I recently sat down with Sarah Foelske, an associate creative director at Bruce Mau Design in Toronto to chat about being present within the creative process, and the unique challenges of leading that process as a female designer. Over the years, Foelske has worked at Wieden + Kennedy, Laird + Partners, Mac Cosmetics, and Morgan’s Hotel Group and collaborated with clients including Nike, Gap, ESPN, and Avon — so she knows from where she speaks.
How do you get the ideas flowing when you’re on deadline?
There’s usually a time in any project when a stuck moment happens, and I find that getting away from the computer and the busyness of the day is the most important part in successfully battling that. Even if it’s only for 10 minutes. When you rest your mind, the ideas will come easier. I find any exercise and meditation really helpful, as creativity is all about being focused and present to me.
I also have tons of things that I’ve saved, dimensional items, whether its tear sheets from magazines or invitations to events that I liked, or beautiful packaging, or just anything that inspires me. And, I have these books that are not categorized by anything but are just full of visual works, so I’ll flip through those for ideas.
Foelske’s idea books.
What’s your take on managing clients? It seems to be a perennial challenge…
I think it comes back to making sure everyone’s part of the process so that it’s not just clients making decisions or just creatives — it should be both. Every time I’ve become stuck in a client relationship, it’s because I’m trying to make too many decisions on my own and it’s because they’re not included in the process. I think, as long as everyone is included at each stage of a project, it tends to go better.
Stills from the Bruce Mau Design office in Toronto.
What was it like to work at Wieden or other agencies that tend to be male-dominated?
Good question. I think my design used to be more gender-specific to being female, but I’ve realized just how important it is to design for the masses, which is why I’ve looked for variety in my career. I think almost any project is more successful when it’s not too masculine or too feminine.
Sometimes it’s hard being a woman in this profession. Especially when part of my value system is to be kind and compassionate, but being a successful Creative Director is about being decisive and blunt at times — that can be a challenge for me. Not that any of these traits are masculine or feminine, I’ve just had to learn to be direct and compassionate at the same time.
When have you had to be more blunt than you wanted to?
When I look back at my career, the people that I admire most are the ones who can lead with compassion, from a place of teaching, rather than being “the boss.” I just try to form relationships with people I work for and with. The only time I am uncomfortable being firm or blunt is if the rapport is not there.
Sarah Foelske of Bruce Mau Design, Toronto.
How do you motivate your staff to do their best work?
For me, it’s very personal and I’m always looking to past bosses for inspiration. I find I have to motivate people visually because that’s how I communicate most effectively, so it’s about showing examples and telling people the whole story of how we got from A to Z. I think people respond better to knowing more information rather than just telling them about an isolated task. Everyone wants to know the whole story so that they can be more creative.
Who do you go to for advice?
There is a creative director that I worked with, and for, at Laird + Partners, Scott Wittman, who has since become a good friend of mine. Scott’s the one who taught me to get away from the computer because he always references the fact that if we’re all pulling inspiration from the internet, we’re all pulling from the same pool of images. I find that, after I leave a job, I become better friends with the people I worked with than while I was there and that support system continues to grow with each job.
Have you had any jobs that you felt were missteps?
I have been in very competitive environments or environments that nurture individuals rather than the team, and I’ve found that when a situation makes me uncomfortable it means that I’m not being true to my creative process. I think the only thing that you can do when you find yourself in a job like that is to be open and giving with the people around you and hope that it’s contagious.
Is it ever hard to stay true to your values?
I’m not going to lie, it’s not always easy, but it’s important for me to help the people that I work with and nurture their careers — that’s a touchstone. If I can find a way to help others and stay humble while working, then that’s all that matters. Sometimes, as cheesy as it is, when I find that my ego’s getting in the way, I like to listen to “My First Song” by Jay-Z because the lyrics remind me to start every project like it’s my first project and that we’re lucky to be here — it’s a great reminder.
Any stories of projects where problems came up along the way, but in the end you still felt proud of the work?
While working at The Drake Hotel in Toronto, I worked on a project that was really interesting in that way, called Drake BBQ. In moving to Canada and coming from big agencies, I quickly realized that Canada is very D.I.Y. culturally (in comparison to the U.S.). With this one project I had a lot of ideas for it, but the execution became a challenge because there was such limited money and everything had to be done in-house.
In the end, it became something that I’m super-proud of because it changed from how I would have produced it with a lot more money. I probably would have had vinyl made for the exterior instead of having it painted by hand. Or I would have put a new face on the exterior so the hand painting would have been on a flat surface, but the uneven surface ended up adding to the personality of the design. The design was inspired by hand painted barbecue signs in the South, which are far from perfect, so the imperfections are something I loved in the end. If the execution was more refined, I’m not sure the project would have been as successful.
Drake BBQ, Toronto.
What do you like most about being a designer?
I think that’s another thing that changes throughout my career, but right now it’s about interacting with different people and having the ability, the tools, and the traits to be able to create something. I made a neon sign for my boyfriend that says “Let’s go anywhere” in my handwriting that’s had such a great response; everyone who comes over gets so excited about it. I feel so lucky that I can create the art to have something like that made and call up the vendors and be able to execute every step of the process by myself. I feel so blessed for that everyday… just being able to create is such a blessing.
What advice would you share with your 19-year-old self?
Persevere! Perseverance is the most important skill and asset — to keep going, and keep working on a project, or on your career until it is what you envisioned. As designers and as creatives we have the gift to have that clear vision. Not giving up on something too early is the best thing you can do.