Interview with Verena Michelitsch

Verena Michelitsch, an independent designer and art director based in New York City by way of Austria. She specializes in conceptualizing and creating unique visual expressions spanning graphic design, art direction, illustration, pattern, editorial and digital design. She had the pleasure of working with an array of international studios and clients including Apple, Google Creative Lab, Nasa/JPL, Facebook, Red Bull, The Smithsonian and Opening Ceremony. We sat down with her to dive deep into the nitty-gritty of her experience of moving continents from quaint Austria to the hustle-bustle of New York, working with greats like Sagmeister & Walsh, Pentagram, and Apple, making the full circle leap back to freelancing, and starting a blog about sleep!

Can you describe your childhood growing up in Austria, and what is your earliest memory of being creative or curious?

I grew up in Leibnitz, Austria, in a family where my grandmother had a photography studio since the fifties. Later, my aunt took over the store, and also the laboratory where they developed photographs by hand (which used to take hours) before the process became mechanized—before digital photography came into the picture. As a kid, I would spent a lot of time between the studio where they conducted photoshoots and their store.

I used to love going to the studio with my aunt, and I really enjoyed observing the whole process. As a result, I really grew to love photography. So thanks to my family background, creative professions were really normal for me—and for that I consider myself very fortunate.

That’s pretty unusual.

During that whole time, it never really struck me if I wanted to become a photographer. I just loved to do everything and not just photography in specific. Sure, I was making photographs, but I was also making collages, albums design, layouts, and even handcrafting books and drawing over them. I really loved playing around with photography but I would always forget the technical side of photo-making—and I didn’t really care about it that much. I was more interested in just experimenting with photography as a medium.

Written by:
Prabhav Khandelwal

Published
07.07 2018

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© Helga Traxler

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© Helga Traxler

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© Helga Traxler

So would you say that this experience pushed you into design, or creativity in general?

Yes, I think. Because I was always surrounded by all these materials and objects—having machines to cut photos and make funny little photo frames, different types of papers, packaging, stamps, colors. And of course, many designers used to draw a lot when they were kids, and I was no different. That was basically my initial interaction with creativity.

How would you describe your career trajectory and how did you reach the position that you are at now?

I guess I never really set out to make a career in design, it just sort of happened—by coincidence or accident, or maybe even luck. I went to a very typical Austrian high school ‘Gymnasium’—which was mainly focussed languages, I learned Latin and French for 5 years.. They weren’t specialized in design and the arts—and that was pretty boring to me.

After that, I studied art history for one semester. I went into it thinking that I could draw and paint, but it turned out to be very classical and academic. They thought us ancient history and archeology, but I wanted to be more hands-on and wanted to create something. I went with my mom to another university for an open-day, where they invite students to come visit the college campus. The course I was contemplating was called information design or communication/graphic design, which was typically more hands-on more practical—in other words. I only knew how to use Photoshop at that time, but had no idea about illustration and even the difference between a vector and a raster. Gradually, I had to learn all the software, and the technical side of things. I fell in love with the idea of helping to create brands—not unlike a universe—and then make collaterals around the brand. I loved the freedom they provided us over there and the fact that we could come up with our own ideas, and basically just make it happen. No matter if it was a website, or a print or a book or a film—the university would let us experiment with all sorts of mediums. We always had the option of specializing later on and figure out whatever we liked best, and then eventually complete our diploma in our chosen discipline.

I always wanted to go to Fabrica, which is design school in Italy. They offer a one-year residency program, and you have to be under 25 to enroll. They take a limited number of graphic designers, and involve you in a number of different projects. I always thought at the back of my mind that I was going to attend Fabrica after college. But at that time, the city that I lived in was starting an artist residency program where they would give you a workspace for free for a year. It was in a really beautiful, design-y building and the studio space was incredible. A photographer friend of mine asked me if I wanted to apply for that space together with her. I was a bit hesitant at first but the fact that all my friends were there and the prospect of not having to move to another city really enticed me towards it. So I decided to do the artist residency program instead of going to Fabrica in Italy.

Luckily, we did get in. We were in this space for about a year and we utilized it to kick off our freelance practices, and at the same time came up with experimental and artsy side projects to fill the space. Through this experience, I became a freelancer right away. It helped me build a client base and manage a small business own my own. Things started to pick up pace and I found myself undertaking a lot of web projects. I don’t even know how I did it, but I just learned on the job. I felt really satisfied at that point because I had a well-managed business all to myself in a nice space, plus with friends. And to top it all off, design was gaining a lot of support locally as well as internationally.

After a while, a couple of my friends started a freelance collective that was called En Garde they also had their own studio space and then asked me if I wanted to be a member of the same. It sounded like fun: we were all like-minded friends with a passion for design. I was in my 20s and it sort of felt like the ideal setup for me. So we started collaborating our respective client bases as well as all our networks—which spanned across Austria. It was a great deal for us at that young age.

It taught me a lot about the other side of the business: managing finances & taxes, and managing my time. Thanks to that experience I wasn't scared of the formalities of business in the future. These days, a lot of people are scared to make that jump because they're so embedded in the comfort zone of their full time jobs where everything is taken care of.

I feel like I have more energy when I work by myself and for myself. So yeah, I did that with my friends at En Garde from around 2008 till 2010-11. It started off with just the three of us and then eventually moved to another space and we kept growing in size and in clientele as well. We expanded our client base and got a big fashion retailer (kind of like the Bloomingdales of Austria) and the local theaters as well. Eventually we moved to an even bigger space, which had two floors and merged with two other small studios—increasing our size to 25-30 people. There came a point when we had to change the legal status of the company—which would increase my responsibilities as well as my liabilities. At that point I was around 25 and started to feel that such a big responsibility will weigh me down. Plus, the work that I was doing started to feel a bit saturated, and I wasn't feeling creatively challenged anymore. I felt like I could do much better. The Fabrica thing popped up in my head again because it was the last year that I could enroll, but eventually decided not to go ahead with it.

After En Garde, I wanted to do a stint abroad for about a year or so and New York was on my mind from the get go. I set my mind to work in museums like the Museum of Modern Art because I was gravitating towards exhibition design—but never heard anything back from them. I had this nicely handcrafted physical portfolio that I also showed around and I thought about sending it to Stefan Sagmeister from Sagmeister & Walsh, including other studios. And to my surprise, Stefan Sagmeister was the first one to reply to me: "We received your portfolio book, would you be interested in coming in two months?"

Is that an Austrian bias? (chuckles)

Probably. (laughing)

I found out that I was really lucky, because usually they are totally booked out but somebody fell out, I think. It also helped my case that even though I had a couple of years of work experience, I still applied for an internship—which I think was also kind of practical for them.

So I went to New York but I had no intentions of moving there, because I was very well settled in Graz. I even thought about subletting it for about 3-6 months depending upon the visa I get. The time in New York went by very fast and I quickly realized that I loved being in the city.

After working for Sagmeister & Walsh, I sent an email out to Pentagram. They offered me a freelance job, so I spent the rest of my time in New York at Pentagram, which I thoroughly loved and enjoyed.

After my stint with Pentagram, I really wanted a full time job and moved to RoAndCo. Everything just happened so quickly and moving to a new country was an interesting experience. I'm comfortable with English but was not well versed with the work-terminology bit, so I ended up learning a lot of terms, and the difference between the metric system and imperial system (chuckles).

I eventually got settled in New York, found friends, and life just shifted to New York.

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Graphic design, photo editing for Chicago-based photographer Kevin Serna With La Presa, Serna confronts his relationship with his father through observation of the place where he solidified his identity in before immigrating to the U.S. during the late 70’s.

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A poster for the Chicago Design Museum.

How was the transition from Austria to NY like? Did you notice any difference in the design mindset and daily life?

I think it's quite different. First of all, everything is so efficient in New York. I felt like I was a bit spoilt growing up in Austria. Everything was very chilled out, and even though we worked a lot of hours in the design studio, we never really had a system. We would just design something and just present it, compared to NY where there was a structure to everything—different design directions, methods of presenting your work properly, how you talk about your work, how you speak, and how you sell ideas.

I think even receiving and giving design critique would be very different in NY as compared to Austria, right?

Yeah, that was something I found myself talking to my boyfriend about too. I think in Austria, there is a very different mentality. When you go to design school in Austria or Germany, teachers would just be like: "I think this works" or "I don't think this works."—more concerned about things like grid systems, and the functional side of design.

How would you describe the cultural difference between Austria and in NY?

When you talk to clients or people in the studio, you have to be much more upbeat. If somebody in Austria would ask me, "what do you think about this poster?", I'd be like, "Hmm, I think it works because XYZ". But in NY, I'd have to be like, "Oh my god, this is amazing!". Because if in NY somebody asks me for feedback and I reply with just "Oh yeah, I think this works", they would think I'm the most boring, bland person in the world. They would think it's really bad work. But I'm actually saying something nice about their work but I'm saying it in a way that I'm used to. So communication in general was surely a big difference, the culture was definitely a bit more chit-chatty in NY. In Austria, it's a bit more reserved and everyone is minding their business.

But I think it's also nice because, especially in NY, everyone lives in such a small physical space and is from all sorts of different backgrounds and just has to get along. I wasn't used to talking to, for example, the bus driver or the barista—suddenly everyone was just talking to me. The first time you go in a store, an over-excited voice asks you "Hey! How you're doing?", which was kind of weird to me initially but now it sounds like the most normal thing to me.

It was all going good for a while but I remember after a year, I started feeling a bit homesick. I had a really close friend circle back in Austria and I missed working with them. I always thought for some reason that I won't be gone for long and I would come back at some point. But now, I've been living in NY since the last 8 years—most of my adult life.

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Branding for Apple News—done with the design studio Sid Lee in New York.

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Branding for Apple News—done with the design studio Sid Lee in New York.

Do you plan to move back to Austria at some point or do you want to settle down in NY, or even move around a bit more?

I can imagine moving someday to Vienna. I do love NY right now and I just moved into a co-working space in Brooklyn called A/D/O, and I'm really enjoying it. Most of my clientele is based in the US. On top of that, I'm too used to the working environment here. I'm not thinking about giving it all right up, but sometimes I do miss the quality of life in European cities and having my family closeby.

I'm pretty sure Sagmeister and Walsh must have been an important experience in your career and even a huge learning experience. So what are your views on some of the principles and values they uphold like: taking a year-long sabbatical every seven years, staying small and intimate, and always having experimental edge to your work?

I think those ideas are great, and I also subscribe to some of them myself. Stefan was always a big inspiration while I was in school. I remember seeing some of his type work in a magazine when I was fifteen years old, and I recall myself thinking—this is crazy! And I had that aha! moment when I realized "oh, this is graphic design!"

I think I heard Jessica Walsh say in an interview that when a designer presents so many different directions to a client, it ends up confusing the client more rather than resolving the dilemma in their heads. So they only stick to very few design directions. What are your views on that?

I totally agree. I think as a designer, you also play the role of a psychologist—you need to really understand the client and their needs, what they are looking for, what their world looks like and what inspires them. Knowing and understanding these things does about half your job as a designer and can save you so much time from futilely exploring different directions.
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Verena at her workstation in A/D/O, Brooklyn.

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Verena at her workstation, not to miss the little notebooks!

Can you pinpoint the key dilemmas or choices you had to resolve at a major crossroads in life that had a major impact?

I think the move the NY was definitely a big one. In retrospect, it didn't feel as big at that time because of the energy that I had at that time. Looking back, I feel like I was so naive to somehow just land there with no preparation at all. Also, the decision to become a freelancer in NY was a huge choice. The good thing about freelancing is that you can also be employed by a studio or a company and work there as a contractor, while maintaining your personal freelance career. It's great that it exists, and I did that for a year for Apple in California and at different studios in NY as well. But that made me realize that it's not the reason why I want to freelance—I want to freelance because I want to work directly with clients, I don't want to have to report to another creative director, but rather be my own. Last January when I came back from Austria, I decided that I needed to find a space of my own—which costs a lot of money—so it forces me to work my ass off. I got pretty nervous working out the finances in the first weeks, wondering if I'm going to be able to make ends meet. I feel more settled now and glad that I made the move. I've gotten a bit more easy-going now as far as work is concerned. But I also have the privilege to travel a lot, both for work and privatley. I never feel bad about taking breaks. Traveling always gives me so much back and feeds into my design work, and I’ve also gotten used to working while traveling if necessary.

To go back to the philosophy of taking a year-long sabbatical every seven years like Sagmeister and Walsh do; I think traveling always fuels your creative energy, and you have a fresh perspective on things. Plus, it also helps you to get out of a rut that you might be stuck in.

Being a creative in a 9–5 work environment is hard. It’s so important to seek new inspiration and take breaks to explore new perspectives.

It's like a business expense!

Absolutely! (chuckles)

I think that segues well into my next question: how does daily well-being and things like sleep affect your creativity and productivity as a designer? And what do you outside the studio that fuels your energy inside the studio?

I think during the first two years of living and working in NY, I burnt out a little bit just because I was mindlessly trying make everything work in a way. I was working full-time and was getting tired of trying to prove my worth to everyone around me, and getting worried about reviews and promotions and building up my own portfolio. In addition to working full-time, I also started to do freelance work aside . After two years, I felt more like a machine than a human, started to have problems sleeping, and felt like I don't want to work anymore. I was so burnt out that I thought to myself on a train one morning, to start a blog that just appreciates sleep. I wanted to create a platform for sleep and have features and interviews regarding the same. I started a platform called Sand & Such. I started doing interviews with other creatives because I was curious about how they get their shit done, and how they manage to do so many things all at once. I started to appreciate sleep more, and adopted simple practices like not taking my phone to the bedroom. I had started to feel like a walking brain, and as if body hangs on it—my brain was just commanding my body, but not listening to it. I also started doing Yoga, which I got really into. For the past two years, topics of nourishment and nutrition have really interested me, like exercise, cooking, eating healthy—trying to put my health over work a little bit.

Is Sand & Such just like a small side project or do you have some grand vision for the direction of the project for the future?

It's a bit random right now and in the beginning, it was a bit more structured. My dream is to create my own products around sleep. I really want to design things like bedding, towels and anything that helps you relax in a way. It's a long way to get there and I definitely have that vision at the back of my mind. It's going to take time because I want it to be really high quality, and for it to make sense for me as well.
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Sand & Such, a blog dedicated to sleep started by Verena.

What are some of things you draw your inspiration from outside the design world?

One thing is definitely architecture and photography. I've always loved to take photos wherever I travel, and sometimes I even extract color palettes of different cities from my photos for work. In the beginning it was all about music, and was obsessed with album artworks. Very often it's just people that inspire me. It doesn't necessarily have to be a graphic designer, but when I meet someone and they're really obsessed with what they do, or they're doing really well—that is extremely fascinating to me.

What are some tools, digital or physical, that you think are essential to your workflow?

Just a little notebook! (chuckles) I use a Wacom tablet and a big screen. I also use Dropbox like a server. And I've been using WaveApps for all my invoicing and bookkeeping purposes for as long as I can think.

What are some brands that you look up to or admire who you think have their branding and philosophy perfectly aligned?

Oh, that's a tricky one. One is definitely Apple, they do a great job of keeping true to their values and design philosophy. I admire all sorts of fashion brands that try to experiment with things and daringly try to do something outside the norm. Also any fashion brand does something really interesting with photography also grabs my interest.

You’ve already ventured in a lot of domains and mediums like interactive design, physical design and branding—what do you look forward to do more of and which new domains do you want to venture in?

Recently, I've been very interested in doing a store design of some kind. Doing something really physical, something like a restaurant, theater or even a kids playground! Basically something more immersive would be a lot of fun.

Who are some of the mentors you look up to in your life and career?

When I first moved to NY, Stefan Sagmeister was one of my biggest influences. Just to have him around was a learning experience in itself, and I would believe every word he would say. When I need feedback on work, a lot of times I end up showing my work to my friends or my sister (who is also a designer). Sometimes, it helps a lot to show it to people who have little or nothing to do with design. I find it is really important to show my work to a diverse group of people and get their opinion before I show it to clients.

What kind of legacy do you wish to leave behind?

Recently, I did a trip to Bali and was shocked to see how much trash there was on this little island. I've thought about this before too, and especially during the first years in NY when I did a bunch of packaging work for consumer goods and was putting little bells and whistles on everything. I realized that I was basically making what would end up as trash at the end of the day. I wish to influence mass packaging, and even educate designers as well as customers about the impact of the waste we create through packaging to make them more aware and conscious about it. I'm not saying that I could save the world, but I have the feeling that if I could do something as small as that, and even five people pick up on it, then it's already a little bit of a success. As designers, we always care about everything being new and flashy and we get bored so quickly by images, things and materials. In the end, we always end up producing so much trash, so it has to done responsibly and sustainably. Whenever I work on a packaging project, I personally see a big lack of a resource that teaches me, educates me, or even helps me source sustainable packaging. I really want somebody to pick up on this, and so that I'm aware about the amount of trash that I produce as a designer. I strive for every client so be satisfied with my work and be happy with my contributions to their project, but at the same time I need to smart about what I create and what the larger impact is.

Can you give 5 book recommendations to our readers? They can have everything and nothing to do with design.

What's the music that you can't live without?

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"Good Vibes Only"—mixtape by Tobias van Schneider.

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"5 More Minutes Please"—Playlist to make you want to stay in bed, by Sand & Such.

Credits: Verena Michelitsch

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