On Courage, Embracing Change and Lifelong Learning with Astrid Stavro
This episode features Astrid Stavro, a creative director and graphic designer. We cover topics such as the importance of 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 much more.
Astrid Stavro is an internationally-renowned graphic designer with a reputation for strong concept-driven design that is to the point, emotionally engaging, and emphasising exquisite typography and craft. Her clients span the cultural and commercial worlds, and her work encompasses brand identity, editorial, exhibition design, wayfinding systems, and packaging.
She has worked for Camper, Vitra, Phaidon, McKinsey & Company, Tate Publishing, Fedrigoni, Port magazine, Laurence King, The National Portrait Gallery, and Wallpaper*, amongst many others. Also, she led the celebrated redesign of the London-based arts and culture magazine Elephant, where she was Art Director and Contributing Editor from 2013–2017.
"The day I stop learning it’s the day I have to stop being a designer."
Stavro directed her own award-winning studio in Barcelona for ten years, and in 2013 she co-founded the renowned brand and design consultancy Atlas with Pablo Martín. In 2018 she was invited to join Pentagram as a Partner, where she directed her team for three years.
Her work has been widely published and has received over 150 international awards, including D&AD and the Type Directors Club of New York. In 2010, she was elected a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale, the world’s most prestigious design association. Currently, she is the President of ISTD, the International Society of Typographic Designers.
- Astrid Stavro’s Instagram
- Astrid Stavro’s Twitter
- Atlas, Design Consultancy
- Etienne Delessert
- International Society of Typographic Designers
- Adrian Shaughnessy
- Sonya Dyakova
- Derek Birdsall
- Consolations by David Whyte
- Yuri Suzuki on the Creative Voyage Podcast
- BLM Floor Mural
- Colors Magazine by Oliviero Toscani and Tibor Kalman
- Point It by Dieter M. Gräf
- Phil Baines
- Whole Earth Catalog
- Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address
- Introduction [00:00:00]
- On Art Direction Workshop [00:01:02]
- Episode Introduction [00:03:05]
- The Beginning of Astrid’s Creative Journey [00:05:23]
- Career Advice and Tips for Young Designers [00:18:14]
- Work Routines of an Independent Creative Director [00:26:12]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [00:40:57]
- Managing Finances as a Designer [00:41:40]
- On Professional and Personal Growth and Development [00:49:36]
- How to Navigate Life’s Changes and Challenges [00:54:06]
- Becoming a Pentagram Partner [01:08:26]
- Elements of Good Graphic Design [01:16:53]
- How to Be a Better Creative Professional [01:24:44]
- Episode Outro [01:25:50]
Astrid: Courage is essential. Without courage, there’s nothing. And when your heart tells you, crystal clear, this is not right, you need to have the courage to follow your heart, regardless of the consequences.
This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long form interview show with the mission to help creative professionals level up. I’m your host Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional, myself, active in the fields of art direction, graphic design, and consulting.
This podcast features insightful conversations with some of the world’s most inspiring creatives, reveals the stories that shaped their lives and careers and offers actionable strategies to help you take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: Before we dive into the episode, I have two short announcements. To start with, I’m excited to share that we just opened enrollment for the second session of the On Art Direction Workshop.
This is our newest online program, which I teach together with art director and photographer, Armin Tehrani. In this intimate online workshop and community, you’ll gain insights into the strategies, tactics, and tools for good art direction and its usage as a tool for leveling up as an independent creator.
Throughout the workshop, we explore questions such as what is art direction and how can it be done well? What does an art director even do? How do they bring value to a company or a project and can art direction even be useful if you do not want to be an art director? If you’re a photographer, strategist, storyteller, stylist, designer or a business owner, then art direction may be the missing link to complete your creative skillset.
The enrollment for the autumn 2022 session is open and we have limited spots. We are starting on October 8th. To find out more, visit creative.voyage/artdirection.
Also, just a quick note that our publication’s newest summer 2022 issue is out and shipping worldwide. This fourth tissue of the Creative Voyage paper features a hefty increase in the page count and has two unique covers with artworks by Denise Ariana Perez and Matt Kleberg. As always, it’s beautifully printed and features Pentagram’s Yuri Suzuki, Holt Bertnard, Natsai Audrey Chieza from Faber Futures, Yah-Leng Yu from Foreign Policy, Pauline Le Pape, Luke Fuller from Spiritual Objects and many others. Visit creative.voyage to get your copy.
In this episode, I talk to a creative director and graphic designer.
Astrid: My name is Astrid Stavro and I’m a graphic designer based in London.
Astrid Stavro is an international renowned graphic designer with a reputation for strong, concept-driven design that is to the point, emotionally engaging and emphasizing exquisite typography and craft. Her client span the cultural and commercial worlds and her work encompasses brand identity, editorial, exhibition design, wayfinding systems, and packaging. She has worked for Camper, Vitra, Fiden, McKinzie & Company, Tate Publishing, Fedrigoni, Port Magazine, Laurence King, The National Portrait Gallery and Wallpaper, amongst many others. Also, she led a celebrated redesign of the London based arts and culture magazine, Elephant, where she was art director and contributing editor from 2013 to 2017.
Stavro directed her own award-winning design studio in Barcelona for 10 years, and in 2013, she co-founded the renowned brand and design consultancy, Atlas with Pablo Martin. In 2018, she was invited to join Pentagram as a partner where she directed her team for three years. Her work has been widely published and has received over 150 international awards, including D&AD and the Type Directors Club of New York. In 2010, she was elected a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale, the world’s most prestigious design association. And currently, she’s the president of ISTD, the International Society of Topographic Designers. In this episode, we’ll listen to the highlights of the conversation I had with Astrid in January, 2022.
We cover topics such as the importance of 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 much more. Born in Trieste, Italy, Astrid speaks five languages and has lived in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, the United States and the UK. She studied graphic design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, graduating with distinction from both colleges. However, her creative path started before her formal education. Even earlier than that, as a child, she had an introduction to the editorial arts through her father’s printing and publishing company, which specialized in children’s books.
As a kid, her playground was his printing presses. In this sense, the smell of ink and paper was a part of her life, long before she became a graphic designer. During summers, her father would take Astrid and her younger sister on a trip around Europe, in a green Volkswagen camper van to visit illustrators of the children’s books that he published. Among the many artists, they visited, Étienne Delessert in Switzerland, famous for his character, Yok-Yok, whom Astrid was obsessed with. She recalls walking into his studio as a child, and seeing him draw your Yok-Yok on a piece of paper, as one of the most magical moments in her entire life.
Her inspiring childhood led her first to study literature and philosophy, but as her journey took her to design, all the previous experiences connected serendipitously, that made me curious about Astrid’s path to becoming a creative professional, including her early childhood experiences. So I’ve started our conversation asking Astrid about any professional lessons she might have learned from her father.
Astrid: My father is a workaholic and that’s something I definitely also inherited from him. So I guess ... but are workaholic in the good sense of the word, not like I’m obsessed with working, it’s just that I’m very passionate about what I do so I can spend sleepless nights or just work forever and ever in something that I actually don’t consider work because it’s my passion. It’s what I love. Whether it’s for a client or for myself.
Astrid: I just love design, and I guess that that passion perhaps is something that he’s got into me from an early age. I said workaholic, but I guess it’s more of the passion. The passion for what you do, the passion for work. For work/life, because for me, they’re really mingled. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m a nine to five worker,” and then, I switch off because I never switch off. I can wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh God, the kerning is wrong in that sentence.” And it’s obsessive, I think designers are really obsessive at the end of the day. One other thing that maybe, I was introduced to incredible illustrators and authors, because as a kid, I traveled across Europe in a VW camper van that my father used to have.
And we went camping around, just visiting these illustrators and the writers of the books, et cetera. I learned so much by just seeing the studios, the illustrator studios, and these guys were actually the guys that illustrated the books, the drawings of the books I read as a kid. So it was absolute magic to see them draw Yok-Yok, for example, in Étienne Delessert’s studio in Zurich and then to be reading that book at night, it was like ... can you imagine, it’s being in a real Walt Disney movie for real, it was amazing.
Mario: Yeah. It’s inevitable that it was an imprint and a seed, at least a seed, if not more. And I think what you mentioned just recently about work, but it’s not just work, it’s like passion. It’s like what you love. At the same time, of course it is work. You are providing a service to clients. So there’s this part of being creative and being a professional. When was the point on that journey where you felt that graphic design that that was your profession, that you were actually being a professional?
Astrid: I read obsessively as a kid and of course I studied literature and philosophy, which requires a lot of reading, but I started reading when I was very, very young and I love writing as well. So I just grew up wanting to be a writer and that was my dream, and still is, in a way. I had a son, I planted a tree and I still have the novel to write, right? The three things you need to do in life. So I’m working on it, the novel part and I hope it happens at some point. So I was much more interested in content and in the written form, in substance, over form. After studying literature and philosophy and the books as you know, literature books are quite boring in terms of graphic design, because it’s black and white, size seven over 11 or whatever. And it’s just ... there’s nothing happening.
Nobody really cares about the design of the insides of books because it’s black. They all look exactly the same but just very thick books, right?
Astrid: And then, I was in Majorca, in a little town in Majorca called Deia, at one of my best friends at the time called Laya. At The time, she collected every single issue of Interview, she subscribed to Interview Magazine. I think at the time it was designed by Tibor Kalman. So we were just hanging out in her room and I see Interview Magazine, and I’m like, “Oh, what’s that?” So I started skimming through it and I’m like, “Oh my God,” and I do remember, especially one spread made with lemons and there were lemons in a page and just big tie all over. And I had never encountered anything like it. It just was mind blowing. It’s like, “Oh wow.” It’s like the content just jumped out of the page.
It was a feeling, almost like I could feel ... it was really weird. So go from the literature, black and white, just type book to this, it just brought the content to life, and I fell madly in love with this, and I’m like, what is this? She said, “Well, it’s called graphic design.” And I’m like, “Oh, graphic design.” I didn’t know that was a profession. I didn’t know what it was. Then, that led to me, deciding, “Okay, whatever this is, this is what I want to do the rest of my life.” Then, my first job was eventually as a bike courier. There was a magazine at the time called EGM in Spain, which was a bit of ... the closest thing to The Face magazine.
I approached the guy, like I normally do, and I always say to my students, “Go knock on doors,” and that’s exactly what I did. So I knocked on his door and said, “Look, I love your magazine. Can I work for you?” And it coincided that he was actually leaving the magazine to set up his own studio and he said ... and he was actually literally moving out, packing his books into boxes, and he said, “Do you want to join me in my new studio?” And I said, “Well, yes, of course.” I had no experience whatsoever. I didn’t even know what graphic design was, but whatever it was, I just kind of hopped onto this ... got into his moving boxes and moved with him to the thing. So my first job was to archive all of his work. He was a well known Catalan designer. This was in Madrid.
And my job was to carry ... this was pre-technology, everything. So my job was to carry litho plates. First, the discs from his studio, which was him, and another person and me to the repro house. And then from the repro house, carry the plates to the printing press and then take the flyers, once they were printed, to the clubs, because he did a lot of flyers for clubs and posters for bag and music superstars that came to Madrid. So it was a dream job for me because it allowed me to drive very fast in my Piaggio bike from one place to the other, which I really enjoyed. It also allowed me to understand the process of design and how it works. And I learned by watching, by watching and without knowing anything and by looking at him work.
So it was a fascinating moment. So that was my very, very first job, which wasn’t even as a designer, it was as a bike courier.
Astrid: That was my first introduction to the graphic design industry.
Mario: Yeah, how do you, let’s say, compare that part to then, you also actually like having a formal education in graphic design, how did those two come together?
Astrid: Well, I did this bike courier job for a while and then after that, my other job as a designer was for a sculpture. So he was an artist, a well-known sculpture in Madrid, still is. We actually kept in touch throughout the years. That’s really interesting because I was looking for a job. So after the bike courier thing, he never paid me, my former boss. I think I stayed for six months but then my life circumstances changed and I needed to get paid, so without any experience, because I was a bike courier, so I didn’t have a portfolio, but I did have Interview Magazine under my arm and interestingly or coincidentally, the only place in Madrid where this magazine was sold was underneath the studio where I had the interview.
So I bought an issue, walked up to the interview. First question is, “Can we see your portfolio?” And I said, “I don’t have a portfolio,” but they said, “What’s that thing that you’re carrying under your arm?” And I said, “Oh this is Interview Magazine. It’s my favorite magazine.” And I showed it to them and they didn’t know it. They absolutely loved the magazine. I got the job because of Interview. Thank you Tibor Kalman because it was designed by him, not by me and they liked it. So obviously, what they could see is that I was incredibly passionate about design and I didn’t have the experience and I know that they interviewed loads of other people that had incredible portfolios.
Then, I asked him ... I was so surprised they hired me and I said, “But why did you hired me?” And they said, “Well, because of your passion and we know that you don’t have any experience, but you can learn because you can tell. So that’s why we hired you.” So that was my second job and that my role there, or my job description, which of course, there wasn’t job descriptions at the time. My role was assistant cutter, which means that I just cuts and cuts and cuts things were done by hands, with letter set. There was the very first Apple that we just used to print, so I went to do photocopies a lot and just mount things by hand and just cuts and cuts. In fact, I cut my finger, the famous designer’s cut. So one of my fingers is slashed from there. So, I spent think two years roughly working there and then, I decided, “I really like this I’m going to study.” So I kind of started working first.
Yeah. I had a bit of a minimal experience. I have a designer cousin in Trieste, in Italy and I mentioned to her, “Oh there’s this school called Central Saint Martins that I’ve heard of. What do you think? Do you think I should apply?” And she said, “Absolutely. Go for it.” And I’m like, “Okay, but I don’t really have a portfolio.” And she said, “Just apply and then, see.” So I applied and expecting to never get in, and then miraculously, I was accepted and I had to go to London for an interview from Madrid and I got into the school and that was my first experience in design education. And that was quite an incredible, amazing experience of studying my BA at Central Saint Martins. I just learned a lot and just how to get on with stuff on your own, because it was a very open ... it is in the UK, a very ... you’re your own teacher type thing.
The tutors are your mentors, not really someone that tells you what to do because in literature and philosophy, there is the guy, the teacher that speaks from a podium type thing, and this was the exact opposite. It’s workshops, hands on, there’s projects to do every week or every two weeks, and you just get on with it on your own and you learn almost more from your classmates than you do from the tutor and you get inspired from them and you think, “Oh my God, this guy is a genius, sitting next to me, and he’s so inspiring.” So yeah, that was a really amazing, wonderful experience.
Mario: Yeah. I read one of your interviews. You mentioned something in the lines of, “The best teachers don’t really teach.” What do you mean by that?
Astrid: Yeah, I think my best teachers were the books I read. I’ve learned so much by reading literature books, and I say that my best teachers are definitely every single one of the authors I’ve read. This is something I would ... I think that designers don’t read enough and a lot of designers just take inspiration from graphic design, and I think that’s a big mistake in a way because the world is such a big place and design is such a small thing, within the bigger picture of things. I think it’s important to just get inspiration from everything and everywhere and not so much graphic design, because that informs your work.
I’ve been following Astrid’s work for over a decade and while diving into her universe more intently as a preparation for this interview, one thing became clear. First and foremost, Astrid is a perennial student with abundant curiosity. Besides design work, she regularly contributes to creative industry’s discourse among her peers and up and coming talent. So I’ve asked Astrid to share her advice for individuals who are starting out in the creative industry.
Astrid: I love mentoring and teaching because I find it incredibly rewarding and I learn a lot from students. Now, at this point in my life, I feel like I actually have things to say and before, of course, as you grow up, you feel insecure and you don’t really know what you’re doing and it’s not that I know what I’m doing now because I don’t, but I do feel like I can share the experience. I can’t share not knowledge, I wouldn’t call it knowledge because I think I’m a student, a perennial student and every day I wake up, I think, what am I going to learn today? So that kind of perennial student, being a perennial student, I think is a very important thing to have, to just feel that every day you can learn something.
Astrid: Because the day, Mario, in which I stopped learning is the day in which I have to stop being a designer. Do you know what I mean? If I ever feel that I know enough, that’s a bad sign. So you’re going to have to call me again and say, “Astrid, I’m going to remind you that you send this in this podcast. Okay?”
Mario: Sounds good.
Astrid: Yeah. There’s many things I’d say to students. I guess one is we work with people, not portfolios. So you can have an incredibly sleek, amazing portfolio, but at the end of the day ... and maybe this comes from my own personal experience from the stories I just told you, is that it’s about your attitude and your passion and your, I think humility is a very ... your curiosity and staying humble and not taking yourself too seriously. I think ... I had a tutor called Jeff Willis at the Royal College of Art and he used to say, “Guys, it’s just graphic design” and it was just so refreshing to hear that because we were all obsessing about, or hysterical or really worried about this or that. And he just said that over and over and over. It just helped to frame things.
It’s like, we’re not going to die. It’s not the end of the world if the kerning is wrong. We’re not doctors. It’s not that we’re killing patients on the table. Do you know what I mean? It’s a different type of ... and it’s almost like a mantra and it has stayed with me ever since, it’s just graphic design. So when things get complicated or whatever, I think it’s just graphic design, so it’s okay. Do you know what I mean? And it’s not to take away importance from our profession, of course, but I think it’s important not to get too precious about our work because we have tendency to get really attached to our work. Now, I have a bit more of ... well, a lot more of elephant skin.
I worked almost like an artist and thinking that the graphic design is an art and if a client came and said, “Make it blue instead of red,” that was the biggest offense and insult ever. It’s like, how can you question the color or how can you question the typeface that it took me a week to select. That’s I guess a learning process, but I’m steering away from your question. So I guess curiosity, humility, absorb everything like a sponge, because everybody you meet, every place you go to is kind of a capsule or a pearl of wisdom. The more pearls of wisdom you’re capable of absorbing, the better designer and the better person and the richer you’re going to be. Not in terms of money, but definitely in terms of everything else. I’d say also follow your heart and never give up.
Mario: Yeah, and let’s say on a bit more practical level, let’s say somebody has a good attitude and the mindset, and I guess that probably covers 80% of it already, but when you’re considering someone to hire, especially let’s say maybe a junior or somebody who will enter, is going to get a chance to work professionally, is there something that you maybe see on the market or that it’s maybe missing or you wish that they would be ready either with some practical skill or some other part of the equation?
Astrid: That willingness to learn is very, very important, and it’s something that you can immediately detect if the person that you’re interviewing or whatever is there for the money or there, because they want to add the name to their portfolio or whatever, or actually, have a real genuine will to learn and to hone their skills, and to improve who they are as professionals. I think that’s for me is a very important. So it’s attitude, I guess it boils down to the attitude and to what I mentioned before of, you can have a sleek portfolio, but it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, similarly to what the guy in Madrid with me did, he hired me for my attitude, not for my portfolio. I didn’t even have one. I would probably hire a person who’s attitude I think is right, over an amazing portfolio, if the attitude is not right. Of course, if you have an amazing portfolio and an amazing attitude, that’s great, right?
Mario: Yeah. Yeah.
Astrid: That’s what you’re looking for but I think for me, attitude makes 80% of it, roughly and 20% would be the portfolio, which of course has to be fucking amazing, but it’s a 20%, it’s not everything.
Mario: I think also today, because a lot of things are changing faster and really that flexibility to learn and that type of mindset or that type of quote-unquote soft skill package is more important because that makes you actually more versatile and adaptable.
Astrid: Absolutely. Yeah.
Mario: Actually, it’s almost like those quote-unquote soft skills are something that should be in some way almost embraced or practiced as a skill because I mean, some of those things are often, let’s say God-given or we get them through your character or upbringing and culture in society or mix of all these different things, but in some way, those things can also be mastered. Same as like where you learn typography skills. I think the same way you can probably work on those other parts is soft skills.
Astrid: I think that the soft skills are very, very important, and as you said, things are changing so fast. So you need to, even if you’re say a print based designer and what you love is designing books and magazine, it’s really important to do ... or at least know a bit about motion and things like that, and digital and as a creative director now, I always look for those skills and whoever I’m going to hire because ... but it’s not easy to get an all round or designer that is good at all these things, because nor ... typically, would get one that is amazing at editorial design, but not so good at digital, and it’s harder to get that kind of holistic designer that is good at all of them, and of course, it’s harder to find and when you find it then it’s great.
I guess it’s also ... what I look for personally is concept-led designers that think first and design later because the problem with some of these soft skills, if you focus on them too much, then you lose sight of potentially of ... the idea is the most important thing, right? The concept and then, the rest is attrezzo. The rest is whether it moves or not is secondary to having an idea. So I think the idea first and design later is important, but definitely while you’re young and have the time, hone those skills as much as possible, especially in this ever-changing world, as you said, that we’re going through.
At this point in our conversation, I was curious to hear about Astrid’s work routines. Here’s what she shared with me.
Astrid: Well, now, I spend my time, unfortunately Zooming a lot, but I think, the work culture has changed so much due to the pandemic and it’s happened to all of us. I think it’s ... I can talk about it to how it was before, which was really different to what it is now, in which we are doing things online, just most of the time. Let’s take away this two year hiatus of pandemic. So typically there’s say a brief arrives, there’s a client, a project and my process is usually ... well, first, after asking a lot of questions to the client and having intense conversations to really try to understand the brief and spotting holes in the brief and maybe rewriting the brief, if needed or if we think that it needs rewriting, et cetera. So there’s a moment there, let’s call it the brief moment, which can be more or less prolonged.
Then from there, it goes typically into a research phase and this is not an ABC, but roughly, into a research phase followed by creative, which means it could either be me just coming up with ideas or sometimes, I would sit down with the entire team and have a brainstorm based on the research we’ve done, and I think that because at the end of the day, design is collaborative by nature, ideas can come from anyone. So I’m not very particularly precious about me having to be the ideas person, because if the intern had an amazing idea, then great, we’re going to go with that. So I’m not fussy in that ways. I know it has to be my idea, and I think that in fact, many times ideas come from that dialogue that is generated, internal dialogue that is generated in between us as a studio, and of course, the client’s input.
So that’s what I called the research type phase. Then, it’s the standard presented to the client and then, them coming back saying, we love it and we’re going to pay you shit loads money for it and everybody is happy forever after. That’s the typical routine.
Mario: Very reassuring for everybody who’s considering joining the profession. Yeah, but then let’s say on a day to day level, what does your day consists of?
Astrid: I’m normally involved in 101 project. Besides my day job or say client based work, I have self-initiated project as well, always on the table. For example, I’ve just been invited to be the president of ISTD, which is the International Society of Typographic Designer. I think it was announced yesterday or the day before, and I’ve been very, very busy with this, talking to the board members and charting out things that we can do to push the society forward in these times of change and how to make it more relevant and meaningful and engaging and all of that. So this is really exciting. So this is one, just to name one of the things, so there’s always things that keep me incredibly busy. I’m also drafting or outlining the course, which I’m teaching at the RCA in May with Adrian Shaughnessy.
So I’m actually speaking with Adrian today, after this call, to put that together and I’m going to be advertising this, by the way, using your podcast to advertise the course on Twitter, and it’s already in the RCA. It’s about editorial design, so that’s another thing. So typically, I have many of these things and one big self-initiated project, which I’m working on with the Pentagram partners with Uret who is a former client of Atlas, my previous studio, and he’s a hydraulic tile manufacturer based in Majorca, and that’s a super exciting project that we’re working on with seven of the Pentagram partners. So I’m also plowing through the organization of all of this with photographers and it has to be organized in Majorca so there’s a lot of work happening on that side of thing with art direction and logistics, et cetera.
So my typical day is a lot of emails and then, I try to make ... to keep at least one or two hours of thinking time, and these hours don’t need to be ... these hours are generally not sitting at the computer and it’s either going for a walk or just sitting on a sofa and staring at the roof type thing. I mean it’s, “Okay, it’s time to think,” because if not ... and especially now with pandemic, it’s easy to get absorbed into the computer vortex, to get lost into ... just staring at the screen. I think the screen, I don’t know about you, but it has this effect of ... I don’t know if it’s the light or something. It’s just kind of really hard to escape from it. So I think that off screen time is very, very important ideally, during the day, not only at nighttime when I finish my work at six, but to leave some space there, so as not to enter that vortex.
Astrid: Then speaking to my designers about jobs and talking to them, and of course now, this is done virtually. So I think there’s more time spent because it’s harder to explain things ... I find it harder to explain things during a call than when I’m sitting with someone sketching things out or actually having a conversation, because it’s really different. So it’s a bit more time consuming.
Astrid: So that’s how I typically spend weekdays.
Mario: So it sounds that there’s a big mix of more management direction and leadership then also kind of time for actual, I guess, concepting and ideation and thinking. Do you also do classic graphic design there, like sit and layout something or are you mostly directing?
Astrid: I thought that we are doomed as designers because that the more ... in a good way. I mean, I don’t say it negatively, it’s like a joke, but the more senior you become in age and as a designer, then the more management you inevitably have to do, right? Because you’re either running your own studio and busy with the financing side of stuff and budgeting and new business talking to clients, et cetera. So that’s very, very time consuming. Sometimes I looked at my junior designers or midway to seniors or whatever and thought, “Oh gosh, I just wished I was a senior in my own team,” because they have the fun bits which is designing and I’m stuck with doing all the admins of things.
Astrid: So I’d say maybe ... I mean, if I had to break it down, say in a percentage, I’d say 60% of the time or sometimes even 70 of the time is admin/directions/finances and 30 to 40% designing, 40 being on the good days, but I still am very, very hands on because I can’t let go. So I always look at projects and correct, for example, the kerning if I think it’s wrong. Do you know what I mean?
Astrid: And I need to do things myself because if not ... and not always, of course, but when I can, I do get hands on. So I don’t know, to give you an example, 413 Magazine, which is a supplement we designed for Port Magazine.
Mario: Yeah. It’s beautiful.
Astrid: Basically. So there, I got really hands-on and basically, designed every single page because ... and I kind of tried to make the time for it. So when there’s things that I really like or really want to do, I make sure that I make the time for it, and this doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do the other stuff, but when something is more precious to me, I do have a tendency to do it on the weekends, let’s say because it’s the time I have,
Mario: You’ve mentioned this pandemic kind of changed the world culture in many ways and almost everybody had to adapt in some way. I’m curious now, after you’ve been also doing this for a while, do you have any tips or lessons learned on managing or directing remote teams?
Astrid: Mario, if you know the answer to that, please tell me because actually, I really don’t. I think one thing that really helped, for example, at Pentagram with my previous project manager is that ... I remember her coming in and saying, “Astrid, there’s way too much noise.” I said, “But what do you mean too much noise?” “Yes. email noise.” So she introduced us to Slack, which I knew about, but I hadn’t actually used properly. And Slack was a game changer in terms ... because everything stays there in a channel. I’m not good with technology in general, and it was like a bit like, “Wow, wow, this is a great way to work,” and you can get people, all the teams together, even if they’re not in your team, your external freelancers or strategists or whatever.
So that became a very efficient way of working, especially during the pandemic, because I had never used it before the pandemic. So that was a great tool, I’m probably very late to the Slack thing because I remember Natasha Jen, my ex-partner saying, “Oh, Slack is my life, and I couldn’t work with ...” and I’m like, “Really, but Slack, what is it about it?” I just didn’t understand it and now, I did. So that really, I guess, is one of the things that helped. The rest is ... I actually don’t have an answer to this. I still find that two years down the line draining in this vortex of Zooms and screen fatigue is just really exhausting and tiring. At the same time, there’s been a cultural paradigm in the way in which we work, and I think collectively we realized life is important.
It’s not only work, work, work. That nine to five mentality has dramatically changed and I think that’s a very good thing actually. I hope that post pandemic, whenever it finishes, we learn from this because who would’ve thought everything, that has happened in the last two years and I hope we learn from it and keep the good things, and not, as soon as the pandemic goes, revert to everybody in the office, Monday to Friday, nine to five or nine to seven or nine to 10 or whatever. I think that would be completely wrong, and I think one of the things that pandemic has definitely done is developing trust that ... and because we have these amazing technologies that we have, we are able to work remotely from anywhere. So I had freelance designers living in Italy.
And I don’t know if I would’ve necessarily trusted ... and I don’t mean to sound evil but trusted that they would be working not at the beach during work hours, whereas the pandemic has proved that we can actually be incredibly efficient and perhaps even happier by having those days in which you don’t have to commute to work or go to work, and you’re in the comfort of your own house, drinking your own tea and eating your own food or whatever with your cat or whatever. It’s a completely different ... I think that’s a great thing that has happened, but to answer your question in terms of what I’ve learned on how to manage teams, I think it’s a tricky one, but it’s important to keep the team together, and one of the difficulties to do this online is to basically organize more meetings.
So we would have meetings say Mondays mornings, all the team followed up by individual calls per project with the relevant designers or strategists, et cetera. So in the end, after two years of going on and on like this, it actually became quite organized, in some ways. I even say not better, but definitely some things improve.
Astrid: Also, realizing that maybe we don’t have to do so many calls because at the beginning of the pandemic, maybe we were on calls ... unnecessary calls all the time and learning how to manage that, and maybe we can solve this in another way that is not a call because it just creates more screen fatigue. So yeah, I guess, it’s still work in progress.
Mario: Yeah, I mean the hope is I think what you’ve said that we’re going to take the best of this situation and incorporate it into ongoing work culture, and of course, also taking the best of what we had before, because there’s certainly some things which are missing from only this type of screen, remote communication.
Astrid: God, absolutely. One of the things I missed for example is a printer and I didn’t have a printer at home. I actually didn’t buy one during the two years because I’ve been so busy, but one year, at least in London we spent in complete lockdown, practically and without printing things as a designer, and I realized, okay, one, I used to print too much. We all did. So to cut down on the printing, we don’t need to print that much. However, printing is essential for our magazine, especially for printed pieces. You need to print things in terms of also concept ideation and stuff like that. Put things on a board, talk to the team.
Astrid: So I think a lot was lost in that sense, but equally, you realized, “Okay, maybe I printed a bit too much and was it necessary?” So yeah, I think it’s about learning. It’s been such a massive learning curve for everyone in every way, in the good and in the bad.
Mario: And could you explain a bit further how your team is organized? Just the amount of people or full hires versus freelancers or just how is your studio set up at the moment?
Astrid: So right now, because of the times we’re living, it’s just me and freelance designers, so that’s it and the quantity depends on the amount of work I have on the table and the amount of designers that I require for particular things. I am actually enjoying, being more hands-on with the design at this moment because I design a lot more things myself, so that’s nice. I’m really enjoying it, so it depends. I can be working with one designer or I can be working with four or five freelance designers, but not in the same place.
Astrid: The ones that are in London however, we do meet and I make it a point of trying to meet, not as much as possible, but when necessary. Also, because it’s just nice to meet up and have a coffee and say, “Hey, we’re human beings. We’re not screens.”
Astrid: So that’s nice and ... when of course, we could, like now in between lockdowns and stuff like that. So my studio is very organic and flexible at the moment.
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As an industry, we are often shy to talk about money, pricing ourselves appropriately and confidently seems to be a persisting challenge for many creatives. Here, I’ve asked Astrid how she manages that mysterious and somewhat confusing topic of managing your finances as a creative professional.
Astrid: I remember when I was younger, a very young designer, I was scared to send invoices, just very insecure at the time of asking for money because I thought in a way, is it worthless or how do I ask for this? How do I ask someone to pay me for what I’ve done? I think that maybe a lot of young designers go through some kind of insecurity with ... and also how much do I charge? Is it how much is my work worth? Actually, I was watching a movie in Netflix called Worth that is pretty interesting. What is your worth, right? You develop ... as you develop more confidence and more knowledge and everything then, of course you’re worth more. So I think money in general is something that we’re ... one of the problems in the design industry is we’re not taught that in school.
So my personal experience was leaving college and not knowing what an invoice is, what a VAT number is, what national insurance or just anything, like nothing. I had to discover everything on my own, because I didn’t know, and it’s like, “Oh my God, what’s NNI or NMFFA, doing all those number thing and I think colleges, some of them are doing it now, kind of these, you can’t run a business without economy, without finances. Yeah, I mean, if you’re the kind of designer that is not interested in or doesn’t have the ambition of running your own studio and you kind of know that and you think, “Oh, I just want to work for others and that’s fine, because you don’t really maybe necessarily need that skill.”
However, if you do run your own studio or have the plan to, I’d say it’s one of the most important things to learn because you can be an amazing designer, but if you don’t bill it then you’re going to starve, right? And we all need to pay our bills unless you’re an incredibly rich person who does it for fun. So finances is a really big, important aspect. I find it personally a bit challenging because I don’t love numbers. I’ve kind of failed maths at school, so it’s not my forte. I love design and finances is one of the things that, “Oh God, do I have to deal with this now?” Yes, you have to deal with this now, and as a matter of fact, you need to deal with it every day.
So maybe instead of putting it aside ... I used to have a tendency of leaving it a bit to the side or doing it once a month, the least I had to deal with it the better. Whereas now, I take the approach of doing that first and putting that first and then, the rest, which one helps me to get it out of the way sooner, instead of having this kind of black clouds hanging over me like, “Oh God, I have to deal with all of these things.” I deal with it now, so it’s done, right?
Astrid: It’s done and dusted with everything. I’m also much more prudent in terms of getting contracts signed and things like this before starting any job, getting an advanced payment, which took me years to learn how to do, but now, I just will not start working for anyone unless I get from 30 to 50% in advance of the job. So it’s just this kind of things. Also, equally these things you just learn on the way there’s no manual for it and nobody ... I haven’t been to a financial course or I mean, it’s just things that you learn as you go. So financing, which means ... in financing and forecasting, which is also very important, is that okay, one thing is the finances of this month, but what about next month, and what about the third month, and what about the fourth month, and what about the six months?
Because I can be very rich this month, hypothetically, but then, next month I’m not going to have a single penny and how do I calculate all of that? So profit and loss and all of these things is essential to run your own studio. How do I do it by just getting on with it? When I have project managers, they help ... for bigger projects, they help a lot with the management side of things of that, but I work of course, side by side with the project managers to organize all of this. Now, that I don’t have a project manager, I do it alone. So from sending the proposal to ... which of course I did on my own anyway, but sending proposals to following up to ... but it runs very smoothly now, and guess that that’s because I’ve learned the tricks somehow.
And of course, there’s occasionally, some thing that might go wrong, but I find it easier to do now than ... after years of trial and error than I used to. Also, maybe overcoming my fear of the numbers and realizing that look without numbers, I’m going to starve. So what do I prefer to deal with the numbers or starve, where the answer is obvious, right?
Mario: Yeah. Yeah.
Astrid: And you need to keep an eye on ... especially when you have others working for you, you need to make a profit. One of the mistakes I did in the past, I love the project so much. I spent way too many hours on them and time is money, as we all know. So it’s important to make a profit on jobs and to not break even, but of course, at different moments in your life, maybe you just do things for free, and I still do them sometimes for free. If my finances are okay, then yes, I can do things for free, and I’m very happy to, for charity projects or NGOs or whatever. It’s a balance. It’s a question of finding that kind of balance and I don’t have the answer. There’s no formula to it.
I think it’s just being careful and organized and paying attention to the numbers and forecasting is important. It’s very important. The war chest type thing. It’s important to have those savings just in case things turn sour. Look at what happened during the pandemic. A lot of studios had to close and that’s because if you don’t think ahead, things can happen like a pandemic. After the pandemic, we might all be a bit ... slightly more prudent with things.
Astrid: No, I guess it’s always a challenge and yeah, how to invoice and what, but yeah I guess you just ... as I said, you just learn.
Mario: Yeah, and it’s trial and error in a lot of ways often. You try with one project how to even value yourself, because you can almost make an experiment. You do your usual rate, but for the other one you can try to double it or five X it and just see how it goes. You never know where your actual market value is before you also play in some way and make mistakes.
Astrid: Of course, I remember I gave a lot of talks in my life and lectures and things and it was talking to a designer friend once Sonya Dyakova and she said, “But Astrid, are you getting paid for your talks?” And I said no, and she told me a story and I realized, “Oh gosh, I can actually ask for money,” but because preparing a talk is very time consuming, then you have to travel to wherever it is and they pay for the flight or whatever. It takes up a lot of your time. So even small things like that and then, I learned who doesn’t ask, doesn’t get, right? So now, I wouldn’t give a talk if I’m not compensated for it because it’s just too time-consuming and it means three days or four or depending on where you have to travel to, away from my family and from my work and those hours, I could have been either cycling with my son, which is precious time and there’s no value to that or billing things. So you learn, yeah, as you said. We learn as we go.
As professionals, by definition, we need to be at the top of our game. That means embracing that spirit of a perennial student that Astrid mentioned at the start of this conversation. However, day to day obligations can easily take all our waking moments, so that can be easier said than done. I’ve asked Astrid how she manages that and finds dedicated time for growth in the business of our modern lives.
Astrid: I think that every morning I wake up, I think, “Okay, what’s going to happen today,” because my life is pretty eventful and there’s always things happening of one kind or the other. So I guess that ... I think it’s circumstances that just get thrown to you and you either take them or leave them and either learn from them or don’t and things can happen to you, but if you don’t learn from them, then it’s in a way like, if they didn’t happen, you know what I mean? So I think it’s important to stay alert and to be grounded and to be aware of what happens and why, and to say, “Okay, what have I learned from this?”
Astrid: And to even look at yourself in the mirror and ask the question, what did I learn? What did I learn from this experience? Whether it’s a good or a bad experience because that’s when you start thinking about it. Also then, this is on a professional level and I guess ... but also personal because things happen to us and we have relationships and we have friendships and we have family and I think it’s a constant cycle of change and learning and progress. It’s interesting because with my old time friends, we speak about always trying to find the right balance, for example, in between life and finances and life as in family and work and how do you juggle all these things?
Because it’s, I think, for all of us. It’s like, “Oh gosh, how do you ...” we were just talking about this before you started recording, “How do we juggle all these things?” It’s a multitasking, constant operation and we all, in a way, have dreams of how we would like things to be, but then things get thrown at us that we didn’t expect, which changes things, and one thing is having a dream and the other one is what actually happens, the reality and how ... and then, you need to deal with that, and it’s like, “Okay, but this is not quite what I expected.” And you just get on with it and you do the best you can under whatever circumstance you’re in. So I guess that’s the constant learning of ... but I think it’s also really important to put yourself in a position where you can actually absorb things, in pre-pandemic, for example, meeting people.
Making sure that you have those conversations, engaging with people. I love this about you, Mario, that you do this podcast. I mean, for me, what this represents is about connecting and reaching out and knocking on doors and having ... and I think that that’s so important to do and I really admire you and your initiative for doing this, and I think that-
Mario: Thank you.
Astrid: Precisely this that you’re doing is a way of ... it’s exactly this example. It’s a way of learning. It’s a way of reaching out and having a conversation and I’m learning from you and I hope you are from me. Do you know what I mean?
Astrid: It’s a dialogue, and I think that keeping this dialogue most on a professional level, on a personal level and at every level in our life, even with our neighbors next door, is really important because that’s how we learn. It’s not only from graphic design. Do you know what I mean? The more people we meet, the more people we talk to, the richer we become as human beings. And I think that growing ... and I think you phrased it really nicely, growing as a person and professionally. For me, they’re the same thing, right? It’s about personal and professional growth. It’s not about only professional. It’s about growing as a person becoming a better human being.
Learning how to be calmer or more patient in my case, because I’m very impatient. Do you know what I mean? All those things. So yeah, it’s constant learning. I don’t think ... also, I guess it’s a character thing. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop what I hope. I’m never going to stop learning. Keeping alert also with what goes on around you, reading books, going to exhibitions, going for walks and just enjoying nature. I love nature and I need to be in touch with nature because it’s what grounds me and just reminding myself that we’re just a spec of sands in the universe and just looking at the stars and without getting all lyrical, but life is a beautiful place and it’s very short and we have to make the most of it while we are here.
David Whyte, beautifully observed in his book, Consolations, quote, “Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work, a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then, to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.” Astrid seems to have a nomadic heart and speaking five languages and having worked on five continents in various creative capacities is just a piece of that puzzle. As we all know that inherent change, a necessary element of a rich life can be challenging and it’s probably more frequent for a nomadic soul. Here, we discuss the topics of change and challenges and how we can orient ourselves during those phases.
Astrid: I like change. I think it helps me to keep alert and to keep myself on the edge, on my toes a little. It helps me not to get complacent or not to fall asleep in a way. I’ve always associated movement and change with that kind of awareness of just being alert. Change, and changing, in bold capital letters, is a great opportunity to learn and to grow because without change, if it’s a flat line, then it’s kind of a bit hard. You don’t really learn the big life lessons if nothing ever happens in your life, right? I mean it’s in moments of change, whether personal professional, that life changes, and sometimes it’s put into parenthesis in a way, and you could look at yourself from the outside, almost like a voyeuristic type experience and understand certain things about yourself and it’s moments generally of personal growth.
Because getting out of your comfort zone in one way or another, or having events that are out of your control, that take over your life, then those are moments in which ... I associate those with definite growth, in one way or another. Normally, and I used to say this to lots of people, it’s only through pain that we grow and change doesn’t necessarily have to be painful. However, at least at a personal level, for me, pain means gross. I’m not saying this as in a masochistic kind of way, like go through pain, but if you haven’t experienced pain, deep pain, I don’t think that you can really grow as a human being. Do you know what I mean?
And likewise, in the good ... if you haven’t experienced profound happiness then ... and similarly, it’s like, you need to go through this perhaps intense ... maybe it’s a question of, I usually say, I like using the word soul a lot. It’s like if you live with soul, then you inevitably will live a bit more intensely and absorb things.
Mario: And more vulnerable.
Astrid: Exactly, more exposed, more vulnerable, but that’s great because that means you’re open.
Mario: Yeah. You’re open to an adventure and maybe seeing life that way versus just something that is so controlled.
Astrid: Or stagnant. Yeah. I mean, predictability horrorizes me and I guess that if I did one thing, the same thing over and over again, every day I would get extremely bored and I just couldn’t ... and actually, looking at my timeline, not that I have one, but looking back in my life, there’s normally periods of 10 years interestingly, like a decade here, a decade there, a decade there. I guess that maybe 10 years is my time of perhaps ... when I get itchy, it’s because it’s time to move or it’s because I might be ... or I feel that I might be coming slightly complacent or slightly comfortable. And that feeling of being comfortable, I don’t really like. I mean, of course, I like to be comfortable. We all do, right? I’m not a masochist, but it might mean that I need a challenge, a new challenge, something different.
Mario: Yeah, and I think that’s such a peculiar point and it’s not one point in time. Usually, it’s a phase, but how do you, with yourself, I guess, clear up or realize, okay, are you just a little bit, quote-unquote bored at the moment, versus this is actually a real signal for a real change, and then, how do you get that bravery to make the change? Because a lot of us ... I mean, I can start with myself, but I feel a lot of people have this itch, which kind happens and shows that, okay, there’s a part of you calling for something, but then it’s like, we’re so good at renegotiating that almost ... one of the most realest feelings maybe we haven’t have, but we are so good at renegotiating into something like, “Oh, I’m just this or that,” or spoil, or just rationalizing it any way possible. Do you have any thoughts on how to lean in or go through that?
Astrid: Yeah. I think that itch is a nice way of putting it. I think when I feel those itches ... and I guess it’s a gut thing. Itches of this nature of the ones we’re talking about are deep itches. So one thing is like, “Oh I’m not happy in my job today.” Okay. That’s not ... or I hate this project I’m doing at the moment. So that can be an itchy feeling, but it’s not a profound itch. A deeper itch is a different kind of itch, and I think that when your body tells you and when your heart tells you ... it’s almost physical for me, at least, when it’s deep. It’s almost becomes physical. You cannot not hear it. You cannot not feel it, every day for a prolonged period of time.
Then, that’s the time that you might need to stop procrastinating and confront your worst fears and say, “Look, it’s time for a change and embrace that change.” And what you said is so important, to be courageous because I think courage is essential. Without courage, there’s nothing. We can’t move forward. If we don’t have the courage to embrace the unknown, and it’s very scary, and I guess, it’s scary at any age, whether you’re 20, 25, 30, 35, 50, 60.
Astrid: It’s the fear of not knowing what is around the corner? Is it going to go well? Is it not? All those things that we might be thinking in those moments? I think that’s one thing I’m lucky to have, which is this courage thing because I follow my heart, and as I said before, I think it’s really important to follow your heart. When your heart tells you crystal clear, “This is not right,” I think you need to have the courage to follow your heart, regardless of the consequences. If you do follow your heart in a genuine way, things will work out in one way or another. It might not be easy, and it might be of course, a struggle, but I think, I really do, it’s almost like karmic and I’m not a particularly a spiritual person, but I do believe in some kind of self-destiny, and if we follow our own paths with honesty and genuinely then ... and we have to be true to ourselves and to who we are and to have the courage to carry our dreams through, that’s so important.
Mario: I completely agree with what you’re saying and it is ... on a personal level, it’s exactly that, that’s how it is, really. I think at the beginning of this topic, there’s the followup to your answer, which is okay, if your heart is leading you, but you’re not courageous enough, basically, what’s going to happen is pain.
Mario: And maybe it’s going to take a lot of time, but at some point, enough pain to actually make the change. So in case you don’t have the courage or I guess insight or something to listen to that itch in the end, hopefully in some way, you almost get an opportunity for ... do over in some ways, some form of suffering, which really pushes you to do that.
Astrid: Like a catalyst or something, yeah, absolutely. I think ... look, my son told me, “Mom, you know what ...” and he’d said a phrase, Mario, that I always say to myself and to other. He said, “Mom, you know what?” And I said ... he’s 15 years old, almost 15. He said, “When I die or when I get old, there’s one thing that I really want to make sure of,” and I’m, “What is it?” And he said, “I never want to regret anything.” And I was so proud of my son for saying that and he was saying, “I never want to regret not having done the things I wanted to do.” And I said, “Marco, you’re my son. Of course, you carry my DNA.” And that’s it, he just said, what I always say. He’s never heard me say ... well, I don’t think he’s heard me saying it to others, but I’m a firm believer of that.
I just want to make sure that by the time I’m X years old, I don’t look back and think, “Oh, shit, I should have taken that opportunity.” Do you know what I mean?
Astrid: You have to do those things, because if you don’t follow your heart, just essentially killing yourself and life is really short and the more I become older, the more you realize, so we need to stay alert and embrace those moments.
Mario: Yeah. Do you contemplate or think, is there something next for you or is there something else besides graphic design that you want to accomplish?
Astrid: Yeah. Well there’s three things. One, a writer, two, a fisher woman, as in going fishing and spend my days in the sea and three, a gardener. Those are three things that are always ... because I don’t know, for me, they represent all the calm that I don’t have. Not that I like fish particularly, and actually, I don’t think I would enjoy the fishing experience, but as a metaphor type thing, they kind of were ... the writer is a bit different, because I actually do writes about design for design magazines and things, but I want to write on novel. This is something that is always on my mind every day.
Mario: Is there something for you, if you contemplate something after graphic design, almost like partly it can be, let’s say a retirement plan, but not just in that, but more like something that you really regret not doing to connect it with the previous question?
Astrid: Right now, I’m listening. I’m in a moment in my life in which I’m listening and what I mean by that, and I’m going to use a sentence by Derek Birdsall, one of my favorite designers of all times and a designer that I personally stalked. Stalked as in, I used to send him emails and go and meet him and have tea and cookies in his house, because I absolutely adored him and he’s a wonderful and an incredibly interesting man as well. I interviewed him for magazines and we stayed in touch and Derek once said, “Astrid, here’s a beautiful metaphor of a sculpture,” and he said a sculpture was ... it’s not exactly like this, but it’s something along these lines, “A sculpture was asking, the actual sculpture, before it was being built, what do you want to become? What do you want to be?”
You need to listen to that before you actually make it because the more you listen, the more you will know, and I thought it was a beautiful metaphor, both on a professional level, as a creative, but also at a personal level, because ... so right now, I find myself in ... because of my life and personal circumstances and stuff in a moment in which I actually don’t really know 100% what I want to do next besides of course having to pay my bills, but I don’t have a crystal clear answer and it’s okay, and I’m enjoying this moment of almost peace and restfulness and I don’t know. And it’s okay because I know I will and the answer will come to me because I’m actively listening.
You need to be very active when you listen. It’s not a passive thing. If you’re passive, then you’re just not going to hear anything, but if you’re actively listening, I know the answer will come. So right now, I don’t know, so we might need another podcast a few years down the line when I wrote to my best selling novel. Then, you can interview me again and I can tell you all about it.
Mario: Sounds great.
Astrid: One thing I do miss is when I do graphic design and it’s what I do, I’m a designer, I do feel like I’m using 50% of my brain and not the other 50% because I have a very academic side and maybe because of my background in philosophy and literature. I love reading about design and I love writing about design. So I do see something ... I thought about doing a podcast like you Mario, several times and I love connecting with people. I really love it. I love talking, having conversations, dialogues as is obvious, I hope after everything we’ve said. That’s when I feel that I learn ... there’s so much that happens in those encounters in those ... and I call that part of ... maybe it’s not necessarily academic, but not so much as in practicing designer and solving other people’s problems, but giving something back to the industry that is not necessarily from a practitioning designer’s perspective. So perhaps more along teaching and I’m not saying I want to become a full-time teacher either, but writing.
Astrid: I think an interesting example is Adrian Shaughnessy, whom I teach with and who was a practicing designer at Intro, years and years ago. Then, he’s a design critic, a design author and I think he has a really ... a design teacher, a really nice balance of ... and I do think that that’s a possibility, but again, that might not be a possibility and it might be that I become a fisherwoman or not, or that I just continue designing the rest of my life. I’m content, I’m happy and whatever it is, it’s going to be okay.
For three years, from 2018 to 2021, Astrid was a partner at Pentagram, which is the world’s largest and one of the most respected independent design consultancies. I was curious to hear about the process of joining this prestigious group of creative professionals and Astrid’s experience of her time spent as their partner.
Astrid: Becoming a partner at Pentagram is known as a very long process. It typically takes in between one and two years to recruit a new partner because ... now, I joke about it and say, the longest job interview I’ve had in my life was with Pentagram, because you have to meet every single partner spread across the world and have conversations with each one of them. Then, they unanimously need to approve you as a partner. So it’s a very long and great process because you get to meet all the partners on a one-by-one basis. So that was amazing, and I really enjoyed going through that process. When you meet each partner and have a conversation with them, there’s so many things that I felt we had in common.
It’s almost like ... it felt like a home in the sense that the culture of the place of Pentagram really felt like my own culture, the way in which the studio is run, the type of work they do, the history of it. Of course, I’ve been a fan of Pentagram for years and I even went to Pentagram as a student to interview John McConnell because he was part of my thesis. So Pentagram in a way, has always been part of my ... it’s a reference, right? So I think it took about two years, more or less to become a partner and it’s been ... I’ve stayed for three years. It’s been an amazing experience. I had three fantastic years at Pentagram. I enjoyed just pretty much everything.
One of the amazing and really great things of Pentagram and in particular at the time in which I joined is that we were four partners joining at the same time in London. So Jon Marshall then Sascha Lobe, then Yuri Suzuki, and then me and that was ... We could share our experiences as newcomers and we kind of bundled together, the new partners, and what was really interesting is that Jon, as an industrial designer, Yuri as sounds designer slash everything, product designer and other things that Yuri does, and Sascha was a really nice mix and it felt like a particularly exciting time to be joining Pentagram with my new partners. It would be exciting at any moment, but that year in particular, felt like this burst of energy, getting the new partners coming into Pentagram.
And one of the things I really thoroughly enjoyed and was really looking forward to was collaborating with my partners, because for me designers in essence is a ping pong game, in between designers and clients. So in-house and also out of the house with the client. So, in-house collaborating with Sascha, for example, designing the typeface for 413, collaborating with Yuri, we did a lot of projects with Yuri. Collaborating with Jon Marshall. That was really lots of fun. Some of them took me out of my comfort zone, but I’ve learned so much by that, by seeing, for example, Yuri’s way of working his process, the amazing things he does. Plus I was really lucky because my table was just behind Yuri’s. It’s funny because Yuri’s table was full of gadgets and things moving and they listen to music.
I thought, “Oh God, I wish I was an intern in Yuri’s team,” because it just seems like they’re having a blast and all the projects they do are so amazing. So it was a really, really fun time, and I thoroughly enjoyed every single moment I spent there.
Astrid: And also that the cross collaboration with New York and you can share this amazing portfolio of work, and I’d say that speaking with Paula or Michael Bierut in New York, but I was friends with many of them before joining. So it almost felt like a really natural organic step at that point in my career. So yeah, it’s been great, I really loved it.
Mario: How did it happen? Were you invited by someone or did you approach them or how did that worked?
Astrid: Pentagram meets ... they invite you, so it’s not that you can approach Pentagram saying ... I mean you can and good luck with that, but it doesn’t work like that. So typically Pentagram, they approach you, it starts almost like a flirtation period in which they reach out to you and then they keep you ... they check on you, keep you on their radar type thing and see if you might potentially be a good match or things like that.
Astrid: In my case, it was ... Obviously, it was the partners, between them need to agree when a new partner is being put forward when they’re and this is done by the local offices first. So in New York they would speak about potential new partners in New York, which are then put forward to the rest of Pentagram because it’s one big family, and as you know, I think now it’s 24, 25 CEOs. So there needs to be unanimous consensus. So that’s why it’s a long process because it just takes a lot of time. So everybody agrees and then, they put it forward. In my case, the person that reached out to me personally was Marina Willer, and she invited me to give a talk at Pentagram London. So I hopped on a plane from Majorca, went to London. Gave a talk at Pentagram.
And at that moment I didn’t of course, think that I would be invited to become a partner at all, but during the talk ... and I don’t know why, I had a bit of a feeling that something was going on, and I do remember coming back to Majorca and saying to Pablo, my partner, I don’t know, but I have this weird feeling, and in fact, I don’t know, sometime afterwards, Marina said, “Look, would you be interested in maybe becoming a partner?” And that’s how it happened at first. Yeah, as I said, it’s a long process and then, I’ve seen two new partners join. So I’ve seen how it actually ... as a partner already, I’ve seen Matt Willey and Giorgia Lupi, joining in New York. So I saw how the actual recruitment of new partners work by being a partner there. Yeah, that was interesting.
Mario: That’s cool. So after three years, very recently, you left Pentagram to focus on your studio again. I’m curious about that decision because I feel like for many, seems being a part of Pentagram seems like some kind of a designer dream. So I’m curious if you’re willing to talk about the decision of leaving that behind.
Astrid: I think it’s a mixture of life circumstances that as we spoke before were thrown at me. So that was definitely one of the reasons. The other one was, it just felt like, for me, the time for a different challenge. Yeah, that’s essentially why I left, but I miss it a lot, and as I said, I had an amazing, fantastic time there and I’m really grateful for the opportunity. I’ve learned. In three years, it’s been such an intense ... I’d say it’s been one of the steepest learning curves of my life in terms of ... especially, perhaps one of the reasons being the financial aspect, was it really opened my eyes. I’ve learned so much of financing and all of that, which is something I’m definitely going to ... I have carried on doing.
So that’s been great, but yeah, it’s been three amazing years and I’m still in touch and I’m still collaborating with the partners. So it’s not like I left, I mean, it feels like I left, but not really. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, I’m just not there physically but yeah. Now, I am still there.
I’m a graphic designer and art director, so I would regret not using this opportunity to ask Astrid a question or two, focused on the design craft. After all, she’s an active member of the global design community, has been invited to chair and judge numerous international design competitions and regularly speaks at conferences and design colleges around the world. So here in under 10 minutes, we’ll discuss the graphic design discipline. To start with, I’ve asked Astrid that tricky question about what makes a good piece of graphic design for her.
Astrid: And I never really know what’s the right answer. I guess the formulaic answer, but the truest answer to this is an amazing idea with amazing execution. That’s what you’re essentially looking for. Also, with courage in it and something that is not afraid of pushing boundaries of even breaking them, because at the end of the day, you need to know the rules of the game in order to break them, and every now and then, you see that piece of design that is so amazingly refreshing and groundbreaking and it makes you think, but it also moves you and it makes you grim with envy because you think, “Oh God, I wish I’d done that type of project.” They’re rare, but they do happen.
And when I get ... it’s almost like a kick, you get so inspired by ... I get so inspired by seeing these amazing design projects and they think, “Oh God, yeah, of course, this is why I’m in my profession. This is why I do what I do,” because there are projects that are phenomenal. I guess that now, I’m paying more attention to projects that it’s going to sound idealistic, but I am an idealist at heart and projects that change the world for the better in one way or another. So projects with a social edge to them, I think we cannot ignore the times we’re living and everything going on. I think some projects are more in tune with that. You can love design because the aesthetics is amazing or because it’s a really nice idea, brilliantly executed, but maybe it doesn’t have that extra thing that some projects do have that basically taught you deeply.
That there’s something about them that resonates, and that has a positive impact on society or on its audience in one way or another. I think those are probably the ones that inspire me most. Actually, to give an example, I think it was last year? No, two years ago when George Floyd and all of that and it’s a project that wasn’t even done by graphic designers, but that enormous mural written on the floor with bright yellow letters saying Black Lives Matter in Washington, seeing that which is for me is a piece of graphic design, enormous piece of graphic design. Industry done by people for the people for a great cause. And I thought, “Wow, that’s so moving and that’s so beautiful.” Also, what I love about it is I firmly believe that graphic design is a visual language and like any language you can learn how to speak it.
And I think we all are graphic designers at heart in a way. I used to love Colors Magazine by Tibor Kalman. What was it called? What was the strap line, “A magazine for the rest of the world,” or something like that. It was just photography and there’s another huge ... and this is to the point of where I’m saying, another book called Point It by Diether Graf, which is another of my huge references. It’s a visual dictionary of things that a traveler might need when you’re traveling. You just point to things, so if you travel to say Japan, where not many people speak English, you just point to whatever it is that you need, and it’s a picture and everybody understands it.
So graphic design is a universal language and in a way, the Black Lives Matter for me represented that a bit, and I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful intervention.
Mario: Yeah, if somebody were ask you for advice, “Okay, I want to be a graphic designer. I want to develop or learn that language.” What would you suggest? What would be the best way to go about it? So let’s say somebody who has interest and maybe is creative in some way, but hasn’t done graphic design. Is there a path that you would recommend, and also with a lot of maybe design education is not as good as it could be and you can get a lot of hands-on experience and that’s kind of what you did before you started. So do you have a recommended route in some way, like somebody says, “Okay, Astrid, I want to do graphic design and be a graphic designer. What do I do?”
Astrid: God, it’s a tricky question. I guess that we all have our own paths and there’s no set formula. I think it’s easy to get lost though, and I see that in my students a lot, because with a tip of a finger, we have the world at our hands, with the internet and it’s easy to lose track of things. I think in a way we’re living a Renaissance moment in which everything is possible. There’s so many possibilities that, “Gosh, how do I find out what it is that I like, I dislike that I want, that I don’t want.” In a way, I’m glad that I lived almost in a pre-internet phase where the choices were a bit more limited in error.
Astrid: Now, it’s boom, there’s like an explosion, the universe is out there. It’s like, go choose a star. It’s like, “Well, help. How am I going to do this?” I guess you need to forge your own path, and I don’t really have an answer for this. I think if you’re starting up in graphic design, it means because you have an interest and you need to talk and read as much as you can. I really insist on reading because I find that a lot of students, for example, don’t know the history of graphic design, which I think is essential because by reading about what happened before us, like Phil Baines was one of my tutors at Central Saint Martins, and he made us go back into history.
And I thought, “Well, God, that’s so boring.” I’m not doing graphic design because of the history or I don’t want to get into Guttenberg, and what he did back in the middle ages, because who cares? Whereas it’s so important to understand what came before, because then it gives context, and actually most things have been done before. We just change them and technologies help ... understanding that I’d say it’s a big starting point, at least it would probably help ... I learned a bit late that a lot of the answers are there in history. I wish I would’ve known this before, because I would’ve found a lot of the things that I found later in life. Those aha moments in which you go, “Oh God, Müller-Brockmann. Now I understand why he designed the way in which he did.” Because it’s was a school of thought.
It’s not an aesthetic thing. “Oh, look how beautiful my poster is going to look and accident is grotesque or whatever.” It’s part of a movement, so it’s really important to understand these waves and these cycles of design and why things have been done in the way in which they have ... for example, to put another example, Ian Chicol’s Penguin books, the ones with the three ... the famous iconic penguins, the orange ones, those were made with those color, because during that time, the war, a lot of the pigments were used for the bombs. So that’s why the color is that orange. And when you discover these things is like, “Well, of course we live in our time.” So right now in 2022, pandemic times, how is that going to affect ... in the past two years? How is that ... we live in a moment in time, and so that’s why history is important because it helps you understand you and where you are at this moment in time,
We’ve come to the last topic I’ve discussed with Astrid. As usual, I’ve asked her to highlight a closing piece of advice based on what she learned so far on her professional journey.
Astrid: In a way, we’ve talked about this during this conversation. So it’s, I guess, a summary of everything we’ve been talking about it, and I’m going to steal the words that we’re in the Whole Earth Catalog in the backside of the Whole Earth Catalog, that then were reused by Steve Jobs in his famous Stanford talk, right? So the graduating students and he said, “Stays hungry, stay foolish.” And I guess that encapsulates stay hungry, stay alert and stay foolish. Don’t take yourself too seriously. When I heard it the first time, I started reading all about it and then, got into the Whole Earth Catalog, which is an amazing magazine and so inspiring. When you read about the entire thing, it’s like, this is just phenomenal. It happened in the 70s and it’s so incredibly modern. So yeah, good design is timeless and good ideas are timeless as well,
Mario: Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Astrid: Stay hungry, stay foolish.
Hey everyone, that’s it for this episode. I hope you find it useful, and if you like this podcast, tell a friend. I want to thank Astrid for this conversation. I’ve been a fan of her amazing work for over a decade, and I’m grateful for all the insights she shared. Links to Astrid’s work and some other things mentioned during the conversation can be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast.
Also, the enrollment for the autumn 2022 session of our new workshop On Art Direction is now open. On Art Direction workshop, offers an in-depth study of the modern practice for harboring created aesthetics, developing visual cues and providing creative guidance for current and future art directors and creative business owners.
We are starting on October 8th. To find out more, visit creative.voyage/artdirection. If you love printed matter, I hope you’ll check out the latest issue of our publication, The Creative Voyage Paper. It’s beautifully printed. It has almost doubled in size and it’s shipping worldwide. Visit creative.voyage to get your copy. Lastly, before you go, if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to this podcast and you can leave me an honest review as well. Until next time, my friends. Take care.
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