Interview with Carrie Sloat, Graphic Designer

by Cathy Sivak
Interview with Carrie Sloat, Graphic Designer

A flair for branding initiatives and package design prowess create the template for this graphic design entrepreneur's success.

A day in the life as the founder of Carrie Sloat Design includes creating brand strategies and product positioning, implementing designs to support branding and positioning plans, preparing files for printers and coordinating with various vendors. Not to mention sending out invoices, paying the bills and emptying all of the office garbage cans.

California's Carrie Sloat broke into the graphic design branding and package design agency world and built on her experiences to become an entrepreneur.

As 100 percent of her business is based on referrals, contacts are critical to her success, as is the ability to tap into her creativity, she tells "When a brand identity really comes together, it is very fulfilling," she says.


You & Your Career

Tell us about your graphic design career. How did you break into graphic design, and how did you advance to where you are today as the founder of Carrie Sloat Design?

I was recruited out of Cal Poly by a firm in San Francisco called Curtis Design. They specialized in branding and package design, which was really in line with my strengths. After about four years at Curtis Design (which is now Murray Brand), I rose to a senior designer position and had learned a tremendous amount about the design business in general including project management, client management and presentation skills.

I wanted to do it all, and when working for an agency, you typically are restricted to either the business side or the design side. The logical step for me was to take on a couple freelance clients and see how it went. Graphic design is a relatively low-risk business for freelancers being that there is very low overhead and it's relatively easy to start in your own home. I worked hard and produced designs that made my clients successful, which in turn led to referrals, which is how I have received 100 percent of my business up to this point.

What led you into the area of consumer goods brand identity and package design?

There is something romantic about the idea of creating designs that will be on the shelves in thousands of homes. I like the idea and challenge of taking a commodity and turning it into something that makes your daily life more enjoyable and delivers a unique message from the brand.

Package design was always intriguing to me for a number of reasons. For one thing, you are working with and arranging many forms of art: photography, typography, color, illustration, etc. I especially enjoy helping clients reach their potential by telling their individual stories in a more effective way, communicating a product's personality and connecting packages to their target consumers.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

The variety as well as that I am always learning, and I am constantly learning about new trends in all sorts of areas. Packaging connects you to many different industries. One day I am working on Japanese Fried Rice bags, and the next day I might be creating CD packaging for a Bluegrass band!

Has your work been recognized by graphic design organizations or other affiliated organizations? How important is such recognition to you, personally and to your career?

I have never really entered those contests, mainly because I just don't have time. I would like to receive the honors, but mostly because I think clients are impressed by honors listed on your web site and. Winning contests doesn't mean all that much to me because I know that the pretty designs don't always sell in the marketplace, and that's what's most important to me and my clients.

What has been your personal key to success?

My key has probably been learning from the mistakes of others. I have done a lot of reading about and saw what worked and didn't work for other business owners, and I have tried not to repeat the pattern. Most of it is logical and goes with things you have heard your whole life, like "don't be penny-wise and pound foolish." Perseverance and hard work is at least half of what it takes.

What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I try to get out of the city and into the mountains as often as possible for a little relaxation and inspiration. Nature has amazing examples of design, including packaging and architecture and especially color.

My parents are both self-employed, and have been very inspirational to me. Productivity has always been important in my family, but this can be at work or hiking up a mountain.

What are some favorite projects you've completed and why?

I don't have a favorite type of project, but when a brand identity really comes together, it is very fulfilling.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

A personal goal I have is to become a more successful businesswoman. There aren't enough examples out there yet. I would like to be an example of a design business owner that has a thriving business as well as a family and active personal life.


Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your graphic design education. How did you decide to study graphic design?

I grew up in a very artistic family. I was never great at drawing like the rest of my family, but I liked arranging elements that other people created or I found. I thought design was somewhat like this. I also didn't want to be a struggling artist and had heard that you can actually make money in graphic design (although, few ever get rich).

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before you pursued your graphic design education?

With what I do now (which is everything) you really need good communication skills, writing skills, and even math at times. I wish I had paid more attention in those classes!

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs? Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference in landing a good job?

I think Art Center College of Design, California College of the Arts, and Academy of Art University in San Francisco are among the top three. With most firms, I don't think graduating from a prestigious school makes a difference. When I'm interviewing designers, I could care less where they went to school or how pretty their books are. I just want to see the work and hear the thinking behind it.

How can prospective graphic design students assess their skill and aptitude?

That's hard to say, I think everyone, just through experience, needs to recognize the type of work that they are passionate about and excel in and follow it. Typically, it's true that the happier you are doing your job, the better the work is. I went to portfolio reviews when I was in college and I kept hearing the same thing, "You should go into packaging!" and I did.

What can students applying to graphic design schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

In your portfolios, be original, show your personality through your work and most importantly, show your thoughtfulness.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in graphic design?

My school didn't require internships, but I think real-world experience is very important and if you're lucky, you leave with a piece or two to put in your portfolio.


The Actual Work

What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities?

I follow up on referrals, meet with prospective and current clients, write proposals, develop brand strategies and product positioning, implement designs that meet these criteria, prepare files for the printers and coordinate with various vendors, bill the job and start the next one. And, in between all of that, I vacuum the floor and take out the trash.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

Typically I get in around 7 or 8 a.m., answer e-mails and dive into my checklist, which includes many of the topics mentioned above. I try to head home by 6 or 7 p.m.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most?

I work in Illustrator CS about 80 percent of the time, Photoshop 15 percent of the time and InDesign every now and then.

You belong to the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA). How is such membership important to your career?

I think it's important if you are a design business owner to support AIGA. I hardly ever have time to go to the AIGA lectures and events, but when I do go, I find them very inspiring.

What are some common myths about your profession?

That we "make art." There is a process and science to it just like other professions.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Not enough time. I think one of the main reasons designers aren't more profitable is because when you have the great opportunity of taking on multiple jobs, you can't just clone yourself to get the extra work done. It's not like you invented a widget and when it catches on you can just triple the supply. Design is a very personal thing that requires your personal attention.

What are the greatest stresses, what causes you the most anxiety?

  • Clients that don't pay on time.
  • Underestimating how much time a project will take.
  • Taking on too much and not sleeping enough worrying about getting it all done!


Job Information & Advice

What are the hottest specialties within the graphic design field over the next decade?

I have found that packaging has been very steady and fad-proof. The internet will continue to be an important role in marketing. I think that design, and especially the consulting side of branding (strategy and positioning) are becoming increasingly respected and demanded by clients. Consumers are increasingly demanding and expecting customized products that express some part of themselves and they are willing to pay a premium for it. Therefore, clients really need to understand their target audience and pay attention to the consumer attitudes and market trends.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about graphic design in order to be successful on both a personal and professional level?

Yes, because it's not the type of business where (typically) the money makes up for the misery. It's a lot of hard work and if you don't find an area in design that you are passionate about, it will wear on you.

What kinds of jobs are available for graduating graphic design students? Specialty areas?

I am still hearing about businesses folding, but I think there are a lot of small companies like myself that are ramping up for a better economy ahead. With some persistence, I think jobs are available in most areas.

What are the best ways to get a foot in the door?

One benefit of going to a good design school is that many of the professors are designers, and sometimes they hire graduates that they had in class. Go to the portfolio reviews, even if you don't think you're ready. Just show what you have and get used to interviewing and presenting your work. Internships are key also.

How available are graphic design internships? What is the best way for an internship candidate to shine in the application process?

I'm not sure how available they are at this point. Attitude is the most important element of an intern. Be helpful and respectful. Get to know the designers and make it a better place when you are there so they miss you when you're gone. If you have the chance to actually work on a design project, don't do it half-heartedly. Spend a couple hours working on it after work if you have to.

What other career advice can you offer graphic design school graduates?

Putting yourself in areas that seem a little out of reach and are somewhat scary is the best way to learn. Just show up prepared to the best of your abilities and opportunities will present themselves.

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