AIGA Seattle is proud to introduce a new written series to spotlight local female leaders. The interviews will provide insight into the designer’s world, including stories about how they chose their creative field, their struggles and achievements, tips for others, and perhaps their favorite food. Look for posts every two months. And, if you have a recommendation for talent, or are interested in writing for the series, please email Kirsten, AIGA Seattle's Women Lead Director at email@example.com.
Design Director Audrey Na's work has been described by clients and colleagues as "sophisticated" and "elegant." But Audrey has substance as well as style. A wild dash through the dot-com bubble, a reign in retail design at Eddie Bauer, and her current nine-year tenure at Seattle design firm Phinney Bischoff have given her ample opportunity to reflect on and refine her craft.
But what struck me most were her serene confidence, humility, and generous willingness to share the fruits of her experience. In a conversation that began with a gracious tour through the intimate, light-washed Phinney Bischoff offices and stretched into an expansive conversation in a cozy corner of a local coffee shop, Audrey touched on her career, leadership, empathy, and her thoughts on the future of women in the design industry. It is my pleasure to share the highlights of our conversation below.
Audrey began expressing herself visually at a young age. At various times in her childhood she dabbled in architecture, fashion and illustration; drawing houses, clothes, and cartoons. She recalls a particular fascination with a branded patch on a pair of jeans: "I remember looking at the denim patch thinking, 'Oh, I want to do this.' I didn't know what to call it but I wanted to create something like this when I grew up."
Her father encouraged her in these creative pursuits. "He said, 'Why don't you try studying graphic design?'" Audrey reminisces. "And at the time, I didn't even know what that was!"
By the time Audrey started college, she had no doubt about her major. At the University of Washington, she received a design education with a focus on the fundamentals — typography, design thinking and a Swiss design influence. This foundation has served her well over the years. "I will never forget being introduced to many great design leaders from our history, such as Paul Rand, Robert Venturi and Claude Garamond, who all have a special place in my designer's heart."
Her education culminated with an internship that would prove to be pivotal to her career — at Phinney Bischoff. But at the time, she couldn't know how important those four months would be. After graduation, she bid her mentors farewell and entered the workforce.
Boom & Bust
Audrey got her first job at an internet startup in 1999, at the peak of the dot-com boom. It was an intense time of learning and growth. "I was probably there for not even a year," she estimates. "But that's where I gained what felt like ten years of experience. I just got thrown in, we did everything." This left little time for rest. "We were practically sleeping in the office. But we bonded with other fellow teammates that way, and when you're young you can do that. So it was an amazing experience."
Alas, it wasn't long before the age of the internet startup began to wane. "The company went from maybe 20 people to 200 in about eight months. But then came the first round of layoffs, the second round of layoffs, until they closed down." Audrey had made many valuable connections during that time, however, and soon found work at another startup.
"You get your foot in the door and you meet the right people, so when they leave and join different companies, there are opportunities for you there," she says. "And that's when I learned that taking risks and things not working out is actually okay."
Through a recruiting agency, Audrey landed a contract design position in Eddie Bauer's retail division. "I was actually designing the patch!" she exclaims, referring back to her childhood fascination with the logo on her jeans. "So that was great, entering into the retail environment and learning that whole industry. That's what led to me eventually getting hired on."
After two years, her deep knowledge of the brand and the trust she had engendered with her colleagues made her an obvious choice for Art Director. And two years after that, her work was recognized again when the position of Senior Art Director was created for her. Though her responsibilities increased rapidly during this time, the progression was very natural.
"I had relationships with people, and there was trust. So it was actually a very seamless kind of role and it was accepted well," Audrey says. "I think that's where relationships were important. There's a timing for when things should happen, so it just worked out."
However, after four years and having risen to a leadership role in the retail department, she began to examine where she wanted to take her career from there. After all, she muses, "What more can I say about capri pants? Or down jackets? I had great experience working for a brand and an in-house design team. But now I wanted to work in an agency environment and experience different brands."
Return to Roots
It wasn't long before word came of an opening at Phinney Bischoff, the firm where she had interned nearly ten years earlier. The people she had worked with there still remembered her fondly, and the interview process went quickly. In January of 2008, Audrey was hired as Senior Designer. While there were some adjustments to going from an in-house to an agency setting, Audrey took them in stride and was soon thriving.
Since joining the firm, Audrey has been part of a team that has cultivated a strong working relationship with BECU, Washington's largest credit union, as their longtime retail strategy partner. "Their members are total fans," Audrey says, a sentiment which she seems to share. "Working with them, you become a total fan of them as well. They stand by their values, both in how they work with others and how they serve their members."
In the last few years, she and the team at Phinney Bischoff has been engaged in developing and executing the brand expression, for both the interior and exterior of BECU's cooperative headquarters and flagship retail space, located in Tukwila, WA. This has inspired other ongoing brand development work. "It's a relationship that had been there even before I joined Phinney Bischoff. We're going on almost 12 years!"
Another recent project involved brand identity work for the Bloedel Reserve, a 150-acre public garden on Bainbridge Island. "By being able to go and experience the garden firsthand, I connected with the beauty and soul of the place." Audrey recounts. "When we presented our logo concepts back to the board, the presentation was done in a way that made them feel like they were actually there. They knew the concepts were coming from a place that we understood." The result was a beautiful, modern logo that achieved the essence of the Bloedel Reserve. "That process was really rewarding," she says.
After four years, Audrey was promoted to Senior Art Director and in 2014, Audrey was made Design Director alongside her counterpart, Cody Rasmussen. The promotion was confirmation and validation of years of hard work, and it formalized the responsibility that she had taken on naturally over time. "That allowed us to hire more designers, and provide leadership to the new designers that were coming on," Audrey explains. "So it's more of a mentor, training, teaching environment."
Audrey was eager to give credit to the people who helped her arrive where she is now. "I'm very thankful for all the opportunities I've been given along the way," she comments. "It's really the people who you surround yourself with, who mentor you, and who you then mentor back. All of that influences this path that we're all on." In particular, she mentioned two women who have been vital influences.
Ashley Arhart, now a Creative Director at Amazon, was her design director at Eddie Bauer. "She was so smart." Audrey says. "Such a strong conceptual and strategic thinker. She knew how to direct projects and people, work with executive management, and really inspire her team."
And Phinney Bischoff's CEO, Leslie Phinney, has been a mentor throughout the nine years that Audrey has been at the company. "Leslie built her company around people-first design, not just in the creative and work that we do, but in how she hires and runs her business. Her passion, leadership and patience have been great influences for my growth."
Just as Audrey recognizes the leaders who have helped shape her career, she is determined to help others rise. The first step is to build a team of capable professionals. Attention to detail, design ability, and strong conceptual thinking are important. But attitude is key. "I'm looking for someone who is passionate about their work, and who genuinely cares."
With those qualities in place, Audrey encourages designers to learn through doing, and to think critically about their design choices. "It's important that I understand your thinking," Audrey explains. She will ask why a designer made a certain choice and listen for an understanding of the needs of the client and the project. Sometimes further guidance is needed to shape the outcome. But the exercise has value for the designer regardless.
"By listening, you're also helping them to talk about their work. So more opportunities for them to explain their thinking, that's all part of how we want to grow our designers and our team."
I was especially curious about how she felt her role had changed as she went from being a designer to guiding other designers. Her answer was poetic:
"I think an Art Director or Design Director is like a conductor of an orchestra. It's having the ability to know how to inspire and direct the most beautiful, compelling music for the audience. To create the right stage presence for the work, having the sense to know when something doesn't feel quite right (with the project, the process or with your client), the ability to solve for it and make it better, and knowing when something needs a more dramatic push or a subtle emphasis. It's having the experience to inspire, stretch, direct, learn from and partner with your collaborators all at the same time. It's an ongoing journey for sure."
Leading the Way
Audrey has had an abundance of female role models, and that's not something she takes for granted. "I've always felt like I've been lucky and fortunate to have been around great women leaders," she acknowledges. "And I think because of that, it's helped me to be naturally who I am without worrying. I've been given that freedom."
While some women struggle to be heard among their male colleagues, Audrey is comfortable with who she is. "I may not be the loudest person in the room, but when I do speak, it is valued and appreciated. We understand our strengths, so I never feel like I need to go in and prove myself in a meeting. Because we're also about authenticity, being real." This authenticity, Audrey believes, is an overlooked resource. "Yes, women feel. This is a positive asset, not a negative as it's been generally portrayed by our culture."
Audrey also sees time management and work balance as an area of opportunity for women. "I think women tend to be really good at multi-tasking, which generally leads to being high producers for our companies. Because of this," she expands, "we also have a harder time saying no and creating boundaries. We want to help everybody. This can impact our focus and priorities and sometimes keep us in the weeds when, as leaders, our energy should be on the big picture."
The solution? "We can overcome this by continuing to delegate and empower your team to take the lead. Trust your teammates and let go of thinking that if you're not somehow involved in every little detail, something will fall apart."
Since taking a class in user experience design last year, Audrey has been intrigued by empathy and its role in design. "UX and human centered design are the ultimate pinnacle of what we do," she reflects. "As designers, empathy is key to creating something authentic and true. And at the end of the day, our goal is to evoke emotion and create human connections and experiences. To feel is a strength, regardless of your gender. And over time and with experience, the ability to feel becomes even more powerful in our creative process when combined with research and strategic thinking."
Audrey and her colleagues at Phinney Bischoff are always exploring ways to instill these concepts in their work and process. "Clients are spending a lot of money and taking risks in working with you. We have strong intuitions, but it's important to formalize it into a strategic process that brings our clients along with us so they believe in the work as much as we do.""
Odds & Ends
Today, Audrey's career is pretty well aligned with how she envisioned it as a student: "I had ideas of how I wanted to pursue and follow a design path. And I would say for the most part I've been tracking along. But the journey of getting there has been completely different. It's been surprising, exciting and more challenging than I ever imagined, which has helped me to grow more, too." One intriguing detour was when she took a year off design to teach English in Japan before she was hired full time at Eddie Bauer.
"Weren't you afraid that would take you off course?" I wonder.
"Yeah, for sure!" she agrees. "I just felt like, you know what? If not now, when? It opened up possibilities for me, in my thinking and my worldview. It made me less scared to do things that might not be the status quo or expected. Because truly, who cares?"
Audrey still enjoys Japanese food, and highly recommends checking out an izakaya, an informal tapas-style dining experience that is starting to gain popularity in Seattle.
Many thanks to Audrey for sharing her time and showing us yet another way women can be leaders in design. Stay tuned for our next Women Lead Spotlight in April!