This interview was originally posted on Design By Womxn, November 2020.
Claire Hartley is a talented brand and packaging designer, who specialises in working with independent lifestyle brands. Based in London, Claire set up her studio in 2012 and now focuses primarily on working with clients in areas that she connects with on an emotional level. She believes that trust is integral to her relationship with clients and that the best work is created out of a nexus of shared values: “I am at a point now where I have the privilege to choose who I work with, and to me, that’s the biggest achievement.” Claire acknowledges that this did not happen overnight and that it took a number of years for her to define her practice, refine her processes and create the kind of work she finds most rewarding.
After graduating Claire started her career in digital design agency Substrakt in Birmingham but ultimately found she preferred the flexibility and freedom of self-employment. Illustration plays a big part in her work and she developed this early on alongside her agency role, by creating personal work and submitting to exhibitions. Claire found this was, “a brilliant way to connect with other creatives and do what I enjoy most. I’d never considered that my involvement was building up my network, but it really did and has opened up a lot of doors over the years.” Claire’s current work often features beautiful hand-drawn illustrative elements combined with expert use of colour and elegant typography. She has her own unique style and has worked for brands ranging from organic teas and vegan ciders to natural skincare and ethical fashion.
Usually working directly with business founders, Claire often has clients whose primary target audience is women. She loves introducing clients to one another and bringing them together to collaborate and share insights. This experience has led her to start the project ‘Founding Notes,’ which she describes as, “a collection of conversations with female founders on the business of branding.” She believes that a great way to bring women together is through collaboration and talking about their experiences of setting up and running a business. The aim is to, “create a space where women can talk honestly about branding and business and celebrates female owned brands.”
We caught up with Claire to find out more about how she found her niche as a designer and illustrator and her advice for new designers just starting out.
How did you first become interested in working as a designer?
I’d always loved drawing and as a child I had tons of sketchbooks so I always knew I’d take a creative career path. I’d never really liked school so at 16 I left to do a full-time Art and Design course in Lichfield. It was there I discovered graphic design which led me onto a University course. After graduating in 2008 in the midst of a recession I got my first job at Substrakt in Birmingham.
Describe how you got to where you are now.
My route to self-employment was a bit of a happy accident. In all honesty I’d never planned to take the plunge — I lacked the confidence to go it alone — but a mix up in job offers meant I was suddenly without a full-time role and searching for freelance work.
With 4 years’ experience in what was at the time a small agency it meant I’d learnt some of the basics of project management, client liaison and writing proposals. So I knew enough to at least kick start my business. I was terrified to begin with, but I immediately fell in love with the flexibility and freedom self-employment gave me. I initially freelanced in-house at agencies until I built up enough of a client base to go it alone.
Fast forward nearly 8 years and my little business is still going strong. In that time I’ve moved from Birmingham to London and now have my own studio in Bethnal Green. It has not been an easy journey, but I’ve discovered a lot about myself and my approach whilst refining my processes along the way too.
How have you developed throughout your career?
I would say it’s only been in the last 4 years that I’ve gained clarity in my work and understood the type of projects I like most. It sounds a real cliché but I genuinely love all the clients I work with and invest emotionally in their businesses too.
I am at a point now where I have the privilege to choose who I work with, and to me, that’s the biggest achievement. Trust is integral to a relationship (whether business or pleasure) and sharing those values with a client is when the best work is created. I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I think they’re so important to learn from and understand how to do things differently next time.
We all evolve continually throughout our careers and change is a good thing. I still have a lot of development to do myself but it’s about finding the time to step back and look at the bigger picture, which I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t do very often!
What do you enjoy most about being a designer?
I’ve always loved meeting new people and my career path gives me that. I work with independent businesses so directly with the founder and always in areas I truly connect with, whether that’s food and drink, nutrition and health, or fashion and lifestyle.
When I start a new project I put myself through a crash course in the industry concerned. I just find it so fascinating to learn about things outside the design world. My clients’ backgrounds are all so varied too – medical herbalists, farmers, doctors, cider makers, and fashion designers, to name but a few! It’s a brilliant way to learn more about the world.
How has being a woman impacted your career?
If I’m honest, I’m not too sure! I guess because I’ve worked independently for the majority of my career, I don’t have much to compare it with. I certainly think there have been times when my kindness and trust has been taken advantage of. But I’m not sure if that’s more the result of a personality thing rather than of being a woman per se.
That said, it does have its advantages. I work with a lot of businesses whose target market is women, so to be able to understand their positioning and design with that in mind is a huge plus.
In your experience, do you think there is equality and diversity for men and women across the design industry today?
Design has certainly always been a male-dominated industry. I remember emailing dozens of creative directors when I graduated and they were pretty much all men!
It’s only been recently that we’re seeing more women speak at design events and conferences. Although I have to admit that I myself, would feel far more comfortable speaking to a room of women than I would to men. I don’t know how much of that is fear of being judged or having to prove myself, but there’s something just less intimidating with women. I can’t believe I’m saying that out loud.
On the back of that, I have recently started a project called Founding Notes, a collection of conversations with female founders on the business of branding. Having met so many wonderful women throughout my career, one of the things I enjoy most is introducing clients to one another so that they can collaborate, share insights, and talk openly about their experiences. My aim is to create a resource that fosters honest discussion about building a business and celebrates female-owned brands.
If you could go back to the beginning and start your career again what would tell your younger self?
Oooh. I’d probably tell myself not to worry about what everybody else is doing! I always felt like I had to fit into certain moulds and obsess over what other designers were creating or expecting. But actually, when I stopped being nervous about that everything became much easier and it felt natural.
Do you have any words of advice for women considering a career in design today?
Get involved in everything! I spent my first 4 years working in an agency where I rarely had the opportunity to practice illustration which is something I really love. I used my spare time to create personal work that I would submit to exhibitions and events. It was a brilliant way to connect with other creatives and do what I enjoy most. I’d never considered that my involvement was building up my ‘network’ but it really did and has opened up a lot of doors over the years.
I’d also say that patience is key. It took me a good 8 years in the industry to really define my practice and understand who I am, what I enjoy and who I like to work with.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
I wish I knew! I’ve always been one for a grand plan but I’m coming to realise that life and priorities change so frequently that it’s almost impossible to see ahead.
As I watch all the businesses that I work with flourish and thrive, there’s a part of me that wants to build my own brand in the future. Perhaps a product, something tangible to design and grow. We shall see!