Creative Lives — Caitlin Clancy on how a curiosity for visual culture led her to work for The New York Times

Posted 05 November 2019 Interview by Anoushka Khandwala

Graduating during the recession meant that finding a job wasn’t easy for Caitlin Clancy. But she eventually found her feet when she was offered a job at The Ideas Foundation. It led to an internship at Pearson publishing, and opportunities at Penguin, Dorling Kindersley and the The Financial Times soon followed suit. And after a brief career hiatus in Antwerp led her to work with design and creativity festival Us By Night, Caitlin was also able to flex her artist management skills and nurture a new passion. Having recently left her design role at The New York Times, Caitlin is currently working as a freelance digital designer. We caught up with her to look back on her career journey and find out how she’s getting on with freelance life so far.

Caitlin Clancy

Job Title

Freelance Digital Designer, CNN International (October 2019 –present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Designer, The New York Times (February 2018 – October 2019)
Freelance Graphic Designer, The Champion Agency (2017–2018)
Graphic Artist, The Financial Times (2011–2015)

Place of Study

Certificate in Graphic Design, Shillington Education (2017)
BA Design and Art Direction, Manchester School of Art (2007–2010)

Website
Social Media

Caitlin

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job while at The New York Times?
I worked on design and art direction, mainly for digital brand partnerships at The New York Times’ in-house creative agency, T-Brand Studio.

What does a typical working day look like?
I usually cycled or walked to the office in Bloomsbury, typically working between 9.30am and 6pm. My role varied, from setting the look and feel of our paid posts, brainstorming ideas for pitches, collaborating with our developer on more custom projects, to identifying and working closely with commissioned illustrators and photographers.

Most of my time was spent in front of a computer, otherwise I was sat in brainstorms for pitches, or in meetings with live-project teams. There are lots of spaces in the office that I liked to use if I was researching or sketching layouts, and sometimes I would invite illustrators and photographers into the office to share their portfolios, which was an inspiring break from our desks.

What do you like about working in London?
I like that London is a diverse and inclusive city, and it’s incredible for music, arts and culture. But having grown up in Manchester, I find the high cost of living to be a complete killjoy, and I wish people were friendlier. As a creative, you need to be more reliant on commercial projects and full-time work, which leaves little time for personal practice – in my experience at least.

Living in Belgium and visiting the Netherlands often has shown me that there are many cities where the cost of living is lower, meaning that a better balance is achievable.

Art Direction for The New York Times partnership with Dove; photography by famefamefame

Art Direction for The New York Times partnership with Dove; photography by famefamefame

Art Direction for The New York Times partnership with Dove; photography by famefamefame

How did you land your job at The New York Times?
I applied for the role on the recommendation of a mutual contact, who was then the creative director. I was offered the job after several rounds of interviews and completing a digital design brief.

How collaborative was the role?
Very. On a daily basis, I worked closely with a small team of editors, strategists, producers, designers and developers across London, Paris and Hong Kong. I’ve been lucky to have commissioned talented illustrators, photographers and animators for our projects too, and I enjoyed the process of writing an art-direction brief, creating mood boards and collaborating on iterations to final artwork.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working on a partnership with Dove at the start of the year was an exciting project for me; it focused on a theme that resonated with my family and cultural heritage, by embracing identity and diversity when it comes to hair. We interviewed three Generation Z women and their parents, based in New York. Our team was editor Jainnie Cho, producer Elizabeth Heuchan and myself on art direction and design of the units, while we commissioned photography duo famefamefame for the shoots.

“Curiosity for people, stories and visual culture are essential for my work.”

What skills are essential to your work?
Of course technical skills and an understanding of design principles help. But I would say empathy, patience, and curiosity for people, stories and visual culture are essential for my work.

Do you run any self-initiated or side projects alongside your job?
For the past few months I have been working with football and fashion platform SEASON zine on their social content, and I am currently designing the seventh issue of their magazine in collaboration with Callum Stephenson.

Once a year I also moonlight in event production, working on the artist management of design and creativity festival Us by Night in Antwerp, Belgium. Getting in touch with the founders of this festival while they were in pre-production of their first edition in 2016 was such a blessing. It has allowed me to use a different skill set and meet talented international artists who I have long admired.

Us By Night Festival

What tools do you use most for your role at The New York Times?
I would mainly use Sketch for designing interactive features, InVision and Principle for prototyping, Adobe After Effects and Adobe Media Encoder for editing videos and Slack for communicating with the team. I always have a notebook and pencil for making lists and sketching quick thoughts, too.

Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
I love independent magazines and I have had a subscription to Stack since 2010. Getting a different magazine from a different country each month on niche topics has broadened my knowledge – in terms of differing passions or perspectives – and has complimented my interest in contemporary editorial design.

I frequently visit art exhibitions, and the In Good Company podcast by Otegha Uwagba, Desk Lunch newsletter and The WW Club newsletter by Phoebe Lovatt have also been helpful for creative career ideas for the working woman.

Design for The New York Times and Santander; illustration by Tess Smith-Roberts

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I don’t recall wanting to be in any specific profession, but I always had a pencil in my hand and loved to paint and make things – I knew that I just wanted to carry on doing something creative and something that I enjoyed.

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
I had a creative upbringing where arts, culture and music (especially my dad’s massive record collection) were central to our home, and we were often taken to museums and galleries. My dad is an architect and my mum studied fashion – she made clothes for us when I was growing up. My maternal grandma was a jazz singer who ran a club in Manchester, and my maternal grandfather came to England from Jamaica as a print apprentice – I was always inspired to follow in their footsteps and work in the creative industries.

I know I was quite privileged to have this background. There were people I grew up with who were very creative but didn’t have the means, parental support or connections to know that a career in art and design could be a possibility.

Being of Jamaican and Irish heritage – two countries that have historically been oppressed and discriminated against, yet have still thrived and played an integral part in shaping British culture – has instilled in me a strong work ethic and resilience.

Design for The New York Times and The Index Project; portraits by Lasse Lindsteen

Why did you choose to study at Shillington, and what was your experience like?
After spending nearly two years living in Belgium, I wanted to learn digital design, get a refresh on Adobe CC and work on a new portfolio to help me get back into the industry. I used up my savings to pay for the course but I would recommend it to others for the variety of challenging daily briefs covering packaging, UX and UI, branding, campaigns, art direction on a studio shoot and digital design.

After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I graduated just after the recession, so there weren’t many opportunities and I felt too disheartened to reach out to studios I admired; both my parents had also gone through work difficulties during my final year.

Frankly, I felt like I wanted to give up before I’d even tried and I moved back home. After six months, I was offered a job at the Ideas Foundation who I had done mentoring for previously, and this gave me the confidence to apply to a diversity internship programme run by Pearson. I got a place and moved to London for the programme in 2011, a year after graduating, which then led to opportunities at Penguin Books, Dorling Kindersley and The Financial Times.

Was there a particular step that helped your development?
Coming out of art school – where we got a term to research and finesse our projects – then being thrown into daily newsroom print deadlines during my first proper job at The FT was a big learning curve. It taught me how to work quickly under pressure while retaining close attention to detail, which has really stuck with me. Although, I still love to take time to think deeply and research a brief or approach.

“Do not undersell yourself when asking for fees and a salary.”

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Since art school, I have experienced a lot of self-doubt and a lack of confidence. But as I have gained more experience and moved away to reflect, I have overcome this.

What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
To not undersell yourself when asking for fees and a salary. There are a lot of resources out there, so that you can gauge what is fair pay. I wish I had reached out to people in similar roles when I was starting out, before taking on a job or a project at a lower rate.

What would you like to do next?
To keep learning and to balance freelance work with my own personal practice again. Commercially, I’d like to work on a book design, packaging or album cover project, and ultimately I would love to set up my own creative studio.

Unused collage for T Brand studio

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same kind of work?
Be confident in who you are and the work you want to make. Look far and wide for inspiration. At Manchester School of Art, a talk by Emory Douglas (graphic artist for The Black Panther Party), coinciding with an exhibition of his work, changed everything for me. Before then, the lack of representation of people of colour in the industry had made me feel like I didn’t belong.

Posted 05 November 2019 Interview by Anoushka Khandwala
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design
Mentions: Caitlin Clancy, Financial Times, Penguin Random House, The New York Times

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