Interview

Claire Dawson

Owner, Underline Studio

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underlinestudio.com

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@underlinestudioinc

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Underline Studio is a strategic branding and design agency. We work with leaders of all types of organizations who have important messages to communicate.

At what point in your life did you learn about design, and what drew you to it?

I remember as a little kid driving by the Bay department story and asking my parents why they had spelled the Bay wrong and where was the “B”. My Dad explained that there was a B, that’s what the large flourish in the middle was. My brain clicked and I saw it as the full word. It wasn’t so much that I was impressed – I wasn’t, I thought that it was a bit silly to separate out a letter like that so that people couldn’t read it, and in retrospect I still agree with my young self! But what did strike me was that someone had made it. Over the years I loved drawing and especially letterforms.I’d do calligraphy, hand letter posters for school, that sort of thing.

Describe the first office where you worked as a designer.

I was lucky enough to start my career at Concrete in Toronto. It was, and still is, an amazing studio. It was a great place to learn, everything was done at such a high level. Diti Katona (Co-Founder ofConcrete) was a teacher of mine at university and I was hired when I graduated. It’s now a much larger agency but when I started it was more of a boutique size, there were about 9 people. Despite it not being a large studio, I was very much a small fish in a big pond. I was in awe of what the designers could do and how quickly they could do it. It was a very well run ship, I was taught as much about how processes work as I was about how to be a designer.

 What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day?

As painful as it is, a successful morning generally starts early with exercise. After that the morning spirals into the craziness of a family with 2 young kids getting ready for work and school. Once I get to work it’s my second “start” and it always begins with a cup of tea. Hot, black tea, never herbal.

What is your personal or professional motto/philosophy?

Personally, I remind myself constantly that life is impermanent and ever-changing. Today’s problems will be over by next week and likely a new problem will take its place. I find it quite calming and comforting, it makes me feel a certain sense of freedom, that there aren’t constraints and that things will change.

 Professionally it’s a bit more ridiculous. Our studio cares very passionately about the craft of design and labours over every detail. It can be heart breaking when budgets won’t allow for certain techniques or a client can’t be convinced about a specific detail. We don’t always win them all. For those moments I brought in an old Frozen doll of my daughters that belts out “Let it go” when you press a large gem on its necklace.Perfect when we are weeping about a client selecting dark gray 7 versus dark gray 6. Those moments when you begin to lose perspective in the black hole of design and need to be reminded of the bigger picture.

What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day?

As painful as it is, a successful morning generally starts early with exercise. After that the morning spirals into the craziness of a family with 2 young kids getting ready for work and school. Once I get to work it’s my second “start” and it always begins with a cup of tea. Hot, black tea, never herbal.

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What’s the boldest thing you’ve ever done in your professional life?

Without question it was to start Underline. There was no master plan, no lifelong goal or any sort of well-thought-out strategy.It started with Fidel’s wife Moira saying to us over drinks one night “why don’t you start a studio with Fidel”? I had never considered it before, but welet the idea percolate over a couple of months and then we jumped in. I think in retrospect it was a good thing I didn’t deliberate for a long time! I had noidea how much work those early years would be.  

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in design?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been juggling being a business owner with being a mother. As an employee you have the ability to take a year off for maternity leave, but as a business owner and partner it’s much more difficult. You have an obligation to your partner and to the studio. I took short maternity leaves when both of my daughters were born. I was able to then balance that with a shorter work week when I returned, but it was still very tough emotionally. I am thankful for and believe very much in Canada’s maternity policies, but when they don’t apply to you it can be a lonely place. Everyone around me with new babies was at home. But I felt committed to our studio and to having a future with it. I knew in the long term it was where I wanted to be but the short term was hard. It took some time to find a balance. I don’t think there is one perfect answer but we figured it out at home and at the studio and it worked. During that time it made me realize that there are very few rolemodels in these situations, as it was hard to find women in a similar space.

What was your educational experience like?

I did a Bachelor of Fine Arts at York University. Iloved it. They’ve since changed the program to a Bachelor of Design but that happened shortly after attended and I’m so happy that it was after. What Iloved about being there was the focus on art and the breadth of programs I could take. I took drawing, painting, sculpture, installation and tons of art history and criticism. By the time I was in third and fourth year I was focused on design. We did a lot of work on computers but lots by hand, even working with an old letterpress printer at the school.

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What advice would you give to a young woman designer?

I think that many boardrooms are set up for a very male-dominated world. There is a certain authority expected, a way of talking, a way of behaving. It’s not so much advice that I would give a younger designer but more encouragement to push boardrooms and corporations to change and consider other ways and approaches. I hope that more women begin to occupy positions where they have the ability to make those changes.

Which of your traits are you most proud of?

That I’m a good listener. I think it’s helped me both as a designer and a human.

 What about the current state of graphic design could you do without?

I wish we could all use more honest and straight forward language, instead of all of the exhausting marketing speak -- words like“agile”, and abbreviations I have to google to figure out. It creates a layer of complication you have to wade through in order to get to the root of the problem that needs to be solved.

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