Gabrielle Smith, designer at CNN, tells us what it’s like to design for the new world
Having started her journey at ITV News as a trainee broadcast designer in 2008, Gabrielle Smith has achieved a huge amount in her career to date. With clients like Tate, Channel 4 and Adidas under her belt, she now works as a designer for CNN’s Visual News team. But, as she tells us, the achievement she’s most proud of is the:nublk – the platform she created to celebrate stories from the African diaspora, which has led to forming dream relationships with a range of Black creative pioneers. Here, Gabrielle lets us in on the difficulty of breaking into the industry as a graduate, how her perspective has shifted over the last 10 years of working in mainstream media, and what it’s like to create graphics for national TV.
Designer, CNN (2016–present)
Adidas, Tate Britain, Matthew A. Cherry, Channel 4/Adeyemi Michael
Freelance Designer, Various (2015-2016)
Senior Designer, Sugru (2015)
Motion Designer, ITV News (2008-2015)
BA Graphic Design: New Media, University of the Creative Arts (2003–2006)
How would you describe what you do?
I see myself as a multidisciplinary creative, because there’s always a creative element to what I do. I am a designer for CNN’s visual news team, where I’m responsible for creating anything from infographics, editorial illustrations, social media graphics and motion design for the CNN website. Outside of work, I’m usually found producing cultural events (exhibitions, film screenings, online discussions) through my creative platform, the:nublk.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
My current working day starts with a team meeting to discuss the relevant news stories of the day and how best to approach these visually. From there, I’ll work alongside various producers and news editors throughout the day to create graphics to compliment and explain stories that will be published on CNN’s website or social platforms.
How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
This is my third month in quarantine and it’s been a mixed experience. I’m part of a global digital design team, so a lot of our communication and how we work hasn’t drastically changed, apart from face-to-face meetings now being held virtually. This past month, in particular, has felt overwhelming at times because of the different issues affecting Black communities globally, from Covid-19 to police brutality and the protests that have followed.
One positive thing that has come out of this time inside, is that it has really helped me focus on the things I need to do in order to thrive as a creative. I think this feeling is common – at least from the conversations I recall having with friends before lockdown. We often talk about wanting to have the time to work on creative projects outside of our day jobs, whilst also finding time to rest. But we are now realising our working habits, up until this point, weren’t the most sustainable. I am taking this time to think creatively about what I want to do next, by finding value in the ability to be patient with my creative process and being intentional about the types of work I want to create, and the people I want to create that for.
Is there anything that is particularly helping you at this time?
I’ve spent more time online and have come across works that have resonated with me, like illustrator Sinenhlanhla Chauke, the Verzuz battles on IG Live, and The Nap Ministry which is a platform that promotes rest. Being intentional about finding moments of joy has also been particularly helpful during this time.
What has been your favourite project of the past twelve months?
The past 12 months have been a period of reflection, during which I took a step back and looked at the work I’ve created so far. While being able to create work is something I generally enjoy, I’m finding value in the ability to be patient with my creative process – and being intentional about the types of work I want to create, and the people I want to create that for.
My experience over the last 10 years of working in mainstream news organisations, and as a cultural producer, has given me a unique perspective when it comes to how I can further use my voice as a visual storyteller. As such, a recent favourite project from the past twelve months is Confronting Racism – an in-depth look at how the experience of living in Britain is vastly different for mainly Black and white people.
The project came to fruition from a conversation I had about wanting to cover more inclusive stories at work which also encapsulates the time we are currently in. Launched on Windrush Day, the project included a poll, interviews and a video. It was a culturally significant project for me to be involved in as designer and a contributing voice in the overall piece, as both my parents and grandparents came to England during the Windrush period.
“I’m finding value in the ability to be patient with my creative process – and being intentional about the types of work I want to create, and the people I want to create that for.”
What is it like working in news design? Any highs or lows?
I started as a trainee broadcast designer in 2008, two years after I graduated from university. Thinking about that time, in comparison to what the internet and the creative, social, political landscape looks like now, is vastly different. My team at ITV News were always ahead of the curve in terms of how we thought about our creative output. It was about understanding how social media and digital would become a much bigger focus for newsrooms.
Before joining CNN, I was creating graphics for national TV, whereas the majority of my work now at CNN is producing for our social platforms, like Snapchat and the CNN website. Working on Snapchat was one of the first times I designed work that would be viewed in a vertical format, and although I had the experience of using After Effects to create motion graphics, both my canvas and time capacity had changed. The target audience for Snapchat is younger millennials, and this influences the style of graphics I create, in comparison to what I create as a designer for CNN digital’s visual news team. An average news graphic could be on screen for 30 seconds or more, whereas Snapchat graphics last for 10 seconds, so you really have to think about what you want to convey visually in a way that will capture the users attention immediately.
Being able to create work that has personal meaning has definitely been a high. A low or challenge is the fast-paced nature of newsrooms. The amount of time you have to spend on creating work can be limited to just a few hours, which can add a lot of pressure when designing.
How do you juggle all of the different work that you are involved in?
It’s certainly been a learning process. Having taken a step back from blogging full-time around five years ago, and gradually taking on less personal projects, I can see that I was probably overworked and not juggling things well – even though I was able to produce some great work. I also moved house a few years ago, so that new responsibility has influenced the types of work I take on alongside my day job. It means that I’m often advising and consulting on projects instead of being involved from start to finish.
Are there any resources or platforms that you have found useful to your work or career?
As someone who is quite inquisitive, I love coming across new sources of information and inspiration! I’ve found podcasts like Revision Path and Helga really insightful as they’re centred around conversations with folks from the media industry. Tumblr is one of my favourite platforms for visual inspiration and documentation. The Pudding is in-depth and provides visually rich data on pop culture. Also, Vox and Great Big Story for their storytelling.
I like to stay connected and keep up with the work that is being created by the creatives who I have featured on the:nublk. Lastly, I’m a part of creative communities focused on uplifting Black and Brown folks like Toni and POCC.
How I Got Here
Do you feel you need formal education for what you do?
I studied graphic design and new media at the University of the Creative Arts. It was a fairly new course that explored experimental aspects of design compared to the traditional design course. It included typography, motion, photography and animation modules, so it gave me a good understanding of a wide range of areas of interest.
That being said, considering how much things have changed since I graduated, almost 15 years ago, in terms of access to creative resources, courses and online tutorials, I don’t think it’s as important for an aspiring designer to have a formal university education.
What was your journey like when you first graduated?
During my final year at university, we had a number of classes where we learned how to create an online portfolio to showcase our work. However, the one thing I feel was overlooked, was the reality of what it would be like once we graduated. They failed to mention that once we graduated, unless we had pre-existing connections to the industry, getting your foot in the door would be a challenge.
“It took two years from when I graduated to land a full-time design job, but in-between I was doing a lot of admin and retail work, and creating self-initiated projects.”
That was definitely a rude awakening for me and many others, because you find yourself looking for an entry-level job, but don’t have enough experience to get yourself in the door. It took two years from when I graduated to land a full-time design job, but in-between that time, I was doing a lot of admin and retail work as well as creating self-initiated projects – something which has always helped me during interviews for creative roles.
My sister was also working at ITV News as part of the company’s digital journalism team and knew the then creative director, so she encouraged me to apply for the trainee position that was being advertised.
How did you land your job at CNN?
After a year or so of working at a startup and freelancing with MTV’s Comedy Central brand, where I was creating graphics for their Snapchat channel, I went back into news at the end of 2016 by joining CNN as a motion designer. I applied for the role after seeing the job ad and went through five or six rounds of interviews with members of CNN’s Snapchat design and social team.
At the time, CNN was one of the few legacy brands to be on Snapchat, so it was quite a big deal for them to be able to target a younger audience. Although I wasn’t thinking of returning to news after leaving ITV News, I saw this as an exciting opportunity to create news stories for a millennial audience on a new social platform.
My first day of work coincided with the day Donald Trump was elected. Thinking about it now, my entry into the world of news seemed to happen at prominent and quite significant times in the US and the world’s political history. I also started at ITV News a few months before Barack Obama was elected. Both periods were interesting politically in terms of the type of work I would go on to create.
“My first day coincided with the day Trump was elected... I also started at ITV News a few months before Obama was elected. Both periods were interesting in terms of the work I would go on to create.”
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Something that has helped me throughout my career has been my self-directed work. Around the time I started working at ITV News, I created a blog called the:nublk to document and interview creatives from the Black diaspora about their work as well as sharing information about web series, books, and other design related work from Africa and the Caribbean. Over time, the site became a go to platform for emerging creatives to showcase their projects.
The digital space, especially for Black creatives, was vastly different than it is today, and I’m really grateful that I was able to capture that early on. Once I stopped blogging in 2015, I began to focus more on producing events and using collaborations with like-minded platforms and creatives to have deeper conversations about Black culture globally.
Creating that platform and nurturing it for more than 10 years has been the biggest addition to my development in terms of understanding my voice as a visual storyteller, and having the insight to feature a number of then emerging creatives like Sheena Rose, Jodie Turner-Smith, Yinka Ilori, Toyin Odutola and Nijla Mu’min.
“Creating the:nublk has been the biggest addition to my development, in terms of understanding my voice as a visual storyteller”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
If you can, find ways to create your projects. It’s a good way to figure out what your style is and your ways of telling stories. Plus, it’s something that you have full ownership of. Find people to collaborate on projects with. Everyone pitching in and bringing their strengths to a project or idea often provides you with a new way of looking at ways to approach a subject.
Finally, the ability to tell powerful stories, although different for everyone often centres around being able to find the things that matter most to you. While this will be different for everyone, once you figure out what they are, use them as a basis for the work you create.
Interview by Siham Ali