Sara Green started her own design company in 1998, shortly after graduating from college, and in 18 years she hasn’t looked back. As owner and sole founder of DEI Creative, she has succeeded in establishing a loyal clientele, largely through referrals and word of mouth, and has built a talented, tight knit team which she considers one of her greatest professional accomplishments.
We met in an offbeat Capitol Hill coffee shop on a cool autumn morning. As soon as our eyes met, her warm, bright smile set the tone for the conversation to come. Over the next hour, we would discuss design, dogs, kindness, and the value of paving your own path, among many other topics. It is my pleasure to share the highlights of our conversation below.
Sara grew up just across the Cascade mountains in Wenatchee, Washington, and attended Washington State University. Like many college freshmen, her major was thoroughly undecided. She contemplated teaching and psychology before finding her calling while working in the school marketing department.
“I loved going to work every day,” Sara reminisced, radiating a passion for her craft that is evident to this day. Sara ultimately studied graphic design, fine arts and art history, a curriculum that left her with a well-rounded approach that has aided her throughout her career. However, like many art and design students, Sara received little instruction on business.
“I was not taught back then the business side of design and just what's involved in being self employed.” Despite this lack of formal business training, Sara would soon be striking out on her own. “I learned everything myself, the hard way.”
Starting Her Business
Sara was hired as a designer at the only advertising agency in Bavarian-inspired Leavenworth, Washington, an experience that was to be—perhaps fortuitously—short-lived. The agency closed less than a year after she started. But in this setback, Sara saw opportunity. “There was so much potential. I got to know people and just slowly started doing my own thing.”
Before long, Sara had made a reputation for herself within the local tourism industry. Satisfied clients began referring her to urban developers in Seattle. At the time, apartments and condos were springing up everywhere in the city, and Sara had no shortage of work. She was spending more and more time in Seattle, and soon decided to make it her home.
Her first office in Seattle was a large, open studio in Belltown. “I had a huge space with one desk in the middle,” Sara recalled, laughing. But from the beginning, it was important to her to have a workspace that welcomed her young pup, Milo.
She and Milo wouldn’t have the space to themselves for long, however. With more and more work coming in, Sara was swamped. “I was working around the clock, crazy, crazy hours.” Almost four years after starting her business, Sara began to build her team.
Building A Team
After bringing her first designer on board, Sara gradually hired more designers, web developers and other professionals, increasing the company to its current size of around a dozen people. But the connotation of the title “boss” makes her uneasy.
“I like to think of us as colleagues " Sara explained. “We are a team, we collaborate 100 percent.”
Although she didn’t start off with specific standards in mind, she now knows which characteristics make a successful DEI team member. First, they must be detail-oriented, starting with their resume. But perhaps most essentially (and most reflective of her own character), Sara has sought out kind people.
“First and foremost, you need to be kind,” Sara declared. “Somebody that you want to have around because, being a small team, that is one of the most important things. Somebody that is respectful, thoughtful, and fun.”
Only once those criteria are met does she consider an applicant’s other attributes, but that doesn’t mean talent is unimportant to her. “Education is huge but not the end all. Creative people can absolutely be self taught. And, everybody has their own unique specialties, you can't do it all. So honing in on what you do best, and then surrounding yourself with people who are knowledgeable, experts in their different professional realms... Personally, I think that's a smart path to take.”
When asked how she encourages team members to take on leadership roles, she fully credited the small, egalitarian structure of her company. “Because we're a small business we all have to do a little bit of everything.” This format makes it easy for people to try out different roles and take on new responsibilities.
“I don't care about titles,” she mused. “I do think that is one of the things that makes our team unique. We are all creatives working for this common good, this common goal.”
Working With Clients
As a young designer, client meetings could sometimes be intimidating.
“There were times I'd go into a meeting where it's all men in suits and I just felt very small,” Sara confessed. “In these instances, I had to go in with a bigger personality and overcome that.”
Fortunately, her confidence was bolstered by the fact that the vast majority of her clients over the years have sought her out. And given Sara’s dedication to client satisfaction, it’s not hard to see why.
“We will not be done with a project until the client is 100 percent thrilled with the result.” Sara proclaimed. “That is something I hang my hat on. I want people to know that, when they come to DEI, they will have a great experience.”
As someone who has struggled with determining how much to charge for my services, I was curious about Sara’s approach. It was heartening to hear that this was something she dealt with early on as well. Shifting from hourly to proposal based projects was one major improvement. But she’s found that having strong relationships with her clients to be just as important.
“I think that goes back to having built relationships with clients who became great friends. They have your best interests in mind and are really involved.”
As her career progressed, it also became more vital to stand up for the value of her work.
“Nowadays, there are so many more people at stake. Not just within DEI, but I'm also married and I have two kids. There's just more risk as you grow a business with more people depending on you. That definitely weighs heavy and makes decision making more... difficult, I guess? Or just more thoughtful.”
Triumphs And Challenges
Sara has had many achievements during her career, but a few stand out for her.
“We've had the opportunity to work with many iconic Seattle companies, including Pike Place Market, Vulcan Inc, The Bullitt Center, Seattle Cider Co,” she recounted. “It’s so rewarding to walk down the street or down the aisle at the grocery store and see our work on display.”
But above all, Sara gets deep satisfaction from her team at DEI. “One of my greatest professional achievements is having built the fantastic team of creatives that stand by my side today. What we create together is amazing.”
“One person can only do so much, you can accomplish so much more as a collective. And you're only as strong as the people around you. Having that backbone for the company has been so valuable.”
That’s not to say that her career has been without its struggles. “One of my greatest challenges to date has been starting a family and feeling that constant pull of wanting to be home and on-point with my family while also not wanting to miss a beat in the office and with my clients. My kids are now seven and nine years old and that struggle and polarizing pull has yet to cease!”
Standing up for her expertise on certain projects has occasionally presented a challenge, and she’s learned a lot over the years about when and how much to push back.
“There have been projects where our creativity is just stifled to a degree where it's not worth it,” Sara recollected. “Holding strong on the direction that feels appropriate and standing up for what we believe to be the best path for our client is paramount. And if needed, pointing out why they hired us in the first place.”
Looking Toward The Future
“I really like the size of our team now,” Sara reflected. “There's so much potential for growth, but I like the idea of staying small (but mighty) and if anything, just heavily curating the types of projects that we take on.”
The ideal client comes to DEI needing a visual brand, a website and various print/digital collateral pieces. Retaining a balance of project types is so important… resorts, real estate development, events, restaurants, beverage companies. Speaking of….
“We've branded wine, beer, cider, tea, kombucha... But we haven't specifically branded a coffee company or a distillery. That would be fun, to round out our beverages!”
Advice To Young Designers
Over the last 18 years, Sara has seen the design field become much more competitive. “It's kind of a flooded industry,” she observed. “My recommendation for young designers is to have a focus. Be a fantastic designer, but have an extra add-on. For example, I'm a designer but I'm also a photographer. Or I'm a designer but I'm also an illustrator. That extra edge will help you succeed.” To women in particular, Sara emphasized the importance of standing out in a male-dominated industry. “Don't just dive in and follow the trend, be strong and set your own path.”
Despite the fact that women still hold only 11% of Creative Director positions, Sara is uncomfortable labeling herself as a minority. “I don’t like bringing attention to the fact that, as a woman, I’m considered a minority,” she explained, preferring to to be recognized on the strength of her work alone. She offered the following guidance:
“Be true to who you are and stand behind what you create. Don’t go into your studio or into meetings trying to prove yourself… go in with a kind smile, knowing you are skilled and valuable… the people around you will soon discover that for themselves. If you feel empowered you will emanate strength.”
Odds And Ends
Sadly, Milo, Sara’s original pup and office mate, passed away this year. But dogs are still an important part of the culture at DEI and the team is encouraged to bring their dogs to work.
“It's interesting how many people say, ‘We knew you'd be good people just because you have dogs on your website!' "
And, as it turns out, Sara is a chocolate fiend, a woman after my own heart. “Chocolate milk, chocolate ice cream, chocolate covered strawberries… it’s a bit ridiculous,” Sara joked. I was honored at the chance to spend some time with Sara and introduce her as our inaugural Women Lead Spotlight. Keep an eye out for another installment in the New Year!
Samantha Muscat-Scherr is a self-employed Art Director and Graphic Designer who is currently studying User-Centered Design at the University of Washington. She is also one of AIGA’s Women Lead volunteers and committee members. Samples of her work can be found at behance.net/samanthamuscatscherr.