Give each project 100 percent: Senior designer Katie Cadwallader describes her journey at Supple Studio
As Supple’s first-ever employee, senior designer Katie Cadwallader has seen the company grown from a team of one to a fully fledged five, in almost as many years. Joining founder Jamie Ellul on a placement in 2014, Katie was soon helping out on every front – from managing client relationships to designing motion graphics. She runs us through her biggest learnings during that time, and why strong relationships, flexibility and giving each project 100 percent are key to creating great work.
Senior Designer, Supple Studio (2014–present)
“This is my first and only design job!”
BA Graphic Design, Falmouth University (2011–2014)
How would you describe your job?
It’s evolved so much in my time here; I started as such a green newborn. At the beginning, I was the second point of contact for all our clients, Jamie’s right-hand woman (and mentee). As we’ve grown, some of the project management responsibility has been shared, and there are briefs that come in and out of the studio that I don’t really get involved in. Lots of my projects are with clients I’ve known from the beginning – it’s amazing the difference a good relationship (dare I say friendship!) has on your output.
I’m a designer primarily, but I also dabble in motion design. We all have different strings to our bows here; it’s nice to have ownership over a particular skill, but we also have to be super-flexible and well-rounded as such a small team.
“Imagine Bert in Mary Poppins as a one-man band, that pretty accurately describes my first few months [at Supple].”
What does a typical working day look like?
I have the most ridiculous commute in history. It’s about 3 and a half minutes from bed to desk, so I make an effort to get in before everyone else so I can catch up on morning processing time.
I’m still trying to figure out when peak Katie hits, but it’s somewhere between 10.30am and 12pm, probably correlating with caffeine intake. No days are ‘typical’ here. Some weeks we come in and crack on with our respective projects. Others we’ll all kick a project off together, filling the board with post-it notes. These days are obviously more exciting, but they’re also exhausting. I’m not convinced you could survive on these alone. You know you’re in a good studio if you relish the chance to sit down and lay out something really dry for some respite.
What do you like about working in Bath?
I was nervous that by not going to London I’d miss out on the good talks and workshops. But you just have to go out and find it (or bring it to you). It also means you go to everything because there’s not something on every night of the week. You see the same people each time, so there’s a really nice community of creatives. I’m heavily involved in the West of England Design Forum, and recently relaunched their new website and run the social accounts.
How did you land your current job?
I met with Jamie through one of my tutors while at uni (Bryan Clark of design agency Lewis Moberly), while he was still working as a lone wolf with some killer briefs. He offered me my first placement when I graduated. I knew within a week at Supple that I should be there. He offered me the job and the rest is history.
Jamie said he was looking for an all-rounder – imagine Bert in Mary Poppins as a one-man band, that pretty accurately describes my first few months. He actually went on holiday during my first official week! But my fledgling motion skills were what landed me the job. Jamie says to “always employ people who can do what you can’t,” which is evident in the people that make up Supple today.
How collaborative is your role?
As a studio we’re so collaborative. We also work with lots of incredibly talented copywriters, illustrators, photographers… We have a running list of people we’d like an excuse to work with, and just hope for a project that correlates.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Most enjoyable has to be the thrill of getting a new brief. Anything that has a kind of nervous energy and excitement behind it. A standout moment for me was at a student portfolio review a few weeks back – I saw some stamps I’d designed used as part of her inspiration. That stopped me in my tracks; you get so caught up in clients and industry loving it, that you forget that you might inspire a student. That’s magic.
I think work-life boundaries are blurred in this industry. But if I won the lottery, I’d be back in the studio the next day. We finish on time and I clock off mentally at 6pm, but you can’t help thinking about things, photographing weird typefaces or collecting brush pens. So I don’t think it’s as clean cut as work and life.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Easily the Votes for Women stamps, mainly because it was an amazing way to celebrate the centenary. I was a woman possessed at the start – aware of the pressure involved in picking the right women to feature. We’re lucky that our relationship with Royal Mail is really collaborative, so I mainly worked with the client and some expert advisors (all female), but I was the only designer involved. There was so much passion behind the scenes, and real respect for our subject matter, which I think shows.
“In a role that relies so heavily on creativity, you accept that some days you’ll be firing on all cylinders, and others will be an uphill battle.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Patience – with yourself and your clients. When you’re in a role that relies so heavily on creativity, you need to accept that some days you’ll be firing on all cylinders, and others will be an uphill battle. The same goes for clients – you learn to be patient, because they might not have done this before, or worse, they might not understand fully (which ultimately is your fault).
A thick skin comes with time. It takes a while to learn how to accept and channel critique. It takes time to learn how to critique well, too.
What tools do you use most for your work?
My tablet is pretty integral to my workflow; I have an all-singing, all-dancing iMac pro (nicknamed Darth); we use post-its like we’re sponsored by them; carpenters’ pencils (they give you a really soft, forgiving line).
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
My mum wanted me to be a doctor. I got decent grades so everyone felt like doing something creative was a waste. By sixth form, I stopped pretending and swapped to entirely creative A-levels, which was a total shock as everything was so self-initiated. Coupled with a family loss, I lost my way a bit. The open day at Falmouth University made me sort my shit out, I wanted what they were preaching.
Was there a particular step that helped your development?
Got to shout out Jamie [Ellul, Supple’s founder], who gave me the perfect balance of encouragement and support, coupled with cripplingly scary responsibilities. Nurturing someone without inhibiting them is a hard thing to do, so I owe my growth as a designer to him. Also, my first few clients being open with their praise (and criticism) meant I’ve carried those learnings with me to each project.
“I really didn’t understand how people made money from design. Now I realise we make money by communicating something that our clients can’t.”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Mental maths is a daily struggle for me. Not ideal when you’re in charge of print runs and measurements. So now I get someone to double-check everything. Ordering 500 bespoke tubes, at the wrong size, taught me that particular lesson.
It’s about knowing your weaknesses. If someone else in the studio will do a better job at something, I’ll invite them in to improve it. I’m still trying to get out of my ‘Jack of all trades’ mentality from the early Supple days, now that I’m surrounded by such talented people.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I really didn’t understand how people made money from design. Now I realise we make money by communicating something that our clients can’t. Good people realise the value in that.
I also didn’t realise how sedentary our job is – that’s the only thing I would change. Sitting at a desk all day isn’t great for your health (both physical and mental). Even though some days my mind is exhausted, I may not have walked more than a 1,000 steps.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a designer?
Find mentors, plural – you cannot get enough advice. That initial curve is a treacherous journey, so it’s important to have people who support you and remember what it felt like. Lots of designers are a bit out of touch with how scary and daunting it can be, so when you find someone who relates, do what you can to build a relationship. This industry is built on them, so any effort you put in, you’ll see back in tenfold.
Networking (the most annoying LinkedIn-style word there is) just means introducing yourself to everyone. Go to every talk, stay afterwards for a pint. If you like someone’s work, say so. Tweet it, email them. If you don’t like someone’s work, you don’t need to tell them. Design is so people-oriented and everyone knows everyone – so bear that in mind before you slag something off!
Finally, put as much effort into a 10cm advert in an obscure magazine as you would a billboard for Channel 4. There are opportunities everywhere, so don’t be too conceited or you’ll miss them.
Interview by Indi Davies
Mention Katie Cadwallader
Mention Supple Studio
Photography by Morgane Bigault