What Georgia O’Keeffe Taught Me About Intentionality in Branding

What Georgia O'Keeffe Taught Me About Intentionality in Branding

For Mother’s Day this year, I was fortunate to combine a few of my favorite things: travel, quality time with my son, and a museum visit.

This time around, it was a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum — an inspiring collection of artifacts, stories, and paintings from a woman who led an extraordinary life by all accounts of the word.

While many museum and gallery visits give me feelings of intimacy and inspiration in life, art, and design, this particular exhibit touched my soul on a deeper level than I could’ve predicted.


Georgia O’Keeffe was a woman. An artist. And a true force of nature.

Her lifelong success and lasting impact aren’t a product of happenstance; Ms. O’Keeffe was a very calculated woman, whose deliberate decisions have outlived her as we take from her lessons in approaching branding with intentionality.v

I’ve debunked many-a-myth before when it comes to what branding is. It’s more than your logo; it’s more than just you. But witnessing what Georgia O’Keeffe was able to create dives even deeper into the realm of personal branding, and what exactly that means.

For O’Keeffe, she embodied her brand in every aspect of her life, choosing to set herself apart through more than just her art.

She was intentional in her clothing, carefully curating high-quality pieces predominantly in black-and-white until later in life when the Southwest opened her to more colors.

She was intentional in where she lived, choosing her house in Sante Fe because of the shape of the doorway.

She was intentional in her makeup, or lack thereof — choosing to stay fresh-faced and makeup-less for her entire life.

She was intentional in her style of painting, choosing to forgo utter consistency and often alternating between realistic and semi-abstract.

She was intentional in how she was photographed, often staging the pictures just so and turning to only the best photographers — like Alfred Stieglitz (her husband) and Ansel Adams, as well as strong women like Annie Leibovitz.

Branding that permeates

In a pre-Instagram world; a world where “personal branding” did not yet exist, Georgia O’Keeffe intentionally created a brand that epitomizes the concept of branding itself.

By carefully curating not just what she allowed into her life, but also what she put out into the world, O’Keeffe created a remarkable legacy that will likely forever reserve her space as a household name.

This, friends, is an impact we can all learn from — whether we’re business owners seeking to make change through our work, artists dedicated to creating statements, or human beings on the not-so-simple mission to leave the world just a little better than we found it.

You may not be an artist who appreciates O’Keeffe’s art on the visceral level that many of us do, yet any strong business owner — or human, really — can certainly appreciate her (perhaps unconscious) grasp on what a brand is all about, and the intentionality with which she designed every aspect of hers.

Get intentional. It may mean stepping outside your comfort zone. It may mean making tough choices. But it also may just mean leaving your mark on this world in only the way you can.

Telling Stories: A Roundup of Destination Travel Guide Design Projects

Having been a graphic designer for more years than I can count — and the owner of my own design studio for more than 15 of them — I can tell you one thing: When you find your niche; your ideal clients; your ideal projects…work ends up fulfilling you in more ways than you previously thought possible.

For me, that niche is travel and tourism. Those ideal clients are destination marketers and the business owners that make those destinations unique. The ideal projects center around the branding and marketing collateral that keep those destinations top of mind amongst visitors and consumers.

I’m excited to be sharing a few of those projects with you today in my first client/project roundup on the blog. This roundup edition is focused on just a few of the destination travel guides I worked with clients on throughout the first quarter of 2017.

A few notes before we dive in:

1. These are each printed guides, with circulations in the tens of thousands. While digital and social are undoubtedly important in today’s world, print is far from dead in the travel industry.

In fact, when done well, printed travel guides are more appreciated than ever before. Throughout my most recent visitor guide projects, we’ve aimed to blend the online and physical worlds by including user-generated content (i.e. submitted stories; case studies; Instagram posts), social proof (first-hand reviews, candid photographs, testimonials, Tweets), and more.

2. Developing and designing a destination’s travel guide is a long-term process that requires a deep dive into the people, history, culture, and stories that make each and every destination unique. It’s actually what I love most about doing visitor guides: Becoming deeply integrated into cities and counties by venturing out on photo shoots, chatting with locals and tourists alike, and often visiting places I likely wouldn’t get a chance to otherwise experience.

3. At approximately 50 pages each, the pieces I’m sharing here are content rich, from both a visual and written standpoint. Each one is worthy of a coffee table, and nothing makes me happier than hearing that people both collect and cherish these guides.

Without further ado, here are a select few of the client projects I’ve been blessed to work on for the last few months:

1. Seneca County, NY visitors guide

Seneca County, New York visitors guide

Appropriately titled Faces & Stories, the Seneca County visitors guide is based heavily on the locals who make it home, and welcome visitors on the regular.

What I enjoyed most about this project was the collaboration it took to achieve it. Seneca County’s staff conducted video interviews, while a colleague of mine took photos, and I provided art direction. Each person interviewed contributes to the local economy and tourist industry in some way — from wine and craft beverages to agriculture to accommodations and everything in between. Being on site of each of these interviews gave me an intimate look at the people and the passion they have for what they do, bringing me closer to the community so I could create a piece that’s truly reflective of who they are.

What makes this guide even more unique is that we ran it horizontal, instead of portrait — a characteristic that firmly sets it apart from other guides on the shelf.

Fun fact: This year’s work on Seneca County’s Faces & Stories was an update of the original piece we created last year, which took home the Excellence in Tourism Marketing Award at the New York State Tourism Industry Association annual awards.

Get the guide here!

2. Livingston County, NY visitors guide

Livingston County, New York visitors guide

Taking a historical approach, the 2017 Livingston County visitors guide is a time-traveling adventure.

What I enjoyed most about this project was the deep dive into the history of the region and the memories that came with it. Pictures and stories compare then to now, and respected traditions are shared while also celebrating just how far businesses and attractions have come in the County.

Fun fact: The iconic train bridge over Letchworth Park was originally a wooden bridge that was destroyed by fire in 1875. It was rebuilt from iron and steel, and today, thousands of travelers visit it in all seasons.

Get the guide here!

Telling stories

I have two challenges for you: First, next time you’re in an airport or rest stop, pick up a guide or two and dive into the stories. Second, don’t hesitate to share yours — it’s the stories of locals and visitors that create a destination’s true brand.

As an avid traveler myself, I love that through my artwork and design, I’m able to help promote amazing places for people all over the world to explore. Getting to partner with destination marketers to visually tell the story of their travel brands and connecting visitors to their ideal destinations lights me up and gives my work even more purpose.

P.S. When your destination is a brand in and of itself, you can make it peak season all year round.

Partnership and Recognition: The Rewards of Being an Artist and Graphic Designer

Partnership and Recognition

There are many internally-rewarding aspects of being an artist and a graphic designer.

First, there’s the joy that comes in creating — in putting paintbrush to canvas; in testing doodles on a Wacom tablet; in harnessing the power of white space.

On another hand, there’s the thrill — those inevitable stomach flutters — of presenting a new brand to a company, organization, or group who’s ready to put visuals to their values.

On yet another hand, there’s the surge of pride that comes knowing you’ve finished a creation — whether or not it’s for anyone other than yourself, and whether or not it’s perfect. Simply knowing that you’ve created can be all you need.

These are not mutually exclusive — there are times when I’m astonished by the joy that comes in creation, filled up knowing that I’ve given a visual voice to companies with a brand presentation, and proud of what I’ve been able to complete.

But of course, there are times you need more than the inner recognition. Times when you need just a bit of outside validation; times when a simple cheer from someone else can push you past a hurdle or up that mountain.

At those times, I’m grateful for two other aspects of being an artist and graphic designer: partnership and recognition.

Taking pride in partnership

Partnership is such an important piece of business. As a business owner, there is absolutely no way I could reach the milestones I set out for myself without the help and partnership of others.

This starts with my clients. I’ve talked before about the importance of embodying your ideal client. Another way to get more in tune with them is simple: Surround yourself with them. My ideal client is a traveler; someone who knows what it’s like to have a heart filled with wanderlust. Someone who knows how important it is to create a customer experience that people want to write home about, even in these days of Snapchat and Instagram. Someone who realizes that a destination isn’t just a place you go; it’s the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and unique flavors of a region.

Much of my work in branding travel and tourism industry clients has been inspired by partnerships with these ideal clients: Visit Finger Lakes, Seneca, Livingston and Cayuga Counties, Bristol Mountain and Roseland Waterpark, The Quiet Place, and more.

Partnership goes beyond the clients I work (and develop friendships) with. I’ve also built a strong network of partners I can turn to to provide help at different steps of a project, from mapmakers to copywriters and fellow graphic designers to print shop owners.

These partnerships become crucial when I hit stopping points, when I need to get out of my own head, and when there’s simply something that’s better left done by someone else.

Knowing I get to work with such equally passionate partners in both my clients and fellow business owners adds a level of fulfillment to my work that simply wouldn’t be possible if I were to hunker down in my cave — no matter how cozy that cave might be — and churn out work regardless of the relationships behind it.

Realizing the power of recognition

Our second source that goes beyond inner validation is exactly what you might think: outside recognition.

Taking compliments is something some people are better at than others. I’ve always been on the shier end of the spectrum, grateful for the recognition, but quick to move on to the next thing.

Lately, though, I’m realizing just how powerful recognition can be.

In October, I was delighted to be honored at the New York State Tourism Industry Association (NYSTIA) awards with my client and partner, Seneca County. Seneca County was recognized with the Excellence in Tourism Marketing Award – County Effort, selected from a field of strong nominees from the 62 eligible counties in New York State.

The award was given for Seneca County’s 2016 visitor guide, called “Faces and Stories from the Finger Lakes.” It’s a full-color, 50-page brochure that tells the stories of local tourism personalities and businesses found throughout Seneca County, as well as the residents who are proud to call it home.

I was honored as part of the award because of my work as the guide’s designer, but naturally it would not have been possible without the partnership and unique skills of the Seneca County staff and volunteers — their storytelling, community building, and trust in me as a designer.

On top of that rewarding partnership, was the outside recognition of such a prestigious award nice? Absolutely. It provided that extra layer of validation that both Seneca County and I can use to power our work moving forward.

It’s not the first award I’ve been honored to be a part of, but it was a solid reminder of the energy that comes in hearing someone else give confirmation — an energy that keeps us going on days when the going is tough.

Should we all work solely for the purpose of outside recognition? Absolutely not. But it sure does deserve a spot in the rewards you experience from doing what you do.

Most of all, show gratitude

No matter the rewards you feel from doing what you do — whether internal or external — it all comes back to gratitude.

Inner recognition and outside validation mean very little — and are harder to enjoy — if we do not stop to express our gratitude for what we do. I could not breathe in that energy and exhale my work if I was not infinitely grateful to be able to own my design studio and get out and paint.

Now, it’s your turn. Tell me in the comment below: What do you find most rewarding about what you do? What are you most grateful for?

Wearing My Tourist Cap (Beret!): Travel Inspiration for Design + Life from Limoux, France

Travel Inspiration for Design and Life from Limoux, France

There are few sacred things in this world that bring us both immediate joy as well as unfettered, life-changing benefits as time goes on. For me, one of those sacred things is travel.

Travel exposes us to new cultures.

Travel opens our minds to new ideas.

Travel pushes us beyond our comfort zones to build our confidence.

Travel, in so many ways, is more than just the pictures you snap while you’re hiking that waterfall. It’s the conversations you have over authentic food; it’s the thrill of walking into the unknown of a new experience; it’s the sense of pride that comes with successfully navigating an airport in a foreign city.

Travel expands who we are as people. Fortunately for me, I’ve also learned to make travel essential to my design work.

Putting on my tourist hat in Limoux, France

For me, travel doesn’t just expand my mindset, attitudes, and knowledge — it also expands my work as a graphic designer for the travel and tourism world.

It’s one of the reasons why, no matter where I go, I like to put on my tourist hat. (Oftentimes, I truly do wear a hat.) I step into the role of tourist — sometimes more easily than others — to truly experience what someone completely new to an area might notice, do, and feel.

Playing tourist was easy this fall, as I embarked on my first-ever painting retreat, where I joined 10 other painters in Limoux, France, for two weeks of painting and culture under the leadership of one of my favorite artists, Lori Putnam.

Not only did this time dedicated to painting completely transform my techniques and outlook — it also gave me the chance to bring back some key lessons for travel and tourism experience design:

Simplify your maps. As I traveled around, in a land where the language was predominantly foreign to me, I realized the importance of simple maps — maps not overcrowded with every tourism attraction, ever — but simple maps pointing out the essentials: pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, and more.

Make the travel experience about more than just sights. Appeal to all five senses. Experience tastes (we enjoyed native breads, cheeses, cassoulet, and more); capture sounds (the flowing of the river and bustle of the people as we set up our easels and painted); inspire scent recognition with food, soaps, and nature. (By the way, French lavender is my favorite!)

Encourage local activism and pride. Engaging with locals who are excited to welcome you is one of the easiest ways to feel at home in a foreign place. Designing experiences that inspire people to interact and engage in conversation is the best way to go beyond the TripAdvisor “Top 10” and into the hidden secrets and local favorites. We were fortunate to have a local tour guide with us in Limoux who scoped out the best, sometimes hidden nooks and crannies of Southern France region for us to paint.

Provide opportunities to shop local. Taking gifts home that aren’t manufactured in China (unless you’re in China, of course), is a fantastic way to not only support the local economy, but to also have a true piece of that destination. For me, it’s a set of French-made baskets and soaps bought from a local artisan.

Make help easy and accessible. From the airport or train station signage to the individual information booths in villages, it’s imperative that, as tourists, we can easily get access to the help and information we need. For me, having tourism offices and information displays that were easy to find always gives me peace of mind.

When designing that experience, consider this: What might someone not know? The best way to explore the answer to that? By experiencing it yourself.

As long as my work calls for it, I will be a traveler. And even when it doesn’t, I have no doubt travel will be an essential piece of my life. I urge you to make time for it in yours — though the benefits might not seem obvious now, you’ll most certainly realize them over time.

Destination marketers: How will you design your experience?

Travelers: How will you experience your next destination, friends?

How to Get More In Tune With Your Ideal Client

How to Get More In Tune With Your Ideal Client

In any business, a crucial piece of designing a brand and developing products or services is being able to describe who your ideal client is — who, exactly, you’re targeting with what you do.

Once you’ve done that, you can be more focused not only in what you develop/build/create, but also in how you market it.

So, defining that ideal client (or avatar, or buyer persona…) is pretty darn important. It will save you time. It will save you money. It will save your sanity.

But many business owners struggle to really dig beyond who their ideal client is — their demographics, like age, sex, location, etc. — and into what they’re all about — their thoughts, feelings, motivations, and aspirations.

Fortunately, I’ve found a way to conquer that struggle throughout my decade as a business owner: I’ve learned how to put myself in my ideal client’s shoes, ultimately becoming them if even for a short amount of time.

Becoming your ideal client

Let me be clear: I’m not asking you to change yourself. I am asking you to practice a little empathy.

If you’re a store owner who sells clothing, get out and go shopping for clothes yourself. What types of experiences sit best with you? What are your struggles as you’re shopping? What types of thoughts go through your head?

If you’re a restaurant owner focused on offering an entirely gluten-free menu, head out to restaurants that not only do what you want to do, but also those that don’t. What types of struggles do people who need to eat gluten free encounter? What are they feeling when they can’t find it? Better yet — what does the environment look like when they do?

The best part about this process is that in many ways, you’ll realize that you already largely embody your ideal client. After all, many of us start a business because we recognize a need; because we were feeling it ourselves, first.

Here’s how I’ve learned to become my ideal client — and how it’s influenced my business.

What practicing empathy looks like in my graphic design business

My graphic design business has served clients in more industries than I can count on my two hands, but one thing’s been made clear throughout the last decade: I’m at home when I’m designing for the travel and tourism industry.

Once I realized that niche, I set out to empathize with travelers in every destination so I could learn more about how destination marketers could brand themselves. It opened my eyes to new businesses and stories in Asheville. It caused me to better document my travels to Santa Monica when visiting my daughter. It put me in the shoes of my fellow travelers and their aspirations for traveling: to experience that which is unique, to collect stories, and to find themselves. It’s given me a new regard for traveling — and it’s undoubtedly helped me in my research process when designing a destination.

What practicing empathy looks like for my painting business

I apply a similar approach to my painting business. As an artist, it can be easy to keep creating and never tell a soul about it. After all, it’s a very personal thing, to work from your soul.

But expressing that which otherwise might get hidden away isn’t my only reason for painting — it’s to find the people who connect with my light-filled art and are looking to welcome it into their homes and businesses.

To do that — to learn how to find these people and connect with them — I have to actively put myself in their shoes. I love to look at art. I love to buy art. But now, I also love to start conversations with its creators, and their buyers. I love to enter a gallery with others and learn what speaks to them. I love to attend festivals not only as an exhibitionist, but also as a buyer, to get a feel for the experience.

Putting ourselves in our clients’ shoes helps us get ever closer to the things that really matter when it comes to them connecting with our products, our services, our creations. It gives us personal experience with their feelings, their thoughts, and their motivations. It’s inserting ourselves into those experiences that helps us design our own.

Hone in on how you’ll best serve this world

Identify with your ideal client. Put yourself in their shoes in order to develop what it is they need most, and learn how you can deliver it in the way that carries the biggest impact.

Simply put, empathy leads to focus on what you do. Focus leads to impact by doing it even better. And your impact is what we all need most in this world.