HOW TO HAVE A CAREER IN DESIGN, with Nicki Kythreotis, Head of Design at Now
The super-lovely, super-talented Nicki Kythreotis spoke to me about jumping on and climbing up the design ladder.
ES: What’s your life story in three, 1-sentence bullet points.
NK: A child that would never stop asking why. A young adult who was blindly determined and breaking the rules. An adult who loves to laugh to live life to the full.
ES: Tell me about a day in your life that you’ll never forget. Walk me through it.
NK: My wedding day. Not only did I proclaim my love, but I was surrounded by the people I loved the most. For the whole day it was wonderful to see a room full of people who all came together for one cause. Filled with laughter, fun, partying and drinking. Did I mention the drinking?
ES: Tell me about an event in your childhood or teen years that has shaped the adult you are now?
NK: It’s difficult to pinpoint one event, I would say it would be more the people I have met on my journey so far. Each person I have met has had some influence over my perspective or attitude towards life. I often people watch and listen carefully to others. I take the bits I like and discard the ugly.
ES: Is there anyone you’ve met who’s had a profound influence on you?
NK: I’ve been lucky enough to have been surrounded by inspiring people. Throughout my childhood this rock was my mum. Watching her get through hardships with such determination whilst always smiling and making time for others has shaped how I approach things and how I communicate with people. On my professional journey I had to pleasure to have met and worked directly with Nils Leonard in my very-early years. What I learned from him was to ignore all glass ceilings and to break them on my way up. That you can absolutely reach your goals by working hard and not taking any shit. Another man who shaped my career was Mark Cakebread, by watching him I learned that you don’t have to be an arsehole to be successful. Being nice to people harbours a sense of loyalty and strength in teamwork.
ES: Tell me about the first hour of your day, what does it usually look like?
NK: The first hour of my morning is usually me forcing myself out of my comfy cosy bed to do 30-minutes of yoga. This prepares both my body and mind for what’s in store for the day. Then I jump in the shower, dress, then leave for work.
ES: What do you do to get yourself out of bed? Any tricks/ hacks?
NK: When I’m having those days of ‘Ugh just 5-more minutes’ I talk to myself and say “Come on Nicki! 5 more minutes is really not gonna make any bloody difference. Get up!” Yep I often talk to myself…
ES: What do you do on your journey into work?
NK: I feel this is an hour not to be wasted, no matter how much I want to close my eyes and take a nap. So instead on my commutes I’m trying to learn Spanish. So if you hear someone saying random Spanish phrases to themselves. Yeah, that’s probably me! Buenos días.
ES: Muy impresionante! So, tell me what do you for a living, without using your job title? What did you do at work yesterday?
NK: I solve problems in a creative way.
A Pitch. Shh! Top secret! I can’t tell you any more about it.
ES: Why do you do what you do? Other than paying bills, what need does your job fulfil?
NK: I love to create. To make things, to solve problems creatively. My job allows me to do just that.
ES: What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why?
NK: I often give books to my nieces and nephews. I make sure they’re fantastical and will capture their imaginations. The more interactive they are, the better.
The last book I gave them was this awesome Willy Wonka inspired book that took them on a personalised journey with their names inside the ‘contract’ and littered throughout the story. Making them believe they were on the Wonka journey too.
ES: What book has most made you question your life decisions?
NK: The book that I have read that has made me question my life decisions was ‘The Chimp Paradox’. It’s all about how we’re programmed to make certain decisions and how in fact we can train ourselves to act a certain way, once we understand why we behave the way do. Very interesting read. Basically my ‘chimp’ is a dick. (You’ll know what I mean when you read it.)
ES: What was your first real experience with what you do now for living? When you thought “I’d love to do something like that?”
NK: At 16, I attended a workshop called the ‘Fink Tank’ by Graham Fink. At the time I had no idea what this workshop was or who Graham Fink was. We spent the afternoon watching highlights of Fink’s reel and doing creative exercises. It was this workshop that made me think “Yeah I wanna do what he does!”
ES: Graham Fink; I imagine you were shown a lot of amazing work that day? What pieces do you remember most?
NK: The piece of work I remember the most I believe was for Halifax. Fink had to choreograph 100’s of people to come together in one shot. I remember him saying how difficult this was and trying to organise it was a nightmare.
ES: Did you at any point think: “wow, this is so much harder than I thought it was going to be? NK: I did think at one point this is really really hard. But then I thought everyone else has it just as hard. So stop complaining and keep going. The only other option was to give up. Believe me, I did think about it several times. But I’m glad I didn’t.
For a long time, my confidence did come from blind ignorance. I had no idea how tough this industry was and neither did my family. In a way this lack of knowledge helped, as I didn’t have any fears. My parents taught me to give everything I do 100% and that’s exactly what I did.
ES: What advice would you give to a smart, driven 18-year old trying to get your job?
NK: My advice for someone trying to get into design is to keep going. You must never stop working. Your portfolio will always grow and change. With this you must keep knocking on every door. Some won’t open at all, some will open and reject you. But eventually someone will give you the opportunity you’re after. Just don’t give up before you find it.
ES: If you could put your brain in the body of an 18 year-old who can’t afford to attend higher education, but wants your job… what might a rough plan look like for getting that first job?
NK: Contact all relevant heads of departments you can find and offer yourself up as an intern with an emphasis on your hunger for learning. You will need to show a little of what you can do, so look at other designer’s portfolios and see if you can take one of their briefs and create your own design. Who could turn away this kind of pure enthusiasm?
ES: How do you measure the size of person? What’s your measure of whether or not they’re going to be good to work with?
NK: I often read people very quickly. For me kindness, politeness, respectfulness and good humour will always stand out. This for me is what makes a good person.
ES: If you were hiring, what would the balance look like, in terms of the person and the portfolio. How brilliant does someone need to be for you to work with them, even if they’re a little difficult?
NK: For me someone who is a team-player is far more important than a talented individual. In our industry you cannot do everything alone. The moment you get precious and stop wanting to collaborate is the day people will not want to work with you. As a designer you have to be both talented and malleable, happy to work with all sorts of people.
ES: What three character traits do you think people who are good at what you do, have in common?
NK: Patience. Drive. Enthusiasm.
ES: What is bad advice you hear being given about your job or your industry? What advice should people ignore?
NK: That to work late is a good thing. That’s bollocks.
If you’re starting out as a junior and need to put in the extra hours to learn a programme or to figure something out, Ok. I understand the need to work late or to take some things home. But if it’s working late for the sake of it, absolutely not. We all need a change of scenery. For me to walk away and to come back is when my best ideas come. You need space to allow your brain to breathe.
I spend all day thinking and trying to find creative solutions to problems. My brain gets tired. I mentally escape by doing something physical, taken in the form of dance classes and gym sessions. For me this works. Often when I’m struggling on a brief, if I’m able to relax the idea comes on its own.
ES: Tell me about a time in your career that you’ve struggled?
NK: I freelanced as designer for 10-years. Sometimes being a freelancer can be very lonely, you generally have no-one to turn to when things get tough.
Not only professionally but personally too. At times you can feel lost, especially when you’re somewhere new with a bum brief and with no support. You have to push yourself and see it through as best you can.
I’m very lucky in the sense that I’m surrounded by great family and friends. I’m able to lean on them for support when I need it the most.
ES: How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?
NK: I think my failures have been not saying “No”. I often said yes to everything and burnt myself out. This not only affected me mentally, but physically too.
I’m now far more conscious of my time and the effort that I will put into something. It has to be worthwhile for me too, not only the other person.
ES: If you had a gun to your head and had to have one phrase tattooed on yourself, what would it be?
NK: I had fun.
ES: In what typeface?
NK: I would commision a personally bespoke typeface.
ES: What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
NK: The best investment is in myself. If you don’t look after yourself, no-one else will.
ES: When you hear the word successful, who or what comes to mind?
NK: Salvador Dali. I love how he didn’t take himself too seriously and when he was super successful, he mocked fame by getting his assistants to sign work for him. This way people never knew if it was an original or one created by his assistants.
ES: Anything you’re currently struggling with or trying to improve?
NK: I’m trying to learn ‘After Effects’… slowly… haha
ES: Why ‘After Effects’ specifically?
NK: I see the advantage of being able to make things move. Not only can it help enhance a design, but help develop how it can come together and grow. It can also influence an idea from inception.
ES: In the last five-years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
NK: Not giving a crap what people think of me. It’s really liberating.
ES: Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
NK: Depends what the call is. I try not to rehearse too much as you never know what the other person is going to say, so I want to let the words flow naturally.
ES: If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
NK: Actually. Nothing.
ES: That is genuinely, so wonderful to hear.
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
NK: I generally do what I want to do. I don’t let people or situations stop me.
ES: What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
NK: To travel. I was lucky enough to travel around the world. This makes you realise how lucky we are when you see how some other people live.
ES: What do you value most in a friendship?
NK: Trust. Honesty. Laughter.
ES: What does “networking” look like to you?
NK: Pubs and boozing.
It’s not necessarily better than events and conferences. But it’s the way I’ve always done it in my time during advertising. The one advantage of meeting people in the pub is you tend to see them in a relaxed state and speak to people on a more personal level.
When meeting people at an events environment you sometimes have more of a barrier up and conversation doesn’t flow as easily.
ES: In what situation do you feel most uncomfortable or most at-risk, when sharing your opinion? How do you deal with it it, if forced to speak?
NK: I really dislike speaking in front of a large crowd. I often feel I’ll be asked a question that I’m unable to answer and it makes me feel very vulnerable.
How do i deal with it? I just force it, take a deep breath and hope for the best.
ES: What irrational fears do you have about your job or your work?
NK: I sometimes feel I’m not good enough at what I do. I always want to do better.
I deal with this by leaning on the people who know me best and offer me the support i need. Mostly resulting in a mini ego-boost. We all need these from time to time..
ES: A. Tell me about your first year of trying to get, or getting a job in design?
NK: My first year of trying to get into design, I sent out mail-outs. Physical mail-outs. This is what got me my first internship at Publicis. I had to work for free, and worked my weekends in retail to pay for my travel during the week. I did this for 2 years before I got my break. It was super hard and frustrating, but I persevered and finally got the job offer I was after.
I wanted to work in advertising. When I first started I thought I was an Art Director until it was explained to me that the creative team had different training and were a partnership. Now I feel that the lines between creative and designer are blurring a lot and we often wear each others shoes.
ES: What haven’t you achieved yet, that you’d like to?
NK: As a freelance designer I would often start work and not get to finish it. Sometimes the work I would start would often win awards. But because I was not there to finish it or indeed a full-time member of staff my name would not be on the credits. I want to win and get the credit for an award.
ES: That’s not good. What needs to change here?
NK: I think the solution would come from a shift in thinking and behaviour. If creative people are more open to collaboration and can put their egos aside it will allow room for sharing successes.
ES: How do you stay disciplined in your work?
NK: My mum brought me up to never give up, to stay focused and always give 100%. I have carried this thought process throughout my life and use this in everything I do. Personally and professionally.
ES: What’s your personal approach for making pro-active projects happen and choosing which ones to focus on?
NK: When I start something I like to finish. If I have a project that’s half complete it bugs me. A lot. So whenever I have down time I will work on a project, little by little I will complete it.
ES: Tell me about a mistake or an obstacle that you wish someone had warned you about?
NK: I wish someone had warned about the sexism and the constant battle to prove yourself as a female creative in the advertising industry. But really, who is there to tell you of these pitfalls when you’re surrounded by men? It’s exhausting. It’s getting much better now, so come on girls, join me. The job is actually quite fun.
(Note: SHE SAYS and Good Girls Eat Dinner are both seriously putting in the reps to tackle the above.)
ES: Tell me 3 things on your bucket list?
NK: Learn to play the piano.
Learn to speak Spanish.
Swim with pigs.
ES: Why pigs?
NK: Because seeing pigs swim is just too cute!!!
ES: If you could enter a time machine that guaranteed return and also made you invincible in the time period you’re visiting, where would you go?
NK: 2000 years in the future. I’m assuming I could planet hop, too?
I’d want to see what we have become and to steal secrets that I can take back and the present world will think i’m a genius!! Either that or bat-shit crazy!
ES: Tell me about a fun thing you’re currently saving for?
NK: I’m saving to go on a wellness week. A week getting massages and soaking up the rays. Bliss!
ES: What do you miss about being a kid?
NK: Not having to deal with consequences to your actions.
ES: What constitutes a perfect day for you?
NK: Meeting with friends and family for dinner, drinks, giggles, dancing and more giggles.
ES: What was the last song you sang to yourself or someone else?
NK: SIA — Unbreakable. Was singing this whilst I was working out. Great motivator. HAHA
ES: If you could live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30 year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which one would you choose?
NK: definitely the body of a 30 year-old. The brain you can train to maintain its strength. The body, no matter what you do… It’s going south. Plus, you’ll get to always hang out with hot young people but with the knowledge you’ve gained over the years. You could totally mind fuck people.
ES: If you could wake up tomorrow with one superpower, what would it be?
NK: To speak every single language in the universe.
ES: Your house is on fire and no person or animal you love is in it. What one object do you save?
NK: A photograph. Or actually my hard drive as that has all my photos on there.
Nicki Kythreotis is Head of Design at Now.