get migraines anymore, and after 10 years of shift work and flying between time zones, my sleep schedule is back on track. That gives me more energy to put toward my design career, and that’s a game-changer.”