“The Work We Do” is an interview series that asks creatives with daydream-worthy jobs how they got where they are—and what it’s like to live a day in their shoes. This week, I’m thrilled to feature graphic designer and art director Maia McDonald Smith.
I first became familar with Maia through Pinterest. (And, with 1.8 million followers to her feed, I’m guessing some of you know her that way, too.) It was only much later, after realizing how often I was repinning her picks, that I found my way over to her blog: Conundrum (at the time, “Design Conundrum”). With her warm voice and uniquely crafted career, she seemed like just the person to ask about her path.
You’re a freelance graphic designer and an art director, too—how did you get started in those fields?
My first job out of school was with shopbop.com. I worked there for over four years. After that, I moved to the Bay Area to work for Williams-Sonoma. Both of those jobs taught me a lot, especially about working with big teams and how larger corporate companies function. Ultimately, though, I wanted something smaller and more creative, which is why I decided to go freelance. Since being independent I’ve been lucky enough to work with clients like Cuyana, Apartment 34, Darby Smart, and of course Rue Magazine. I’ve been Art Director at Rue Magazine for over two years now and I love it.
That’s an impressive resume. Did you go to design school?
I did study design in school, and I loved it. School projects can be so fantastical and you usually don’t have a client to keep in mind, so you can really do whatever you want. It’s a bit of a reality check when you start doing real work, but my experience in school was well worth it.
Did you always know you’d be a designer? What did you dream about doing as a little kid?
Doing something creative was always at the top of my list, but I changed my mind a lot. When I was in elementary school, I thought I was going to be an Olympic swimmer. In high school, I kept on going back and forth between being an artist, a designer, or something in politics. In the end, I think I went in the right direction.
I’d love to know what a typical day in your life looks like—or are there no typical days?
I don’t really have a typical day. I spend a lot of time at my computer designing for upcoming issues of Rue, answering emails, or posting to social media and my blog.
You’re a new mother—congratulations! She’s adorable. How are you navigating the balance of work and family?
I’m still kind of figuring that out. Working from home has been really helpful, and my husband is a stay-at-home dad. So we just tag team it, and when something works we just hope it still works next week. Things are always changing, and I’m learning to try to just go with the flow.
What do you find is the hardest part of what you do? Do you ever miss your non-freelance days?
Since I work for myself, it’s always the not-so-fun stuff that’s most challenging: getting payment from clients, dealing with insurance, remembering to save money for taxes. Those are the things I miss about working for a bigger company. But overall, the freedom of working for myself is totally worth having to deal with those things.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to become a designer or an art director?
I think going to school for design is really beneficial. There are people who succeed who aren’t trained, but you can gain so much from your peers and teachers in a school setting. Also, paying attention to design in your day-to-day life and thinking about what you like or what you would improve is a good way to hone your skills.
Love that. What makes you happiest about the work you do?
I love the moment when I get a brand new project or client and my mind is swimming with ideas. It’s always the beginning of a project that inspires the most creative energy—the challenge, then, is being able to sustain some of that energy until it’s finished.
What’s next? What are you working on now that you’re most excited about?
I can’t give too many details yet, but I have some cool projects coming up for both Rue and other freelance clients. I’m just getting back to a full-time schedule after a difficult pregnancy and then being on maternity leave. It’s a refreshing change of pace.
Thank you so much, Maia! It’s always interesting to me to hear whether those who choose to leave corporate jobs (albeit creative ones) are happier working for themselves. I’d be curious to hear from readers who have experience on both sides. Visit Maia’s website, Conundrum, for more, and find archived issues of Rue Magazine.
Thank you to Shoko Wanger for her help with this series. Read more about the inspiration behind it. Know someone who’d be great for “The Work We Do,” or have a request for a profession you’d love to know more about? Email email@example.com.