Breaking news and special projects: Meet art director at CNN, Sarah-Grace Mankarious
Sarah-Grace Mankarious is always looking for a good story to tell. “Good journalism is the backbone of this place,” she says of CNN’s International headquarters in London, where she currently works as an art director in the ‘mysterious-sounding’ special projects (aka features) department. Originally a philosophy and psychology graduate, Sarah-Grace soon set her sights on a career in design, formulating a five-point plan fuelled by a burgeoning wanderlust. Stints at Nylon Magazine in New York, LaBase in Mexico City and the Mayor of London’s Office soon followed before she found her feet at CNN. She talks to us about how London’s competitiveness fosters creativity, and what it’s like to work in a unique, high-octane environment.
Art Director, Special Projects, CNN International (2015–present)
Freelance Designer, Mayor of London (2014)
Graphic Designer, Protein (2013)
Art Director, LaBase in Mexico City (2012)
Internships and Freelance Work in New York (2011–2012)
Graphic Design, Shillington, (2010–2011)
BSc Philosophy and Psychology, Roehampton University (2003–2006)
How would you describe your job?
I make new and engaging ways of visualising stories; whether it’s through online interactive features, video animations or infographics. I used to work on breaking news when I first started at CNN but now I work in what would traditionally be known as the features department, but we call it ‘Special Projects’, which sounds more mysterious.
What does a typical working day look like?
I get to my desk at 10am and read industry news or newsletters; it’s always good to keep your finger on the button. I’ll tackle my emails and try to respond to anyone as soon as possible. On an ideal day I’ll spend a good two to three hours actually designing, but realistically the fun designing part is a small part of the job. The rest of the time it’s presenting a design to the editorial team, tweaking a wireframe, testing a prototype, making UX changes, carrying out QA [quality assurance] with a developer and general project management. I also might be working on a pitch for an idea I’ve had, checking an audio file from a sound designer, storyboarding for an animation or working with an illustrator to bring a brief to life.
What do you like about working in London?
London is wonderful place to work! There’s so much inspiration, world class exhibitions and tiny exhibitions spaces and degree shows that blurt out incredibly creative new work. I’ve loved working in big cities, there’s always lots of competition which fosters creativity.
“I didn’t know I’d be able to make the Colorscope series; animated film isn’t something CNN is known for, but it’s been really successful and next month we’ll publish our tenth episode!”
How did you land your current job?
My recruitment agency landed me a two week freelance gig here at CNN which was extended, and after three or four months I was offered a full-time position.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
It largely takes place here at my desk, at the CNN International HQ in Soho. Sometimes I go outside to meet new studios and potential collaborators, and once I went to shoot on location at the Houses of Parliament when I was designing the Parliament 360 interactive website [a virtual tour of the Houses of Parliament by CNN]. CNN really encourages us to visit the other bureaus – the Atlanta HQ is gigantic; it used to be a theme park!
How collaborative is your role?
Very collaborative. Good journalism is the backbone of this place. My briefs often come from editors and producers or filmmakers who want an engaging way to tell their story or display their film. I’ll also work with people like product managers and developers to make the designs come to life with the right business requirements. I commission a lot of animators and illustrators; it’s a great opportunity to work with anyone whose work I’ve admired. A great example is on our series Parallels. The visuals are a really important part of illustrating the message, and I like to work with a different animation studio or animator for each edition.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Every job has mundane tasks. I suppose delegating work and checking it’s done and done well, or doing QA [quality assurance] for interactive work isn’t the most fun.
I love that I can choose the projects I work on, and I feel privileged to work with such talent at CNN; from the writers to the video producers. It’s a unique, high-octane environment and it isn’t lost on us how fortunate we are to have such an insanely large audience who see our work on a plethora of platforms from Facebook to the telly!
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Without a doubt, CNN Colorscope – a series exploring our perception of colour, through animated films and articles from the Health team. It’s an idea I had last year. I didn’t know I’d be able to make it, as animated film isn’t something CNN is known for, but it’s been really successful and next month we’ll publish our tenth episode! One of the things I learned is that if you see someone you want to work with, even though you’re cycling quite fast down a hill, go and talk to them. That’s how I encountered James Fox whom I’d seen on the telly and wanted to get in touch with about the series. After inviting him to CNN, he loved the idea and wrote and narrated all the episodes. Another great success of the series are the myriad of incredible animators and directors from around the world that have worked on each episode. The series even won a number of accolades and awards!
What skills are essential to your job?
Strong design principles; hierarchy, alignment, all of that good stuff. I find that people can learn the snazzy new software on the job, but only with study can they learn the basics of design, which are reinforced with experience.
Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
Yes! I do some designing for my boyfriend who has a teeny tiny jazz club on Broadway Market called Kansas Smitty’s. I’m also working on a music video for him involving wire, (think Alexander Calder), and shadow puppets, so watch this space! I really like crafting and making things; I made a pizza slice costume with removable stuffed crust cheese shoulder pads for my baby niece on Halloween.
“People can learn the snazzy new software on the job, but only with study can they learn the basics of design, which are reinforced with experience.”
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An artist or an inventor. I used to have a notebook where I’d draw all my inventions and annotate them!
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My parents were an unusual couple, an Egyptian father and a Mexican mother, who both moved to London independently with their strong beliefs and totally different cultures. They brought us up in Catholic schools, with a Mexican diet and summers spent in Cairo (hot, hot summers!) Fun facts – two things Egypt and Mexico have in common: They both have eagles on their flags and they both have pyramids! Also both cultures are naturally warm and giving. Their exotic cultures, as well as being brought up in the melting-pot that is London, made me curious to explore the world. It’s this wanderlust that has influenced my work the most.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Don’t get me wrong, I loved studying philosophy and psychology at uni; I had a blast and I wouldn’t change it for the world, but was none the wiser when I graduated about what I wanted to be. Both subjects have certainly galvanised my questioning nature and being educated at university is an experience and teaches you life skills that I think are hugely important, but not a deal breaker! The Shillington graphic design course that I studied later set me on the course to be a bonafide designer, the design education I had there was invaluable.
“At 26 I was competing for the same jobs as 21-year-olds who had studied design for three or four years. I felt a little inadequate. It turns out if you work really hard, and are nice to people then you can make it in the design world.”
What were your first jobs?
My first ever design job was an internship at Nylon Magazine in NYC. It was wild: so fast-paced and exciting to be published in a real life print magazine!
My first paid freelance job was rebranding Trophy Bar, a local dive bar in Williamsburg. I was hanging out there one day and proposed drawing their menu on their chalkboards (this is when chalkboards were all the rage, I was a big fan of Dana Tanamachi) so they paid me in a bar tab to do it, which was really fun. Through that they offered to pay me in real cash money to rebrand the whole bar! It was a super fun job; from the logo and menus to matchbooks and neon sign. It’s still there, if you’re in NYC check it out!
My first paid full-time job was as the visual half of a copywriter / art director duo at an ad agency in Mexico City. I presented all my student projects and neglected to tell them it wasn’t for real clients, but they thought it was strong enough to employ me! We did some ballsy campaigns; like a double page spread of a line of coke in a national newspaper advertising a telenovela called “La Ruta Blanca”! That never would’ve gotten past Ofcom.
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Once I decided I wanted to be a designer, making a five year plan was the best thing I ever did. It gave me goals to aim for and practical steps to follow, even if I didn’t achieve it all. This was my plan:
A. Study design part-time at Shillington for a year whilst working and saving up.
B. Quit my job upon graduation and move to New York City to start racking up international design experience.
C. Live and work as a designer in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Bangkok and Barcelona for at least six months each to gather design experience and knowledge from these intriguing cultures.
D. Come back to London and set up a collaborative international design studio with people I’ve met along the way.
I made it halfway through step C!
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
It’s not very sexy, but pitch work at agencies was good experience for a newbie designer. Mega-tight deadlines, indecisive marketing managers, hovering art directors, long hours and a new environment resulted in my learning to work well under pressure, become really fast and diplomatic too!
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I think the whole digital game is changing at breakneck speed. I’ve not met anyone who’s been a digital designer for 20 years, it just didn’t exist in the same way it does now with responsive websites, prototype apps and social versions. CNN sent me on a developer’s course and a UX/UI course at General Assembly which was invaluable, and I’ve done Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro courses too, so I can do video editing and basic motion design – it’s empowering learning new skills! Recently I’ve also been learning about VR and AR capabilities which is super exciting.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I started later in the design game than most people. At age 26 I was competing for the same jobs as 21-year-olds who had studied design for three or four years. I guess I felt a little inadequate. It turns out if you work really hard, and are nice to people then you can make it in the design world.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Timeframes are different when you’re studying design compared to working in design for money; clients demand compromise and you don’t always get to choose your briefs! I’ve learnt to asses designs after amends so that the message isn’t lost or diluted, which sometimes requires going back to the drawing board. Also, being a graphic designer is such a broad job, it can cover so many platforms and you get to work with so many types of people, it’s really exciting!
What would you like to do next?
I want to continue visual storytelling, and expand to non-animated video documentary; CNN is the perfect place to do this since the video department is so experienced and willing to teach me! I’d also like to start talking at events and spread the word about some of the cool stuff we do here at CNN, especially as I haven’t seen many digital design talks by women out there. I also want to move back to New York City, I’ve never been able to shake that city out of my system so I’d like to go over and tell stories from there.
Could you do this job forever?
No, but then I couldn’t do any job forever; we all grow, our interests change and expertise improves so we need to be challenged in new ways. Although, there are aspects of this job that I would love to continue in my next role; the autonomy, the talented people I am fortunate to work with.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
The next step on paper is to be a creative director, which would include more involvement in the business side and people management.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
Do a good two years of freelance work, it’s a great way to cut your teeth. You get to meet all sorts of people, learn to adapt to teams and resources very fast, try out all areas of design and it’s a wonder for your confidence! As an employer, freelance positions are such a good testing ground for both parties, to see if you work well together, if the person fits into the team well and is capable of the work.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography by Sarah-Grace Mankarious