"Are you living your eulogy or your resume?"
Combining theater, film and visuals into one career was no easy feat, but art director Sara Monahan accomplished just that. She sat down with DesignRush to talk about the projects she's most proud of, the unconventional areas in New York City that help her hone creativity, and why one champagne is her go-to inspiration board.
DesignRush: What inspired you to go into design?
Sara Monahan: I’ve been a visual thinker for as long as I can remember, but I developed a deep interest in finding the nonverbal language suited to express a vision when I entered college and majored in Production Design for Film and Theatre. I found it fascinating how color, form, and texture could be manipulated to help an audience evaluate less readily accessible attributes like touch, taste, and even smell. Realizing how powerful visual cues can be in shaping a narrative was incredibly inspiring to me. I knew I wanted to be a part of that world.
DR: What are some projects of your own that you are particularly proud of?
SM: Working on designing the set for “IMDb Asks” was one of my biggest creative challenges, but also the most rewarding. The challenge in it was being able to create a modular structure over an existing set that could be assembled and disassembled within about 20-30 minutes… and still make it look good!
As part of the same series, I designed a pop-up set for interviews at Sundance that I worked on remotely from NYC, which was another big challenge. Creating something in a raw space with someone else’s measurements and then coordinating the execution of it with vendors in both NYC and Park City was logistically and creatively ambitious, and it was pulled off successfully. I’m very proud of that.
DR: Take us through your creative process.
SM: It’s difficult to quantify creative evolution since it’s so often an organic process that doesn’t ascribe to any sort of systematic thinking. For me, the iterative nature of concept development can be given structure by finding limitations – whether that is budgetary, physical size restraint, or available manpower – and answering to those with inventive solutions. By seeking out the “problems” in a given project, a framework is developed within which aesthetic expression can take shape. The IMDb Asks set, for example, had several requirements at the outset that controlled how the end design could materialize. Another practice I find valuable in idea development is creating mood boards. The activity of selecting and editing with regard to color, material and shape helps me visually evaluate abstract thoughts in order to bring a project from idea to execution. I’ve also found it to be an extremely useful tool in aiding communication with non-designer participants. Presenting something visual for someone to latch onto (or not latch onto in some cases) helps ground discussion in something concrete.
DR: Where do you find inspiration in your day-to-day life?
SM: Living in New York City, I’m lucky to constantly be surrounded by visual inspiration. I’m always fascinated by the detail and imagination that goes into creating the Fifth Avenue window displays. Their ability to define the brand’s image, create depth where there oftentimes isn’t, and give the customer an experience before even stepping foot in the store is a remarkable feat. For Christmas one year, I got the “Windows at Bergdorf Goodman” book, which captured some of the most stunning displays I’ve ever seen and I couldn’t get enough of it. I make a point of visiting every so often (especially during the holidays) to see what amazing thing they’ve come up with next.
DR: What are some of your favorite design tools and why?
SM: SketchUp is one of my favorite tools for design. It’s quick, intuitive and allows me to gain spatial awareness by experimenting with how physical set pieces can interact differently within a space. By temporarily removing myself from the physical location and working solely in the digital 3D space, I find I can more easily come up with new approaches to a design.
DR: What brands speak to you, and which projects of theirs are your favorites?
SM: Veuve Cliquot has one of my favorite Instagram accounts. It’s playful, inventive, and goes beyond what could typically be expected of a niche luxury brand by building a lifestyle component around their champagne. From their colorful pictures to their well-orchestrated video content, they’ve succeeded in making their particular shade of orange synonymous with the luxury experience.
Another one of my favorite companies making strategic use of video content is Chanel. Their short films are dreamy narratives that make you want to enter their fictional world if only for a moment – I could watch “The One That I Want – The Film” on repeat.
DR: You have the day off. What can we find you doing?
SM: Usually doing something wellness-related. I’m obsessed with taking infrared sauna sessions! I’ve also recently started getting acupuncture.
DR: Is there anything that helps you beat “designer’s block”?
SM: Whenever I’m feeling uninspired and unproductive, I try to mend my relationship with the creative process by turning to social media. Pinterest and Instagram, as primarily image-driven mediums, are particularly helpful in informing new ideas. For the relatively short time that these sites have been around, it’s incredible how quickly they’ve become a massive repository for visual ideas and sources of inspiration.
DR: What mantra motivates you in your work?
SM: “Are you living your eulogy or your resume?”
At the end of the day, I want to be remembered for who I was as a person rather than my accomplishments on paper. In the workplace, that means working hard, but also being the best person I can be and realizing the balance. I am motivated by the relationships I’ve formed and continue to form as I grow and evolve in the work environment.
DR: Any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?
SM: Finding a mentor is key to guiding your individual development and improving your overall career satisfaction. Not only will you learn from someone who is more experienced than you, but that person will also be your cheerleader throughout your career. I have had the same mentor and boss now as I did when I was an intern in college, and that has made all the difference in how I’ve matured throughout my various roles.
Want more interviews like this? Sign up for our newsletter!