Erin Pitts and Kristin Waddington,
Co-Founders of The Label Collective
Erin Pitts and Kristin Waddington are designers, sisters, and co-founders of the Austin design agency The Label Collective.
Where do you work and what is your current title?
We are both Founders and Creative Partners of a women-owned, virtual creative studio called The Label Collective in Austin, TX.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself & your background.
Erin: We’re sisters, so we’ve truly been a collective from birth. We’ve only spent 4 years of our lives living in different cities. We both graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) with Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in Graphic Design. Kristin focused in the direction of print design; I went into the direction of digital design and have a concentration in Interactive Media. Collectively (we use this word a lot these days), we have 20 years experience in the agency world prior to starting our own studio.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a designer?
Kristin: When I was a sophomore in high school, I started to dabble with creating computer graphics in Paint Shop Pro (yes, this dates me a bit…). I also started hand-coding HTML and building my own website. I spoke to my art teacher about these things, and she showed me that these were skills I could turn into a career. My mind was immediately made up after that conversation. I wanted to do something interesting with my life, and a “traditional” desk job was just not for me. A career in graphic design promised a different challenge every time I worked on a new project, and a chance to make a visual impression on the world.
Erin: Kristin will say that I “stole her major.” :) I initially went to college for Interior Design. After taking an Art Education course that involved student teaching different grade levels in Baltimore, we were tasked with building a journal of all of our experiences to hand in at the end of the semester. Once the teacher saw the journal and how I laid out the book, she looked at me and said, “You know, you’re not an interior designer; you’re a graphic designer.” It really made me think twice about my decision. And once I started doing the research on the profession, it interested me even more.
What was your first design job? Any interesting stories about how you broke into the field?
Kristin: My first job was at a design and advertising agency called Idea Lab. I actually walked into their office during my spring break and cold-pitched their creative director with a handmade portfolio book I had printed and bound at Kinko’s. A week later, they offered me a paid summer internship. I returned between my junior and senior year for another summer internship. After graduation, though, they were unable to hire me. Six months later, they called me back and offered me a full-time position. I moved up from a Graphic Designer to an Associate Creative Director during my five years there, and that level of responsibility forced me to quickly learn a lot of the industry knowledge I carry with me today.
Erin: I moved to Austin, TX after college on a whim because I had a love for travel and wanted to live in a new city… so why not do both at the same time? Two days after moving to town, I attended an AIGA Austin event, where I met someone that put my in touch with the recruiter at T3. Within three weeks of moving, I was awarded the job, and was hired on as one of their first entry-level Designers.
Please describe a normal day at your current job. What’s the workflow like? What are your primary responsibilities?
Erin: A typical day starts with a morning cup of ‘joe. Because we’re a virtual studio, we tend to do a lot of meetings, client intros, and working sessions away from the house, usually at the coffeeshop. Mornings are usually dedicated to admin, catching up with emails in the morning, and checking our tasks for the day. Somewhere after my lunch hour, I focus squarely on the creative projects on my plate, and typically end the day on operational task like RFPs, financials, invoicing, and smaller requests. We’re in a growth stage, so our responsibilities are constantly changing. I’m the point person for the startup and small business clients; Kristin is the point person on the more established clients. It actually helps split up duties, but also works into where we find the most joy in our work.
Kristin: Yes, coffee is key for me to getting the day started! I tend to spend the first hour of my day reading articles, reviewing my calendar, and answering important emails. Meetings tend to fall during “office hours”. The bulk of my design work is done in between those meetings, or later in the day. We travel a lot for client meetings, so we have to be sensitive to how that works with project timing. We have a project check-in to start off our week, and touch base at the end of the day regarding any outstanding projects we may need help with. I tend to be more social, so I add networking events and client management into my calendar everywhere I can.
Are there any memorable war stories, client interactions or close calls that have taught you something important about how things work?
Kristin: I remember the owner of Idea Lab telling me a story about how when he was running his former ad agency, there was a client that was reviewing a newspaper ad they had designed, then proceeded to put a dime on the corner of the layout. The client then demanded, “I’m paying for this white space, and I want it used.” Something about that story has stuck with me. Before that story, I always thought of graphic design as “artistic”, but to many others, what we do is simply business.
Erin: Mine is more of a funny quip. Maybe it goes on the Clients From Hell blog one day. I once had a client tell me, “I don’t care if it’s a f@#$ing hippo in a tutu, we’re not using that screensaver.” (We had a screenshot from the Disney Movie Fantasia on a monitor to promote movies in an eCommerce landing page.)
What’s a common mistake you often see entry level designers make? What are some tips to avoid or overcome it?
Kristin: I see entry-level designers expect to be in control of their design when they land their first job. In reality, design is a team effort, and is influenced by the designer and the client. The clients often have a much different perspective than us, and it’s important to listen to them. They often tell us how what we create works, and doesn’t work, in relation to their business.
Erin: Taking criticism of their work very personally, and thinking they should be an art director right out of the gate. The best job you can do up front is the dirty work, like production. You learn so much from that alone, and it transfers to wherever you land next.
Any industry sites or blogs you read on a regular basis, or anything else you read for inspiration?
Erin: We tend to stick to the basics: AdAge for industry news, Medium for op-eds, SmashingMagazine for tips and tricks. We’re both members of AIGA, so we frequently keep their articles and resources on the top of the list. There are also a lot of local community blogs that we keep tabs on from a business perspective, like BuiltInAustin.
Kristin: I also tend to read a lot of business-related articles from sites like Austin Business Journal, Fast Company, and Crain’s. It’s important to know what’s happening in the business world to understand how it will affect your design business.
There’s something new and amazing coming out every day. What’s something awesome you’ve seen recently that you’re dying to share, or something you’re excited about?
Kristin: We were chosen as the visual partners for the inaugural Austin Design Week, which excites me a lot. Our father was an architect before he retired, so other forms of design have always been in our peripheral view as influencers in our world. Austin is also seen as a design hub, and I would love if this event shined a bigger spotlight on the amazing creative talent that resides in our city.
Erin: I’m really excited about the launch of our creative Startup Packages. We’ve already completed work with three test clients under our test models, and are tweaking the process so that building a brand from the ground up is as seamless as possible. We hope to launch the full set as early as this month!
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the industry?
Kristin: It’s okay to start working somewhere that is not 100% right for you. It’s also absolutely okay to pass up opportunities if you personally don’t agree with their practices or their work – never sacrifice your values for your career. Every position is a learning opportunity, and is going to teach you different skills. Your first design job is not the only one you will have. Don’t be afraid to communicate what you want, but don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get it. Those you work for will never know what your goals are unless you are vocal about them, and it’s important for them to understand your point of view. Also, pick your battles. Sometimes, it’s not worth an argument to get pixels pushed or copy changed the way you want it. Stand up for the choices you believe in, and be willing to let go of the others if you don’t have a strong case for them.
Erin: Listen. Listen to people’s stories and experiences, and soak it in. Be humble; the only way to keep up in this field is to learn nonstop.
What do you think is the future of your industry?
Kristin: I’m excited about the evolution of creative agencies as we’ve known them. It has changed dramatically during the past ten years. Smaller creative studios like ourselves have had seats at the table with Global clients, even as work is shifting in-house. There’s opportunity for creative thinkers to become strategic partners as design moves further into the world of interactions and experiences, and this partnership doesn’t always involve working for a Global company. Designers are now strategists, and need to think about more than just the visual look/feel. If it isn’t functional, intuitive, and doesn’t tell a story or evoke emotion, then our designs just become a pretty picture. With the over-saturation of advertisements in our everyday lives, we’ll have to continue to find ways to cut through the noise and connect with those who matter.
Erin: I agree. I think our industry is going to evolve into more of a strategic role than a tactile one. Everyone can get a copy of Photoshop these days; it takes a true designer to come up with a concept AND a solution. There will be a high need for those who are creative, but can also tell a story and put it out on paper (or screen). Design Thinking will take a bigger role in our interactions with clients, because the public is becoming immune to advertisements. Instead, designers are going to have to think about how to produce authentic and genuine reactions and experiences about their market or brand.