Kelly Wahlstrom has been a Visual Designer (and my astrology BFF) at Envoy since 2018. We recently caught up via Zoom to talk about her dance background, her work, balancing expression and communication, and what’s been inspiring her during this weird, weird time.
Hi Kelly! 👋 Tell us a little about your career journey so far.
By the time I was three years old I had decided that I was going to be a ballerina. And that really stuck (read: a flight attendant tried to give me wings as a toddler and I burst out in tears, proclaiming I wanted to be a ballerina). I spent my youth training in ballet, jazz, and hip-hop, dancing with competitive teams, doing summer dance camps in NYC, and had a “mildly professional” career dancing in LA (that’s putting it generously). I had an epiphany when I was 27 and I realized that a career in dance wasn’t going to sustain me for the long haul, so I decided to switch my focus to design. Funnily enough, I was always a designer, I just didn’t know it.
Though my focus growing up was on dancing, I was also a part of my school yearbook program where I dabbled in layout and photography (like old-school, wax crayons and all — I even went to yearbook camp). In high school I had a sticker club with my best friends, I doodled non-stop in all of my notebooks, and I became the school Publicity Chair (another name for poster maker) my senior year .
“I was always a designer, I just didn’t know it.”
It’s funny to look back on because growing up I was doing all of these things that were graphic design, but nobody told me that I could make a living from it. It wasn’t until I was living in LA and I was keeping up this pattern of dance with design on the side, that one of my design clients inspired me to look into design as a career. Within months I was enrolled at the Art Institute in LA learning all of the design programs I needed to know. Then when a life change brought me back up to Northern California with my then-fiancé, I joined the Academy of Art MFA program to complete my education.*
Once I started design school I really felt like I had found my true calling. Everything just sort of clicked and I was really energized by the work I was doing and felt motivated to work hard and do my best all of the time. Since school, I’ve had the opportunity to work at some amazing studios where I not only have gotten to work on exciting projects and make some rad stuff, but I’ve been fortunate enough to make lifelong friendships with people that inspire and delight me daily. I really love designers and I love design. The fact that I get to do work that challenges me and provides me with new ways of thinking about things every day feels like I’ve got a good thing going on.
*Kelly has a B.A. from UCLA in Comparative Literature and taught dance for seven years after moving back to Northern California, where she is from. Both experiences have proved relevant to her work. One in comprehension, writing, and analytics and the other a lesson in patience, how not to take things personally, and how art can be a successful means to business ends. For example: Kelly has been known to come up with a quirky copy-line or two when in a pinch. She explained her teaching background has helped her happily adapt to feedback and critique in pursuit of a better solution.
And what do you primarily focus on at Envoy?
At Envoy, I’m a part of the small but mighty Visual Design team! Shout out to Amy and Meaghan who are so fun to work with every day. We get to do things like design collateral that helps support the marketing and sales teams, anything from web to print items. Because of my background, I really get jazzed about diving into all the brand-related items that help keep Envoy looking fresh. I joined Envoy at a really opportune time because we were going through a brand refresh. Myself, Amy, and Chin (at the time) had all come from agencies we wanted to handle the work in-house. I was really happy about being able to be a part of the refresh efforts. Now we are continuing to roll out the brand throughout all of the touchpoints across the company with a focus on creating a beautiful system that we hope will be flexible for years to come.
Why did you choose a career in design?
Design definitely seems to be my native state. It seems to be the way that my brain processes the world. Telling a great story, visually.
(If you weren’t a designer what would you be doing?)
I would probably be doing something in the wellness-related field, something with movement or massage. I’ve been told by various sources that I am very intuitive and should look into doing something in relation to healing. Perhaps I can find this through design, but I certainly relate to the wellness arena and helping people through finding a sense of balance in their life.
Tell me about some work you’ve done recently that you’re really proud of.
Most recently we just started working on a sub-brand for our Enterprise arm and that’s been really fun. It’s always great to get to work on new things where you can push ideas far out there to imagine the possibilities. Besides that continuing to roll out the brand work that we did last year is really satisfying. I also love it when I get to work on random projects for Envoy that are really more about team-spirit internal-facing. Like, we’re doing a fun environmental design project for helping to welcome employees back to work safely once we do decide it’s safe to go back to the office. That project has included pieces like T-shirts, stickers, and posters so that has been really fun to work on.
What advice do you wish you’d received when first starting your career?
I mean, I think I did probably receive this advice, if not personally, I definitely heard it through a talk at some point. I think there are a couple of things:
One, in a career like design that walks a line between communication and expression, it’s going to be a journey to find your authentic voice and your authentic take on things. I think I’m definitely still journey-ing. That being said, regarding the expression side, something I’ve learned that’s helped me not get too emotional is not to take things personally. Design really is working with business goals in mind, so the more you can present your work and look at it in regards to whether or not it is a good solution for the problem at hand, you can remove yourself from the expression part. If you need more expression, do more side personal projects.
With a career like design, that walks a line between communication and expression, it’s going to be a journey to find your authentic voice and your authentic take on things. I think I’m definitely still journey-ing.
Two, with each project, client, designer you work with, you learn new things, gain new perspective, and appreciate different wins. What stresses you out and seems like a big deal at the beginning of your career seems like small peanuts later on.
Three, if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. This isn’t to say everything you are going to do as a designer is fun, but you can certainly make it fun! I’ve geeked out over photoshopping the tiniest details out of photos, or going through a spread and making sure all of the rags look good and the type is properly spaced. If you can find joy in the little things, you will learn a lot about your craft that will ultimately make you a stronger designer all around. Just don’t ask me to make a powerpoint ;)
What’s inspiring you lately?
On a national scale, I’m really inspired by the revitalized movement around social justice. There are a lot of designers that are taking this time to create great educational graphics on different topics that are helping communicate clearly and beautifully about ways to help and get involved. One of my favorite forums for this is Anti-racism daily. I follow their IG account and subscribe to their daily newsletters as well. I’ve really learned a lot.
On a human-scale, all of the people who are are surviving this year. I mean, we all are surviving on some level, but I am grateful for those who are brave enough to share their personal stories of loss and somehow are able to find positivity and hope through the darkest of times.
On a personal scale, I’m always inspired and amazed by my children. It’s truly wonderful to see the world through their fresh eyes. My four-year-old has an imagination that doesn’t quit and he can take me on a journey around the world and back while my 18-month old boggles my mind every day with how much he understands and can interact with the world around him. My husband inspires me with his endless energy and kindness and commitment to our family and his career.
Outside of that, it’s been a year of introspection and rebirth, so focusing on the simple luxuries in life, like getting to spend some time with a friend in their front yard, or finally getting to get out and get ice cream with the kids. All of those things that just seemed like a given in life before, now feel really special.
And who?! (Is there anyone I should have my 👀 on?)
This could really be a massively long list of friends, family, designers, artists, comedians, and activists… but I’ll give a special shout out to three illustrators that have very welcomely invaded my home through the guise of my children’s books: Anna Koveces, Ingela Annhenius, and Oliver Jeffers. All three have distinctive styles from each other but create beautifully sophisticated work that embraces joy, curiosity, and delight. All values I aspire to in my own work.
Anything else you want to give a shoutout? Particularly funny GIFs you’ve seen? Closing thoughts?
I’ve always been a fan of comedy, so I’ve found a lot of solace in great comedians this year. Besides the big names, the IG account MyTherapistSays has given me daily LOL’s. Like this gem and current mood, “I love fall. Am I wearing a bra? Who knows. Am I wearing what I wore to bed? Maybe.”
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