In Conversation with Helen Watts
A passion for art and design excellence has kept Helen Watts, of Watts Design, creating meaningful and resonating communications for 25 years. Established in 1989, initially as a one-woman operation, Watts Design has built a reputation for creating compelling brands and designs that resonate strongly with clients and the public. Over the years Helen’s work (and the work of the studio) has been published in more than 80 prestigious peer journals and won many national and international awards.
Apart from her busy schedule at Watts Design, Helen has always been keen to give back to the industry and mentor industry leaders of the future. She was on the Council of the Victorian Chapter of AGDA for five years, serving three years as State President. She sits on design award panels, guest lectures at universities and other education providers, and serves on a range of education and government advisory groups.
What inspired you to become a graphic designer?
Way back in primary school, I loved everything ‘arty’. I adored painting, drawing and crafts. In fact, I went through a big symmography phase that lasted for a few years (if you don’t know what symmography is, look it up – it’s very retro, but not in a terribly good way). My friends and family looked a bit dazed whenever they unwrapped these fabulous Christmas and birthday gifts.
Initially I wanted to be an art teacher but after my first semester at uni doing fine art, the graphic design department suggest I join them. It was the best move I could have made. I absolutely loved the course – and finally understood what a graphic designer actually does!
How did you get your first break?
My first break was the result of me hitting the pavements with my large, clunky folio (pre Apple Mac), and persistently explaining at every interview exactly why I should be given an opportunity.
Looking back, I think my enthusiasm and willingness to take the advice of numerous art directors helped me get that first job. Being straight out of uni, I just loved my portfolio and was extremely confident. I thought I was a thorough professional! Luckily I had no idea that I knew absolutely nothing and that my uni portfolio was just that – a folder containing the work of a novice. When I got a job I was put in my place very quickly and that day, I really started learning what design was all about.
What paths have you taken to get to where you are today?
After four years in industry, I started my own business. On reflection that was the best option for me at the time. Being on my own allowed me to flourish, taking what I’d learned from other studios and agencies and focusing on not making the mistakes I’d witnessed elsewhere. But it was a big learning curve. I wasn’t just a designer in a one-woman office – I was an account manager, a receptionist, a filing clerk and a storeperson, among other things! That’s the reality of having your own business.
There was financial pressure in those early days too, as I had a mortgage and a baby. But I was in it for the long haul. I made sure clients were happy and that every job was done to the best of my ability, on time. It sounds simple but it was incredibly difficult. I couldn’t afford to promote my business, so I relied on word of mouth and I couldn’t afford to fail. Eventually things came together and I’ve never regretted my decision.
What advice about the do's and don'ts would you give to someone who wants to work towards becoming a graphic designer?
For me, it’s all about having enthusiasm and a strong belief in what you do. Over the years I’ve had so many students come to see me and I have a great test that helps me work out who’s serious about being in our industry.
I point out a weakness in their folio or suggest they redo a project, and ask them to get back to me with a revised design in two weeks. Around 99% never come back. When I was in that position and some whacky art director asked me to redo a campaign, I was back with an idea 48 hours later (and it was in the days before email). If nothing else, it showed passion, persistence and determination, qualities that we employers look for.
Tell us about the projects you're currently working on?
At the moment I’m designing an office space and retail store. I’m loving it – working with a blank canvas, and integrating interior design with branding and point of sale materials is incredibly energising (and challenging). But that’s the great thing about this job. Every client and every brief is different. It’s hard to be bored when you need to bring a lifetime of skills and problem solving to every task.
What sets Watts Design apart from the rest of the industry?
Every designer claims to be the best at everything, and I know it’s hard for people to differentiate. I think what sets us apart is the fact that we’ve been a successful business for over 25 years. That shows we have a lot of skills – we remain creative, stay relevant, have excellent systems in place and a strong client base that stays with us because of all those things. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved and excited about what lays ahead in the future.
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