Designer and art director Caterina Bianchini on making your own work and learning to say no
“I thought I'd just get to sit and chill and design cool stuff!” The reality of freelance life, as designer and art director Caterina Bianchini soon found out is a real juggling act. Full of energy, the Aberdeen-educated, London-based creative manages to work on up to five projects at a time, while simultaneously balancing accounts and thinking about strategy. But when starting out, and things were less busy, it was Caterina’s self-initiated work that helped her land clients she still works with today. The likes of Nike, Selfridges, LUSH and Boiler Room are just some of the names who favour Caterina’s conceptual approach and drive to bring something unique to every project. She tells us how being a ‘weird, imaginative’ kid helped her get to this point.
Designer and Art Director
Senior Designer at Boiler Room (2016–2017)
BA Design and Visual Communications, Grays School of Art, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland (2009–2012)
Nike, Red Bull Music Academy, Red Bull, Adidas, Selfridges, Goodhood, LUSH, Boiler Room
How would you describe what you do?
I am a graphic designer who loves art direction, illustration and colour.
What does a typical working day look like?
Usually, I get up and the first thing I do is make a coffee, naturally! Then I will do some exercise and come into my studio in Stoke Newington to get to work as soon as I can. I do unfortunately spend a lot of time in front of the computer, but I would like to be doing more things away from it. At the moment I am so busy, it’s always hard to get away from just straight up designing or sketching. My working hours don’t really exist; when you are freelance every day is a working day, and work isn’t nine to five. Some days I have to work till 11pm, but I am so happy to be doing what I do, so I don’t mind.
What do you like about working in London?
I love London because the people and the surroundings are a constant inspiration. There are so many interesting cultural overlaps that act as visual stimulants. I want to move away from London eventually, as I don’t want to feel like I have to be here to do my best work. But there is a strong creative community here that I enjoy being a part of.
“My working hours don’t really exist; when you are freelance every day is a working day. Some days I work till 11pm, but I am so happy to be doing what I do, so I don’t mind.”
How does your project-based work usually come about?
I use and love Behance and Instagram. I let this grow naturally and use it to showcase the work that isn’t picked by clients or hasn’t made the cut on my website. I love Instagram because it’s a direct way to connect with people. But so far in my career, every single one of my jobs has either come through recommendations or Behance.
How collaborative is your work?
Not super-collaborative. I find that people contact me because of my style or colour schemes, and that’s what they expect when commissioning me. I find working with other creatives doesn’t work for this reason. However, if I am working with big clients, like LEVI’S or Nike then I will usually work with art director who will give me feedback.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
At the moment my life is very much work, but I honestly look at design as a form of expression. Some days I can work on five projects and bring something unique to each of them. It’s like something that has built up in me and I need to get it out! And I enjoy it. The most enjoyable aspects are being able to create work that I love and that isn’t art directed or creatively directed by a CD in a design studio. In that sense, the feeling of accomplishment and me being solely responsible for the creation of the work is massively rewarding and probably quite an addictive feeling! The most mundane has to be emails. I get so many emails every day and replying to them takes up so much of my time. I also hate doing my tax, but make myself do it, as I feel its a really important part of my job that i need to understand, instead of handing it off to an accountant.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I love all my work for Axe on Wax because I can be so free with it. But in terms of big things, it would have to be something I am working on now with Levi’s. I am collaborating with them to create a graphic tee collection dropping in SS19. That’s all I can say for now!
What skills are essential to your job?
Being able to see things differently and having a conceptual approach. Usually when I speak to someone about something and say about how I have perceived it, they are thinking about it in a completely different way to me. I think this is probably from me being such a weird, imaginative kid.
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
Not currently as I just don’t have the time. But I used to do them all the time when I was starting out – and it was these that got me the clients I have today. I think self-initiated projects are so so important and allow you to showcase your skills and creativity.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Loads of notebooks as I have to make lists every single day. It’s so silly and usually massively repetitive but it helps me keep on top of everything. I design primarily in Illustrator, using it to make crazy typography. I use Photoshop for creating more abstract 3D shapes and photo grading, and I use InDesign for editorial work and building the decks I present to clients.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Honestly, a lion. At four or five years old I didn’t quite grasp the fact that this was impossible. (This is me showcasing the vivid and weird imagination I had!) At uni I thought I was going to be a textile designer, as I was really interested in pattern. I loved the work Timorous Beasties in Glasgow did and remember thinking ‘This is what I want to do.’
What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career?
My parents were quite relaxed; they never forced me to do anything or choose a certain career, they just let me work it out and supported what I decided. They are Italian, so I was lucky enough to have two cultures in my life, which I am really grateful for now. My Dad is an antiques dealer, and being exposed to that allowed me to understand and appreciate design from quite a young age. My mum was never into buying us games or anything, so I spent a lot of time making up games, drawing or climbing trees. I think this probably made me a lot more imaginative.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying communication design allowed me to teach myself Adobe suite and improve my artistic skills, as we did a lot of life drawing on the course. I also really enjoyed learning about art history and the context of design. So I think it was all useful, they allowed us to develop our skills and work quite independently!
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I have learnt loads. Strategy, and how this effects branding design; working with clients; and branding agreements and invoices. Also how to adapt to different projects (some super-commercial, some smaller) and treat them all with the same progressive attitude, bringing something unique to each. I have also learnt so much about myself as a designer and what I enjoy doing – and the most important skill (which I am still learning) is to say no.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I recently worked in a studio on a freelance contract where I was exposed to sexist behaviour, as well as a very personal attack against me and my work upon finishing up the contract. It really knocked me. I find that a lot of agencies are run by 50-year-old men who most of the time have some sort of chip on their shoulder! I have thankfully got over it, but it was awful and I won’t forget it.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
No, it’s so much more and I’m so grateful for it. It’s creative, freeing, and exactly what I want to do! It has also challenged me in so many ways – as a freelancer you are the creative director, the art director, the designer, the artworker, the strategist, the client services person, and the new business person. Managing all of that is something I never thought I would do. I thought I'd just get to sit and chill and design cool stuff!
“It's really hard when you start out. But who cares? Make your own work and if someone needs a hand with design, offer to help.”
What would you like to do next?
I would love to move away for a while, maybe Amsterdam, I don’t know.
Could you do this job forever?
I hope so, and if not I’ll just become an art teacher!
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
Probably forming an all-female studio with my two mates. The plans are forming in the background. Right now I just want to continue as I am, and there is plenty of time to set up a studio if I really want to.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become designer and art director?
Do what you love, create a new trend in design and stay true to your individual aesthetic. It's really hard when you start out because nobody gets back to you and nobody has space in their studio, but who cares? Make your own work and if someone needs a hand with design, offer to help. If you don’t do it yourself, nobody else will do it for you. Most importantly, enjoy it, because it really shows!
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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Mention Boiler Room