"I think everybody gets into art direction by accident." We sat down with Glossier's Associate Art Director, Sage Smith, and discussed not only how she obtained the elusive role but did so by climbing the ranks at one of the most prestigious millennial offices. She gave us a step-by-step on how she landed her interview at Glossier, what she thinks made her application stick out, and then once she was in the door, how she rose to the top. Think you have an interest in art direction but not too sure how to get there? This one's for you.
This interview took place over the phone between Tate VanderPoel Smith in Los Feliz and Sage Smith in Sherman Oaks.
Editor's Note: Sage and I met back in art school—she was the one who sat on the floor with me in my studio apartment building TG's first-ever site that launched in June of 2015.
Starting off, can you give an overview of how you got to where you are today?
I'm not even sure where to start; there are so many different starting points in a person's career. I was always working on creative things from the time I was really young—I created this small vintage thrift fashion line, and at one point had a fashion blog when I was in high school.
Growing up, I never knew that you could actually get paid to be artistic. So when I moved to New York City to go to The New School, I met all these Parsons kids, all the art kids. And I was like, wait—you can get paid to do this? I want to get paid to do art.
I was so determined to work for anybody who would take me, and I would pretty much take any job that came into my path. I'd apply to things, and if somebody said, “Yes,” I'd go for it. I never said no to any opportunity. I learned a lot through those four years of just working, working, working, and through that, I perfected my craft. I learned a lot of technical skills in those internships... as much as I did from the schooling I was having at the time.
Coming into my senior year, I was offered a junior design role at a small agency called TODA. That's where I built up enough strength in my technical skills and belief in myself as a graphic designer to apply to Glossier.
How long have you been at Glossier for?
I've been there for almost three years, which is insane.
I started as a design intern, even though when I applied, I was working as a junior designer. But, I wanted to work for Glossier so badly I was willing to do anything to make that happen.
Did you ever question whether or not it was worth it to go from a junior design position to an intern?
No. I knew that I could grow at Glossier, and that would be the most fruitful opportunity for me. Whereas staying at a small design agency would just keep me as a graphic designer at other small design agencies. And they paid the same.
How did you land your interview at Glossier?
So I actually just applied online on their career site. I was probably in the mix of about 1,000 other applicants, and I just got really lucky. I never even emailed anybody. I just sent my application, my resume, and portfolio, and hoped for the best.
I think what helped me get that initial interview, though, is that I had so much more experience and items on my resume than pretty much anybody else going into an internship position. I had four years of internship experience, in addition to a junior design role, which put me in a pretty good place to get a response.
How was the interview process?
There was an initial phone screening, and then I went for an interview in person to speak to who I was going to be reporting to, their manager who was head of design at the time, and then another person on the creative team.
What were your first few weeks on the job like?
My tasks as an intern were primarily digital and print design tasks. So a lot of emails, digital banners, cropping images, retouching images, and then print work like posters, flyers, sticker designs, etc.
Within the first or second week as an intern, there were like 10 people on the creative team, which was very small for us.
I was immediately thrown into things like retouching notes, which I'd never done before, but I was really excited to learn how to do them. They also let me give feedback on these big images that were about to go live in like a week's time.
I was still working on my day-to-day design tasks during that time as well. Where I really got lucky was that the person I was reporting to was a graphic designer who was transitioning into an art direction role. And since that's where her path was going, I got to come along for the ride.
I'm so grateful to her because my career wouldn't be what it is today without her taking me under her wing. One of the first big projects I was given as an intern was the imagery on Glossier's website. She said, “Sage, I want you to ideate on how we can make these product images better and how we can make them all the same. We're going to reshoot all the product imagery, make it look beautiful, professional, and I want you to take on this project."
So I got to come up with the entire concept. I got to create mood boards. I presented my ideas to the creative director, saying, this is what I think would be best for our product imagery. And they just let me do it.
For the first photoshoot, it was me—this baby design intern, one photographer, and another one of the interns all stuck in this little closet room in Glossier's HQ with one fill light, one main light, and one backdrop. And that's what we shot all the product imagery on. It was insane. It was so scrappy compared to what it is now. It was my first experience with art direction and directing a photographer. So that was a really big project for me that kick-started my entire career in art direction.
Then when did your internship wrap up, and how did you get your next position?
I think my internship was technically only supposed to be six months, and in October of that year, I was hired as a junior designer.
In that position, I was working on a lot of the same things, but also still able to receive art direction projects. I also made it super clear to my boss that art direction was what I was passionate about, what I felt I was best at, and that I could contribute something great to the company through art direction.
As I grew in that role, they started to give me higher responsibility projects. I will say that all of my bosses and people around me at Glossier were really excited to help me with my growth and wanted me to work on bigger projects. The entire creative team there, their whole philosophy is just trying things out and being creative and encouraging you to do that. So it felt like a really safe place to be creative and present my ideas.
Did you have an inkling before starting at Glossier that you wanted to pursue art direction?
Definitely, but I didn't know how to go about it. I didn't know how to learn how to art direct, and I didn't know how one became an art director. There were no classes on art direction. So I felt like it was something that I was interested in, but I didn’t really know how to get there.
Yeah, and I think when you're just starting out, graphic design feels a lot more attainable because there's more of a road map for it and a greater demand for it numbers-wise.
What was one of your favorite projects that you worked on in that position?
This was a small project, but I hold it close to my heart—designing the evergreen sticker that everybody receives in their orders. Now, that was a really big deal to me because even though it was just a sticker design, it's something that lives on beyond me. There's this beautiful thing with graphic design where you make something, you’re creative, but then you actually get a tangible item at the end. It was really satisfying to see my work in person out in the world.
And that's something you designed, and now it lives in people's homes. Maybe someone stuck it on a suitcase, and it traveled the globe.
Yeah, exactly. I also designed all the stickers at Glossier’s flagship. Those are really cool because we didn't have a previous template for them. I designed the entire concept and look and feel of them. Every time people went to that store, they were taking home the stickers that I designed.
That's super cool. What came next in your story?
So what came next is, I started becoming very persistent with wanting to do art direction. I basically begged the creative director every time they went on set to let me come with them. She didn't immediately let me do that, but I was still art directing all of the product photography, so I was still getting to go on set for that about once a month.
Then every time there was a big campaign shoot, I was like, please let me go, I'll go get you guys coffees, I'll run around set and do whatever you want me to do just let me come with you. Eventually, she started letting me go on set and help out with some art direction and taught me the ropes.
So for someone reading this interview who's interested in art direction, what does pre-production look like?
Coming up with a shot list and making sure that we’re getting all of the images we needed for all of our different use cases. If a marketing brief says we need four images for Instagram feed and three images for big posters, we want to make sure that we’re shooting images that work for all of those different dimensions.
How do you present a shotlist?
It's basically just a big sheet in a presentation that numbers each shot and also lists what will be in that shot. Sometimes you can get really specific with shot lists, and sometimes they can be a little bit more abstract.
In addition to the shotlist, there's the rest of the creative brief—that’s lighting, backdrops, props, makeup, casting, styling, and then a list of how all of these things are going to be together shot by shot. Usually, there's some sort of product information, so talking about what the different products are. There can also be video storyboards as well.
What else do you typically do to prepare for a shoot?
Generally, a phone call with the photographer or videographer is a good idea.
Then also talking with the makeup artists, because we're doing beauty. It’s really important to make sure that you hire a good makeup artist who knows the product and feels comfortable with the product and to get their ideas on what the payoff should be.
Collaborating with the producers is also super important. You want to make sure that everything is what it needs to be—so who's going to be on set, what kind of lighting we're going to have, etc. Then it’s making sure that the photographer and makeup artist and models are all aligned on what we're doing that day. Just making sure that there's a really solid clear brief so that when we get on set that day, everybody's on the same page as to what we're doing and what we're trying to accomplish.
What’s your role on set?
My role primarily is directing the models and directing the other people on set.
So that’s talking with the makeup artist and making sure that all the makeup looks the way we're hoping it will. Same with styling and picking out what clothes each model is going to wear. Then it’s really having a good relationship with the model and making sure that the model feels comfortable and knows what they're doing.
I think of myself as like the hype man on set. So just really cheering everybody on, getting people excited about the shoot, and making people feel comfortable is a huge part of the job.
I never expected that I would be in a job where social skills mattered so much. But I really think the goal of the art director is just to make people feel excited and want to be a part of the project. And that's really how you get good results.
For post-production, what’s your role?
To get granular about it—it's retouching notes, writing notes on video editing, making selects of photos and videos, talking to the video editors, and creating the storyboards. Then it’s making selects of photos and videos. Just all around managing everything until we get the images or videos looking exactly how we want them to.
An art director is the director of art. You're coming up with the vision, and then you're making sure that everybody sees the vision.
Your day-to-day—is that mostly working on different shoots in different phases?
Yeah, pretty much. There’s always an overlap of pre-production and post-production. So while I'm on post-production for one project, I’m generally already thinking about pre-production for the next. Then getting to be on set is like a once a month type of thing, and that’s my favorite part.
Then I still help out with some social media and digital design work as well.
So pretty much only bigger companies will have an in-house art director because it wouldn't be enough work for someone who’s at a smaller company that would be shooting a lot less.
Right, exactly. Or what I see now at a lot of these smaller startup companies is that they want an art director slash designer.
I still work on graphic design at Glossier, and so do the other art directors. It's kind of the name of the game; if you're an art director, they expect you to have some sort of design background. Not everywhere, you can certainly get art direction jobs that don't require design skills, but I think that it definitely benefits you if you do.
So you'll see these smaller startup companies want somebody who can do the pre-production, production, and post-production, but then also design all the assets with those images as well.
Going back to how you got to where you are today, do you have anything else you want to touch on regarding being a junior designer?
My advice to other junior designers would be to not be shy about asking for more creative work, either by asking directly or pitching your own ideas and getting their opinion on it. If you've got a great idea, don't let the fact that you're a junior designer inhibit you.
Were there many differences between junior designer and designer?
The responsibility wasn't that different other than getting some higher-lift design tasks and more art direction projects. As soon as I got promoted, I was constantly asking for more art direction projects. That’s when I got to go on set for lip gloss, which was my first big beauty campaign and then I became known as designer slash art director.
Another thing that I brought to the company that nobody else was doing at the time was I was able to take really nice iPhone photos. So I became known on the creative team as this person who, if we ever needed an image for anything, they would give me the products, and I would take the photo. I ended up getting sent on all these baby shoots where they would send me a bunch of product and put me in a room to take photos of products on an iPhone. Or I would get sent to a small studio with a couple of models, and we would put an iPhone on a tripod and have the girls take selfies.
We found that iPhone photography and selfies feel more real because they are more real. That realness speaks a lot more to me than seeing a highly-produced retouched image.
After that, my close colleague slash friend and I became this dream team where we would just be given iPhones and be told to take photos of models in their houses, or take photos of products in a pretty bathroom, or help people take cool selfies. And that really became something that we owned and became known for.
So how did you phase into your next role after that?
Since I started owning this iPhone style, I’ve gradually taken on more responsibilities, and I just kept asking for it. That's the thing—if you want something, you just have to ask for it. They might say no, but you just have to keep trying. And that's what I did.
I knew I wanted to be on set, I knew I was good at it, and any opportunity I could to prove that I could art direct and was really passionate about learning, I took. So I ended up going on set quite a bit. Even though my title was still designer, I was art directing quite a lot and proving that I was a pretty good art director and could handle a lot of responsibility. What ended up happening is that even though my title didn’t change then, they did change my manager to be the head of art direction, and so I was taken off the design team, and I reported directly to the lead art director.
How did your tasks shift then?
I still was doing most of my day-to-day design tasks, but then getting to assist with pre-production and post-production, and getting put on small scale photoshoots.
What happened next?
I asked for more work. I was given more work…
More work on top of working two jobs?
Yes! But what you have to understand is that I didn't care about the amount of work because I knew what I wanted to do, and I felt like this was the quickest way to get to where I wanted to go. My bosses were super encouraging of me, built me up, and they tried to help me learn from all the experiences they were giving me.
So after I had been on a couple of bigger campaigns—the Skywash campaign last January was a huge one for me where I really proved I could do this–I think my boss saw that and wanted to help me grow into an official art direction role. At that time, I had been working my ass off for basically two years, and had been working on art direction projects since I was an intern so everybody on my team knew, Sage needs to just be an art director. And in summer 2020, I officially got promoted to associate art director.
Were you starting to ease back into shoots at that time?
Yeah, we had been. In the beginning, we did a lot of partnered content, which is sending products out to creators, and then guiding them through how to create that content.
Then we also started to slowly ease into Zoom photoshoots. There’s a photographer and a producer on set, and then they're sending me images pretty much every hour, and I'm reviewing the images and giving feedback. So those are my primary two forms of doing photoshoots that I've been doing this entire year.
That’s so shitty because you finally got your dream role, and now you can’t do it the way that you want to.
Yeah, it's true. But the good news for me is that because I do a lot of these iPhone style photoshoots, it kind of works in my favor during COVID. We’ll send somebody an iPhone and still be able to communicate with them and make cool work from a distance. So you know, just seeing the silver linings.
If you’re not sending someone an iPhone, do you ever care which one they have?
We're pretty flexible. We do have iPhone 11 pros, and we do ask our creators to shoot on 4k.
But we're also not super picky. Sometimes, the grainy stuff is cool. If things are gritty or grainy, I just tell people to lean into it. I'm like, I don't care how you take it or where you take it. Just make it look cool, and we'll figure it out.
Has Glossier’s design approach been different from other companies that you’ve worked at?
Yes! For instance I used to work at this one makeup company, and they had this super intense brand book with every possible platform and size. They told you exactly what type size, what typeface, what images, what colors to use, etc.
Glossier is not restrictive in that way at all—as a brand, we're very fluid. We basically have our logos, our typeface, and a couple of colors, but you can really play with it as much as you want, and things can still feel on-brand. It's more the vibe and the energy that matters above all else.
And that's why they must be so particular about who they bring on because they're looking for people to bring something that you can't quite define.
It sounds like as soon as you’re brought on, you get to do your job and what you enjoy, as opposed having to think, “Oh wait, I need to look this up on page 78.”
Yeah, exactly. As a creative person, it's one of the best creative teams I've ever worked on. They do let you have your own taste and expression and encourage that from you—which you can't find everywhere.
If you could go back in time and give your younger self advice, what would you say?
I would say be yourself and that social skills matter. Those are the two things I wish I had known a lot earlier.
In the past, I always tried to be what the people around me wanted me to be. But, what I didn't realize until later in my career is that people respect you and love you more when you're yourself and give your own opinions on things. It took me a little while to learn that my opinions were valid and appreciated by the people around me. People don't want to hear what they already think back to them; they want to genuinely know what you think. So that's one thing.
And then the second is that social skills matter. People always tell you when you're young, like network network network, and I didn't really believe that. I think partially because I kind of hated that sentiment, and I just thought that if I did good work, then my good work would get acknowledged. But, building good relationships with people will constantly help you and benefit you in your future. Not that you have to make everybody like you, but just that when you meet people, and you vibe with them, those people matter.
Need new music to play while you're designing? We got you covered:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Tate VanderPoel Smith + Sage Smith
Special thanks to Polaroid