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.

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.

The Webs That Define a Destination’s Brand — And You

Webs of Destination Branding and You

I define myself as many things: A painter. A graphic designer. A mother. A wife. An artist. A traveler. An optimist. A believer.

It’s not something I was always so comfortable with — that is, feeling confident calling myself so many things. At any given time, I would describe myself as one of those things, but not the others. It took a while until I could fully embrace the fact that most of what we are in our lives is completely intertwined.

I am a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter… all in the web of family.

I am a designer, a journaler, a painter, a sketcher… all in the web of creativity.

I am a business owner, an accountability partner, a student, a mentor… all in the web of my career.

These webs are what make our lives complete. And these webs are what make me realize and appreciate how my work can impact the rest of my life, and vice versa.

Why I love destination branding

The majority of my design work takes place in the travel and tourism space, giving birth to and developing brands for specific destinations around the Finger Lakes, New York State, and beyond.

During this work, I am able to travel to beautiful destinations, where I meet amazing people who tell equally amazing stories of where they live, work, and play. I learn about the attributes that make each destination unique. I learn about the history that has impacted the area today. I learn about the ongoing developments, and I get to share in the vision for the future.

I love this time during the project — the time I define as research in my BRANCH process. It’s a time when I absorb what a place means, what it stands for, and what potential it holds for the rest of the world.

Sometimes, I’ll even pull out my easel to paint in a place that I’m branding. Because I’m most present when painting, it’s this practice that helps me really center on what’s most important in a destination.

And what’s important is typically a handful of things. The beauty of the Finger Lakes isn’t just in its waterways — it’s in its wine; its culinary scene; its parks; its history. The mystique of the Adirondacks isn’t just in its mountains — it’s in its lakes; its pubs; its arts community.

Destinations, much like individuals, are often characterized by one thing, but the detriment is that they’re good at many.

Instead of zoning in on one thing, I look at the web that’s weaved by all things. This way of looking at destinations (and individuals, really) reminds me that we shouldn’t mistake simple for ordinary. It reminds me that there is so much to every story. It reminds me that unless we’re fully present, it’s impossible to witness, explore, and capture the details, the stories, and the people that weave the web that is ultimately a destination.

How destination branding impacts my every day

Destination branding brings me to places I might never go to otherwise. In Cayuga County, I went on a hike with the town of Montezuma’s historian. In Ontario County, I kayaked the beautiful Canandaigua Lake. In Seneca County, I took photos of my husband and daughter skydiving. (No, I didn’t join in — but they LOVED it!) In Livingston County, I hiked the Grand Canyon of the West (Letchworth State Park) — and it’s now become one of my favorite places to paint.

Of course, these are important experiences that have impacted how I’ve developed and designed each destination’s brand. But it goes well beyond that.

Because I spend time experiencing the here and now in order to really express the essence of each area, it’s taught me how to travel with my eyes fully open. It’s taught me how to be a tourist in my own backyard. And it’s taught me how to tell the whole story.

Ultimately, being a traveler, a destination designer, a storyteller, a painter… it all weaves together in my web of mindfulness — yet another aspect of my being.

A destination is made up of many things, that weave together to determine its brand, much like you are made up of many things that make up your identity.

The real question is: How will you tell the whole story?

Creativity at Work & Play: Living an Amplified Existence

Creativity and Big Magic

“A creative life is an amplified life.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I recently finished a book — one of those books where right after you’ve finished it, you feel you could read it again, and again, and be inspired in a different way each time. It was Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and I have no doubt that it spoke to me on such a deep level because of its subject matter: creativity — something I’ve built both a business and life around.

Gilbert contends that we are all creative. We all have access to creativity, because we are human. And as humans, it is both our duty and our privilege to act on that creativity.

Which made me take a moment to think about how I’ve acted on my creativity, and how I’ve incorporated it into my life. And how vastly different the creativity I fill my work days with is from the creativity that feeds my spirit outside of my work, but how much I need them both.

Creativity embodied in work & play

While I realize how fortunate I am to have a creative job during the day and a creative passion that fuels me in all the hours around it, I have learned to set parameters around how I use my two creative pursuits so that one feeds the other.

Why do I need to draw this line? Because, as Gilbert presents so beautifully in her book, when you rely on your true creative curiosities to sustain you both financially and soulfully, one tends to “murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills.”

I never want that to happen.

For me, it’s about using two very different pursuits to fuel each other, so that my creativity is always being exercised, but never too burdened.

Creativity at work

Graphic design and branding is my creativity at work; my logical sustenance. It feeds me on a professional level by letting me use my creative soul to serve others, while making a reliable income that I can support my family with.

I say this with much love: this aspect of my creativity is the responsible side of my being. Although I am exercising creativity on a daily basis with color, texture, layout, and more, I am restricted by technological constraints — computers, software, renderings, resolutions — as well as by demand constraints — I can earn only as much as the client wants to pay, and I am bound within the calling of their brand.

While these constraints do mean that my creativity isn’t exercised as freely as it is in other pursuits, it does mean that I get to use my creative skills to serve clients, so that they can change the world with what they do. I am giving my art on a much broader scale, and can’t help but feel a certain sense of pride when I see it on billboards, grocery store shelves, tourism bureau walls, and websites around the world.

It’s not so bad for logical sustenance, right? But the real fun comes when I get to use my creativity for play.

Creativity at play

Painting is my creativity at play; my soul’s sustenance. It feeds me at my core, and lets me use my creativity to serve myself. Painting is my unbridled, unadulterated creativity. There are no limitations; there are no pressures.

There is absolute creative freedom when I am painting. I follow no rules; I don’t rely on electricity or software; I am bound only by my own, self-imposed limitations.

I am allowed to have this freedom because I’ve built a creative day job that provides that logical sustenance. Thanks to my visual branding work, I don’t have to put pressure on my paintings; I’m not worried about creating the next masterpiece that will sell for millions.

Would I love to spend all of my time painting every day in the south of France, the Tuscan plains of Italy, or the mountains of the Adirondacks? Of course. But if I demanded that my painting pay for my existence, I would not have the sacred experience I get when I paint now — when I gather up my supplies, head out en plein air, squeeze the colors from the tubes, choose my favorite brushes and pallet knife, set my easel up, and observe what’s surrounding me.

Energy comes through me from a higher source when I am totally immersed in this process. It is my commitment; it is my loyalty. I am able to experiment without any restraints or boundaries. It is my Big Magic.

How they come together

I love both sides of my creative life. I am grateful for the balance that they each give me, and how one allows for the other. Without my logical sustenance, my soul would not be fulfilled, and without my soul fulfilled, I could not enjoy my other work nearly as much.

Whether it’s the cover of a brochure designed in Photoshop or the free-flowing brushstrokes on a canvas, creativity has always, and will always, be both my work and my play.

Living an amplified life

To put her words another way, Creativity is a life, amplified. If that’s the truth (and I happen to think it is), then I am living an amplified existence — and I want you to, as well.

Find your passions and pursue them without constraint. Write those poems. Sketch that portrait. Sing that song. Bake that pie. Whatever creative experience you are dreaming of, find the time and make it happen — but don’t put the pressure on it to be your sustenance on every level.

Will you join me in living an amplified life?