Holly Gressley, Graphic Artist
Originally from Pennsylvania, Holly Gressley is a graphic designer, art director, and illustrator currently living and working in the Bay Area. Holly focused her career on integrating her interest in storytelling and publishing with her broader studio practice. After graduating from Parsons School of Design, she worked with several boutique design firms in NYC, including Flat, Number 17, and Helicopter as well as with publications including GQ, the Wall Street Journal, Print, Jane, The New York Times magazine, and most recently Dwell. In 2008, Holly co-founded the Brooklyn-based design studio Rumors. [The featured image is a fashion spread from Foam magazine.]
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was really young I wanted to be a rock star (from watching the TV show JEM), then a writer and journalist. In high school while working as a writer and editor on our school publications, I learned about graphic design. I decided to study graphic design and have been doing it ever since. I still love interviewing people, and it’s an important part of my design process.
What is your process like?
When I start a new graphic design project, I usually have a few different processes depending on whether I am working on by myself or collaboratively, as part of a team or as an individual, and the nature of the project itself. The process for big complicated websites or books is very different than a very quick illustration project. Either way, I usually try to start by making a list or outline of everything I know about the project and what I want to or need to find out. This exercise is helpful because it helps me to anticipate problems or questions that might arise, but also it kick-starts the ideation process. Sometimes finding the right design solution is just a matter of articulating what you know about the brand or the problem in a different way. I might seek out answers to those initial questions, and on a smaller or more simpler project, I can usually just get going from there. On a more complicated project, the questions may require planning, several meetings, and proposals to answer.
By the time I’ve made it through this initial research stage I usually have a bunch of ideas and start sketching them out. I almost always listen to either music or NPR while I work—it distracts my brain from thinking about too many irrelevant things and helps me to focus on what I need to do. I sometimes sketch by hand but often go from writing or list-making straight to the computer for sketching. I like working on some projects by hand as well and often go back and forth between computer printouts, scans, drawings, and vice-versa. I sometimes enjoy starting on the computer and turning a computer sketch into something handmade. My favorite environment to work in is my own studio, but sometimes I work in my clients’ offices or at home. I find I’m most productive in my own studio where I can control the pacing of the day, the way the space looks, and have fewer external distractions. I try to keep a regular 10-7, Monday through Friday schedule when I’m working on my own in my studio, but I do take breaks when I’m not being productive.
What is something you had to learn the hard way?
It can be really difficult to find work-life balance when you’re very excited about what you’re working on. Even if you love your work, it’s important to make time for yourself and your family and friends. I’ve spent a lot of late nights in front of computer screens, and it definitely makes it difficult to maintain your levels of enthusiasm when you prioritize working over your other relationships. I’ve been trying for the last few years to take more time to travel and enjoy time with the people I care about, and it’s made me a much happier and relaxed person.
Best advice you could give to someone who wants to be a designer?
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Some people get locked into jobs or areas of specialization that they don’t enjoy and don’t think they can change. If you’re excited about what you’re doing and willing to work at it, you can accomplish anything. Spend time learning about and practicing those things and you will do better work. Good designers can design anything, but there is also a lot to be said for specializing. If you find a niche, it’s easier for people to find you. Being a generalist is fine too, just a little bit more difficult.
What makes good design?
I think good design is a combination of original thinking, good craftsmanship, aesthetics, and an element of surprise. I love looking at or interacting with objects, images, interactions, spaces etc. and wondering how the designer came up with this utterly new twist. It is exciting!
What is your favorite thing to design?
I always love trying new things and all kinds of design can be fun if you’re working with the right people. I used to love print and publications the most, and spent the last five or so years focusing on that. Now I am more excited about products and image-making / illustration am hoping to shift gears in that direction. I am also specifically interested in working on designing textiles, so hopefully there will be some cool work to show in that medium in the near future.
What is one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I have no idea. I am a pretty open person, and would probably tell them anything without much provocation.
How do you define success?
I think it is different for everyone. I used to constantly compare my own achievements and lifestyle to my peers and it drove me crazy. Now I focus on doing what I enjoy and what makes me happy in the present tense, and finding inspiration in my day-to-day life.
How do you think we can make the world a better place?