What do you do and where do you do it?
I’m the Design Lead at Julia Balfour, LLC in downtown East Haddam. We all do lots of different things, but I design, collaborate with the creatives on my team, meet with clients, and work with our other departments to figure out the best way to accomplish whatever we’re trying to accomplish. I’ve been there since 2014 when there were four of us in one room, now there are about 25 of us.
What inspired you to choose this profession, and what makes you stay in it?
It’s the first thing I can remember wanting to be good at. I never loved school and I was always a bad student, but when I stumbled into a design class in college I realized I wanted to do the work. It was fun, and my dad was always telling us to figure out a way to get paid to do something you enjoy. So, that was a big breakthrough to me. Over time, and as my career has moved forward, the simple truth is that I just enjoy it. We get to leave a mark on the world, and especially in the digital space, we’re playing in the wild west.
What is your career highlight so far?
My first “break” at Julia Balfour was designing a campaign for an event that one of our long-term clients holds every year. Up until that point, Julia had always designed it herself and it always won awards at award season. She has a strong sink-or-swim philosophy, and when the project kicked off that year, she told me I was going to design it. It was — up to that point — the most pressure I had ever felt at any job. The project was comprised of a ton of different pieces that had to be created over the course of several weeks and they all needed to feel related, but not repetitious. It was a major learning experience for me.
When it was all over, a poster series we created for the campaign won an award in that year’s HOW International Design Annual. It was the first time anything we did had gotten into a publication of that size. That campaign isn’t my favorite thing I’ve ever done, but it’s what I’m proudest of.
What do you want to accomplish before you retire?
Before my career got started, I knew at the end of it I wanted to have done something to help boost Connecticut’s creative community. I felt very stuck when I graduated, like I had no way to make connections — and making connections is so important.
I’ve been on the board of the Connecticut Art Directors club for three years now, so I feel like I’m on my way, but the long-term goal —as far as I’m concerned — is to create a community that young people know they can turn to for guidance. If, in the process, I could kill the stigma that designers are opinionated introverts with their noses in the air, that would be a bonus.
Who/What are your biggest influences?
That’s a bit of a moving target. When I first graduated I was obsessed with Massimo Vignelli. He and Lella made a legendary career out of following what was essentially a personal philosphy about how the world should look, and in my early 20’s that was a very attractive approach.
But our job involves so much research, and the right answer is often so different, I can’t name one person or place that influences me. These days, I’m more influenced by the way different organizations operate rather than the work those organizations produce. My coworkers will roll their eyes but lately I’ve been devouring everything I can find about Basecamp and how they run their company. It’s a project management tool, but the co-founders are creatives and their ideas about business and leadership always inspire me to be better at my job.
Who are the best creatives you’ve worked with?
I’m working with them right now. I’m very proud and fortunate to be with the team that I’m with. Everyone is brilliant, collaborative, and talented. Speaking for myself, I’ve done the best work of my career because of the people I work with today.
And, while we don’t necessarily work together, I am marrying Erin Kelly, an art director at another agency, who is consistently honest about when I’m making bad decisions and is a constant source of creative motivation.
What cause means the most to you?
I think working to make everything you touch a little bit better is something we could all work on, and I think the long-term results would be surprising. Our “mission statement” at Julia Balfour is to inspire change — to work in a way that causes growth and change in ourselves, our clients, and by extension their customers. One of the things I love about it is that it isn’t specific to work. Over time, as it’s sunken in, it’s made me want to improve things — myself, my work, my relationships with others, and so on.
I’ll have a hard time answering this without going on a tirade, but here we go. To be honest, I had a hard time getting started here. It took me about five years to get my feet under me, but then I found a place that was looking to grow in Connecticut, and our little Connecticut-based agency has doubled in size three times since I started. The truth is, the world shrank in the last 20 years. You can do anything from anywhere now. We don’t all have to cram into one spot and try to scrape out a living anymore. If you’re a design student in Connecticut and your professors are saying “You’re so talented, you have to go to New York,” say thank you but don’t feel compelled to listen to them. Students instinctually moving to New York City always felt more like an outcome of peer pressure than a considered career choice to me.
One last thing: We treat being in Connecticut — and specifically in a place like East Haddam — as an advantage. Clients love it, and so does the community.
What are your loves/passions outside of this field?
Something people don’t realize about this field is that it carries itself through the rest of your life. You’re always trying to find new ways to design your life. For example, I get an immense amount of joy out of finding perfect pieces of furniture for my house.
I also love to travel. I think it’s one of the best things you can do. It’s easier than ever to go somewhere new and make it your home for a few days. I try not to buy anything I can buy at home. I guess I just like the idea of turning myself into a local of a different place.
Other than that, I love technology and finding new ways that it can make my life simpler and more calm. And — this one feels weird to say — but I love television. I dive deep once I find something I like, and I find the really great shows that have years worth of nuance and detail really inspiring.
If anybody is wondering, or wants to email me about them, here’s the top five (in alphabetical order for political reasons):
• The Leftovers
• Mad Men
• The Sopranos
• Westworld (out on a limb here because there’s only been one season as of right now, but I like where it’s headed)
• The Wire
What do you know now that you didn’t know then?
Being a designer is a job. You get to make cool stuff all the time, but you still have to dress up for clients, sell your ideas to them, be mindful of their budgets, learn and stay on top of best practices, and deal with emergencies. Doing those things well is almost more important than being good at design.
All work shown done at Julia Balfour, LLC