Concept-Driven Design and Art Direction with Charlotte Heal
This episode features Charlotte Heal, a London-based Creative/Art Director, and Founder of Charlotte Heal Design Ltd. We cover topics such as hunting for new work, conceptual approach to design solutions, framing mistakes, the state of young talent today, the things she is currently struggling with, and Micheal Jackson dance routines.
Charlotte Heal was educated at the Royal College of Art, London, and founded her studio in 2007. Working fluently across art direction and design, Charlotte Heal Design Ltd. is a full-service studio that operates internationally, with clients in the fashion, lifestyle and cultural sectors, creating well-crafted design solutions across print and digital media—from campaigns and identities, to publications, films and websites.
"Play. That’s where a lot of things are formed."
Known for her refined aesthetic, hawk-eyed attention to detail and interest in the uncanny, she also complements the studio practice with lecturing both in the UK and abroad. Recent engagements include Here London, Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design and Meal Ticket at KK Outlet.
- Episode Introduction [00:52]
- On Keeping Her Studio Small [02:14]
- How to Hire When You’re a Soloist [03:32]
- Conceptual Approach to Design Solutions and Art Direction [04:58]
- Advice to Young Professionals [07:34]
- Advice to Younger Self [09:57]
- Dealing with Mistakes [11:22]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [18:05]
- Hunting for New Work and Cold Approaches [18:55]
- Charlotte’s Current Struggles [24:01]
- Difference Between Design & Art Direction [28:16]
- Advice for Being a Better Designer and Creative Professional [32:17]
- Episode Outro [35:30]
Charlotte: You have that moment when you’re sitting down on a blank page and it says book and you have that wave of, “Oh my God, I can’t design. Oh my God how do I do this?” And that process still take a long time at the start of a project.
This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long form interview show with the mission of helping creative professionals to level up. I’m your host, Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself, active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting, working with companies such as Kinfolk, Menu, and SONOS.
Through Season One of this podcast, I present in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals, revealing the stories that shaped their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: This episode is devoted to the founder of one of my favorite London-based design studios.
Charlotte: My Name’s Charlotte Heal and I run the design and art direction company called Charlotte Heal Design Limited based in London.
Mario: Charlotte’s studio offers a holistic approach to projects creating well-crafted design solutions across print and digital media from campaigns and identities to publications, films and websites, working for clients such as Matouk, The Cork, Kinfolk Toss, Adidas, and Violet magazine. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Charlotte during my first week of working for the Kinfolk magazine, which was nearly three years ago. At the time, she was the magazine’s design director and she came to Copenhagen for the launch event of the Kinfolk Home book. Had a chance of seeing her on a few other social occasions and since I love her work, I decided to ask her to be one of my first podcast guests and luckily she gave me a chance.
Mario: I admire Charlotte’s attention to detail, a multidisciplinary approach of her studio and the fact that it is rooted in concept generation and content-driven design in our direction. We’re going to listen to the highlights of the conversation I had with Charlotte in November of 2017. We cover topics such as hunting for new work, conceptual approach to design solutions, framing mistakes, the state of young talent today, the things she’s currently struggling with and Michael Jackson dance routines.
Charlotte’s studio is deliberately small, but as with most of my favorite design agencies, that is not stopping them in producing remarkable work for prestigious clients. At the time of this conversation, the studio consisted of just three people, a senior designer, designer and Charlotte as lead. We’ll begin our episode with Charlotte discussing why she keeps the studio small.
Charlotte: I’ve only ever been employed at one place. That was for a year and a half. I worked at Spring Studios and what I realized is as the team grew, it was a funny one, like there was always work happening, but there were many times when you weren’t doing anything and you were just waiting for the end of the day or you started checking stuff on Facebook or you were kind of waiting for something to drop. Then it would get really, really busy and I think you weren’t necessarily as involved in the project as one could have been. It just meant that when I left there, I suddenly thought, “I’ve done some work there, but it’s not like for the amount of time I was there.” It just felt like you can cut that out by having a smaller team. And I think that that’s something I really want, is that everyone brings ideas to the table and it’s very involved and there isn’t time to be hanging out on social media and checking other things. I wanted everyone to be focused, but also I think that sense of ownership with projects is really important. So yeah, I think I would never want to be big anyway.
As creative professionals, we often work independently. It can take years before we can hire people and build a company of any size in case that’s our goal. Initially, our workload and cashflow can influence that, but the reasons can also be emotional and driven by our mindset. It’s easy to fall into the trap of always wanting to do everything ourselves. That’s something that I’ve been struggling with in the last two or three years. So a bit selfishly, I’ve asked Charlotte if she had any advice on when and how to make that jump.
Charlotte: Finding the right person initially is really important. I think I found when you have that collaboration and it works, it could be amazing. I think that if it can happen naturally through people you know or people that you’ve met through, I don’t know, teaching or recommends, I can’t do anything non-organically in a way because I think that I haven’t sort of said to someone, right… I haven’t advertised or that sort of thing. And I think through teaching I’ve been very lucky because then I’ve trusted those people and they know who I am and they know what I’m about. But then equally I’ve had some people just approach me and then I’ve met them and really got on with them and then as they’ve been with me, it’s become more and more clear how strong it is. So I would be saying, “You could just try it on a small-scale basis with like ... rather than it being no, okay, I’m employing someone, just say, “Okay, on this project I’m going to bring a freelancer in to just work with me on this project”, not the other projects that you handle them perhaps by yourself, but just on a bigger project, you get someone else in and then just see how that collaboration work
Besides running a successful creative studio. Charlotte is lecturing both in the UK and abroad. I was curious to hear her thoughts on the current state of young talent.
Charlotte: I mean I should explain that my training, and in the UK, a lot of art schools are very ideas-based first and foremost. And I think that that’s something that I pride myself on with the studio and the way I approach projects and that’s down to the education I’ve had. What I’m finding more and more because everyone’s, they’re much more visually literate now with social media and, I don’t know, just, you know, I didn’t have the Internet when I was on foundation in the beginning of my degree and things, and I think people can make things look very, very beautiful very quickly now. They can copy things quite quickly and easily. I think there’s more accessibility to all of these things physically as well in terms of like magazines, there’s a plethora of magazines that one can afford. I think that students now can struggle to understand that it’s about ideas and that they kind of don’t do enough research. I found a lot of my students in the past have arrive with sketchbooks and copied things and stuck in references and said that that’s work in progress. To me, that’s not real research.
Charlotte: I think that there’s a tendency, like, I mean I struggle with it. One of the things that I also was going to say it, it’s good to get inspiration away from the computer, but I think it’s more and more hard. I think that ... yeah, I see students being much more trend-based and kind of just visually looking something looking very glossy, but actually not having the substance behind it and the depth of research that I was taught to do and I think is a strength.
Mario: So if someone would like to cultivate that, what would you suggest as a starting point?
Charlotte: I think it’s also just like really looking back at art history and digging deeper than just what something looks like aesthetically. Also just to copy something doesn’t mean it’s research is what I mean. It’s exhausting ideas. Even if it’s just a word that you’re given and you’re asked to produce something based on that, it’s exhausting that with word play games and visual pun games and kind of pushing it so that it almost doesn’t make sense to the concept anymore, but it goes so far out, then it can be pulled back in. When you talk about a tree, rather than just finding photographic evidence of trees, you start thinking about all aspects of a tree, be it the bark, how a leaf is shaped, all the different myriad of colors, how they’re formed, where they grow, what depth do their root go, how high do they ... It’s like absolutely everything and I think there’s a sense now of kind of like, “Oh well I can just make something look nice.” I think that that’s something I definitely have noticed in my year as a teacher.
Charlotte is active both in the creative industry and in education which places her in a valuable position or being able to provide relevant and relatable guidance to young professionals. When we talked about that subject, she emphasized the importance of play. Here are her thoughts on that and some other advice for creatives who are just starting out.
Charlotte: It’s important to have fun with your peers and both in the studio when you’re learning, but also out and about because I think those kinds of connections are really important. So I’d be saying to people, “You might have just graduated or you might still be in education but play because that’s where a lot of things are formed.” I think a lot of lot of projects have come, have actually come through friends or word of mouth. But it’s also, I think you can be presented with an opportunity but it’s actually take the opportunity as well.
Charlotte: I think also a sense of valuing your worth because I think there can be a tendency for people to kind of take advantage and not pay interns for a long time. I think that there’s a point where you do actually have to stand up and sort of say, “Well I might have been working with you for a month now. You’re suggesting you want me for another two months. I need payment for that.” And I think that I come across that quite a lot were past students of mine have emailed me and said, “Can I ask this person for money?” And it’s like, “Well yes, but how does that process work?” And just being aware of the situation they’re in. They’re valuing your worth is important as well as play.
Charlotte: I mean I’ve seen old students of mine who’ve gone on and done short courses to extend the focus and area that they want to go into. I think that I’ve always been really excited you when I’ve seen that in people, that they’ve done a degree in graphic design and then have decided, “Oh but I really want to focus on art direction” and even though they’ve been employed and they’re doing that, they’ve still gone off and done short courses. I take my hat off for that because I think that that shows real dedication and passion. And doing those things can really help.
Charlotte: I think also asking questions is so important, especially when you’re being briefed by the client or being interviewed for a prospective job. I think don’t just go in there and think, “Okay, I’m the one being interviewed.” I think go in there and ask questions and I probably didn’t do that enough in some cases. I think that it was like, “Oh, I need to do that.” I think with clients I have, and I’ve always kind of possibly over overanalyzed and asked too many questions, but I think when you’re interviewed, I think it’s also really important. Because you don’t know whether that job is actually going to suit you and will fit with you.
One of the keys to staying relevant is growth. That also seems to be the crucial ingredient of contentment in one’s life. To grow, we need to change. We need to try things out and however desperately we would like to avoid it, that also means making mistakes. I was curious to hear what are some of the things Charlotte would advise her younger self at the start of her professional journey.
Charlotte: One thing that if I was to go back and be sort of 20 again, I think one I would have probably gone out and played a bit more. I was always buried, had a strong work ethic and I think that that’s great and that keeps me motivated, especially when you’re self-employed. But I think trusting in my ability a bit more, I could relax and kind of think, “Okay, this will be okay. I’m okay on this.” It’s not really a lack of competence. It was more trusting in your ability a bit more. It’s difficult because I always thought I wanted to do photography out of my BA, when we’re talking about education. Now I think the mistake is that I wasn’t as involved in some of the classes or in the technical workshops that I could have done because I was thinking, “Well I don’t need to go to those because I want to do that.”
Charlotte: Actually rather than being so focused and sort of ... Again now I’m reminded it sounds too negative because I was focused on what I wanted to do, but then it materialized that I wanted to do a broader scope of things. And I think in that than I could have been more open-minded to go, “No, okay, I am going to do this project and I am going to go to this workshop still and I am going to ... ” So be more open minded to do the technical things.
By being a ’successful creative professional’ doesn’t free you from failure and running into obstacles. I’ve talked to Charlotte about how she handles those situations.
Charlotte: You know, I look back and you kind of realize afterwards, “Oh, that impacted and helped me come to the place I am now and that wouldn’t have happened any other way.” So you can’t really have that mistake. I mean, I’m always amazed at how certain things that led from one thing to another. It always shocks me. It’s like, “Gosh, if I hadn’t met that person at that point, I wouldn’t have then done that.” And so many things are up for chance as well. And I think that’s what’s also really frustrating I think for students to hear because they can be quite anxious about like, “Oh, how am I going to get a job” and, “How am I going to do this?” That’s where it got to be open for opportunity because you never know where it’s going to come from and that’s quite amazing.
Mario: Is there anything that in hindsight you think would have maybe helped you to advance more effectively? Any regrets?
Charlotte: I mean in terms of, not regret, but I do think had I been employed at a studio right after my degree, I probably would have bypassed a lot of things I’ve had to learn just through myself, like learning. And because I was an individual, I didn’t have anyone to learn those things from. So it’s a far slower process to pick those things up. Whereas if you’re employed in a studio, you immediately learn things from the people you’re around, from the jobs that come in. Whereas I had to teach myself those things. So for example, I taught myself InDesign and actually I was on Quark when I was at college. So when I graduated and then I was working in isolation that I had to teach myself InDesign because I hadn’t needed to because I’ve been on CoWork. Whereas if I’d been employed in a studio, someone would have taught me those things and it wouldn’t be years down the line and go, “Oh, I didn’t know about that. Tell me about it.”
Charlotte: So in that sense, is that a mistake? I don’t know. I tried to get employed but I graduated from Royal College and I was like, “Right, this is my portfolio. This is what I want to do.” And I went round and with my book and I think that yeah, it just so happened that I was then asked to do projects as a freelancer rather than employed in a studio. Now I look back and I can totally see why people didn’t employ me because ... and I have had people approach me and I’ve not employed them for similar reasons that they’re possibly too ideas-based. I’m going to have to teach them stuff and I don’t have the time and I’m of that opinion now. Like there are times when I think, “God, I can’t be there kind of teaching all the way through.” I think that that’s why part of my education lacked the business skills and also the technical skills.
Charlotte: I sort of you know, in the past berated them, sort of, “Oh God my education was so ideas-based!” But now I’m actually really happy about that because it means I’m that much more conceptual and all of the projects that I do have a base in something. Otherwise I feel like you’re floating around slightly in a kind of trend-based world. But I’m really, really happy with my education and I wouldn’t change it the world. But there were times when I would have gone, “Dammit. why didn’t they teach me this? I didn’t even know that existed.”
Charlotte: I remember I taught at Brighton and the fashion course, I think it was a four-year course, and part of that I think in the third year, they went off and did interns and like apprenticeship. But I think when they returned afterwards, their last year was a business and creative. I think that that’s something which it should be an all, I believe, art and design courses because you need to have an awareness of your worth, but you also need to know business-wise how to do certain things.
Charlotte: I remember going to London College of Communication a few years back and teaching a workshop. They were all third years and I said to some of them, well it was a whole group, I just said, “So how many of you know what a junior designer earns?” I think two people put up their hand and I was shocked by that because I thought you’re in your third year, you’re about to go out, you need to know what you think you’re going to earn next year.
Charlotte: Also I said to some people, “How many of you think that you’ll do some freelance work?” And again, so many hands shot up. And I said, “And how much is your hourly rate?” No one could answer me. And you just think, “That’s part of your education and it’s not there” or at least it hasn’t been from what I’ve seen.
Mario: Yeah. And what were some of your most valuable failures or mistakes? Because as we know, if appropriately framed all those can also be opportunities.
Charlotte: I mean, I’ve certainly had jobs that I’ve lost and then thought ... or that I’ve turned down and I thought, “Was that stupid?” And then I found out that actually that was far better. I mean, one example, which was a blessing in disguise was when I was doing Lula magazine and then that ended for me and I was gutted because for me, editorial design and magazine work is brilliant and I loved it. I felt like I was really building something when I was on that magazine and it was just about to get going because I’d done three issues. The design, it was beginning to kind of sink for me and it was ... I was like, “Okay, I’ve got something that’s going to work through many issues.” And then it ended and I was absolutely actually gutted. And then I got the Kinfolk work. Had Lula been carrying on, I might not have done Kinfolk.
Charlotte: So it’s like that where I think it was something of a failure, in that, that I lost something, and it was then a blessing. I think that it’s about turning around and realizing why something didn’t go forward so that you can learn from that.
Mario: So what do you do in those situations? Do you have any strategies or tactics for picking yourself up? Especially in those first reactionary moments?
Charlotte: I think it’s difficult because work is my life because obviously I have interests outside of work, but it’s a big part of me. So any strategy, it’s much the same as how do you deal with any upset or something that you’re disappointed about or gutted about. You kind of admit that you feel like that and you talk to someone, a friend of yours or partner and feel down for a while and then you pick yourself up and you carry on. But I think, and that’s again one of those things where in terms of thinking about students and young professionals coming out, I think that’s where you’ve got to be really passionate about this world you’re entering because if you let those sorts of things put you off entirely, then you probably not in the right place because you’ve got to have that excitement and drive.
Charlotte: If I’m down, I like literally watching Michael Jackson dance and doing his routines. It just makes you go like, “Wow, that is practice. That is dedication. That is passion” and that just makes you think that what makes you strong and it’s so inspiring. So yeah, if I’m down or I need a bit of a wake up or kind of make me get my motivation back or make me excited like watching him, I just watched him on YouTube and just be like ... I literally my jaw will be on the floor and I’ll just be, anyone who’s with me I’m like, “Can you just look? Just look properly.” Like, “Don’t just go. ’Yeah it’s Michael Jackson’ but like really look at it’s because, oh it’s amazing.”
Charlotte: I think there was one award ceremony that he did and it’s the extended version on YouTube and it’s just amazing. I mean obviously it’s the music, it’s the timing, it’s the choreography. It’s the light, but it blows me away each time.
Mario: Amazing. I think that’s a good tactic.
Hey, friends. You’re listening to the Creative Voyage Podcast. We are roughly in the middle of this episode, so it’s time for a short break. There’s no team behind the show. It’s solely produced and edited by me, Mario. I don’t have any sponsors, and I have no plans to add any. Nevertheless, I can use all the help I can get growing the show. If you like what you’ve heard so far, there’s three simple things you can do for me and future episodes. Number one, review the show on Apple Podcasts. Number two, tell a friend and share a link on social media. Number three, visit the shop on creative.voyage/shop and support the show by buying Bespoke Creative Voyage Products. Thanks everyone. Let’s get back to the show.
One of the wonderful things about being a creative professional is project-based work, which entails the excitement of the next new project. On the other side of that spectrum is a struggle to find new work, especially the work that matters. As with other essential things, Charlotte is intentional about who she works for and with whom she collaborates. Here she talks about her proactive stance in that domain.
Charlotte: And funnily enough, I quite like thinking work out, if that makes sense. My friend always jokes, she’s like, “Oh you’re such a hunter”, but I quite like, you know, kind of, “Oh, okay. Who can I approach? Who do I want to work with? Who do I want to collaborate with?”
Mario: Do you have any examples of that?
Charlotte: Close friend of mine is someone who I did approach because I just really, really loved her work and was just like I’m really keen to meet her and see if she actually would ever want to or have a need for art direction services and design work. But then equally, you know, I’m interested in it being collaboration and just meeting her because I admire her stuff.
Mario: So how did you approach her? You just send an email introducing yourself?
Charlotte: Yeah, I just cold-emailed her and I think that sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I just think well fair enough. I understand if it doesn’t fine, but I quite like doing that to some degree because I think you can just ... Again, it opens up opportunities and it means you turn one corner and something else happens you wouldn’t have expected. So yeah, I quite like that process.
Mario: So let’s get a bit tactical. Is there a way you structure those email messages?
Charlotte: It depends on ... I mean that’s where it’s probably bad business skills on my part, but sometimes I just think ... Well I just want to cut to the chase and say, “Look, I’m approaching you because this is what my studio does. This is what we can offer, and we think that you could ... ” benefit’s the wrong word because that sounds negative, like, “Ah, looks like you’ve got some shoddy website and you need to update”, but I think sort of realizing like, “This is what we do and we see something lacking and we’d love to collaborate and have a meeting.”
Charlotte: Then other times it might just be much lighter than that and just, “I really very much admire your work. Would it be possible to meet up and have a coffee?” But I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s with that in mind generally. I find it very weird. People before have said, “Oh, well, you know, you can be too to the point” and actually maybe just be like, “Oh hey. Saw your stuff. Love to grab a coffee.” And it’s like, well, you’re not looking for friends. You are doing this because of what you do.
Charlotte: I think also you’ve got to be, again, do your research. It’s got to be authentic otherwise it’s a bit copy and paste. I mean I had someone recently who sent me an email and it was clearly that she’d sent it to about five other companies. I got quite angry about it in my head because I just thought, “You’ve clearly recently graduated or you’ve recently come off the job and you’re wanting to seek out other people to collaborate or work with.” It’s so obviously a copy-and-paste. There’s no ... It’s kind of slightly rude and then I know, I mean I try to email everyone back when they’ve approached me, but this girl ...
Charlotte: So first off I felt like, “Okay, well that was the generic email sent to a lot of other people as well”, but whatever. And then about, I don’t know, two weeks later another email saying like, you know, again generic because it was in blue, so she’d obviously just copied and pasted and put it throughout. It was like, “Did you get my last email I emailed you?” It was like, you can’t email people like that. There has to care and thought put into it.
Mario: Yeah, I agree. I have a similar experience. Luckily it’s not often, but I also get emails which are clearly sent to other companies. You’re just like in a BCC and often I reply to those people and I say, “Thanks for reaching out, but what you did here, just like blasting your email to all these addresses, most probably is not cool and it’s the best best way to get replies.” So I just give advice. Then sometimes people are like, “Yeah, but I was trying to catch more than one eyes” or something. Then I’m like, “Okay, fair enough, but are we becoming this lazy? You can just send separate emails.” Yeah. And what do you do when you don’t get a reply? Do you follow up?
Charlotte: I do follow up. I mean I think there is a tendency for people to be very busy. I’m busy and I’ve had people chase me and then I’ve been, “Oh damn.” I felt really rude. I haven’t replied and I think it’s important to chase up because I think people are away or they miss things or I’ve often had a really busy day, got something and thought, “Yeah, I need to do that”, but I haven’t made a note of it. Then I’ll totally forget because it’s not a high priority even though you thought, “Oh yeah, that’s nice.” So I tend to do that myself, but I ... you’re not going to follow up on a follow up. I think it’s kind of like if you send something and you follow up, and there’s still nothing, then it’s like, “Okay, cool. That’s fine.”
Charlotte: It’s funny because I think some people will feel too proud or they’re like, “Oh well if they need me they’ll call me.” I don’t think that that’s the case. I think that people forget and people are busy. So I think it’s always important. If there’s something you particularly, want keep pushing for it and be persistent. But it is a fine line because I think if I have someone who’s really persistent, it does slightly me. So it’s a fine line of like, yeah, I’ve had photographers approach me and say, “Can we meet? Can we meet?” And I’ve thought, “Now you’re beginning to annoy me and I’m busy. You’re not right for me. A newsletter reminding me of your work is fine”, but it’s like constantly this need to meet is like it’s balance.
Mario: There’s an illusion nowadays perpetuated by the highlight reel portrayed on social media, that other people have their lives figured out and that we are the only one with struggles. Of course, it’s far from the truth. Charlotte has been successfully running her studio for 10 plus years, which is no small feat, but as we already discussed, that path was not a straight line. I was curious to hear what are some of her struggles at this point in her career?
Charlotte: A few things. I suppose one of the which is, I think having the time to kind of go out and source the work alongside doing the work. I think that that is something which is, it’s hard when it’s a small team and yet there are times when you have like loads and loads of meetings and it’s just seeing more, and trying to get all of this in or I’m trying to get everyone happy and available and then suddenly you kind of like “I’ve go to actually do all these things now and get everyone on it.”
Charlotte: And also I think some of the ... just the admin, you know, the business side of things in terms of the contracts and all those sorts of things is, I mean I think they’ll always struggle with when you put estimates together in terms of are you pitching it at the right cost and you might, you feel like you lose something because you were too high or you were too low. I think in a way that’s an endless thing, but I think those are things that I’m sort of working through at the moment. But I think yeah, it’s getting the time to do the going out and getting the work then doing it.
Mario: Is there anything else?
Charlotte: We always joke in the studio of how you have that moment when you’re sitting down on a blank page and it says and you have that wave of, “Oh my God, I can’t design. Oh my God, how do I do this?” And that process still takes a long time at the start of a project. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s not a book. I can do that easily.” Like that’s what I mean. You know, it’s always a struggle, the start of a project. However similar the client wants it to be as what you did previously, you don’t want it to be like that again.
Mario: So how does that initial process look like?
Charlotte: That’s always really surprising. I mean it’s very rare that we would disagree in the studio and I think that there are things that come in and it’s just like, we’ll be laying out a page and someone will do something and you’re like, “Yeah, that bit.” And everyone’s in agreement and it might not be like an obvious why, but we all know. It’s just that innate knowledge. I think that through training and that’s through experience, but I think you kind of, I mean that’s supposed to be a very different response about like how do you start the blank page, but I think that when you are in that process and then you just sort of come across something and you kind of ... I very much feel my way, I quite intuitive and I think that I’m quite good at reading what a client wants or needs and their kind of, where they fit within their world, where the fit it, whether it’s high luxury or mid-tone or ... I think I’m quite intuitive in that respect.
Charlotte: I think that’s the same when it comes to design, I think you just kind, you’ll play with something and then you’ll just be like, “Yeah, that feels right and it feels appropriate.” But as for starting a blank page, I think it’s just hard. I think you sort of play and then you might, you know, look things up and reference and start thinking of, “Oh that’s actually really nice what someone did there. How do I take that on board?” But then it’s funny because I say all of this and I sound confident. “Oh yeah, I’m intuitive. I know it all”, but you know that in that sense. I don’t.
Charlotte: There’s a project, I mean there’s a book that I remember I’ve done and I still look at that book and it just didn’t fit. It doesn’t work. The publisher was really happy. The author was really happy and it sold really well and everyone’s like, “Oh, I saw your book. You know, it’s already great”, but it doesn’t do it for me.
Charlotte: I mean, every single project there’s always something you kind of go, “Oh, I did that just happen…”, but this book is not even about that. It just doesn’t work for me. Like typographically, I didn’t do a strong job. It just didn’t click. Then I know time-wise I’d met, you know, the deadline was then and I sent what I sent and they loved it and yet it didn’t click. Yet they loved it and it was like, “No, no, we really want to go with this.” And I was like, “Yeah, but okay, but could I have a bit more time.” And they’re like, “No, we need to get this in this. It’s done. It’s to go off to the author.”
Charlotte: Then it’s, “Hey the author loves it.” Then you’re like, “Well, okay, I’m kind of in this situation where I’m not feeling it yet I still can’t put my finger on why.” It’s funny because people have seen it and I’ve said, “Oh, it doesn’t work for me.” And they’ve are like, “Why? I love it. It works.” And I’m like, “No it just doesn’t. It doesn’t have it. It doesn’t ... ” Again, that’s an intuition thing. That’s kind of me knowing, for me, it doesn’t have it.
The terminologies and titles in the creative industry are becoming blurred and somewhat confusing. I’ve talked to Charlotte about how she differentiates between art direction and design. She also talks about how titles and roles are growing increasingly fluid and about lack of healthy rigor when it comes to labeling ourselves with the prestigious-sounding titles.
Charlotte: I think nowadays people have a very blurred idea of the different terminologies. I think that they’re being sort of thrown around a little bit too much nowadays. You know, “Oh, I’m a creative director. That sounds very impressive and that’s what I’m going to use.” I think that these things are possibly getting a bit watered down or confused.
Charlotte: Having said that, I think a designer is very much more doing the ... Maybe it isn’t because I feel I know it so, you know, this is my world. So I’m just like, “Well a designer is doing the design work and an art director is standing back holistically seeing the overall reach of a project and literally directing the right people and team to bring that to life.” I suppose I also see art direction in terms of the visuals of a photo shoot or at least art directing an illustrator. So the art director will have the idea and I’ve come up with a concept of what they want to do and then bring in the photographer to go to realize that.
Charlotte: I think what’s important when I say that is that for myself and at least it’s very collaborative, so it’s not a case of just having an idea and a concept and a vision and then saying, “Hey photographer, come on in and do this”, because that would be treating them like a technician. Obviously the photographer’s going to bring ideas to the table as well and it’s a collaborative thing, but I think it’s ... From my experience generally, I always say the art director is the one who’s had, you know, who’s worked and he’s got the job from the client and is then coming up with the concepts and saying, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do.”
Charlotte: A designer, I suppose in that sense, they’re coming up with the design of the book and yes, that can be based in a concept, but yeah, that’s where it straddles these things. That’s where it’s a difficult one to answer in that sense, but I suppose the designer is still going to come up with the concepts, but it’s very much in the physical design and layout, whereas an art director isn’t necessarily doing that. I think I see them as quite separate in terms of, yeah the photo shoot is art directed. Designer wouldn’t necessarily do that. That’s where it kind of steps into another area.
Mario: And then what about art director versus creative director?
Charlotte: Yeah, that’s when it gets even trickier. I think that’s where a creative director and art director are very fused. I mean I think it’s ... then it just becomes more hierarchical of who’s first in line with the client and who’s having that direct ... To be honest, I don’t see that much of a difference between a creative director and an art director. I think, as I said, I think people are blurring them now. I think it can get quite easy for people to go, “Oh yeah, I’m a creative director.” And it’s like, “Hmm. Are you? What makes that?” Because it sounds really glamorous. Well the word director just like sounds like, “Wow, you’re kind of in charge” whatever. So I’m, yeah, I’m kind of careful on when that’s used.
Mario: Yeah. I think at the same time it’s becoming increasingly easy to work within different industries and experiment in different fields.
Charlotte: Yeah. People can do all of these things that you can say, “Well I’m an editor now” and it’s like well, because you edited a film. I think that’s where I get frustrated to some degree of people calling themselves names when it doesn’t ... it’s based on very little experience and I don’t think it’s to do with training. Like if someone hasn’t been trained in something but then goes off and has that career, you know that’s cool. But what I think I find and struggle with is that if someone has maybe been involved in projects and then they’ve done, I don’t know, they’ve edited something a few times to then list themselves as an editor and a stylist or an editor and can you really give yourself that? Because it dilutes it for all those other people. I think that that’s happening quite a lot in the moment which I find quite, I don’t know, it’s just interesting. It’s just a very ... It’s almost like that whole, it’s not jack of all trades, but I think people will come out with these kind of blurred areas.
Charlotte: I also think it can be amazing like how brilliant that people can do all of these things and they can make films that quickly and they can. It’s brilliant, but at the same time, I think there still needs to be that sort of integrity.
We’ve come to the very end of my conversation with Charlotte. I aim to wrap up every episode with closing takeaways in a form of actionable or inspirational advice for my guests. Here’s what’s Charlotte shared with me.
Charlotte: I remember being kind of slightly ridiculed when I was a recent graduate and I had my notebook and all of my sketchbook and I was continuing to use it. People, you know, I remember just being sort of like, “Oh my God, you’re such a student.” I actually think I would ... I always want to be a student and I always want, you know, if someone ever says that again, I’ll be like, “That’s the biggest compliment.”
Charlotte: I think to be a creative professional, you also need to continue that sort of sensibility in terms of always asking as many questions as you can, keeping curious, having a notebook and ideas and photographs and scraps and continuing to do and work in that way I think is really, really important. I actually think that that’s what will maintain kind of fresh creative career because I think that it’s when you stop and you just regurgitate and you get bored and then you get dried up and you do, you know, lack of motivation and all the rest of it. So I think it sounds silly, but I think just to recent graduates, I’d say always maintain being a student. Because yeah, I think that’s really important.
Charlotte: I would also say brainstorming with your friends, it’s really important too. I mean, I’m not talking about like friends I have that aren’t in my profession. I’m talking about, I’ve got some friends that I, whenever we meet we’re talking about work but not in a serious like, “Oh, we’re talking about work and how boring.” Like we’re just going through work and talking about, “Oh this is annoying to me today. This client said that.” I mean, it’s almost like brainstorming sessions. We’re constantly like, “Oh, and there was this.” I think finding people who think similarly can be so inspiring and is rare but when you do, I think it’s fantastic.
Charlotte: In particular, there’s one friend I’ve got. We just have such a back and forth and every time we kind of meet and then go away from one another, we’re just like, “Ugh, I’m all fired up now and I’m more motivated.” And I think that again, having that with people that you trust and are your peers and maintaining that is really vital.
Charlotte: Third one, knowing what you’re good at. It’s very easy thing to say, but I think it’s very hard for a recent graduate or student to quite grasp because I think that at that point in their stage in their career, they don’t yet necessarily know. I think it’s taken me a long time to know what my strengths are and to kind of have that confidence and sort of going to go, “Okay, this is what I’m about.” But I think that when you find that out, lean on it, but then equally bring in the other people who have other abilities because if you try and do everything, it’s not going to work. And I think trusting and respecting who you want within the team is really important.
Charlotte: The other thing that I missed in terms of respect is when I’ve worked with clients and they know that they’ve brought me in for a specific reason and they’re like, “That’s over to you. That’s your domain. You get on with it, that’s yours.” And you kind of go, “Okay” and that’s great. I try and do that with those that I bring in to a job. So for example, if I’m working with the photographer and a stylist and the prop stylist and we’re on a shoot then it’s collaborative, but it’s, “Well, what do you think? Where are you ... ”, you know, “Bring that to the table” and respecting their profession in that respect. So yeah, knowing what you’re good at and then trusting and respecting that within everyone around you.
For everybody at home keeping score, I think we touched on a lot of information. For anybody out there interested in design, art direction and more broadly about growing as creative professionals.
I want to thank Charlotte for coming on to the show. She’s producing amazing and thoughtful work and I’m grateful for the insights she shared with us.
Links to Charlotte’s work, her Instagram as well as do some other things mentioned during our conversation, can be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast. You can follow @creative.voyage on Instagram. You can also email me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe, and until next time, my friends, take care.
On Passion, Patience & Photography with Myesha Evon GardnerMyesha’s approach to photography, including influences, gear, experimentation, shooting analog and working in the darkroom, her mindsets about growth and finances, lessons she learned from her father, who is a musician, the importance of patience and passion, risk-taking, her most essential rituals, and more.
How to Be an Interior Stylist with Colin KingColin’s work/life balance, the source of his motivation, how he approaches interior styling, work routines, his thoughts on professional growth and relevancy, the power of asking for help and of helping others, his challenges along the journey, including encounters with addiction and his path to sobriety, and more.
On Courage, Embracing Change and Lifelong Learning with Astrid StavroLife-long learning and continually being a student, Astrid’s work routines, advice for young designers, her experience as a Pentagram partner, what makes for a good piece of graphic design, how to orient ourselves during times of change, and more.
On Knowing Ourselves, Growth and Long Term Goals with Chidy WayneThe importance of knowing ourselves, Chidy’s work routines, managing finances as a freelancer, the importance and challenges of personal growth in the face of modern distractions, advice for young creatives, his views on the craft of illustration, including style and trends, and more.