12 Questions: Meet Sarah Urbanak (USA)

In our 12 Questions blog series, we feature interviews with someone from the crowdSPRING community. For these interviews, we pick people who add value to our community – in the blog, in the forums, in the projects. Plainly – activities that make crowdSPRING a better community. Be professional, treat others with respect, help us build something very special, and we’ll take notice.

We’re very proud to feature Sarah Urbanak (crowdSPRING username: 29design) today. Sarah lives and works in Florida (USA).

1. Please tell us about yourself.

Hi I’m Sarah (29design on crowdSPRING).

I’m actually 27, not 29… in case you may have assumed. No fast-forwarding towards 30 please! The 29th is my birthday (sounds real cheesy, I know!) as well as one of those funny little numbers I use for everything. It has stuck and begun to represent… well… me.

My 27 years launched in Key West, Florida. From there I migrated North to Middlebury, Vermont, headed west to Alfred, New York, then overseas to Christchurch, New Zealand, back to lovely Vermont, then hopped over to Dunedin, New Zealand, and just recently have parked myself in central Florida (for now!)…. I like to think of myself as a responsible vagabond.

New Zealand consumed 4 years of studying, living, working (and playing – LOTS!). Karma was on my side and seven months into my Masters degree at the University of Otago, I landed a fantastic job at the Otago Museum as the Marketing Officer. A high profile and extremely ambitious non-profit organization, the Otago Museum challenged me to no end! I absorbed much knowledge about optimal business practice, strategic planning, and in-house design from a gifted and passionate team of innovative business leaders.

My family has drawn me back to the homeland, but my love affair with the South Pacific is enduring, and early ’09 will see me returning to the country of extremes. We (with my boyfriend of 3 years – he is Kiwi) were planning on spending a bit longer in the US, however immigration is a battleground, and we’re steering clear!

When arriving home to the US this past year I was faced with the reality that the majority of marketing and design jobs would require quite a commute from where I am living, and with the gas prices as they were at the time (although Americans are completely spoiled in comparison, I know!), this was a huge incentive to work from the comforts of my home. So 29design was born, and is keeping me busier than expected! The site is in its infancy – here’s a link: www.twenty9design.com

In hopes of gaining a balance of semi-reclusive design work, and some social interaction, combined with my passion for sports and fitness, I am now studying towards a certification in personal training. The books are a bit dusty this month, but we’ll get there!

Looking forward… In 10 years you’ll find me in Nelson, New Zealand, racing around my small eco-friendly home, eating my organic veggies from the spanning gardens, with a part-time design business, part-time personal training business, whipping together scrambled eggs for the worldly guests in my quaint B&B, all while attending to my very well behaved children and enjoying the great outdoors. Easy as that!

2. How did you start out as a designer?

With my clunky kid scissors I spent hours precisely trimming the most stunning letters out of glossy magazines, wedging them together like puzzle pieces and creating fantastic rainbows of text for birthday, Halloween, valentine, (you name it…) cards. I guess that was the beginning of my passion for visual communication

This graduated into “designing” my way through high-school creating elaborate posters for any assignment possible – there was always an artistic requirement, and extra points for the effort, hallelujah! Finally, after a grueling year of art foundation at Alfred University – School of Art and Design, applying myself to a multitude of artistic avenues, I took the plunge into graphic design. It was warm water indeed!

A true graphic designer can only handle so much instillation art…. I will always remember creating 6 foot hedge trimmers out of a bundle of twigs, chicken wire and Astroturf (for one project or another), realizing then and there, I was a computer girl, through and through!

3. You’re a big supporter of making design available and affordable for all organizations, including non-profits. Please talk a little about some of the difficulties non-profits have with sourcing creative work.

Non-profits by nature are making AMAZING things happen without a monetary drive, bettering our world in one form or another. These people are gems in my book!

But budgets, bloody budgets!

Working at the Otago Museum, a very successful non-profit, opened my eyes to this widespread business predicament. We were lucky enough to have an in-house design team so this wasn’t as substantial an issue for us as it is for smaller non-profits.

Extremely limited budgets for creative work are driving non-profits to portray mediocre identities, marketing and promotion. Often it’s a secretary whose job description has expanded to cover this work – only to result in unattractive graphics made in Microsoft Word or Publisher that are hurting, more than helping the business succeed. This makes every designer shed a tear. Not that secretaries aren’t very talented people – they just don’t have a design foundation.

I have made 29design’s mission to counteract this tragedy. I aspire to offer and provide a higher design standard to smaller businesses and organizations that believe they can’t afford professional design services by offering discounted rates to non-profits.

When launching my business this past June, I made it a priority to contact/visit as many local non-profits as possible. Although at the time most are/were cutting back even more due to the state of our economy, at least they know there is an affordable service out there; Someone who understands their situation and genuinely wants to help!

4. Who/what are some of the biggest influences on your design work?

Living my adult life on opposite sides of the globe has been paramount in influencing my work. I am very intrigued by cultural nuances and how they influence my own work and that of other designers. During my honors year at Uni, just after moving to NZ, I took it upon myself to investigate cross-cultural design, local vs. global, style prostitution, vernacular representation, and how they all impact visual culture. This interest was prompted by displacing myself in a foreign country, and not feeling nearly as alien as I’d hoped. I felt as though I’d taken a time machine backwards 10 years in America. I know the phenomenon of globalization is driving visual culture, but I was appalled by how Americanized *some* parts of this little country were. So, began my interest in design that speaks a local lingo; Steering away from a global design approach whenever possible, and treating cultural trends respectfully and appropriately.

In becoming a member of crowdSPRING this has been a resurfacing issue for me. It is so easy to become generic with our stylistic manifestations, without being the least bit aware we are doing so. I choose to participate mostly in projects that release the location of the business and allow me to research, understand and touch upon the local. It keeps my conscience intact, knowing I’m doing my little part to protect cultural identity and promote visually diverse world.

There are some great articles/resources relating to this at www.aiga.org/content.cfm/cross-cultural-design

5. What’s the very first thing you do when approaching a new design?

Read the brief over & over & over & over. Visit the client’s website. Understand the market. Evaluate the competitors. Ask questions.

Research is completely underestimated in design. It is fundamental. Any design will eventually cave without a great foundation. You are cheating yourself and your client without it. Feel guilty….. REAL guilty! 😉 Even here on crowdSPRING I take full advantage of any resources the client lends. This way I am knowledgeable enough to explain exactly why a specific design will help their business to succeed. If I spent an hour creating the work – I can sacrifice 3 minutes and explain it, it shows I’m interested. Many great designs go unnoticed due to the lack of designer interaction.

6. Which of your designs are your favorites and why?

I left my job at the Otago Museum with a well endowed portfolio, albeit much of my work was very stylistically consistent and on par with the Museum’s brand image. Saying that, one of my favorite designs was created for a new product we launched during my time there – A fully immersive, 3 stories, tropical habitat, boasting over 1,000 butterflies from around the globe, lush flora and fauna. I designed a butterfly identification brochure – one the little kiddies (grown up ones too!) picked up on their way into the experience and could tick off the butterflies they encountered while in the Tropical Forest. What made this design so special was the reaction on the little ones faces, and being able to see it in action on any day I decided to take a stroll through the Tropical Forest. This is included in my crowdSPRING portfolio if you’d like to have a peek.

I’d have to say my favorite crowdSPRING design, although not quite as polished as I’d wished, was for the recent project to develop a company name and identity for a new crowd funding website. It was extremely refreshing to begin a design project that had several different dimensions – a challenge that included research, linguistics, marketing and visual development. It’s quite special submitting to a project when your entry (name and design) is 100% you. 

7. When designing a logo, what do you think are the biggest mistakes a designer can make?

The absolute worst (cringe!) is misspelling the client’s business name! EDITING IS CRITICAL! The few seconds it takes to double check spelling can save you incredible humiliation and… well… your credibility. This is one of my weak points – hence its importance to me! And no, I haven’t made the mistake… yet.

8. How has technology affected your work?

Technology affects every aspect of my work – and although I hate to think how dependent I am on it, I admit I become a bit stir crazy when the internet is inaccessible. I’d love to be able to live in the woods with nothing – but think I’ve long since been too spoiled to resort back to a lifestyle quite that simple.

At college we designed mostly in Quark and Illustrator, some Freehand here and there, with a splash of Flash. When I reached grad school in NZ they were all about Indesign… and I’ve still never taken the time to fully devote to learning it. I do as much work in Illustrator as possible. Photoshop is beginning to overwhelm me – I’ve got the basics, but need to revisit those tutorials. CS3 has been one of my greatest investments to date. I am really enjoying the ease of organization through Adobe Bridge and the advancements in Illustrator are fantastic! The rest are waiting patiently to be explored.

I’ve never really been one to keep up with the trends – and it hasn’t hurt me too much to date. I did go through a semi consumer driven phase about the time iPods were being launched and couldn’t go without one. I also invested in a shiny new PowerBook and a G3 tower (back when it was G3 time)… but New Zealand actually broke me of most of materialistic traits.

As my boyfriend has an IT background it was extremely frustrating when my Mac would have a temperamental day and he was stumped by the problem. I was FORCED to switch over (I KNOW – HORROR!) and am now using CS3 on a PC – but have my own personal support person in return! One day I’ll get my Mac back… One day

9. When working online, how do you decide whether to participate in a project?

As I mentioned previously, one of my main criteria is choosing a project is based on whether the location of the business is released (if it has a physical one, that is). This way I can take into account any cultural styles/concepts that may or may not be appropriate. Of course I do break this rule on occasion.

Another green light shines if I personally would ever use the product/service. I am much more likely to participate in an organic dark chocolate label design contest, than one for a… I’m likely to offend someone here so will stop. Anyway, you need to be able to design with your heart (or taste buds in this case). If it aligns with my values and beliefs – I have a go!

Another good practice is to evaluate the responsiveness of the Buyer (Listen up Buyers!). I succeed through feedback – and I know at the end of the day a communicative buyer is going to get a better result and be much more pleased with the outcome. And I like happy clients!

10. What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a graphic designer?

While doing some research before starting my freelance business, I came across this nifty little post that nicely sums up a many of my challenges. The Ten Commandments of Freelance Design. Not sure who wrote it originally – but I found it here: http://www.artschools.com/articles/freelance/

Of the commandments, I personally find saying “no” one of my biggest difficulties. I’m a big softy (working on my mean face daily). However, as you’re work flow increases – it’s a great position to be in when you can politely decline a project. Choice is brilliant!

Maintaining a social life is another toughie for me, due to the nature of freelancing, primarily. Time allocation for friends/family is essential and certainly more difficult to follow through with that it sounds. This is another work in progress.

Facing rejection is huge! It can be very disheartening when you’re new to the business. But over time the hurt subsides, you swallow it differently and never take it personally. Even the most talented designers encounter the rejection at times – it’s inevitable.

The rewards are many – otherwise I wouldn’t make design my life. Having creativity as the basis of “what I do” is a dream. I actually go to bed at night, yearning for the morning! That’s how I know this is my perfect match.

Working closely with my clients, establishing symbiotic relationships based on integrity, honesty and compassion is another sizable reward. I’m a people pleaser. It all goes back to that little golden rule. Treat and be treated!

Finally, the fact that designers can be inspired by ANYTHING is fantastic! Every living second is research…The supermarket, trip to grandma’s house, walking the dog. Keep your eyes open.

11. What advice would you offer to someone considering graphics design as a career?

Take advantage of internships – there’s no better way to find out if you and graphic design are compatible.

Pursue a foundation in art. We’re talking painting, drawing, printmaking, ceramics, anything and everything. You won’t believe how much having these basics will influence your style, craftsmanship and execution.

Join AIGA (if you’re in the US), DINZ (if you’re in NZ), or whatever version exists in your country. This is a great way to network, among a billion other things!

When you are starting out as a designer, don’t become discouraged by negative feedback, decide you don’t have talent, and veer away from graphic design as a career. This is a very common and tragic mistake. Of course you learn what’s successful through positive feedback from clients – but negative feedback is just as important, if not more – embrace it and evolve!

12. What do you do with your free time?

Actually do, or would like to do? How about both.

Actually do: tennis, swim, run, bike, family, cook, hike, read, Facebook

Have done/want to do more regularly: kayak, paint, camp, travel

Can’t wait to do/learn: triathlons, backpack through Asia, salsa, visit Antarctica, open a B&B, volunteer, live in a great community, build a house, and buy a hybrid. All achievable, of course!

Thanks so much, Sarah.