Vanessa Smith

Vanessa Smith

Creative Designer, Art Director, Brand Stylist + Artist


Dear World, it’s Kura here. I know you are crazy busy, doing stuff, but I just had to reach out and personally thank you for Vanessa Smith. Her #careerstory is like thunder roaring in my heart. Does that make sense… World?

Ostentatiously extravagant, Vanessa is like a bundle of creative fireworks ready to explode. World, I’m dying to know if you planned for Vanessa to morph into an award-winning creative designer, brand stylist and all round #girlboss working for, and collaborating with, global brands such as Facebook, Reebok, Lacoste, Converse and Toyota?

Because I believe in giving credit, where credit is due, I had to tell you that I am particularly impressed with her appreciation for The Cure, Blondie and Dire Straits, and love for all things art and design focused. I also believe that kudos is due for her liberated parents who drummed in the notion…

“We don’t expect straight-A grades, we just expect you to do your best.” 

World, Vanessa’s #careerstory is a detailed dive into the inner workings of a passionate creative. In this interview, Vanessa explains how one girl from Hutt Valley, New Zealand, triumphed to pursue her dream, but if I’m honest, it’s much more intricate and interesting than that. This interview will take the reader on a colourful, eclectic journey. From her time at high school, university, work experience and beyond. 

World, I am 100% certain that this interview will inspire the next generation of risk takers, creative storytellers and those wanting to dance to the beat of their own drum, always. You did good World. You did good!

Girls, please meet Vanessa Smith.

The one and only Vanessa Smith, Welcome to The Cool Career. Can you tell us where you grew up, and how that experience shaped the person you are today?

I grew up in the Hutt Valley in Wellington, New Zealand. My parents both worked incredibly hard, both with multiple jobs in the early years. Seeing that and accompanying them to their part time cleaning jobs on the weekend (outside the hours of their other jobs) set an example for my brother and I that you worked, and you worked hard to have what you wanted/needed.

Our parents always said, “We don’t expect straight-A grades, we just expect you to do your best.” And I think ultimately that has stuck with me in that whatever I try; I do the best I can, I like to do it well and I have great sincerity in everything I do, almost to a fault. Aside from that, there was always music in the house and my mum loved to sing. We grew up on a mixtape of Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits, Deborah Harry, Blondie and lots of Solid Gold Hits compilations. I was indulged in the physical arts growing up, going as far as I could with gymnastics then to an advanced level in American Jazz, having a stint at teaching Jazz in my later years. (As it turns out I’m a bit of a performer, and secretly, I think that helps as a designer to have a bit of ‘stage’ charisma.) The dancing and music were probably the first seeds sown in terms of self-expression and creativity and that led more and more into my interest in performance and music and then of course album covers and their design!

Where did you go to High School and how was that experience for you?

I went to an all-girl’s Catholic high school in Lower Hutt, Sacred Heart College. The experience was fine – It was just ‘school’. My mum now reminds me that she and my dad were trying incredibly hard to keep me in school in Year 13 as, apparently, I was hell bent on leaving! I honestly don’t remember it being that bad! I had some great teachers and a small handful of close friends that I would hang out with that had similar interests in music, fashion etc rather than sports or smoking or boys. In the last two years I think I spent most of the time outside of class in the dark room with my best friend listening to Depeche Mode, Placebo and The Cure while developing our own black and white film and printing our photos – I didn’t even officially take photography, ha!

When I think about it now, we were so lucky to have that space and such a rule over it – it made for a pretty indulgent time of creative exploration and the art teacher was so liberal and relaxed about it, it was great. Aside from being an indulgent art student I was a school prefect (always a rule abider and correct uniform wearer), co-president of the school’s Amnesty International group (got to fight for human rights) and a features writer and advice columnist for our school’s extracurricular project ‘’ (I think that was the URL?) – a website started up by a student and her mother after they were disheartened at the state of the internet and the content available to ‘chicks’ or young women when they typed ‘chick’ into the search engine.

As a features writer, I was honoured to visit the then-Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley’s office in the Beehive and have a one-on-one face-to-face interview. What a lady! I can’t believe I had that opportunity. I also loved being head advice columnist. As a worldly 15 year old I felt righteous laying down the moral compass on situations like ‘my boyfriend doesn’t like XYZ about me’ or ‘my friend won’t talk to me because of XYZ’. So funny.

Photo Credit: Bonny Beattie

Did your high school play an important role in helping you choose your further education and future career?

It did play an important role in that in my final year it was part of the art/design class curriculum to prepare students and their portfolios for submission to the Design School/University (which I was thrilled to get in to as admissions were so limited). As for choosing the actual career direction, I enjoyed the arts, especially the more formal design aspect, rather than the drawing/painting or photography routes that I could have gone down. Our art/design/photography classes were run together so we had great crossover to see what other students were focusing on and what their projects were like. It’s funny because, at that time, computers were actually pretty new for our school and in terms of computer graphics it was me teaching my teacher, rather than the other way. Seriously. And the program I was playing with was probably the equivalent to Microsoft Paint! It’s funny to reflect upon how it was such uncharted territory at the time, knowing how far technology has come now and how the computer is literally my ‘right hand’ in my job today.

For me, I enjoyed the idea of constructing logos and book covers etc and loved looking through our art class’s own special library. One of the first books I picked up from that special cupboard was ‘The Graphic Language of Neville Brody’. The work he did was so strong, bold, angular and clever, and it was his typographic work for The Face Magazine and the austere album covers he did for Cabaret Voltaire and 23 Skidoo that stuck with me. Looking at his work, THAT was the kind of stuff I knew I wanted to do. My best friend at the time was specialising in photography and our plan was to both go to London, where I would art direct and design album artwork for bands and my friend would shoot the photography for them, and, naturally we’d be part of the ‘scene’! It didn’t exactly turn out like that but not too far off!

Did you complete any internships or work experience placements in high school? Tell us about that experience.

I didn’t do any either as I think I was probably just trying to get through my studies as well as keep up with all the dance classes I was doing outside of school. I think it was only once I was in university that I did a couple of logos for family friends or some one-off experiences with local businesses, ironically as a photographer. I remember being nervous about all of those little jobs, but my photography made it into the local paper!

Did you go to College, University, Tafe or another equivalent? Take us through the courses that you studied and why you chose them?

I went to the School of Design at Massey University in Wellington. It’s a four-year degree and I graduated with Honours majoring in Visual Communication Design. For me, I chose VCD as it encompassed so many areas and mediums yet it was always about communicating an idea or message. Whether it was learning about signage in airports and the fonts created especially for that purpose or having a go at designing an LP sleeve (dream project) or the life drawing and studio art classes I took, I just LOVED it while of course I also found it very challenging. I tried to pepper my degree with fine art, photography and illustration papers to keep my skills as diverse as possible and I’m forever grateful I had the foresight to do so as I think it’s invaluable knowing how to work a camera and how to sketch something out.

Photo Credit: Bonny Beattie

We love the sound of that course, Vanessa. So tell us about your career journey so far. Who you have worked for, and explain any highlights.

From graduating my degree, it took me 18 long months to get employed as an actual graphic designer. While on the relentless job hunt I worked in fashion retail and also as a gallery assistant and loved all those roles and the people I met through them. It was the best time. I also wrote, recorded and performed with my rock band, Lady Luck, which, in itself was an adventure. It was a creative, exciting, and character-building time with also lots of life lessons to take away and of course, it also presented the dream design challenge of finally designing that EP cover! My first ‘real’ design job was working as an in-house designer at a print shop, Astra Print. (See image above)

People with small businesses (anything from dry cleaners to beauty spas) would come in off the street to get some business cards done. Along with two other designers, we were the ‘up-sell’. We could design new brands and stationery for these businesses and the print shop of course printed all the collateral. Clever strategy. While it wasn’t my dream ‘agency’ job, I loved this kind of work and it was the perfect introduction to working directly with clients and managing projects from start to finish.

My next role I had was in ‘below-the-line’ advertising. This was pre-2008 and the clients were big, the budgets (and parties) were impressive and I was finally in agency land. The agency I was working for, AIM Proximity, was one of the biggest in the country and part of a massive global network. So, in my mind, I had ‘made it’. I was hired as a Junior Designer and was the only female in a creative department of 11 people with the agency having 35 strong.

It was in this role that I learned how to use my brain. Advertising is all about ideas and connecting with people with the aim to essentially sell them something. And that required quite a different mind-shift for me coming from my previous role creating brands for small businesses. Here, clients were the likes of Vodafone, State Insurance, New Zealand Post, Toyota etc. It was idea-driven design on a large, global scale. From time to time I was given the opportunity to step up into art director roles when people were on leave, taking full charge of photoshoots and the visual direction of projects. I also had the opportunity to team up with exceptional copywriters that had years’ more experience than I, so that was invaluable because it forced me to step-up my own game to even be ‘worthy’ to work with these guys and it was inspiring to see how they approached a brief.

I’ve been told I was the only ‘junior designer’ to make it as a finalist in the prestigious Cannes Lions Awards as an ‘art director’. That was a big deal for me at the time; having been so new and essentially nerved-out by the whole environment, it was a real boost to get that validation for being there, having my work being recognised internationally. After the 2008 economic crash, I freelanced as a designer and art director at many agencies, big (Clemenger, Saatchi & Saatchi etc) and small and for my own clients. This was my first real taste of freelancing. In between freelance gigs I trained and worked as a part-time pilates instructor to have something constant and a pay check as the freelance gig was proving uncertain; Freelancing for a month as an art director could bring five times my month’s wages at my agency role, but then the next six months would be nothing but small poster jobs and sewing bear suits costumes (true story) for cash, and then who knew what else? Having a ‘buffer’ occupation was essential – not just to counter the instability in the economy but also for my sanity.

I also used this time to see some of Europe, which was probably quite luxurious given the world was in recession, but I felt I might not get another chance for a while once I got back into another full time role. Soon after, I joined a small team brand and packaging specialists at Tardis Design & Advertising. This agency was a place that did incredibly beautiful work. Everything in their portfolio was stunning. While freelancing and instructing, I made a point to introduce myself and keep in touch with the creative director there.

The day came when one of their designers was leaving and I joined the team! In this role I learned about the smallest intricacies of design and to be honest I hadn’t had to ‘craft’ my work like this before, so it really was a steep learning curve. I had just come from a few years in advertising where I was designing massive billboards and idea-driven campaign graphics, and in this new role my canvas was reduced to the size of a wine label. Spacing mattered like my life depended on it; Letter spacing, spacing between words and lines of words, between the lines themselves, even spacing around barcodes had to be exact and the small canvas was unforgiving to inaccuracies and imbalance. So, in a way, this role was like design ‘boot camp’. Even though I had a few years of award-winning experience under my belt, I was still being ‘schooled’! I learned to truly step-up my game and had the reward of being able to indulge in the most luxe print finishes available and see the physical products I designed on the shelf. That was and still is a real buzz. Then an opportunity came up for my boyfriend-now-husband, to work in Singapore. Up for an adventure and a change of scene, we made the move. I found work at creative agency, Kult3D, who had a solid focus on the arts in a way that I had never experienced before.

My creative director was an artist himself, and part of my role was helping him bring his artworks to life (including gluing action figures to a conceptual lamp base, and wheat pasting a fibreglass elephant for the Elephant Parade. We also ran our own art magazine that illustrated a global theme every quarter (e.g. trust, fortune, etc). When not working on our self-directed studio work and art shows we applied the same approach to our actual client work. We worked with the likes of Reebok, Lacoste, Converse, Nixon, Bacardi Martini and Facebook. From designing the toolkit for the retail display system for a new range of Converse shoes, through to interactive animated artworks for Lacoste, and the conception and full execution of the launch party for Facebook Asia HQ, the brands always trusted us to bring some wild ideas to the table that would usually always get the green-light. Most of the ideas we came up with were genius, but slightly insane by New Zealand’s standards. There was no way that pitching half of the ideas we came up with would get across the line with clients (or some creative directors) back in NZ, let alone get the brief to warrant them in the first place. But in Singapore, with the clients we had and with our reputation, we did it – almost every single time. THAT was an eye opener and it was liberating creatively. It made me be braver with design decisions going forward, and it put a lot of fun and real creativity back into design for me in a way that I hadn’t felt since my days of studying. A big highlight was travelling to Vietnam with Kult for a client event. At Kult our biggest client was Tiger Beer. We were the brand guardians for Tiger Translate (Tiger Beer’s east-meets-west social activation platform) and we created all the ‘tool kits’ for all the Tiger Translate events worldwide – from NZ to Mongolia.

Part of this was sourcing the artists and bands we wanted to be part of the events, through to designing the theme and activities for those events. I was part of the team to help run and cover the ‘Growth’ event in Hanoi, partially as a photographer and to also help host the artists and press journalists we brought over for the event. It was one huge party where I got to travel to a beautiful new country, learn about its history and take in the sights, hang out with artists, and make connections with the folk from leading industry publications and platforms like iDN magazine and To my surprise, from my role at Kult3D and my work with our clients at Facebook Asia, I was ‘seconded’ to Facebook at their request to work with them in-house as part of their communications team.

That was a real compliment (one I didn’t quite appreciate at the time) and one I am proud to say I had the opportunity to experience and to be a part of that world, if only for a short time before heading back to NZ. Post-Singapore, I had a few months living and contracting as a designer in Melbourne for the likes of the Australian Centre of Moving Image (ACMI) and Visa and American Express, before returning to New Zealand.

Back on NZ shores I freelanced before joining digital agency, Heyday. Here I learned the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of designing for the web and for all mobile devices. I loved learning a new set of rules for a new medium and seeing how far I could push and challenge those rules given my ‘non-digital’ background. I also came away with some lovely projects working for some great clients (, It was during my time here that my husband and I decided to start a family, so in 2014 we welcomed our son into the world and I took a break from working to focus on our family.

I kept freelancing for a couple of clients but it wasn’t until our son was 10 months old that I decided to take it more seriously and set up my own studio with more offers coming in the door that I didn’t want to turn down. As well as work for my own clients, since starting my own studio, I’ve produced more of my own content and projects including an annual limited edition screen print series celebrating the Lunar New Year (inspired by my time in Singapore with Kult). What started out as general mash-ups of mass media centred around the theme or animal of each year (e.g. Year of the Snake, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster etc), they have unconsciously become a growing set of feminist characters (Medusa, Baabarella, Tarzana and this year’s The Chick) – it certainly wasn’t my intention starting out – but I think they reflect my desire for a talisman or lucky charm to help guide me every year, and strong female figures are naturally what I have always be drawn to. I love how the more I delve into the archives of vintage comics, movie posters and advertising material, I get more sickened, dismayed and therefore motivated by the way women have been represented in popular culture through the past 50 years or so. And I enjoy messing with that. We’re either pathetic damsels needing saved, domestic ‘goddesses’, trophies to be conquered and won, conniving works of satan that seduce and destroy men, or hyper-sexualised creatures that only exist to please and be looked at. Honestly, the titles and subjects of some movie posters I’ve come across, alone, are so sordid that I struggle to believe they would even get an audience let alone get through censorship back in the 60s (if there was such a thing back then).

I like taking that imagery, flipping the script, and remixing it into something pro-female and of our time. Into something that my smart and savvy friends can look at and go “hell yeah, that’s me.” The prints get stronger the more I do them, and I love how these weird characters are born every year. And of course I am humbled by how people respond so positively to them and they identify the humour in them too. My ‘Year of the Chick’ print this year for the Year of the Rooster has especially led to dozens of messages from friends and strangers alike thanking me for making it, saying how much it resonates with them and how it’s a real boost for them at a time where the state of the world seems so surreal and uncertain with what is happening in the States and Russia (especially with regards to women’s rights). So while I always get in a bit of a flap when the lunar new year comes around, as it always seems to come out-of-the-blue after the whirlwind of Christmas and the traditional new year, it’s always incredibly fun and satisfying flexing my brain to create something bizzare and from the heart in a relatively short time frame.

I love starting my work year off on that note, with that project, and connecting so directly with my ‘tribe’ of rad people. From these prints I’ve been commissioned by New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, to create a limited edition print of a similar style for their innovation hub, Mahuki. I cannot say how proud I am of that project and I still have to pinch myself when I think about it. From that first piece of work for Mahuki I’ve created a series of mixed media digital collages illustrating new technologies (virtual reality, augmented reality etc) where I had access to Te Papa’s own collection to remix to my heart’s content. My ‘Virtual Moa’ is especially treasured and is a piece the Mahuki team have created an augmented experience around. You can see the now-extinct Moa come back to life, at almost life-size, skeleton to flesh, through your smart phone. Working with Te Papa creating bespoke artwork was my biggest highlight of last year (and even my career to-date) and it’s been satisfying putting the finishing touches on the rest of the series this year.

OMG! Can your trajectory get more exciting? Vanessa, your experience reads like the best of design history! So tell us, how did you get the job that you are in now?

After having my son I was approached by a user experience designer I had worked with in my last full-time gig at the digital agency. She had just gone in-house at New Zealand Post and she needed some visual design help with their website. The opportunity there was to do a maximum of 10 hours and a minimum of four hours per week, which as it turns out proved to be the best stepping stone into fleshing out my business today. For the moment, I retain New Zealand Post as my main client and in addition I have taken on brand styling work for smaller boutique businesses, artwork commissions for New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, and a variety of other projects, some self-directed. Essentially I am running my own studio, working for my own clients and projects, and from time to time I collaborate with other design specialists when they need another brain on a project. It’s fantastic.

You are right, that does sound fantastic. What is the hardest part of working for yourself?

The hardest part of my current job is also what I love the most; Being my own boss. While I’m the best ‘boss’ I’ve ever had (I have been able to bring in and work on the best projects in my career to-date, I choose how much and when I work and I’m not embarrassed to say that I pay myself the best salary I’ve had to-date). But with the same token, at the end of the day it is also me, no one else, that does the work. Like, ALL the work. I’m the person selling my skills, managing the project offers that come in, meeting the clients, taking the briefs, drawing up contracts, quoting the jobs, juggling the schedule, doing the actual creative work, writing the presentations, presenting the presentations, setting the job up for print or publishing, billing it, and doing all the scary bookwork at the end of the month. I’m accountable for everything that leaves the studio and the buck ends with me. It can be hard and exhausting, but I’ll never complain about it – I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t want it. I feel incredibly lucky and satisfied to be providing for my family doing what I love on my own terms – however, I also know that it could all change in a moment if the economy crashes tomorrow or what I do falls out of demand.

So, I remain incredibly grateful and try to make the most of this opportunity knowing that my situation could be different a year, even a month from now. Aside from that, the next hardest part would be the constant challenge I’ve had in every design role I’ve had; the blank page. Where should I put that first line? How thick should it be? And what colour? What font to choose? Landscape or portrait? The list goes on. Creative paralysis brought on by the blank page is still there even 15 years in to my career. As designers we are always so critical about what we do and we want every project to be our ‘best one yet’, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. It’s a cliché, but it’s true.

These days I don’t have the same time to luxuriate in the blank page for too long so I’m learning to just dive in and get something down, even if it’s ‘wrong’. Once that first attempt is down I can refine until I’m happy.

What does a day a typical business day look like for you ?

No two days are the same; My studio days are Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and they officially start at 9am. In between getting myself and everyone ready to get out the door I will clear out my emails and identify anything urgent that needs attention from about 7am. I’ll also try to get through any blogs I subscribe to so that the quick-reading is done and any good insights from those feeds can percolate before I officially start work.

I’ll drop my son off at day care for 8:30am and from there I will settle into the studio and take a closer look at any emails or articles that have piqued my interest from earlier in the morning. I’ll also catch-up on and review any work I’ve done before my regular mid-morning skype meeting with my main client. I will spend about an hour (sometimes less) talking with the user experience designer I partner with about the progressions we’ve made with the design since our last catch-up, we will critique the work together and identify new work if needed. The work I focus on can range from updating the digital brand and its style guide, the look and feel of key pages and task flows as well as all the major landing pages and campaign work.

Once our call ends I’ll jump into addressing any feedback before getting out of the studio to catch a barre/pilates class in town at midday – it breaks up my day, gets me out of the chair, and gives me a pep-up for the rest of the afternoon. I will schedule any face-to face meetings after 1pm where I can be either presenting to clients, doing workshops, getting briefed on new work, press-passing a job or running errands. Otherwise I’m straight back to the studio to get a few hours of dedicated creative time in. I like to turn my email off, unless I’m expecting urgent approval on a job, otherwise the afternoon is when I do my best work so I like to keep interruptions to a minimum.

Depending on what projects I’m working on and what the deadlines are, in the afternoon I can be doing anything from designing site flows, mood boarding design directions for a new brand, putting together colour palettes with my trusty Pantone swatch book (the natural light at this time of day is best for any accurate colour work), designing a logo, typesetting business cards or marketing collateral, scouring type foundries for a new font, zoning out during some deep Photoshop retouching, or even doing some hand painting and illustration work for art commissions. And writing. I do a lot of writing to accompany my creative work, which I love but need a lot of brain space for. And I’m also delving into the world of interior design, so I’ve been spending time at trade showrooms looking at fabric and wallpaper collections and talking with small artisan businesses that make light fittings and upholstered furniture.

My fingers are in a lot of pies at the moment. Fridays I always try to keep clear of any real client contact, emails or meetings, so I can focus on doing the work. It sounds mean, but at the end of the day I need to actually do the work I am commissioned for, not just talk about it and plan it, so having a full day of creative time is really precious. I also aim to map out the week ahead on Fridays, filling my Filofax and digital calendars with what needs to happen in allocated time chunks. This sets me up nicely for the next week and means my brain can relax a bit over the weekend knowing I’ve got all my ducks in a row.

In any down-time I am trying to be disciplined using that time to work ‘on’ my business by honing my business documents (invoice templates, brief templates etc) and making sure my media kit and website are up to date.

My ‘official’ studio day wraps at 4pm, as I then slip into mum-mode. I prep dinner, go pick our son up and we eat as a family with my husband at 5pm. The madness of the bath and bedtime routine for my son follows and it’s by about 8pm by the time I can re-group. If I have a lot of work on or an urgent deadline, I will most likely get another hour or two (or more) worth of work in before closing my laptop.

Who has been your hero, or greatest inspiration growing up and why?

My mum was probably the first example I saw of someone working incredibly hard to educate themselves and get themselves into a better career. It took her a couple of times to gain her Diploma as a Sonographer, and I remember how difficult it was for her at the time, but she did it. She was studying towards the diploma, while working fulltime, running the house and raising my brother and I, and I am proud of what she achieved and how brilliant and respected she is at what she does today. While of course I loved Madonna, She-Ra, Jem and the Holograms, and all those fantastical pop-icons growing up, it was my mum that showed me that if you wanted/needed something, and you were willing to work for it, you could get it.

What advice would you give girls who are interested in your career?

I think figuring out what you want to do is the hardest part and once you’ve got a direction you can make a plan to make it happen. And if you are truly interested in design, you have the drive and a bit of talent, then absolutely go for it. You may not have all the practical skills upfront, but those are things you certainly will learn as you go. But you must have the drive because it’s a competitive industry that will quickly churn you out if you’re not ‘all-in’.

I would encourage girls who are interested in a design career to talk to as many people as you can who are doing that kind of role and even go as far to ask if you can ‘shadow’ them for a day to see if it matches the vision you have in your head of what it is you want to do. You may be surprised by the realities! And if you can get any experience within a design company or do some design work for family friends, that’s a great move. And no matter what, approach every job you have as like ‘school you’re getting paid for’ because I truly believe that with every job you are learning valuable skills. In every job you have pay close attention and watch how others around you operate. Observe the good things as well as the bad things, (no workplace is perfect), and file away tips and tricks for the future. Watch how the seniors above you approach their work; what processes they have, how they talk to clients, how they write their emails etc.

Take initiative, offer to help them and soak up as much as you can and apply it to your own working style. I have learned tips and tricks from every role I’ve had. From putting together a creative brief, writing a presentation, the attention to detail applied to anything physical given to a client, through to the hard skills like photo retouching or kerning type. Even in my roles that weren’t as a ‘professional graphic designer’ I picked up skills to apply to my future career. In retail I learned how to dress a window, how to use my eye to help curate and purchase the collection of clothes we would stock, and I learned how to talk to and sell something to someone that had walked-in off the street.

In my role as a gallery assistant I learned how to run exhibition openings and I even picked up some practical techniques the owner/artist used in her own work just by being there and observing. It’s important to listen, too. It’s advice I have been given in my career. Your job is to listen to your clients, to what their needs are and how the success of the project will be measured. You need to be open to feedback, positive and negative – of which there will be plenty.

Not all jobs go smoothly from start to finish and your creative director may have different ideas to you on what is right for a project. It’s important to listen to them and accept their feedback as graciously as you can while also taking the time to explain aspects of your solution, graciously. With that in mind, you can have a great design, but if you can’t communicate the reasoning behind the design decisions you’ve made, you’re at a disadvantage.

Learning the ‘soft skills’ will set you apart and make you invaluable to your clients and team. Learning how to speak publicly and present in front of others, knowing how to read a room while clearly articulating your ideas are essential. In a design career you will need to roll with the changes as well as the punches. Technology is forever changing the landscape and your career path may zig and zag, like mine has. When I was studying my degree I never imagined I would be designing websites or creating artworks for new technologies like augmented reality – I thought I’d be doing album and book covers! If you have a desire and a strength in storytelling I think you can have longevity as a creative, because above all, designers are communicators and it’s our job to get into the psychology of the business … Before you begin the work, ask yourself, why am I designing this? Why is it important? Or what impact is this work going to have? It’s important to answer these things before you start telling that story.

If you are going freelance, learning how to cultivate your entrepreneurial side is essential. Knowing your value and being able to negotiate your prices, put together estimates and contracts (and doing your taxes at the end of the month – or outsourcing that to an accountant!) is important and will become easier the more you do it.

With the same token, you need to be able to sell yourself and your skills well. What projects have you worked on? What kind of work matters to you? What makes you unique? Learning how to put together a polished portfolio and media kit and knowing how to talk about what you do naturally are essential tools in bringing work in and on-boarding clients. kit and knowing how to talk about what you do naturally are essential tools in bringing work in and on-boarding clients.

Vanessa, please list your most valuable resources that you turn to constantly for inspiration!

  • Favourite Blogs or Websites:
    • Blogs I subscribe to are very select. I’ve recently unsubscribed from a bunch but I still always read the daily/weekly emails I get from Seth Godin ( and Paul Jarvis with his ‘Sunday Dispatches’. I’ve also just discovered ‘Being Boss’ and am loving their podcasts ( 
    • Websites I find helpful when I’m trying to drill into something design-specific are and
    • Pinterest is especially great for mood boarding and I’ve recently started involving my clients in the mood board part of the process by collaborating on ‘secret’ boards together. Such a fun and helpful tool to have.
    • satisfies my packaging design fetish.
    • is a fantastic resource when I need to find a special font or particularly beautiful stock graphics.
  • Name an Instagram Account or Snapchat that you can’t go a day without checking: Accounts like @designersguild, @christianlacroixmaison, @lacroixofficial, @jonathanadler, @thebrandidentity, @thedesignkids and also my bestie @happinessconcierge, while not all strictly from my industry, make me happy and feed my brain. 
  • Books: Too many to name. Anything that showcases art direction, surface pattern design, fashion photography, branding, shop graphics, print design or interior design are winners for me. However, strong staples are ‘The Graphic Language of Neville Brody’, the series of logo books ‘Los Logos’ ‘Dos Logos’ ‘Tres Logos’ are so good for when you’re trying to crack a logo design, ‘How To Style Your Brand’ by Fiona Humberstone, and lastly, ‘Visionaire Magazine’ – any edition or copy you can find of this highly collectible, multi-format art publication will inspire any designer for its beauty, creativity and the hi-fi quality of its print finishes and packaging.
  • People: People I admire in terms of the visual arts are mainly photographers and designers like David Lachapelle, Pierre et Gilles, Christian Lacroix, Tricia Guild, Vivienne Westwood, Jeremy Scott, Jonathan Adler and the brand Kip and Co. The common thread between all these people is that their work is never subtle, always lush and precise and has definite cheek and humour. I also have a group of incredibly talented, smart and ambitious friends that are always delighting me with what they are creating and doing next. So it definitely is a kick in the butt to get on and make some cool stuff with the standard set so high around you. If you surround yourself with driven and creative people, it can only rub off.
  • Others: Magazines. I love editorial design; page layouts, feature fonts, and, of course, the content. Usually, interior design glossies are what I’m attracted to. Favourite titles are ‘Living Etc’, ‘Elle Decoration’ and ‘Interiors of the World’. Interior design publications can show so much of design in one spot – spatial, surface pattern, composition, and the styling in the photo shoots are all gold mines for inspiration. I have my own ‘V archives’ consisting of a couple of decade’s worth of magazine tear-outs of images I’ve loved of fashion shoots, colour combinations, wallpaper patterns, little snippets of type etc all roughly shoved together in folders which I like to flick through when I have the time. 
  • My neighbourhood. Walking the streets is also the perfect way to passively absorb inspiration. The calibre in poster art for gigs and shows that are pasted around my neighbourhood has risen so much in the past 5 years or so, that it’s always an inspiring trip outside as I’m walking between meetings. Frequently I will snap photos of posters, street art, cool building signage that I like for future reference. Window displays can also be great eye candy for me.
  • I also enjoy geeking out over production design in film and TV, especially the ‘Behind the Scenes’ extras you can get on DVDs – details around how a set has been built, the special effects created, what the lighting is enhancing, how different characters are dressed etc is laden with inspiration and meaning. Anything from the beautifully dark film ‘Bladerunner’ to my favourite program from when I was a kid ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ can satisfy a designer’s eye and be a lesson in visual tricks. For example, in Ab Fab, Edina would always be head to toe in a wild ensemble of colour, pattern and riotous hair. Yet she was always perfectly offset by Patsy; usually clad in a silhouette of black or white, with a structured suit jacket and her hair groomed into her trademark beehive. So to my eye, Patsy was Edina’s ‘white space’ and Edina gave Patsy something to bounce and vibe off. Together they are still a perfectly balanced design.
  • Vintage comics and movie posters. For my series of low-brow screen prints I hunt out vintage movie posters, comics and other mainstream media for imagery and typography that I think can be remixed into new artwork. I love the style of the ‘golden era’ of mass media and can generally find unusual and hopefully funny combinations that can comment on the state of the world and our desire as a society to consume. I like ‘up-cycling’ existing media to create something new.
  • Textile designs. Sometimes I find textile design even more inspiring than straight graphic design or ‘branding’. Designers Guild, Christian Lacroix, Matthew Williamson, Liberty and Cole & Son are all massively influential to the mixed media artwork I create, and, for me, trade showrooms of fabric and wallpaper is my candy-shop equivalent.
  • Food markets. Whether it’s a chain store supermarket or an upmarket specialist grocer, the isles and the products that line them are fascinating to me and I love poring over the packaging. Especially when I’m working on a packaging brief I’ll go to the local ‘Moore Wilsons’ grocer and study their shelves. A bounty of fabulous wine and craft beer labels were always good indications of design trends, and with many local businesses making boutique chocolate, peanut butter and olive oils it’s always good to see what designs were making the cut locally.
  • Travel. Traveling far and wide to countries or cities that are outside your ‘bubble’ is beneficial to any designer. Travel takes you off auto-pilot and makes you think. It expands your brain, makes your experiences bigger, and, in my opinion, makes you smarter. I haven’t been to all continents yet, but the countries I have been to are purposefully varied and different to my native New Zealand. From fast-moving future cities like Tokyo and Singapore through to the unnerving and majestic African landscapes of Rwanda or Uganda, every place I have visited has been different culturally, and therefore, visually. How people dress, the food, the customs, the style of architecture, signage design and the landscapes themselves are all sources of adventure and inspiration.

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