How did your degree in Communication Design help prepare you for the career you’ve since led?
I studied design at Carnegie Mellon, and the education was much more conceptual, rather than commercial or craft based. It was broadly a four year lesson in problem solving, and did not assume each student would pursue the traditional path of graphic design. Graphically, I don’t think the work I created there was very strong, but I came away with a sense of freedom and confidence that I could pursue a number of different paths, which was probably more valuable for me.
"For the first time I had a lot of control over the end product, and that was both terrifying and exhilarating."
Tell us about your time as Art Director for Target, and later as a designer at Pentagram. What did you take away from both of these roles?
Target as a company really values design, and that was apparent in the way they set up the in-house studio. I had a manager who was patient and dedicated to helping me grow as a designer, and I felt like it was the perfect job out of college. On one hand, I was quickly given a lot of responsibility, overseeing photoshoots, hiring illustrators, and designing campaigns and packaging that would be exported around the country. On the other hand, corporations inherently have these structured systems, so I started to understand that there’s a diffusion of responsibility across many layers. After a few years in Minneapolis, I was ready to spend less time within that structure and more time designing.
I got the chance to do that at Pentagram, where I began working under Paula Scher. I found that having been inside a large corporation, I was comfortable navigating clients of that scale from the outside. The real pleasure of working at Pentagram, though, was the flatness of the organisation which was a breath of fresh air. For the first time, I had a lot of control over the end product, and that was both terrifying and exhilarating. I used my six years there to fill in the gaps of my education and work on all of the things I wasn’t very good at. I learned a lot about typography, both from Paula and from the other designers on the team, who were much better craftspeople than I was. I observed and took notes as Paula ran what is essentially a small business within a large firm, and I stole all of that knowledge to eventually start my own practice.
After three years designing for Pentagram, you then became Associate Partner. What does that role involve?
Pentagram is very flat, so in the simplest terms, everyone is a designer. We don’t have account executives, so designers work directly with clients and manage their own projects. The roles vary from team to team, but for me it meant that in addition to designing and managing my own work, I was also responsible for every project on the team. Even if I wasn’t acting as designer on a given project, I had my eye on the work and knew when to jump in. As a manager, I try to use a light touch and employ a skill I practiced as a waitress in high school — you should not know I’m there until you need something. It was my job to make sure the team ran smoothly, that everyone had what they needed to do their job effectively, and most importantly, to make sure the quality of the work was consistently high.
What are the main sources of inspiration for your work?
I look for inspiration within the organisations I work for, and let the content, identity, and history of that place guide the design. In that way, it’s not about applying my own visual style, but rather there’s a reason for things to look or behave a certain way. I may take inspiration from a visual reference within the organisation itself, like an old logo, or from the vernacular of a certain environment or movement.
"Not only did I learn how to design a sign system, it was a good reminder that our limitations as designers are mostly self-imposed."
Are there any projects over the years that have been particularly significant for you? Why, and what did you learn from them?
When I started at Pentagram, a few designers had left the team, and I inherited an environmental graphics project for the New York City beaches. It wasn’t something I felt qualified for because up until then I hadn’t done any work like it, but it ended up being extremely rewarding. Not only did I learn how to design a sign system, it was a good reminder that our limitations as designers are mostly self-imposed. There is absolutely a learning curve when designing for any medium for the first time (be it an exhibition, website, or book), but for me, a multidisciplinary approach to design offers the most chance for discovery. It can be easier to characterise yourself as a certain type of designer because it sells you as an expert, but I think my point of view is what makes me an expert rather than the medium I’m working within or the tools I’m using.
What are the pros and cons of being an independent designer, and how do you get the most out of it?
The advantage is just that: the independence. I’ve always had two clients: one internally, and one externally. As much as I put myself into my work at Pentagram, I was ultimately representing Paula’s point of view, and I respected that relationship. Now, I get to take full responsibility for the work — which projects I take on, and how I approach them. I cannot deflect those decisions onto anyone else, and that’s motivating.
Some designers like working alone, but I don’t enjoy the solitude of it. I miss the camaraderie of a team and I have to consciously work to create that for myself, whether that means bringing in other designers to work with, or making sure I’m cultivating a community for myself outside of my own projects. I’m an extrovert, so that’s fairly comfortable for me.
Knowing what you now know, and based upon your own experiences, what is the best advice you could give to a young designer who aims to follow in similar footsteps?
Don’t shy away from your weaknesses. Either put yourself in situations that will force you to improve upon them, or surround yourself with people who are better at those things than you are.