We're talking to Danielle Harris, an Art Director & Design Manager at Blue Bottle Coffee. Danielle has designed for a wide variety of companies, including Cartoon Network, Alternative Apparel, Smashbox Cosmetics, and Tonx Coffee. She's also worked as a freelancer helping smaller startups build their brands through print and digital mediums.
What do you do?
I’m an Art Director/designer for print, packaging, and front end web design.
How did you get to where you are now at Blue Bottle Coffee?
I worked really hard to get into a competitive design school in Atlanta and actually did. I did a Summer internship before graduation at Cartoon Network thinking I might get hired but instead the economy crashed and they laid people off.
My coffee shop job wasn’t going to be enough to get by and so in a panic I met with a friend who mentioned a Summer internship at Alternative Apparel, where he worked. I applied, got the internship, and after a few months, I was full time. That was the year they decided to hire a Creative Director who would eventually ask me to move to LA where I could help him form a new creative team. I said no a couple of times and then eventually my friends convinced me that was nuts and, well, all I can say is I have really smart friends. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.
After a couple of years doing look books, web, print, campaign work, and helping on photo shoots, the department decided to move back to Atlanta to be closer to marketing. I was so happy in LA, I decided to stay and try my hand at freelance, which very quickly proved to be an art in and of itself. I couldn’t deal with money chasing and so in desperation (once again) I turned to Creative Group (an agency that places creatives into well suited positions) and pretty quickly they’d found a packaging gig for me at Smashbox Cosmetics.
After only a year, a very intense year where I learned a lot, I was introduced to Tony Konency by a new friend I’d made. He’d started a subscription coffee company called Tonx. He was looking for someone who could do print, packaging, and web design and I told him I’d keep and eye out. It turned out he was interested in me and trying to get a feel but I was sure a startup would be unstable and pay very little so I hadn’t thought of it. He proved me wrong and the next thing I knew I was working remotely with 6 really fun guys living all over the country, doing primarily UX and front end design. After a grueling year trying to prove we’d be profitable soon, it became a surprisingly successful company. We were still having a hard time raising the money we needed to get to reach our growth goals. At this very moment, as if they knew, Blue Bottle reached out and we agreed to jump. [Ed. note: Blue Bottle bought Tonx.]
For the past year, I’ve worked closely with James Freeman refreshing the brand and proving design should be internal. All have agreed and so we’re building a real team right now. Because of my understanding of the brand and hope to become a good manager, I’ve become the Art Director. We’re still hiring for other positions.
What part do you see art and design playing in today's world?
Art and design are being used to fuel a newly recovered economy. Brands are fun, interactive, colorful, and relaxed making new product, tech, and innovation feel human. I could write an entire paper in response to this question but let’s just say it’s nice that designers and artists working together to add value and affection to everyday things.
How have you managed to maintain both print and digital media as part of your skill set?
Interest and opportunity. In school, we mostly learned print - it was 2006-2008 and we weren’t nearly as knowledgable or concerned with the differences between web and other design. So, the web education we got was only a single class building a very simple site using HTML and CSS. Everyone, literally everyone, but me hated it. To me, it was the perfect compliment to print - if I did both at the same time while working on different projects, it felt like ALL of my brain was being tapped into. So, I continued to teach myself to code. I followed design firms that were making great websites and kept current on changing standards through freelance and more reading. It was also lucky that my job at Alternative Apparel required me to make graphics for both web and print.
How does someone translate their art and design abilities into branding, packaging, or web design skills?
I hear this a lot. You think because you’ve always done one thing and every medium is so different that you’ll never get out of this hole you’ve dug for yourself. The truth is that every medium is not so different. The best design solution is always the one that meets a company’s goals and creates a positive user experience for the consumer. Other than that, it’s just studying and immersing yourself in the new medium you’re interested in.
Look around in stores and note the similarities between the things that work and the things that don’t work. Read a couple of books that are current and considered industry musts like “Don’t Make Me Think” for web design. Take on a client who needs that work and give it a try yourself. Get feedback from others. Then, eventually, try and get a full time job doing it. All of that will seal the deal.
Design groups understand that if a designer is eager, mature, and has done impressive work on other mediums, the little bit of hand holding at first will be worth it. And no, this doesn’t mean you’ll have to take a pay cut. Just try it.
What personal qualities do you look for when evaluating other designers?
Maturity and communication are definitely the most important personal traits. Maturity covers a lot of things like being able to handle criticism/not taking things personally and being flexible/a problem solver rather than a complainer. Communication means you’re good at getting points across and knowing when to speak up if you see an issue or notice someone isn’t in the loop. All of these things keep really fast paced working environments healthy and productive.
What role do you think formal schooling plays in design careers today?
Every school is so different but, based on my experience, I think the biggest thing design school does for us is that it helps us mature. The workloads are seemingly impossible, the mockups are hard to make and expensive, and the critiques can be painful. At the end, your skin is thick, you’re eager to get paid, and you’re not expecting it to be easy.
Finally, what's your best piece of career advice for job seekers generally?
Enthusiasm and a positive attitude along with a well prepared portfolio and the ability to communicate what you did on a project and why you did it will always be the most impressive thing to someone interviewing you. Don’t suck up. Be you and stay humble, stay hungry.
*Blue Bottle Coffee gets great coffee to everyone who asks for it. It's a network of cafes and an online experience with a focus on quality product, vintage process, and a unique aesthetic has volted Blue Bottle to coffee fame. Blue Bottle has raised some $45 million in funding and is based in Oakland, CA, with retail locations across the US. Blue Bottle is hiring at its Oakland headquarters and in retail on both US coasts. Check 'em out!