Want to know how to spin a liberal arts education into a career in graphic apparel design? Want advice for your professional and personal life from the woman behind the angel wings that hit Ariana Grande at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show? Drum roll, please, for the next noteworthy alumnae to graciously answer my questions about life after Davidson: Melissa Otis, a woman who’s found the balance between personal creativity and business success.
Name: Melissa Otis
Current Job: Art Director at Life is good
Class Year: 1999
Davidson Major: Fine and Studio Arts
Eating House Affiliation: Turner House
Davidson Activities: Union Board
How did your Davidson education and Art major help you achieve your career goals? How have you translated what you learned at Davidson (inside and outside the classroom) into your career?
Big questions! I feel amazingly lucky to have a liberal arts education with a focus on studio art, as my career balances business and creativity. Davidson challenged me to have a broader understanding of humanities, literature, math, science, languages, etc—this is the foundation I pull from every day. I am able to navigate different perspectives, obstacles, and wants, while still having fresh creative ideas to drive business needs and sales. I enjoy understanding the bigger picture of how all the aspects of the business come together. It’s multi-disciplinary to me; I am creatively engaged and my voice can be leveraged throughout the business. It is more than painting or designing a graphic day in and day out.
What advice would you give to a Davidson student who’s interested in graphic design, since Davidson isn’t an art school? What skill sets do you think are valued the most in your industry?
I learned early on that art and design, while sometimes overlapping, are not the same thing. It was hard for me to let go of being an “art major” and to allow myself to open up to graphic design. My art always was something just for me. It was loose/abstract/messy, very tactile and my expression. After college, I went to The Portfolio Center, a small design school in Atlanta. One of the first classes was drawing perfect circles freehand. I hated it. I saw no sense in drawing a perfect circle—a perfect circle was not important to me. It was not me. It was not until I understood the value of presentation and typography that it hit me.
Sometimes there are the smallest nuances that make a graphic layout go from bad to good to great. A good graphic designer needs to understand that. I have fallen in love with typography and all that goes into it. The other thing that I take with me from design school is that graphic design is about communicating visually. What is the clearest, most impactful way of connecting or communicating a message with a person, client, or the world? Design can sometimes look deceivingly simple—but if the nuances are right, it can be brilliant. My education at Davidson helped me understand how to visually communicate differently. It has allowed me to understand who the design is for and what the need is. By being exposed to so many different disciplines, Davidsonians think differently. We see the world through a different lens.
My advice to someone interested in design would be to engage in as many diverse activities and classes as you can at Davidson. Take the time to be open to design and learn the basic tools. Engage actively in critiques at school. Learn how to communicate your thoughts or ideas aesthetically and verbally. Critiques continue in the workplace. Be open to feedback and direction. I work with many brilliant artists and designers. The designers and managers that engage in open creative dialogue on aesthetic/brand/message are the designers that are the most satisfied creatively and professionally.
What does a typical day on the job look like for you (if there is a typical day!)?
There is no typical day. As an Art Director, I try to always keep the train moving. Although daily priorities and emergencies crop up, a major part of my job is to pick a lane and stick to it. I work closely with the Vice President of product and the fashion design director. Together, we come up with what we want the line to look like. We do a lot of research on trends, style, our current customer base, and our future targeted customer base. For example, Life is good is very focused on spreading the power of optimism and 10% of profits are donated to kids in need. It’s so awesome. Our optimistic messaging is a huge part of this research process. We don’t do something just because it is trendy or super saleable. We dive into it if it makes sense for our brand (spreads optimism)—then we tackle trend/look/style (and then make sure its saleable!). After aligning on the direction, look, and feel of the line, I work with my team to create graphics and art that speak to our vision. Most days, I review graphics, give feedback, and conceptualize new graphic ideas. Sometimes my job requires me to be off-site at vendors in other countries; sometimes it requires me to go be inspired or shop.
What does being an Art Director at a clothing brand entail?
To me, being an Art Director means being systematic and process-driven while letting go of control. I need to give my team a creative foundation, make sure they understand the brand, provide them with as much information as I can—and then let them create. I need to trust that they will do their job, while understanding it will not necessarily happen on the first try. I also need to be open to learn and understand their vision. Together we drive the view of the brand. As Art Director, I try to not design. I give my opinions and ideas, but then let go to see where the team takes it. We then have constructive criticism and find the right balance. One thing that makes being an Art Director at a clothing brand different is understanding the process and technique of graphic application. I understand screen printing, appliqués, flocking, sublimation, aspects of clothing design, etc. I love that what we create ends up being a tactile thing that you wear. Super cool (and perhaps speaks to why I loved sculpture so much in college!).
To what extent have you been allowed to explore your own creativity in your jobs (Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret Pink, Life is good) since you must keep the brand’s aesthetic in mind? How do you combine multiple visions?
Being creative happens everyday. I am constantly inspired to explore my creativity through themes, techniques, and mediums. I search out inspiration that connects to me and the brand. I recognize that I need to be somewhat of a chameleon to deliver a brand’s message. My work is not about me—it is about the brand. You might see my creative fingerprint on it, but reflecting the brand is very rewarding and what it is all about. I love that I work in an environment where we have so many different types of paper, paints, markers, pencils, etc. All of the team works on and off the computer. It is so inspiring to see them paint or draw and see the work come alive onto apparel.
So many of my colleagues are creatives. Seeing them explore their own creativity pushes my own imagination. Every brand I have worked at has recognized this creative well of talent. They have either covered art/photography classes at nearby schools, or even had classes on site. The last two brands I have worked with have had art shows by the employees, not to mention many people are interdisciplinary—they are also musicians, painters, etc.
These amazing photos were taken by fellow Davidson alumna (’99), Laura Hajar!
Do you find time to design for your own pleasure outside the office? How do you balance your work life with your personal life?
I find it very hard to design graphics outside of work. I am in many ways creatively spent and fulfilled from work. I do a few personal projects throughout the year, and I take art classes when I can. I find that interior design and architecture (and landscape architecture) have become passions for me.
Focusing on other things gives me a fresh perspective on work. It is hard, though, to know when to stop looking for inspiration or thinking about graphics/fashion from a business perspective. We are bombarded all the time in our personal lives by culture/fashion/inspiration that drives ideas that I use at work. The thing is, for the most part, I enjoy the constant creative inspiration. Even when I go to see a band or an art opening, it fuels how I do my job. Pretty cool stuff!
Do you shop for clothes differently now that you understand the process that goes on behind the scenes to design the graphics?
Yes and no. I have always been a t-shirt freak. I had a million t-shirts back in college. Now I have 2 million. Actually, now I buy something when it really speaks to me. I love what fashion does and says about someone. I am casual, vintage-inspired, modern, drawn to bright colors, a bit eccentric, and unafraid of a pattern clash! Fashion has always been fun as an expression of myself—now it is even more so. I love to try different styles and be free. Fashion should be fun, and it is for me.
How do you know when you’ve hit a ceiling in your current position and it’s time to look for a new job?
Growing and developing in my career has always been very important to me. I look for opportunities. If the company that I am working for isn’t open to giving me opportunities, and I do not feel that I am growing anymore in my position or it is no longer fun, I hit the road. Often times, I don’t think you realize how much you have learned from a job until you mark it against another experience. I have been shocked at how much I learned from moving from one company to the next. Every place is so different. I never fully understood what I had to offer or what I could improve upon until I made the leap to move on. For example, the beginning of my career was focused working solely on men’s product. A company approached me asking me if I was comfortable working on women’s product. I was open to the idea of moving and changing. It was very scary and exciting. I knew it would get me out of my comfort zone and be very challenging. I also knew it would diversify me and make me more marketable to have experience designing for men’s and women’s. I was right. The breadth of the experiences has been very notable to me and my career.
As I meet people from different college backgrounds, I realize more and more that Davidson is special because ____.
Davidson is special to me in so many ways. First off, my best friends from Davidson are NOTHING like me (thank god!). So many people in my industry went to fine art or fashion schools. That is cool, and I have great friendships with colleagues past and present, but I find it cooler that my best friends in the world are Davidson people who are Psychologists, have PhD’s in Literature, are architects, photographers, lawyers, teachers, etc. I love that they challenge me intellectually all the time. We work in completely different fields. I find it rewarding to get a window into theirs. Their friendships make my life richer, not just because they are amazing human beings, but because we have such different interests academically and professionally. I am so thankful for being pushed out of my comfort zone and being exposed to so many subjects and experiences at Davidson. It only widened my eyes and my depth of friendships.
Second off—can we talk about Stephen Curry?! So incredibly inspiring and a testament to Davidson. I can’t tell you how inspired I am by his story and watching him…plus I love that I can have that connection with all of my fellow Davidson alumni.
____ make(s) me nostalgic for my college days.
Bojangles’ & dancing to some awesome/bad music…I don’t get to dance as much anymore!
My favorite class at Davidson was ____.
Sculpture and any Art History class (which originally I was terrible at and saw no need for—wasn’t I stupid?!).
In college, I would’ve been voted Most Likely to ___.
Ummmmmm… have paint on her clothes/face?
You’re at your twenty-year Davidson reunion. What would surprise your classmates the most about what you’re doing today? In what ways have you changed since graduation?’
Honestly, I am always surprised myself that I have managed to have a successful career that balances creative needs and business. I really imagined at some point I’d be living in my parents’ basement (even though they don’t have a basement). I have been extremely lucky and fortunate. I am so thankful for the opportunities I have had professionally and how they have helped me grow personally and professionally. I think my classmates would (as they have and I have) chuckle to imagine me working at A&F, American Eagle, or Victoria’s Secret. There are too many weird visuals from my experiences: traveling for work to document college students on their spring break, being in meetings with women in bras & thongs, road tripping through the Adirondacks as an inspiration trip for A&F, designing graphics that are on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (remember Ariana Grande getting hit by angel wings? I can put that in my portfolio! Elsa was wearing some of my graphics!) Besides that, I really am not sure how much I have changed. I am older and wiser, but I am still very much the same. I guess I am more responsible. I have always been more engaged when working and being a part of a team. I was not the best student, but I did engage and lead in many extracurricular activities. I feel like those opportunities and participation has made me more comfortable as a leader and working with a team.
You’re given the opportunity to have a coffee date with your 20 year-old-self. What advice would you give? Is there anything you would do differently?
Soak it all in. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself… keep doing what you are doing. Live and learn.
What is a book that you have read recently that you still can’t get off of your mind?
Is it bad that I still love to reread my Roald Dahl collection? BFG and The Witches are my favorites.
If I wrote a memoir ____ would be the title.
Sing a song (off-key) when you wake up.
Not many of our future careers will likely involve road trips or markers and paint, but that doesn’t mean Melissa’s advice can’t apply to our career aspirations. From one collegiette to another: Go Wildcats!