Sarah Gives AIGA RI KnowHer Summit Keynote

By April 1, 2019
Sarah Rainwater speaking at the AIGA KnowHer Summit

Sarah was a keynote speaker at the AIGA RI KnowHER Summit on March 23, 2019. The summit  celebrated women in design with talks, workshops, a panel, local maker market, and after party.

Read an excerpt from Sarah’s talk below.

Our role as a designer first and foremost is to master the skills of our craft. To gain all the technical knowledge about how to make good design. And that in and of itself can be very challenging. One of our greatest abilities as designers is to be self-critical and to push ourselves to be better and to be more innovative. But that can also be paralyzing 

We need to keep pushing through and making work. Keep having ideas. Have bad ideas! Make mistakes and start to get really confident in our voice and our aesthetic so that we can explain the visual choices that we make to our clients.

Because we want to make design that the client will like.

But I spent too much time early on in my career only worried about making work my client would like. And that makes sense. Our clients are the ones who pay us. 

But if we are designing something that doesn’t resonate with the audience and they don’t care, then the brand isn’t going to be successful.

But if we are designing something that doesn’t resonate with the audience and they don’t care, then the brand isn’t going to be successful. A long time ago I had this experience where we were launching a brand and we loved how it looked and the client loved it, but ultimately it didn’t capture the audience that it needed and it was a failure. And that was very painful. It wasn’t only because of the design, there were some issues with the business strategy and there were inconsistencies in the brand ecosystem that we didn’t have control over.

But this was a turning point for me in how I think about our work. I always want to make sure that we’re designing very strategically so that we can help our clients make an emotional connection with their audience and show them why their work matters. 

I want our work to be effective. And being effective is so important, 9 times out of 10 it’s where we want to get to, but I want to pause here because it’s not the only measure of successful design.

Because as we know, design is really powerful. We can design things that the audience loves …

But it might be terrible for them. It might be terrible for the environment or for society. And that feels bad to me. That isn’t the kind of work that I want to be doing either. I’ve seen a lot of extreme examples of this.


Infographic showing increase in e-cigarette use among teens.ased use of

Juul e-cigarettes designed their marketing to be really cool and playful and exciting and it was really appealing to middle and high school students so e-cigarette use in those age groups shot up between 2011 and 2017. It was really effective.

And we all know how social media apps design their user experience very strategically to be habit-forming and addictive. It was really effective.

And there are all kinds of ways that design can be used to promote inequality. We can design ballots, insurance forms, political propaganda, policies that are really effective for one group of people while being very harmful to another group.

It’s so important to me to do work that helps. That helps our clients, helps their audience, and makes the positive impact in the world that I want to make.  

I won’t stand up here and tell you what clients you should or shouldn’t work with. I know this is a business and we have to make a living. What matters to you might be supporting your family. But you can think about what your values are and what matters to you and work with clients that share your values. 

And you don’t have to solve all the world’s problems. The world has A LOT of problems. You could just make someone laugh or smile. Find small ways to put positivity out into the world.

Before I finish and take questions, I’ll talk for a few minutes about women in design since that is why we are here.

Our industry can be really tough. You’re putting yourself out there creatively and you’re getting criticism and rejection day in and day out sometimes and that can really suck no matter what gender you are.

I’m not going to say that it sucks more for women, but there are studies that have been done showing a confidence gap between men and women, particularly in their 20s and 30s. So, what that means is that in an industry that has been traditionally male-dominated that is already a tough place to maintain confidence, women are losing out on opportunities early on in their careers. There’s a lot to unpack there and I won’t get too far into it, but there’s a great book called The Confidence Code that I highly recommend if you haven’t read it already.

Infographic showing increase in women's confidence over time.

I can talk about my own experience and say that I definitely relate to this. Early on in my career, I had this idea that a creative director was like Don Draper in Mad Men going into a room full of clients and telling them what they need to do. This didn’t feel comfortable to me in any way, I didn’t think that was something I would ever be able to do and didn’t seem like the way that I thought was effective. So I felt like I would never be a creative director. 

But what I’ve realized is that for the clients we work with, that really like working with us, they would hate it if I did that. They want to be collaborative. They want us to ask questions and to really listen. Our clients know the work they are doing so well, any great solution is going to come from their knowledge and we just need to help translate or help facilitate brainstorming.

So what I wish I had known when I was younger is that building up confidence isn’t about becoming something totally different from who you are that might seem really uncomfortable to you. It’s about believing in the way that you do things, and then putting yourself in environments that support that and working with people that want to work you. That it’s possible to be yourself and work in a way that is authentic to you and still be successful.