Creative Lives — “Being a designer can actually be really fluid” – Elise Santangelo, design director at DesignStudio
Originally from California, design director Elise Santangelo’s curiosity and proactivity took her far away from her motherland at a young age. Opting to move to Melbourne, she studied applied design and visual communication ahead of working for local design practice Studio Round. When the travel bug kicked in again, Elise was drawn to Italy to work for Fabrica, and most recently she relocated to London for a position at DesignStudio. While graphic design is at the root of her work, Elise is determined to keep her interests and output wide-ranging, experimental and challenging – whether that be through fashion, architecture and photography…or cheese making.
Design Director, DesignStudio (January 2017–present)
Freelance Senior Designer (August–December 2016)
Designer in Residence, Fabrica, Treviso in Italy (2015–2016)
Senior Designer, Studio Round, Melbourne (2011–2014)
BA in Applied Design, Visual Communication, Billy Blue College of Design, Sydney (2007–2009)
How would you describe your job?
As a design director, my role is a mix of collaboration, sharing ideas, asking questions, thinking strategically and conceptually – also about the actual craft and output, having the ability to help get the team to think in different ways, making decisions, and guiding a project from start to finish. It’s about being encouraging and supportive, but also challenging and skeptical, to avoid creating things that feel too familiar. It’s also about having empathy and curiosity, not only within the team but with our clients.
What does a typical working day look like?
Technically I work from 9.30am to 6pm, but I like to start a bit earlier. My brain is clearer in the morning; in the late afternoon I start to get fidgety. Some mornings I walk to work to get some exercise, but mostly I take a bus. Once I’m in I make some tea, small talk with whoever’s in the kitchen, then get into what needs to happen for the day. My time is usually split between a few projects, with a mix of discussions, checking in, catching up, meetings, and actually getting on with the work.
How did you land your current job?
While I was finishing up my time at Fabrica, I was thinking about moving to London, and connected with recruitment agency Represent so I could hit the ground running once I arrived. A few days after moving to London, they lined me up with a last-minute freelance job with DesignStudio. The next morning I started with company and pretty much stuck around ever since – they made me feel like part of the family straight away. I freelanced for a few months before they offered me a permanent role as a design director.
“We’re not artists – design can’t happen in a vacuum, and none of us [at DesignStudio] sit at our desks in isolation working away on things.”
DesignStudio's work for ROLI
DesignStudio's work for ROLI
DesignStudio's work for ROLI
DesignStudio's work for ROLI
How collaborative is your work?
100% collaborative. We’re not artists – design can’t happen in a vacuum, and none of us sit at our desks in isolation working away on things. In the studio we spend a lot of time talking, meeting, discussing, asking each other questions. Outside of our team, we have fairly collaborative relationships with the clients we work with. Sometimes we work with them in their offices, or have them come and work beside us for weeks at a time. I personally believe that the design process shouldn’t be singular (it would be very limiting and definitely very boring).
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect is going to work every day with a team of people with different sets of skills and ways of thinking, who are all way better than me. I feel like I’m learning from everyone every single day. At DesignStudio we don’t ’specialise’ in any one sector or industry, so with every new project we get to put our heads into the different worlds of our clients and their audiences. We’re constantly learning about different fields, industries, people, cultures, technologies and ambitions.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I haven’t been with DesignStudio for a full twelve months yet, but the most exciting project so far has been for a digital platform (I can’t say the name yet), where the strategic positioning led us to a really exciting visual outcome. This also allowed us to work with the client on pushing ideas for the digital experience itself. I get super-excited working on the experiential side of the brands that we create; thinking about how they manifest in ways far beyond the screen.
“There are so many things you can’t be taught, you just have to fuck up to learn how to do them better.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Working with people, being able to guide a project in a particular direction, thinking bigger picture about a project but also being able to get into the detail and craft, being able to get people to think about things in different ways, and being able to collaborate and listen.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A computer, Muji notebooks, pens, paper I steal from the printer trays, pinboards, headphones, and a camera – either a contax T2 or my phone.
Elise at work
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An archaeologist or an astronaut.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
It was a good starting point. But actual working experience has been the best education. What I studied was quite practical and based around technical skills. There are so many things you can’t be taught, you just have to fuck up to learn how to do them better, or at least in a different way to how you did them the first time around.
What were your first jobs?
My first job as a designer was at a small studio in Sydney called Naughtyfish (now called Garbett Design). I started out doing an internship there, which I did for two days a week during my third year of university. I always look back and am glad I didn’t wait until I graduated to do an internship. It gave me a huge head-start as I was hired as a junior designer straight after I finished studying. My time there was pretty intense but I learned more than I think I did in my entire time at university.
“Figure out why you get out of bed every morning. Be really open to change and putting yourself into new situations, especially the deep end. It’s scary but it makes you better.”
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
Paul Garbett, creative director and founder of the studio gave me a lot of opportunities during my time there, pushing me to be part of the concept development for a lot of different projects, not just doing the grunt work. Paul also introduced me to the work of Tibor Kalman, whose work as a multidisciplinary designer completely blew my mind, and eventually led me to discovering Fabrica.
Is the role what you thought it would be?
My biggest misconception was probably what I thought a designer was in general. When I first started out, my idea was a lot narrower and I think I felt limited by the discipline itself. I’ve realised that being a designer can actually be really fluid – whether it’s film, furniture, interiors, an experience, something interactive, or anything else.
What would you like to do next?
I’d like to make films, do more coding and more photography. I’d like to stop taking myself so seriously and figure out a way of explaining to people what it is that I do, without them responding with “Oh, like logos?” I’d also like to keep moving around, build my own house and learn how to make cheese.
Could you do this job forever?
I’d like to think I’ll somehow be in the design world forever, but who knows. I don’t think I’ll be doing branding forever; there are too many other things I want to try.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a design director?
Pay attention – not just to the graphic design industry, which can be very insular, but also to fashion, architecture, film, technology, art, science, travel, photography, whatever. Find details. Figure out why you get out of bed every morning. Be really open to change and putting yourself into new situations, especially the deep end. It’s scary but it makes you better.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on DesignStudio.