"Your dreams won't happen unless you only want them to." -- Bonnie Raitt
Ever thought a design process could be compared to a dump truck? Neither did we, until we met Sarai.
But alas, Sara-with-an-i convinced us in her unconventional design method that lasted her from high school biology well into her professional career.
Curious as to what it actually is? Scroll down to find out...
DesignRush: What inspired you to become a designer?
Sarai Pegram: I got my start as a designer when I joined the yearbook staff in high school. I picked up InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop really quickly, but I didn't think too much of it at the time. Throughout college, I kept up my skills by designing things for various extracurricular activities, but never realized that design could be a college major, let alone a job. I was deep into the sciences, so the idea of checking out a design program never even occurred to me.
I graduated in 2008 with little savings and a desperate need for a job, which is how I ended up in Sarasota, Florida working for my first company. At the same time, a friend I'd been in choir with in college was just getting her start as a designer in New York City. I drew a lot of inspiration from her work and watching her career trajectory, eventually realizing what the role of a designer entailed. In chatting with her, I realized that design was what I wanted to do for a living as well. I moved back to North Carolina temporarily for a summer internship as a designer at a publishing company on the Outer Banks, and when I got back to Florida I started taking on clients as a freelancer, gathering enough work for a decent portfolio. My friend encouraged me to move to NYC, which I did, where I landed my job as a designer at Macmillan.
DR: What are some designs of your own that you are particularly proud of?
SP: As far as print projects go, one of my favorite projects in my role at Macmillan was the designs for Book Expo and Book Con, the two largest annual publishing trade shows. I was the first person in my role at Macmillan, so I really had a chance to make this project my own. My lack of a background in publishing enabled me to bring a fresh perspective to the project, and I came at it from a holistic perspective of not just creating a booth-- I wanted to create an experience. It was overwhelmingly well-received, which is always music to a designer's ears.
Regarding web design projects, right now I'm particularly proud of my own website, saraiwithani.co. I'd wanted to design and hand-code my own website for years, but as most designers will tell you, our own stuff tends to fall by the wayside in favor of client work and full-time jobs. It was a learning opportunity on many levels, so when it was finally live it was a huge wave of relief and accomplishment.
DR: Take us through your creative process.
SP: I like to refer to my creative process as the "dump-truck" method. It was something my high school biology teacher taught us when we were taking an exam — as soon as you get the test, write everything down you think you might forget at the top of the paper. I do the same thing with my designs. Whatever copy I need, whatever colors a client has specified, they all go to the artboard and get moved around like Tetris blocks until they make sense.
DR: Does that process ever get overwhelming?
SP: It can, but if I find myself getting especially frustrated on an element, I take a step back to clear my head for a few hours, or even a day. Usually, something will pop into my head during that time. When a design is done, I get a tingly feeling all over, which sounds insane, but it's true. When you stand back and look at a finished product, you just know.
DR: Where do you find inspiration in your day-to-day life?
SP: I do a lot of outdoor activities. I'm an inline speed skater, so I'm skating the streets of NYC about five days a week with a group. When I'm not skating, I'm usually hiking or traveling. Taking a break from all kinds of screens and getting out with a good group of people is the best way for me to find inspiration. I'm very extroverted, so I also enjoy talking ideas and concepts out with people, even if they're not designers.
DR: What designers or brands speak to you?
SP: Everything REI. As an outdoor enthusiast and a designer, it's the perfect collision of my personal and professional lives. From their physical store to their social media, to the tags on their REI-branded apparel, everything they design fits into their brand and what they're trying to sell. I'm a huge fan of their #optoutside campaign, so much that I framed a few of their postcards.
DR: What makes the perfect work environment for you?
SP: I'd love to sit here and spin a story about a nice and tidy work environment, one that you'd see in a lovely stock image, but the truth is is that my work environment is a wreck. Post-it notes everywhere, notebooks full of client notes, multi-colored pens cluttering my desk, a half-empty bottle of hot sauce always within reach... you get the idea. It's taken me a couple of years to come to terms with it, but I'm just not a tidy person when it comes to my work environment. I'm usually so zoned into my computer screen that everything else just becomes a mess.
DR: Is there anything that helps you beat designer’s block?
SP: Taking a step back from any kind of screen for a few hours or even a day is so helpful to me when faced with designer's block, whether I'm doing something outside or hanging out with friends. It's difficult for me to turn off that design part of my brain, so usually somewhere in there, an idea is churning that just hasn't come to fruition yet. I never know when it will strike, which is why I bring my phone with me everywhere, so I can write down an idea really quickly before it passes.
DR: What quote motivates you in your work?
SP: "Your dreams won't happen unless you only want them to," from the Bonnie Raitt song "Streetlights" off the album of the same name (it's a really sad song, but that's beside the point). As a self-taught designer, I couldn't rely on anyone else to motivate me to learn new things and hone my craft, and this quote really inspired me, in the beginning, to always work a little harder and continue to come back to things that frustrated me. I come back to this every time I'm trying something new, whether it's learning a new platform or getting outside my comfort zone. I keep it scribbled on a post-it stuck to my monitor at all times, and have ever since I decided I wanted to become a designer.
DR: Any final thoughts, comments, or words of wisdom you’d like to share with someone in the industry?
SP: Treat every client like their project is the one that will make your career. No matter how small the job, put everything you've got into it and don't ever let the client feel like they're less important than your other clients, no matter what they're paying you or the scope of their project. I think there's a quote somewhere that says that people will eventually forget what you said, or what you did--but they'll never forget how you made them feel. Making every client feel like they're your most important one will go a long way in your career.
Finding someone older and wiser than you with whom you can have a candid relationship is crucial. I've been very lucky to have a wonderful mentor in my position at Macmillan over the past few years, one who is my biggest cheerleader but who also isn't afraid to call me out when she knows I can do better.
Also, especially for women, impostor's syndrome is very real. Don't let anyone tell you that you don't belong here, or make you feel like your time isn't valuable. There will always be more things to learn, sure, but you have a lot to bring to the table, whether you've been designing for one year or thirty.
Want more design insights? Sign up for our newsletter!