Fierce Females: Stories of Women in Design

Episode 1 – Kristin Sinclair

Welcome to a new series of interviews with women in design. This series is intended to spotlight women in the design community and spark inspiration for anyone interested in design.

In our first interview, Kristin Sinclair, principal and creative director of Sinclair Designs, spoke with us about her journey as a woman in design, and she gives advice for new designers entering the field.

Fierce Females Video Transcript/Notes

How did you get started in design?

I grew up in Maryland. When I first started, I worked in the nonprofit industry for about six years. [I was] doing a lot of online fundraising and nonprofit fundraising materials. I started as a graphic designer, entry level, and worked my way up to art director for that company.

Design wasn’t necessarily the way that they thought of. It was more in a traditional advertising sense: copy and art. More copy driven, versus graphic design. I got stuck and I needed to find something else that’s going to let me grow and do something different so I can have more engagement and try new things.

I found a job within the industry as a senior designer, and I took a step down. But I think the work itself was completely different. It was more along the lines of packaging, marketing, trade shows, vehicle wraps — there was a little bit of everything.

So I thought, “Okay, I can learn a lot here.”

I started in the Baltimore office, and then I transferred when they decided to move the marketing function out to Vista, California to learn under my mentor and now friend.

I became the director of brand design, and we started to build a small team, where we could handle both photo and graphic design. We eventually added video and motion graphics and eventually a web function as well.

We started with two brands and grew into seven pretty quickly. I worked there for about six years, and ended up leaving there to move to Colorado.

I started freelancing and doing my own thing for a little while, and then ended up getting a full time job more in the consumer experience industry. I am working as an art director. I am still freelancing on the side and going to school. I am using this in-between moment to figure out what I really want to do.

Lose your ego. If you think that design is easy… and you’re just gonna go in and kind of run, just don’t. It’s gonna be really hard. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be stressful.

What inspires you?

What really inspires me is seeing how others function: what they do, how they tackle problems, having conversations.

When I see that there are holes that need fixing, I try to go in and be a help. I really like mentoring and helping young designers try and figure their way through problems when they don’t think that they can.

All the positions I’ve been through — there’s been different political struggles at each place that I’ve worked my way through.

I’ve grown as a leader, as a female and as a designer. I want to help others, too. There’s always going to be people that want to just do the 9 to 5. But for those that feel like they’re stifled and can’t get anywhere, and they’re going to be stuck in this one thing forever, I really want to tell them, “No, you’re not. You can get out of it. It just takes some guts to take some push, and you can do it. And once you’re out, it’s kind of like a breath of fresh air.”

When I first started, I thought I either wanted to be a dolphin trainer, or do something with art.

I’ve always done small things with art. In my free time, I sometimes sculpt miniatures. I wouldn’t say it’s a direct answer to this one thing in my life that has inspired me.

I feel like I should have that one thing, but my experience is telling me that it’s kind of the journey. It comes partially from your inspiration and from your experience because you don’t have to have some amazing situation happen to you for you to be an empowering leader for others. You don’t have to have that one thing that you’re just so good at. As long as you keep truckin’ — you keep going through the journey — you’ll find things along the way that spark little bits of inspiration.

Trust your gut. Know know how far you want to take stuff and do test runs with yourself if you really want to push yourself to be in a certain type of role.

How are you staying fresh? How are you continuing to challenge yourself?

I read the internet a lot. I have a lot of different little groups that I belong to and start conversations to be able to be inspired. I try to sit and learn more from what’s going on in the different areas.

I would say that travel can become inspiring. In my last role, there was a lot of travel. I went to Spain and Japan, and you see things culturally that they do differently. It sparked other ideas of what you may want to do in the work that you do, in terms of just the way that they communicate with people. It’s very interesting to add that to your repertoire to feel empowered and engaged in what you’re doing.

I like to aggregate a lot of things into one, and then try and help spread that inspiration to others, or into some of the work that I do.

A lot of the projects I do right now in my day job aren’t necessarily exciting. But I will, in micro instances, find little bits of inspiration to help those projects along to stay engaged and things I can solve and bring to the table. It may not be an amazing advertising campaign, but there’s like this little bit that I saw that helped push it forward.

Sometimes it’s about trying to have as many conversations as you can up front to understand what is their real goal and to focus as much as you can. Then try and weave that into your conversations when you’re talking.

What challenges have you faced as a woman?

In each of my roles, there was definitely a hierarchy. There was politics. And there was also not an understanding of design, and how it’s important. There was also not an understanding of an openness to listen to ideas.

The reason I left the first position was because of not being able to grow, and I had been told several times, “I don’t think that you’re going to be able to get here, because you’ve only been here six years, you need more tenure.” I had those types of things.

I had some jobs where it was more important to have years behind your belt versus talent and drive. And then I had some jobs where years didn’t matter. You had to have talent and drive or you had to be in the right position at the right time and know the right people.

I had a female boss at my first job and she played the politics game very well. I totally understand why. But I think in that job, design was considered a pencil. We make things. [The company decides what they want to do, and they’re] just going to tell you how to do it. There was no collaboration or “let’s solve it together.”

A lot of the designers get stale because they’re just doing-doing-doing, and they don’t have a moment to refresh their brain to think creatively outside of the physical act of doing.

When I went to the new role, my mentor had built a department to make design an equal part of marketing, business sales. That really was where the department took off and started growing and started learning. But then there was a political shift when there was an acquisition. [My mentor] ended up leaving. And I [decided I was going to] stick around and try and tough this out. I was thinking, I can do this. I’ve got this team, I’m basically running it. And I’m doing all these things. So I’m going to keep pushing. I put a proposal together, and I had conversations with different leaders about it.

The person who ended up becoming my boss was somebody who got promoted five levels from a brand position.

He skipped all the levels into a senior leadership position without ever managing anybody or without ever actually understanding the departments that ended up being under him. He never actually had any leadership or management ability. He became the leader of four different functions of the company.

I battled that, and it was definitely an uphill struggle. A lot of the struggles I had in those last two years was me battling my boss. It was constantly a toxic conversation — him doubting everything I did, even though I was experienced and had 14 years under my belt in design. That was never trusted; there was no respect there.

I always try to talk it out. Some of it just had to do with the fact that he wanted control of the situation — to be able to make the decisions and do them and it be his decision. He wasn’t willing to kind of look at the functions and say, “Okay, this person knows how to do these things. So I’m going to trust that person to get those things done.”

I went through like a lot of struggles…. They wanted me to perform a project management function as well as be a creative director for the team. I told them, “No, this isn’t something that you should do.” There are too many things happening at the same time. There was a little bit of like education that needed to happen, but nobody was listening.

What ended up happening was I got put on a performance plan which is the thing that happens before you get supposedly fired, and I refused to sign it. It’s a big, convoluted, huge thing.

I learned you’re gonna run into those types of people, no matter where you are.

At that company, it was a very male. There weren’t many female leadership positions. There ended up being one [woman] right before I left. She was the only female really in there. One other that was in the global group got pushed out, and she was in Europe’s division.

What I learned is sometimes it’s about trying to have as many conversations as you can upfront to understand what is their real goal and to focus as much as you can. Then try and weave that into your conversations when you’re talking.

Also, I learned to document everything. No matter what you’re doing or meeting you’re having, you’re always documenting. My goal is protecting the team. So no matter what was hitting me, I protected the team. I did not let any of that go through or whine and complain to the team. I really worked hard to make sure they were having a good growing atmosphere while all this other crap was going on.

That was also very difficult. It’s also good to know that sometimes you have to go through that toxic type situation to really say, “this isn’t right.” I shouldn’t do this.

What do you wish you knew when you started?

[I wish I knew] that it’s not personal. Even if people are making personal attacks, you have to try and keep yourself out of the situation and not make it personal. That is extremely difficult to learn.

I also learned how to speak up in difficult situations. I probably could have spoken up more in the different positions. It’s really hard though, because I think a lot of design schools… don’t teach business. They don’t really teach politics. They don’t really teach, “what are you gonna do when you have to interact with somebody who’s an asshole?” [The don’t teach] what you have to do to stay calm in order to get to the solution.

I think knowing more about that and encouraging that type of atmosphere early on can always help. But I think it’s also hard, because you sometimes need experience to really like say, “Now I get it.”

What advice do you have for new designers?

Trust your gut. I know people probably say that all the time. Know know how far you want to take stuff and do test runs with yourself if you really want to push yourself to be in a certain type of role.

Create scenarios for yourself where you can practice. Join local organizations to help in the community to help put your focus there first… until you’re ready to do it in the company.

Record everything. By record, I mean document… your process. It’s very highly important for designers, more than anything else, to know how to talk about your process and explain it to somebody who doesn’t understand.

Gone are the days where design is just showing a beautiful, [completed] piece. It’s more of a collaboration. [It’s an] open forum that is giving it the opportunity to grow and be at the top of companies.

I think that’s a really great opportunity for designers and leadership. That gives a lot of opportunity for designers to grow. But you’re not going to know how to do that… until you know how to explain what you do to somebody who doesn’t understand.

That takes practice — tons of practice.

Lose your ego. If you think that design is easy… and you’re just gonna go in and kind of run, just don’t. It’s gonna be really hard. It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be stressful.

Know that going in. It’s not about “I want to design. I want to just do these amazing things. And it’s going to be easy because my parents have always liked everything I’ve done.”

It may feel easy, but you may run into difficult situations.