Kelly Smalls

Executive Creative Director, Designer, Author

15 years experience

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Kelly Small (they/them) is a performance-driven, award-winning ECD, designer, and writer with deep roots in communication design, digital marketing, and advertising, and a special focus on ethical and inclusive practice. A proven creative leader, strategist, and affiliated design researcher with Emily Carr University (Studio for Critical Making and the Graphic Research Unit), Kelly holds a master’s degree in design where their research focused on design ethics, social impact, social innovation, and sustainability. Kelly received the Governor General's academic gold medal for their graduate work. A seasoned ad-industry expat, Kelly has experience leading major brands across most sectors including automotive, CPG, entertainment, finance, retail, technology, telecom, and more. Currently serving as Executive Creative Director at Grassriots Inc., Kelly is committed to applying their 15+ years of commercial experience to exclusively supporting progressive, impact-focused clients. Kelly is equally passionate about breakthrough aesthetics and innovative creative executions as they are ensuring that their concepts provide real, measurable results. Kelly’s book, The Conscious Creative: Practical Ethics for Purposeful Work, published by House of Anansi Press, is a collection of over 100 actions for ethical creative practice. It is the culmination of Kelly’s research in their pursuit of a more humane, values-driven and inclusive creative industry. A certified member of the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD), Kelly donates their time to mentoring early career designers, leading the LGBTQ2S+ virtual RGD community, and participating in the RGD Diversity Equity and Inclusion committee.

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

I learned about design (and the implications of design) as a young teenager through a dichotomous mix of being exposed to 1990s big-brand advertising and reading Adbusters.

I’m not sure how I reconciled the discord between those two things. In hindsight, the unconscious dialectics of understanding that they coexist was something of a gestational thought-nugget that would become inspiration for my recently-published book, The Conscious Creative.

I was drawn to design through my equal love of art and copy with an optimistic belief that design could change the world. When I saw the work that design activists were doing and the incredible reach of big brand advertising, I saw the power of the industry — and I wanted in.

It wasn’t a linear path, but I’m closer than ever to satisfying my teenaged idealism. Punctuated, of course, with a healthy dose of reality.

Describe the first office where you worked as a designer.

I worked in a corporate office building just around the corner from the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. It was grey and dusty-blue and we sat in low cubicles. There were beautifully designed paper samples and pantone books strewn all over the place, as was the hot gossip about office romances. It was a good intro to design agency life.

The folks who ran the firm had just received a ‘Top 40 under 40’ award and while 40 seemed really, really old to me at the time, I was impressed. I had a great experience and they treated me with kindness and respect. One of the partners made a couple offhand comments about my future partnership in the agency. Despite those comments being undoubtedly hyperbolic, they gave me confidence that stuck. Plus, I had a small crush on that particular person so it hit differently.

We worked on a lot of government projects including the Canadian War Museum, and we did work to support local First Nations and Ottawa-based cultural organizations.

This was in the early 2000s, so things were pretty different. I worked on a bulky desktop Mac Pro — I think it was teal — and backed up my work onto Zipdisks. I’ll never forget the day my first-gen iPod was delivered to the office and everyone crowded around for the unboxing. For stock imagery, I had to flip through CD booklets, and we backed up all the agency’s data, each night, on cassette tape drives.

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

I wake up at 4 a.m. for a five-km run to the local pool where I swim 20 laps. After that I run home, drink a green smoothie (80 percent kale), and journal about my intentions and positive affirmations for the day. Once I have established a clear set of goals for the coming hours, I meditate for 30 minutes to solidify the intention and visualize myself achieving my objectives. I shower, get dressed, and make my family a healthy meal complete with that weird mushroom coffee which is apparently healthier than regular coffee. Then I look in the mirror and tell myself I’m awesome for five minutes before I sit down at my computer to kick ass all day.

No I don’t.

For years, I wanted to be one of those ultra-disciplined people who has a consistent morning routine — you know, the ones from documentaries about exceptional people with hard bodies and bank accounts beyond most of our imaginations that for sure had nothing to do with their morning routine, but attribute much of their success to it nonetheless?

I’ve come to accept that I am a person who enjoys sleep, dislikes consistency, needs several coffees and thrives if I do a little reading or listen to an inspiring podcast in the morning. Sometimes yoga features. I try to allow myself to do what feels right on the day and I don’t get bogged down in ‘must-dos’.

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Who do you consider to be an inspiring woman or non-binary person?

Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist and Hunger. Activist Wednesday Holmes. Comedian Hannah Gadsby. Drag artist and activist Shea Couleé. Sasha Costanza-Chock, author of Design Justice. Comedian Maria Bamford.

This is a small list of incredible creative people who have shown up and created authentically despite the risk that their authenticity might be considered “too much”. These folks have shown me that — as I write in The Conscious Creative — achieving success while being true to oneself isn’t just possible — it’s the way.

What do you consider to be inspiring about being a woman or non-binary person?

Being a queer, gender-diverse person has provided me with insight into the power of perception, the impacts and malleability of identity, and lived experience of facing discrimination and institutional oppression. I think what’s inspiring about that is the resulting compassion and solidarity with communities who have to work harder for their voices to be heard.

Without that, I’m not sure The Conscious Creative would exist and my research in the area of ethical and inclusive design practices may not have happened.

I write in the book that it’s proven that women, gender-variant people, people of colour, disabled folks, and other marginalized groups are far more likely to have their work take on a socially-just dimension than their white, straight, cis-male counterparts. Experiencing marginalization firsthand is effective (albeit unfortunate) impetus to make the world better for others.

Describe your design process.

It starts with NO BRIEF NO TALK. (I mean, I joke - but also … it’s true)

As a creative director and communication designer, I research and write concepts first. Nearly always. I find, for me at least, that’s where the most strategically sound ideas come from. I often don’t move into sketching and visuals until I’ve written a concept statement.

Of course, the process hinges on a spectacular brief, co-created with strategically-minded colleagues, that is full of insight. I believe in collaboration regardless of title and that interdisciplinarity gets the best results. I like to iterate fast and get ample input. The best projects don’t happen in a vacuum.

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Which project are you most proud of?

The Conscious Creative is my favourite project to date because it was born out of a question that was causing me crushing professional and existential angst — Is it even possible to realize an ethical practice in a capitalist paradigm where we’re in service to the bottom line above all else?

The book is the culmination of my graduate research in the areas of ethical design, design for sustainability, social innovation and inclusive practice at Emily Carr University. It is over 100 actions for ethical practice — which sounds dry (as books about ethics can be) — but I promise it doesn’t take itself too seriously and the style is pretty irreverent throughout.

What is your personal or professional motto/philosophy?

Never start a project without asking if something more meaningful can be achieved.

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

I hit a crisis of ethics in advertising and decided to leave the industry altogether to try to figure out a better way forward. It was terrifying. I quit my job, sold my things, and flew across the country without much of a plan — just a question in my mind to try to answer.

The experience was harrowing at times, honestly, but was the best thing I ever did. I’m proud that I was able to move through anxiety and ambiguity and to trust myself enough to allow the answers to arrive when it was time.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as a woman/non-binary designer?

Staying soft, compassionate and committed to doing the work toward a more equitable industry while trying to quell the resentment of being underpaid, discriminated against, or overlooked because I don’t fit the archetype of a creative director. When I started in this role only 97% of CDs were men. Now it’s around 88%. There’s work to be done, folks!

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

Oh, I love this question.

Worst: Don’t be too nice, they won’t respect you.
Worst: Just play the game.
Worst: Lean in, use fewer exclamation marks, and match the leadership style of your male peers.

Best: Pitch ideas that make big brands do some good in the world.
Best: If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it.
Best: Be kind.
Best: Authenticity and vulnerability will strengthen your professional (and personal) relationships.
Best: Find your ikigai — a Japanese concept meaning "a reason for being."

What advice would you give to a young woman/non-binary designer?

If it is safe to do so, show up as your FULL AND AUTHENTIC SELF, and let your freak flag fly.

Simply existing as you are will bring about important change. You will find your allies. You will expose those who might stand in your way. You will represent communities not accustomed to seeing themselves reflected.

This isn’t always easy, but it will make sure that you don’t end up in an existential crisis at 40 because you spent your entire career to-date trying to make yourself fit somebody’s else’s idea of what a designer should be.

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What was the worst trend in the history of design?

That trend when only one uniform demographic was given a platform to share their work and engage in design discourse. Worst!

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

Every so often the whole “graphic-design-is-dead” thing pops up. That’s annoying.

We’re here, aren’t we? It’s alive. It’s evolving. It’s helped to pave the way for new areas of design. Do we need updated language? Sometimes I think so. I tend to refer to this sector as “communication design,” as I think it detaches us from the aesthetic-only assumptions that come with a word like “graphic.”

That’s not a hard and fast rule, though.

What are your plans for the future?

I just signed a contract for my second book. I want to keep writing.

I’m the Executive Creative Director for an agency that exclusively serves progressive nonprofits like Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Humane Society International, and Oxfam. I want to keep creating work to support causes that help change lives.

I’m not sure exactly what the future will hold, but I intend to keep making the incremental changes and decisions that feel right to me. I intend to progress down a path that stays in line with my values and avoids too many future ethical or existential crises – but who can guarantee that?

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