Career about face.

Design lessons I learned from doing makeup

Source: Unsplash

Designers often talk about design like fine art, ministry, or medicine — a path to which you are called from an early age. Like we emerged from the womb in tortoise shell glasses, swaddled in plaid, and suckled on Pamplemousse LaCroix. An interviewee once told me they wanted to be a designer since they were 5 — before they even knew the word for it. When I was 5, I wanted to be the Wicked Witch of the West.

No, seriously. My parents had to hide my broom and witch costume from me.

But if you read through as people share their #firstsevenjobs on Twitter, many of us come from diverse backgrounds with no apparent correlation to what we’re doing now. Looking at my own first seven jobs, it’s not until #5 that I started doing anything close to designing professionally:

But the job that continues to influence my work as a designer to this day (every day) was not that first design job. As grateful as I was for the opportunity, I learned very little at besides how to make things look gold and beveled in Photoshop.

The best primer for my career in design was my time as a makeup artist. (Yes, primer is a makeup pun, and if you don’t get it you should go talk to someone at Sephora immediately.)

I spent 5+ years doing and selling makeup for M.A.C. until one Christmas (when many a seasoned retail worker decides it’s time for a career change), I decided I wanted out. I wanted a job that wasn’t in a mall or on a busy commercial avenue. I wanted to sit down sometimes. I wanted Saturdays off, goddamnit.

Fortunately, I ended up loving design, and I was surprised to find how well working in makeup had prepared me for it. Color, light, shadow, composition: on a face, canvas, or screen, these concepts translate.

But it wasn’t until I started working with clients that I realized just how valuable my time as a makeup artist had been. Because the foundation (get it?) of both makeup artistry and design is customer service.

Look, LiveJournal model poses aside, you know you wish you had my smokey eye/nude lip game.

In retail makeup, this relationship is very clear. You do fabulous makeup to sell the makeup. To sell the makeup you do fabulous makeup that is right for the customer you’re working with.

Designers are less comfortable with the relationship between their craft and client services or selling (ask my boss, Mike Monteiro). We pawn those tasks off on project managers and biz dev folks and talk about clients like they’re burdens who get in our way as we’re trying to get to the real work of design.

But guess what? The relationship between client and designer is where the real work happens! And when you switch from one service industry to another, you find that the same things make clients tick. The clients I came to expect as a makeup artist are the clients we work with as designers, and they need much of the same things from us.

The clients I came to expect as a makeup artist are the clients we work with as designers, and they need much of the same things from us.

The Smokey Eye

The smokey eye is one of the most important looks for a makeup artist to be able to pull off and offers one of the most crucial lessons for designers.

Everyone wants a smokey eye. But here’s the thing about the smokey eye…

Saying you want a smokey eye is like telling a designer to “make it look like Apple.” What does that mean? Seriously, look through #smokeyeye on Instagram and tell me what the hell a smokey eye is.

And many a poor, dumb, makeup artist takes a request for a smokey eye at face value, makes up the customer according to their own idea of a smokey eye, and sends that customer—who thought they couldn’t have been clearer about what they wanted—running off to the worst junior high dance EV-AR.

Don’t take these requests at face value (whether or not an actual face is involved), even when a client is using industry terms. Any service job is going to have its own special vocabulary. If that vocabulary is useful—and not jargony bullshit designed to razzle dazzle marks—occasionally your client will pick up on terms and (maybe) some of the attached meaning.

Make sure you and your clients share definitions of the words you’re using.

I was reminded of this lesson at a previous agency, after joining a rebranding and web design project midstream. Final approval of the logo had become a major bottleneck for the rest of the project.

The client’s feedback made increasingly little sense until, at the end of a long, exasperating conference call, it became clear the client didn’t understand what a logo was.

Make sure you and your clients share definitions of the words you’re using.

Let’s be generous and call this a whoopsie-daisy on the part of whoever kicked that project off. But it’s one that could have easily been avoided through a little bit of education and more conversation with the client.

Pinky-Browny Lipstick without Too Much Orange in It

Sometimes the client comes to you with little to no shared vocabulary. They have the vaguest sense of what they want but next to no idea of how to describe it.

If I ever launch my own cosmetics line, I will have a lipstick called “Pinky Brown without Too Much Orange In It” because as a makeup artist, I met hundreds of women searching for that color. I had a few go-to’s I’d show them to start off, but from there the client’s personal definition of pinky-brown-without-too-much-orange-in-it could take you anywhere.

You know what? Just gesture at the lipstick case.

Whereas our smokey eye client has some shared vocabulary you can build on, the pinky-browny customer has already given you everything they have with that description. They need your expertise. They need a lot from you, actually.

The pinky-browny customer needs guidance. They need education delivered in language that’s accessible to them. Don’t say “beige” or “matte” to this client. Say “natural” or “not shiny.” Every time a designer says “material design,” “skeuomorphic,” or “humanist sans-serif” to this client, God deletes a Dribbble account.

Most importantly, they need your reassurance that it’s ok that they don’t know these things; that you’ll teach them what they do need to know; and that you’ll help them pick the right thing.

Client relationships are collaborations. You bring your design expertise, and they bring their expertise in their needs. But yours is a dual role of collaborator-facilitator. Your client needs your help voicing their needs and understanding how what you’re offering meets them. Ask questions in a way clients who are out of their comfort zone feel capable of answering.

In the end, the process of questions and elimination is like a game of Guess Who?, but to the client it will feel like mind-reading. And that client will buy the winning pinky-browny lipstick without too much orange in it from you for years. They’ll even ask you for a matching blush; and your sales numbers just keep going up.

This is the only pinky-browny lipstick we haven’t tried on.

But don’t take this client on if you do not have the bandwidth to educate them, show them options, and tease feedback out of them. Pinky-browny lipsticks (or the design equivalent) can be the start of long-lasting, mutually beneficial client relationships, but only if you can make that investment. This client cannot be swept through the process at a normal pace, and if you try, their feet will freeze up at the cash register, just as you’re ready to give your attention to the next client.

The Magazine Clipping

The magazine clipping is the bane of makeup artist and hairstylist alike. A client comes in with a tear-out from their favorite mag wanting to recreate the look. And while makeup artists and hairstylists love their clients, most aren’t models. (Without professional photographers, stylists, and photo retouching, most models aren’t either.)

Just like most makeup clients aren’t models, most design clients aren’t whatever multibillion dollar company created the bright and shiny, belled and whistled website they want you to recreate for them.

Source: Buzzfeed

Here, your job is two-fold: manage expectations and set a new vision with the client.

In the case of a makeup client, no one wants to hear they’re not a model, and a design client doesn’t want to hear they’re not Apple or whatever Goliath they are benchmarking themselves against.

While we are invested in doing good work for our clients, for our clients the outcome of that work can affect their sense of self, careers, and entire life. A bride doesn’t get a do-over on the photos of her big day. (Well, statistically, she probably will but…) An entrepreneur who’s launching a new brand may end up having to work at his father-in-law’s B2B sales-or-accounting-or-whatever firm if he fails. (And you know what an asshole his father-in-law is.)

It is a perilously thin line between you telling a client the idea they’ve brought to you isn’t right for them and the client hearing that they’re not good enough for it.

What the client hears when you tell them “it’s a makeup brush (or Photoshop) not a magic wand.”

To walk that line, you need to borrow some skills from the smokey eye client. Find out what’s behind the request—what about the example they’ve shown appeals to them. Explain how you can achieve that effect in a way that’s right for them. As you work, draw parallels to their example and explain when and why deviating from it is in their best interest.

If you skip this step, the client keeps the clipping they brought you as the mental standard by which they will evaluate your work. You’ve set yourself up for failure and them for disappointment. But if you do this part well, they’ll be excited to see their clipping turned into inspiration for something you both know is better for them.

The Perfect Red Lip

The red lip is another common request that is more treacherous than it first appears. You may have caught a case of smokey eye of the mouth. Both images below are tagged with #redlips on Instagram:

But let’s assume makeup artist and client share a definition of a red lip. There is another hurdle: red lips take a lot of work, and the client’s going to have to do a fair share of it themselves.

This analogy might require a bit more explanation for designers who haven’t ended up with fruit punch mouth after losing a battle with a tube of red lipstick:

Don’t let fruit punch mouth give your enemies the upper hand. (Source:

A good red lip that lasts longer than an Instagram selfie usually requires more than just the lipstick. You might need a primer (have you asked someone at Sephora about primers yet?), a liner, a lip brush, and maybe a gloss. And none of those tools actually get the lipstick on your mouth for you! It takes time and practice.

If the red lipstick is our website, the primers, liners, brushes, and glosses are our design research, site architecture, content strategy, and staff who will maintain the site. (This is not a one-to-one analogy, in case you’re wondering who’s the lip brush.)

Some clients are ready to make the investment in these things and do the work to be successful. Some will tell you they are and end up with a drawer full of red lip junk or an empty website no one ever sees because the client wasn’t prepared for the realities of using what you sold them. Others will need to be walked through the trade-offs as you work out a simpler solution that better matches their resources and commitment.

In the end, the perfect red lip is one that looks good and will be worn by the client. Just like the perfect design solution is one that meets the goals of the project and will be used by the client after hand-off.

Client relationships can be beautiful.

Managing client relationships can be messy and complicated, but when done well, it can have a huge impact not just on your business but on your clients’ lives.

One Friday night at M.A.C., a client came in for a makeover and lesson. She was transgender, though she hadn’t transitioned publicly. She had come out to her wife late in their marriage, and to make it work they allowed each other a weekend a month where they could go off separately and do whatever made them happy.

For my client, this meant coming in to have her makeup done, pick up a few tricks of the trade, and celebrate her true self with trans friends in a way she couldn’t in her day-to-day life.

She wasn’t in my chair to play dress-up. She was, in fact, fairly conservative in her style. Although she needed tips for feminizing her face and camouflaging stubble as she underwent electrolysis, she wasn’t trying to be someone else. And had I painted her with every contouring, glamorizing trick I knew, I would have turned her into someone else instead of what she was looking for: to be more herself.

I am very happy to say we were successful. She looked and felt beautiful. I created a memorable experience for her where she had been listened to and received everything she was hoping for and more. We hugged. She bought everything that touched her face, and watched intently as I wrote down notes for how she should use it moving forward.

That experience stays with me as the golden ruler by which I measure client interactions. Not every client project is going to end with hugs and the feeling that you’ve changed a life, but for it to be successful at all, you have to embrace the relationship with the client as an integral part of the work upon which your success as a designer is built.