Otis College of Art and Design‘s new in-house Creative Director, Sheharazad Fleming, is as passionate about her work as she is her city. We decided to catch up with Sheharazad to learn more about her trajectory as a designer thus far, the kinds of projects she’s most excited about, and the things she does when she’s not busy launching Otis’ new Design Lab, a place where students will be part of an on-campus, in-house design studio.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Tehran. My family fled to the US in the 80s post-revolution and moved to the suburbs of Washington, DC, where I spent my formative years. Growing up, we went to the Smithsonian museums for school field trips. (I thought every kid got to do that and still think they should.) This is where my interest in art culture started. I was equally drawn to the building architecture, museum displays and the visual merchandising in the gift stores, as I was to the exhibits.
I stayed in DC and went to graduate school to study Visual Communication with a focus on advertising. This was just before everything went digital. I moved to LA a few days before 9/11 when the world changed forever, and shortly after I met a Californian (and a brilliant designer), Ron. The next thing I knew, my last name changed to Fleming and LA became home.
I love Los Angeles. Truly and deeply.
What kinds of projects are you working on right now?
We just completed the Admissions viewbook, which has a really neat cover wrap that folds out to a poster illustrated by one of our students, Aaron Gonzalez. Our in-house designer, Sean Yoon, designed the poster to fold so that the inside flaps serve as pockets when the book is covered.
I also took on a pro bono revitalization project for a relatively forgotten neighborhood, called The North Sea. It’s the oldest operating industrial neighborhood in downtown LA and began with fish packing (hence the name). I worked with neighborhood activist, Miguel Nelson, and brought in designers from YYES and AIGA LA to create an exterior visual identity system for the neighborhood, including an official color palette for exterior paints, sea-themed murals for walls and sidewalks, and a sea-line graphic to brand the neighborhood boundaries. It’s amazing to see how it’s all come to life and how a simple design system can tell visitors that an area is cared for. It’s really helping to revitalize local businesses and the surrounding community, which is a thrill.
From 8 years with USC to your new position at Otis College of Art and Design, your career as an in-house designer has shown a really exciting focus on education. What is most unique about working within an academic setting?
Having the ability to interact so closely with students. The ability to mentor, and see them grow as they further their studies and come into their own. It’s the most unique and by far the most rewarding part.
What is most challenging?
Everyone has a say, and everyone has an idea. The nature of higher ed is to collaborate, ideate, question, explore possibilities, ask why. These are all super important parts of the creative process as well, but they can become challenging to a designer if they stagnate progress and deter you from understanding and meeting goals. It’s keenly important to maintain a vision, to be able to communicate that vision to stakeholders at various levels, and to remain focused on progress.
What has been the most rewarding part of your time at USC, and what do you look forward to most in your new position at Otis?
Having the opportunity to lead a major university rebrand and cultivating an incredible in-house team were the most rewarding for me. Prior to going in-house, USC was a client. Having worked for them as a contractor, I had a lot of ideas on areas for improvements and at times it felt like steering a cruise ship. But the thing I appreciated most was that good design was valued, the need for a strong graphic identity system was understood, and I felt supported by our senior administration to visually rebrand and reposition the university.
At Otis, I’m most excited to launch a new venture we’re tentatively calling Design Lab, where students will be part of an on-campus, in-house design studio. They’ll be working with real clients to get a taste of what to expect when they embark on their professional careers. The goal is for our students to gain experience that will dovetail with their academic programming, while also giving them a deeper understanding of what it takes to build client relationships and manage projects in the real world.
When you aren’t designing or managing a project, what do you like to do for fun?
For fun I like exploring and poking around LA’s edges and underbellies. When I first moved here, someone told me it takes a minimum of eight years of living in the city to begin to feel like you know it. I’ve lived here for twice that long and I’m still finding hidden gems – from dive bars with infamous retired radio DJs bartending (no, I won’t tell you where), to underground art communes and biker hangouts. I’ve met some of the most interesting and charming people of my life. It’s THE reason I love living in a city like LA — the multicultural diversity, the freedom to be who you want and to express yourself without judgement.
What kind of advice would you give to designers that want to grow into a Creative Director role, in-house?
Be careful what you wish for! Ha!
If you expect me to elaborate, I’ll say this: creative direction is not for the faint of heart. It involves a lot of diplomacy, advocacy and management…. Management of details, of people, of culture, of budgets, of bandwidth, of politics. You name it. If you’re not conscious of it, you can get decision fatigue, and the role can easily drain all of your creativity. It’s important to keep a bird’s eye perspective of your larger goals, because the daily details can drag you down otherwise.
From your perspective, what are the greatest advantages of working in-house as opposed to for a studio/agency?
Having worked on both sides, I believe they each have their advantages. Working in-house, you really have the chance to deep-dive into a brand. If you can sell your ideas, you can make a huge impact because you’re there to implement and execute them appropriately and you can see the brand evolve from the inside-out; at a studio or agency you have the joy of variety, and of learning about new industries and companies that have very different goals, but similar needs. You also have the ability to turn down work if the project doesn’t feel like the right fit, which is hugely important.