Kelly Hartman

Creative Director, Principal, Hartman Design

28 years experience

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Kelly Hartman is the Principal and Creative Director of Hartman Design Studio, based in Calgary, Alberta. Opening its doors is 1990, Hartman has produced a huge volume of projects, including branding, visual identity, books, brochures, magazines, direct mail, packaging, and much more. Kelly takes special pride in her experience with book design, she has worked on nearly 40 different book projects throughout her career.

Describe the first office where you worked as a designer.

I’ve never worked for anyone else, so it was my own. Twenty-one different business from across Canada had their satellite offices in this group coop-office setting. All offices shared a common receptionist and basic equipment. I opened my office up right in the middle of all these offices. All the others were blue collar, manufacturing-type businesses. And they were all men. I was the only girl in one little, nicely-decorated, tiny room amongst a sea of questionably-designed, very masculine offices. It wasn’t such a bad start. I stood out.

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

I would have to say it’s my tall, non-fat latte in the shower. It’s my ritual. It sits on a perfect ledge in my shower that has views outside and it honestly feels like I’m getting away with something every day!

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What project are you most proud of?

I worked on a retrospective book for an artist (Garry Newton) who had passed away. It felt like a HUGE undertaking. I wanted to make sure I did this man’s life and his work justice. And it had to happen in one book.

I spent a lot of time with his work and with the information I collected on him. I’m really proud of this book. Every detail and design element was carefully crafted, all to showcase his work in the most appropriate and supportive way. At the opening of the exhibition, I was asked to speak about the design of the book, and I explained the approach and why things were done they way they were. His living partner came up to me at the end with tears in his eyes and told me he felt incredibly honoured that I had taken so much time to get to know Garry and that I had truly done his life and work justice. Most humbling (and fulfilling) time in my career.

What is your personal or professional motto/philosophy?

This is a great question! I think my professional philosophy has evolved many times in my career. I’ve always wanted to do good work (who doesn’t?). But the work I do now is far more thoughtful than it was when I first started.

By “thoughtful,” I mean strategic. I’m just not into vacuous design. I’m not interested in doing work that doesn’t have a solid story behind in—a story that actually has substance and value (and if the client doesn’t have that story, then I help them write it). And craft! Everything with craft in mind.

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

I started my business right out of college. There were no jobs in my field at the time (in Saskatoon), so I decided to open up an office and do it on my own. Call it naive—and it was—but I wanted to be a designer, so I figured if I couldn’t get a job I’d create my own. Tough. I found out quickly how green I really was and how much I didn’t know about the business of design. I had a lot to learn. I still do. The amazing thing about this profession is that it is a lifetime of learning. So that was my start.

What does success mean to you?

Well, I hope I create work that matters, work that has had impact in a meaningful way. I hope I have a body of work that is filled with really great, well-crafted, impactful shit! Can I say that?

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a female designer?

It’s different now then when I first started. I’m lucky that I have an androgynous name. Honestly, there were many times where I got my foot in the door because Kelly was assumed to be a guy’s name.

When I first started my studio, the design world was very heavily male. And all the suppliers were male. That didn’t scare me. In fact, I liked the challenge of proving myself. I can’t say I had any one “greatest challenge,” but I’ve had LOTS of smaller ones. They helped me figure people out. Learning people is a fascinating skill – how to communicate to different personality types, individuals with varied levels of education or ethnic backgrounds….

What does it mean to you to be a woman in this business?

Women can be incredibly competitive with each other. That’s not a blanket statement, of course, but I’ve seen it many times. We need to learn the art of supporting each other. Women can be incredibly powerful when we come together. I hope to see more of that!

In business, women have the unique ability to see holistically and usually from a place of compassion. If we can apply this to our field as designers/communicators, we can make really meaningful connections.

What was your educational experience like?

I went to design college. At the time I thought I was the bomb until I got out, started my business, and realized how much I still didn’t know. And there was a lot! But that was a great lesson.

Now, I’m also a sessional instructor at ACAD and I am trying to give the students as much of the real-world information I wanted to know but didn’t.

If you weren’t a designer, what career would you pursue?

Well, I’d love to say a musician, because I love music so much. But I truly suck at anything musical, which is sad. When I filled out those career surveys in elementary school, I wanted to be a secretary. I have to laugh at that now. Although I am very organized, so maybe I’d be good at that!

Name a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?

This is a hard question, but I think the biggest would be staying up with technology. The world is moving at lightning speed and with the development of what I like to call “Star Trek Tech,” it’s mind-boggling to think I can even get close to understanding what is truly happening. This is a really amazing and super scary time. I hope we do good with what we develop.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when starting?

I wouldn’t have started my own business if I didn’t have a choice. I would have worked for someone, found a mentor, learned from others. I was on my own, so I had to learn on my own. The great thing is that I recognized how weak a designer I was, and I spent a lot of my time trying to figure things out. I did, but it took longer. It was hard. Now I try to give those who work for/with me as much of the backstory as possible, so if they go on their own they are better-equipped.

What are the best and worst pieces of advice you’ve ever gotten?

The guy I was with in the early part of my career said I had a hobby and not a job. That was brutal to hear (and wrong) but I used that to prove him otherwise. It became fuel for the fire. I surpassed his career in four years. The best advice was to never settle.

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As a woman, what sacrifices have you had to make in your professional life?

I didn’t go down the parent road, so I can’t say I’ve had those types of challenges. My fiance got a transfer early in my career and I “had to” follow, which brought me to Calgary. I guess you could argue that was a traditional sacrifice. And it was. I had to restart my business in a city I’d never been to. I didn’t know anyone. That was tough. It did prove to be the best thing for my career, but it took some time to get things going again.

What is unique to the woman design experience that no one talks about but should?

There is still a lot of value placed on what I call “perceived coolness.” Designers are often expected to look the part. We’re a bit different. In the know. Artsy. Cool.

As you get older, the pressure grows. An older man in this industry may look “seasoned”, while an older woman may look “outdated.” You can see this in past design conference circuits — the big names were mostly men. There are some outstanding women who are well into their career and are still current, but seem to get dismissed.

As designers, we play with perception all the time, and yet this is an issue we don’t seem be handle very well. It’s likely we aren’t the only industry to experience this and it needs to be addressed.

What advice would you give to a young designer.

Learn, learn, learn. Never stop. Be confident. And if you’re not, fake it till you are.

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Which of your traits are you most proud of?

I’m very hard working. It’s the Saskatchewan roots in me. I don’t give up. If things get hard, I find another way. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of me for that.

Who are your design heroes?

I love small studios for the most part, but I’m a big fan of the design that comes out of the UK. Why Not Associates, Experimental Jetset, Johnson Banks, KesselsKramer (Amsterdam), etc.

But there are amazing studios in Montreal too. OrangeTango. Blok Design is fantastic—Vanessa Eckstein is an amazing designer. We also have some fantastic females close to home (like Monique Gamache at Wax and Keli Pollock at Keli Pollock Creative).

Who was/is your greatest mentor and why?

My last partner was probably my greatest mentor, and really the only one. He came into my career about 10 years in. He was a London-trained designer and brought a different perspective to my work. We pushed each other a ton, but it paid off. We opened up a side project under the moniker FISHTEN and it was extremely successful. It changed my work and continues to.

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

The arrogance. Maybe it’s an education issue. Just because you can easily use the design programs does not make you a designer. Wow, there are a lot of clients who now think their interns can do it themselves. Just create a template and hand it off. Oh boy.

What are your plans for the future?

Forging ahead. I LOVE what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. But how I do it will evolve. It always does. And I’d like to self-publish. I have always wanted to do my own book.