Irmak Nur Sunal sheds light on what it’s like to design for The Wall Street Journal's in-house creative agency, and challenges with which it comes.

Describe a typical day as a Senior Designer at The Wall Street Journal’s in-house creative agency WSJ Custom Studios.

We’re a very nimble creative team, responsible for responding to all of the requests for proposals around custom content that come in from our sales team, which can be anywhere from two to six new projects per week. 

As the lead designer on the team, I work on the designs of our projects from pitch stage all the way through to the final post-sale production, which is pretty hands-on; but also really rewarding when you see your designs come to life at the end of a project.

On a typical day, I’ll have multiple projects on my to-do list, which I will prioritise by due-date (and the complexity of the work). I’ll be in and out of meetings throughout the day, some with internal teams, some with freelancers and some occasionally with external clients (pitching our ideas); once I am at my desk I usually plug my headphones in and zone out while I flit between projects throughout the day at my own pace as I find that this helps me concentrate more.

Following your studies at Loughborough University, did you have any particular career path in mind on graduating?

I was 100% sure that I wanted to continue in the field of visual communication, but looking back, I can say that I found it much harder to discover great companies that I wanted to work for, compared to how easy it is now through social media platforms and the plethora of information provided by creative recruitment agencies. 

I also had a very limited idea of the different design career paths one could follow. I knew I definitely wanted to move down to London, so once I had organised my internship at Atlantic Records, I packed all my belongings into the back of a van and moved down to the big smoke. I was really fortunate to have a great senior designer there who took me under his wing, and trusted me to work on some pretty big projects with him which eventually led to my being hired as a junior there.  

"I have to give credit to my tutors at university for challenging me and helping me to build a solid foundation, which has helped me every step of the way since I set foot out into the “real” world.

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Irmak Nur Sunal for Emirates: Award-winning mini custom hub

Was there a stand out moment or particular project that helped your development/kickstarted your career as a designer?

I’ve been really lucky to have gained experience working across multiple mediums in a variety of super cool industries so far in my career, and having curated such a broad range of skills across print and digital have definitely moulded me into what I like to think as a pretty versatile designer. 

I don’t think there was a particular moment over my career that propelled me through it all, but I have to give credit to my tutors at university for challenging me and helping me build a solid foundation, which has helped me every step of the way since I set foot out into the “real” world. Also all the support I’ve had from my respective line-managers in my different jobs where they have put a lot of trust in my design judgement and have given me a great deal of autonomy has been really important.

What are your main sources of inspiration for your work?

I find that inspiration can really come from anywhere for me (music, travel, film, theatre, other designers & illustrators) and the more I nourish my curiosities - the more sources I have to pull ideas from later on. I like to frequently take on new challenges to teach myself skills (usually unrelated to my design work) in order to get my creativity flowing.

If I feel particularly stuck for inspiration, I usually find websites that showcase other designers’ work are a great place to start and I’m a big fan of the CSS Awards, Awwwards, One Page Love and Web Field Manual and Codepen for everything digital related. I also regularly go down a bit of an Instagram rabbit hole navigating from designers to illustrators to other similar illustrators through the “suggestions for you” function on the app. It’s a great way to find really fresh new work.

"I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned throughout my career so far is to be a “yes” person as much as you can be"

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WSJ Custom Studios for Lebanon Tourism: Video and digital campaign

What is the best (and worst!) thing about working for an international newspaper’s in-house creative agency?

The best part of working at an international newspaper’s in-house creative agency for me is the great supportive team with the best minds in the field that I get to work with - we’re encouraged to come up with big, bold and frequently quite daring creative concepts and the challenge to better my designs every time we pitch a new idea keeps me on my toes.

On the other hand, I think sometimes working in-house can occasionally be quite introspective, you focus mainly on what is going on around you and your direct competitors which means you have to work twice as hard to ensure that you’re keeping up to date with design trends outside of your direct remit.

From Atlantic Records to CNN, and now the WSJ, you have a wealth of experience working for some impressive names – but what is the most valuable lesson you have learned from doing so?

I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned throughout my career so far is to be a “yes” person as much as you can be. I have found that being open to all sorts of new challenges, always offering to help anyone who needs a hand and always being hungry for more have been my way forward. Having a cheery disposition and a can-do attitude can get you a long way.

Also, I would say that being curious and knowledgeable about every aspect of the business you work for is a must in order to have a more well-rounded understanding of the context of your work, it pushes a deeper level of creativity fuelled by knowledge.

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WSJ Custom Studios and UBS: Award-winning two-part series


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