An Interview with Art Director and Business Owner, Katrina Lenzly
Personal Portfolio Site: www.seecooleyplay.com
ELEV8ED’s Portfolio Site: www.elev8edusc.com
I had the honor of interviewing my good friend, Katrina Lenzly, a multi-talented designer and musician. Here’s a little bit about her background, in her own words:
I currently live in Atlanta, Georgia but was born in Virginia. I’m an Art Director and business owner, and attended the Savannah College of Art & Design. I received my B.F.A in Graphic Design and a minor in Business Administration.
I’m currently on a work sabbatical! After my art directing contract ended at Coca-Cola, I decided to take 6-months off to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do since I graduated college. I’ve been in this sort of rat race for 5 straight years. I’ve worked at 7 different companies from corporations like Chick-fil-A and Coca-Cola to small studios to work from home. It’s been exhausting. It’s been creatively draining. So I’m taking a break. I’m making music, traveling, touring and promoting my album, spending time with my family and friends…and just…breathing. And sleeping! I do, as you know, I own a creative house called ELEV8ED — we’re a creative house for designers of color and I work as creative director. Right now I’m finishing up a project for Atlanta’s A3C Festival which is pretty exciting and keeping me in a design headspace. But for the most part, I’m living on my own schedule right now and making things I want to make!
There’s a classic cheeseball saying “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life”. Katrina, it’s pretty safe to say, you’re really living the dream. Not only are you a talented designer and musician, but you’ve built an incredible creative team and business the past 4 years. It takes a lot of courage to jump into the shark tank like that, right outside of school! What had you decide to run a business so soon, rather than go the traditional route of working for another company?
“When I started recognizing how my directors and design leaders were managing my teams, I just felt like I do better and do more and do differently.”
That’s a great question. I think I’m a natural leader and I’ve always been very observant. When I started recognizing how my directors and design leaders were managing my teams, I just felt like I do better and do more and do differently. It took a while to fully immersive myself into ELEV8ED, but with Mark’s mentorship and encouragement, I really started feeling confident to take that leap of faith and trust my own abilities.
“Though, what I think people fail at is maintaining a level of patience and discipline to see things through. Some months are tough. Some clients are tough.”
Starting a company actually isn’t as difficult as society wants us to believe. Though, what I think people fail at is maintaining a level of patience and discipline to see things through. Some months are tough. Some clients are tough. It’s hard to stay optimistic when you’re in the red and on top of that, tax laws aren’t in favor of self-starters. But I was able to hold my ground and use the resources out there to figure it out. And most importantly, I chose people with the same drive to help manage with me.
Katrina, for as long as I’ve known you, the intersection of design and culture, and the impact that design has on society, have always been major themes within your work. What inspires you to take such a strong community-centric and humanistic approach, and what do you feel you’ve gained from giving back to the community through design?
“I have a moral obligation to make my work mean something. Without that level of commitment, we get heartless, passionless design and marketing strategies that do nothing for the world.”
That’s a great question. I fully believe that a designers job is to stay in touch with culture. For me, staying in touch with culture also means recognizing the issues cultures are facing and address them. That said, I’m always asking the same questions when I get an assignment: “What greater role can this project play? What more could we be doing? How can we facilitate a more engaging experience for this audience in a way that benefits them?” It’s frustrating to work at a place that makes millions of dollars selling products to people in your community but hasn’t donated a dime to fix the issues within that community. I saw the numbers very early in my career.
I remember, at one of my first jobs, in particular, sitting at my desk overhearing a conversation with our department CEO and his secretary. He was asking her about some numbers missing from the accounting records. He looked at it and said “Oh! $35,000? Okay, not bad at all!” And walked away. I was heated. Because I was thinking, “this department misplaced $35,000!?” That was literally the amount of the student loan I was paying off. I remember thinking “There has to be a reason I’m hearing this and there has to be a reason I’m here.”
So that’s been my inspiration: knowing that I have a moral obligation to make my work mean something. Without that level of commitment, we get heartless, passionless design and marketing strategies that do nothing for the world.
“What greater role can this project play? What more could we be doing? How can we facilitate a more engaging experience for this audience in a way that benefits them?”
To answer your other question, I think what I’ve gained is just more knowledge and more discipline. I’m obligated to stay socially aware of everything. I’m obligated to be present in the world. It’s definitely made me a more multidimensional designer and, in terms of my career, has put me miles ahead of the competition.
Since graduating, you’ve gone the route of a freelancer, alongside the help of your own creative team. What are the advantages and disadvantages about the freelance life, based on your experience? And what are some things that you’ve uniquely learned from freelancing, that you wouldn’t have learned from a full-time position?
“I’m so incredibly confident because I know now, due to my experience as a freelancer and business owner, they need you just as much as you need them.”
Freelancing helps you understand business and business strategy in a whole new way and I recommend that everyone do it for a little bit when they first start out. It will make you a stronger, more confident negotiator. It levels the hierarchy between you and your employer because you start looking at them like a client. I don’t get intimidated by interviews or salary raise meetings anymore. I used to walk into interviews trembling but now, I’m so incredibly confident because I know now, due to my experience as a freelancer and business owner, they need you just as much as you need them. You are the. Being abused and taken advantage of, I’ve gotten depressed, suicidal, I’ve had my relationship tested…. It makes you figuratively hungry…because you’ll be literally hungry!
Because of your freelance route, you’ve had the opportunity of working with a lot of high-profile clients and agencies. What’s the most enjoyable project that you’ve ever been a part of (with a screenshot or two of the project)?
The most enjoyable project I’ve worked on was directing video content for the Coca-Cola installation at the Mercedes Benz stadium here in Atlanta. It was great because I got to touch every element of the project from concepting the installation to the production and building process, to storyboarding the video content, to directing, and then editing. It was awesome.
I’d say a close second to that was art directing and brand designing for Sprite Lymonade’s summer rollout this year. That was great because they initially just wanted us to work on the POS (point-of-sale) and merchandising display.
Like solely production work. Then after they saw what I designed, they decided to adopt the graphic elements for other promotional executions. I’m very proud of that.
You have a variety of talents that go beyond just design. Specifically, your talents related to music. How do these different skill sets elevate your design thinking, design execution, and just your overall creative outlook?
“Specifically, on projects like Sprite, my experience with hip-hop culture helped elevate the copy and/or the design more authentically than someone without that understanding.”
Great question! I really started seeing my music experience and knowledge come in handy at Coke. When you’re working with brands that are trying to stay culturally and socially relevant, it’s valuable to be a culturally and socially aware designer. So often, I would become the “expert” in the room. Specifically, on projects like Sprite, my experience with hip-hop culture helped elevate the copy and/or the design more authentically than someone without that understanding.
I’ve also been asked to apply my sound design experience to projects which is great! There aren’t a lot of designers who have that skill set so, again, it makes me an expert in the field and more importantly allows me to exercise more creative muscles.
For someone who’s so strongly influenced by society and culture, I’m sure you’ve been inspired by many individuals from the past/present. Who are some historical figures, or current societal influencers that have helped inspire and shape your creative thinking?
“Audrey and friends like Audrey, keep me aligned with my obligation to give back to the world what I take. Iron sharpens iron.”
Hmm…I’d say the people that have made the biggest impact on me are my mentors and friends. My best friend Audrey is a person that immediately comes to mind. I mean…Audrey has fully dedicated her design career to servicing others. She’s worked for non-profits and community-led initiatives. She’s built her own community-led organizations. She mentors kids. Even when we were roommates in college, she was making these conscious decisions to be a designer of impact. Everything she does is done with intention and purpose and I admire that a lot. Audrey and friends like Audrey, keep me aligned with my obligation to give back to the world what I take. Iron sharpens iron.
Lastly, do you have any advice for up and coming design students and creatives who are dreaming big right now?
I have three pieces of advice for up-coming designers is this:
1) We have to study outside of design. Da Vinci studied all elements of life to come to the conclusion that every aspect of our visual world is connected. Go study architecture. Learn about film. Study music. It will make you a very valuable, diverse thinker and teammate. I promise.
2) Decide on a goal for your career and decide early. If you want to be an art director, or create your own agency, or even retire at 40, stamp that goal in your head. From there, whenever you’re met with a career-decision, evaluate that decision against your goal. If it doesn’t align, it’s not a good choice. This has been the most valuable process for me. Everything you do should keep ou progressing towards that goal. Don’t let job loyalty or distractions get in the way of that.
3) It’s okay to take time off to work on passion projects. It will keep your work fresh. The projects that have most impressed my interviewers and clients have been non-work related projects. They LOVE that work and more often than not, completely skip over the corporate work I’ve done (hence why a lot of it isn’t in there). In my experience, I’ve learned that employers don’t care about how well you can design a powerpoint. A resume can tell them that. They want to see how you think. Can you produce a project from start to finish. Can you complete a project? Are you conceptual? You want to stay at a junior designer level, keep adding those brochures to your Behance and going home at 6pm to do nothing. You want to start making $45/hr as an Art Director? Invest your 6–10PM and weekends on building out a project you actually have love for.
Design is becoming a very universal term. I remember when I started college, I had no clue how to design and it wasn’t until my Junior year interning at ELEV8ED that really started understanding it. Now, however, people are hiring illustrators to be their graphic designers. MOME artists to be their designers. Nieces/Nephews/Cousins/Homies to be their designers. Traditional graphic designers are nearing the endangered species list and unless we evolve, we’ll go extinct. That said, I recommend that more designers add value to their work. Learn sound design, learn film editing, learn motion graphics. Something. The competition is growing.
If aliens randomly invaded Earth from Mars, and could only be killed by listening to terrible music, what song would you choose, to save the world?
Ha! A terrible song to torture aliens with… That’s difficult because I feel like every song has merit. Even if one person likes it, that fact makes it a likable song, ya know. It sounds like we can’t take any risks with these aliens so…
I’d have them listen to Achy Breaky Heart. I think that would be a good one to kill.
While I’m at it, what’s your favorite song?
My all-time favorite song!? That’s tough for a lot of reasons because I like a lot of genres.
I’d say “Frontin” by Pharell and Jay-Z is a perfect song in concept, tone, lyricism, and production. It’s flawless. My close second is “My Hero” by the Foo Fighters. I think I could listen to that on a loop on a desert island and never complain. I hate that both of those are in the Top 100. I wish I could share something deeper but…that’s what I got!
If you were given two options, to jump out of a plane with no parachute, or sink in the ocean with an anchor, which one is it going to be?
Oh, the plane for sure! I actually had plans to go skydiving for my birthday this year but had to postpone. It’s still the plan though. I remember hearing Will Smith mention in one of his videos, “I hate feeling fear. So I run towards it.” And I was like, Bet. So that’s the plan this year to go skydiving and fall towards that fear. Sinking though!? Naw son. I can’t swim for sh*t so what you’re describing is death.
I feel like this is supposed to be a philosophical question. Sink or fall? You’re basically asking me which way do I prefer to die and I say neither.
Thank you so much for sharing your incredible insight and knowledge, Katrina! The world NEEDS more individuals like you, who truly care about using their talents, to outwardly give back to those in need, and to help nurture the talents of those willing to join the good fight! It was truly an honor to talk with you, and we can’t wait who you will impact next!