Creative Lives — Creative director Charlotte Heal on discovering the missing link between graphic design and photography

Posted 20 March 2017 Interview by Laura Snoad

Working with lifestyle clients like Toast and Bally, as well as glossy magazines LOVE and Lula, Charlotte Heal’s design and art direction studio is sought after for her confident, restrained style. In 2015 she redesigned slow living bible Kinfolk, and has worked on numerous editorial and publishing projects, from cookbooks to stories for children. In 2006 she set up her own studio in North London and now acts as its creative director, overseeing projects and her two members of staff. It’s a tough role that is often about fielding emails rather than pure design work, and requires the ability to jump quickly between projects as well as big-picture thinking.

Charlotte Heal

Job Title

Creative Director, Founder of Charlotte Heal Design (2006–present)

Based

London

Clients

Kinfolk, LOVE, Lula, Toast, Random House, Bally

Previous Employment

Senior Designer, Spring Studios (2010)
Associate Lecturer, University of the Arts London (2004–present) 
Art Director, Lula Magazine (2012–2013) 
Senior Designer, Love Magazine (2010–2011)

Education

MA Communication Art and Design, Royal College of Art (2005–2007)
BA Graphic Design, University of Brighton (2001–2004)

Website
Social Media

Art direction for Normal Timepieces, photography by Victoria Zschommler, 2016

Art direction for Normal Timepieces, photography by Victoria Zschommler, 2016

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I tend to work on a variety of projects at one time  – they range from book publishing work to branding, web design, art direction and editorial projects. It’s better if the two graphic designers I employ can concentrate on one thing during the day, because design-wise it can get difficult if you’re interrupted. So I go between projects, checking on what we’re working on and also updating and amending.

We work with clothing and lifestyle brands, and then some publishing companies. Right now I’m working with a leather goods manufacturer called Tinct, Laboratory Perfumes, home accessories company Zuzunaga, US fashion basics brand called håndværk, and publishers Hoxton Mini Press, Lawrence King and Yellow Kite Books.

What does a typical working day look like?
A typical day starts at 8.45am and I usually finish about 7pm. I’ll check any emails that came in overnight as I have clients in the United States, then I make a list of what needs to be done, prioritising tasks. Shoots normally start at 8am and then finish around 6 or 8pm. A negative of my role is that my day can be orientated around what is needed first from clients. But at the same time I’m aware that I can do that while other people are working on design.

“Robin Derrick, former creative director of Vogue, said that being a good creative director means having a thorough overview as well as a good eye for detail – I would say that’s so true.”

Where does the majority of your work take place?
Apart from when I’m out at meetings or on set art directing, I’m in front of a computer all day. One thing that is really important for us is having a lunch break. We make food and sit in the kitchen, so we’re not eating in front of the computer.

How collaborative is your work?
As well as the in-house team I mainly collaborate with photographers. I’ve done a lot of work recently with Mark Sanders, both in a client capacity and for personal projects. It depends on the client, but often in publishing I’ll collaborate with the editors and the client. For example for a book I’m currently working on with Bloomsbury, I’ve been brought on early in the process so the design is able to dictate the structure of the writing. In terms of brands, a lot of the companies I work with can be quite small, so I’ll collaborate with the founders and maybe the PR company. I like to be able to ask lots of questions and then to then be able to facilitate everything – working with founders direct is good for that.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The best part of my job is brainstorming ideas and pushing my brain to get things moving. I get such a buzz being on set and seeing what you had in you mind morph and change. It’s a real collaboration between you and the photographer. It can be scary and frustrating if things are not going well, but there’s a feeling of improvisation. Equally bringing all of those images you’ve created back into the computer and having them come together, that’s a lovely feeling. The least enjoyable part is that sense of being in front of a computer all day – I feel the lack of movement. Also fielding emails. Sometimes I just have to turn them off so I can concentrate on one thing at a time.

Charlotte’s art direction for jewellery agent Valery Demure, 2015

Charlotte’s art direction for jewellery agent Valery Demure, 2015

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
When we worked on the creative direction for Zuzunaga this year, we were really given free reign. We were able to define everything from the style, models and the mode of storytelling. Founder Cristian Zuzunaga completely trusted us to do what we wanted. I could bring in the right team, from set designers and stylists to photographers. We shot both over here and then in Spain and it was a really smooth, creative process. Another fun one was working with Document Studios on a publication project for Lee Cooper Jeans and The Cork. The founder David Hellqvist and I collaborate well together, and I brought in loads of photographers I admired.

What skills are essential to your job?
Being very quick at ideas, and allowing your mind to come up with five routes that are all pretty different. Robin Derrick, the former creative director of Vogue, said to me that being a good creative director means having a thorough overview as well as a good eye for detail – I would say that’s so true. You need to see all the different elements that will make something work. For example if you’re on a shoot and the styling is going wrong, you need to be aware of that as much as being aware of what the model and the photographer are doing. It’s a broad spectrum; you also have to have an eye for detail when bringing everything back into the vehicle that you present to the client.

What tools do you use most for your work?
An iMac, iPhone, Wacom tablet. Adobe Suite, a Canon 35mm camera, a Lacey pen, a Moleskine diary, Sharpies and pencils. We also have Xerox printer on a lease where you don’t have to buy the inks, they come as part of the deal with the manufacturer.

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
When I was little I wanted to work with animals, but as I got older I always wanted to work in photography.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied graphics because it’s broad, but even during my foundation degree I was mainly interested in photography. I wasn’t learning about typography, I was in the dark room. It was only at the Royal College of Art that I discovered that in art direction you were able to do both things. It was funny that until then no-one had ever articulated to me that art direction was the missing link between graphic design and photography.

What were your first jobs?
I guess my first job was actually teaching, which I started doing directly after my BA one or two days a week. I also grew my freelance practice and began getting more and more clients on board. After studying at Brighton I spent a year assisting photographers. I applied to the RCA then went between 2005 and 2007.

“Until [the Royal College of Art] no-one had ever articulated to me that art direction was the missing link between graphic design and photography.”

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
About a year after I graduated from the Royal College, I worked at LOVE magazine where I did two issues. I probably learnt more on that job about typography and graphic design than I did during my degree. As senior designer I was in charge of two juniors and had the creative director on top of me. I had quite a wake-up call that I wanted to work in a team; before that I had worked in isolation. It had a massive impact on how I later approached Kinfolk, which you wouldn’t suspect given they’re such different magazines.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
That sense of overview is something that I’ve learnt, as is being able to delegate. But I want to reassure students that they needn’t worry if they haven’t got a particular skill right now. Don’t be afraid and think “I can’t do that”. You’re often told illustration is solitary whereas to be a graphic designer you need to be a team player – but illustration can be collaborative or three-dimensional. Plus, people can change. Don’t be put off, you might not have all those skills straight away.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
At the moment, creative direction is what I expected it to be but that may morph in the future. I could do this job forever as it is now, but if the industry went in an entirely different direction, if it was all in VR, for example, then I think I wouldn’t be able to relate to it.

Creative direction for Zuzunaga

Creative direction for Zuzunaga

Art direction and design for Toast, 2015

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I really enjoy doing editorial work but I’ve been doing more website design recently. I’m getting excited by that because it’s using your brain in a very different way. This has been a really crazy year in terms of politics, and the sense of crisis with Brexit and Trump, so I want to start working with sustainable companies that are trying to do good, rather than just seeing what work comes in.

Could you do this job forever?
As long as it’s stimulating and exciting and there’s interesting work coming in. I keep saying it would be nice to go back to working with my hands. As years have gone by I’ve become more interested in getting behind the camera myself, but at the same time I respect I’m not trained – but never say never.

What is the natural career progression for someone in your current role?
Expanding the studio. You could have a studio in several countries and have global clients across the world. It’s quite personal what people want to do.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a creative director?
A lot of things come off the back of chatting to people. My advice would be to collaborate with your friends and peers on projects. Talk to people and enjoy the process of networking through making things together rather than in a network-y way. Get savvy when it comes to what you want in terms of business. I’ve been to art schools where people have not really known what their day rate should be and what they should expect to earn in the first year of going freelance. Get clued up. Also don’t be afraid to really ask clients questions. People like that curiosity.

Posted 20 March 2017 Interview by Laura Snoad
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Photography, Design
Mentions: Charlotte Heal, Robin Derrick, Kinfolk, Love Magazine, Lula Magazine
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