Beginning in a production role with the Nordstrom Marketing design group in 1984, today Denise Carrillo is an art director and designer in the Internet Design department. In addition to art directing fashion shoots, mostly in New York, Ms. Carrillo oversees design for BPNordstrom.com and was instrumental in the conception and launch of Nordstrom.com's innovative Designer Collection site. A natural artist, Ms. Carrillo actually followed a surprisingly circuitous path before finally landing back in Seattle with a degree in commercial art from Cornish College of the Arts.
September 29, 2006 interview by board member Allison Gegan.
How did you decide to jump from print to web?
I've been in a number of creative rolls within Nordstrom Marketing and worked with a few specific divisions so my experience with the company has a broad base. My decision was based on having had so much experience with the print group and the fact that Nordstrom wanted to integrate the print and web teams to make the two channels more alike than different. I was asked if I wanted to join the internet group and I thought "Well, you know, yeah I do. Tell me more, what does it involve?" I had deep connections to the print group, but in terms of expanding my own horizons it was definitely a great opportunity. I feel really lucky that I was asked to do that. The transition was initially hard because it felt more like production than design. I still feel a little bit of a gap between the print world and the internet world—that if someone has been solely involved with internet, they might not be that 'complete' of a designer. I don't know what makes me say this or why it is, perhaps the criteria is different between the two. I get the sense that turnover and change is greater in the high speed internet world in general.
It's crucial that people really understand the culture of the company that they work for, and understand the brand. That takes time. Over time I feel fairly grounded in my understanding of merchandise and what appeals to people (shoppers, at least!). I also feel like I can ask questions about how things are done and if it's the best solution. For me and for the work I want to do, it's important to offer a few solutions in order to see what works. It's useful to question things.
But an interesting thing is I just finished a Beginning Photoshop class at SVC. (laughs) I mean I wasn't an absolute beginner, but still… (laughs again)
That's amazing. It doesn't seem possible to be both as accomplished as you are and still be taking Beginning Photoshop for the first time. Does the print division at Nordstrom still work in Quark?
Yes, they do. The print division has an incredible group of production specialists which is the main reason I've been able to get by with not being Photoshop fluent. But some people on the team have been inquiring about InDesign. I think it's imminent and that it's going to happen really soon. As far as not knowing Photoshop that well yet — the images come from the photographer to me in a program called Capture One Pro, and then I use Quark to lay out the edits back at the office instead of doing layer after layer in Photoshop.
But the really nice thing about Nordstrom is that they believe in supporting the growth and education of their designers when it's appropriate, so the company was willing to cover the cost of the class for me in this case.
Do you feel this is something a designer should look for when considering employment?
Yes, it's important to feel that a company is supporting your growth and in our industry it's imperative to stay current with new technology.
Was it a conscious decision to stay with one company for most of your career?
I can't really say that it was a conscious decision, I didn't know when I started that I'd stay with Nordstrom as long as I have. I had no idea, not in a million years, because up until I started working for Nordstrom I changed jobs once a year or more. So no, I never imagined being with a company this long! Because I've had an opportunity to wear a number of creative hats within one company— it's been a good thing.
Where did you go to school?
Cornish. It was a BFA program, and Anne Traver was one of my instructors. I started school later, in my twenties.
Why did you delay college?
Why? Because I wanted to live life first! (laughs)
It seems that is a common trait of creative people, exploring or doing things according to one's own timetable.
It was, it really was. (laughs) I used to do things like design posters for my boyfriend (long before college) who was a musician—that was before I even knew that it was graphic design. I had no idea I was doing graphic design at the time, no clue.
And also—you have to understand this was Berkeley in the 70's—our whole perspective about the world at large was slightly off-center, so, you know, everything was different.
I had a friend who would say, "You're really good at drawing detail, you should go to school and get a job for that." So I went to school first to learn drafting. Which meant that early on in my career I was a draftsman in Manhattan for an engineering company; so that was really when I first started putting pen on paper in a professional way.
But then after that, I spent time traveling all over, having adventures and stuff like that. I worked on a few thoroughbred horse farms, I harvested blueberries, made custom made sandals, worked at the Bass shoe company in Maine, lived in the Florida Keys and just…lived life, really.
That is so incredible, because you're so focused in your career now.
And that is the trip of the whole thing, because how is it that I've worked for the same company for so long now?! After that bohemian life of freedom, a little like my parents were. So my beginning is in stark, stark contrast to where I am now.
And what's amazing is that one would think, if s/he wanted to become like you are one day, that they'd need to spring out of bed in the morning and eat design for breakfast and go have a focused, driven, productive day in order to achieve a high level of status.
Not for me. It was very different.
So do you think the twenty-three years at Nordstrom came to be because it was the right fit? Or because you were treated well? Or…
I think it's the right fit, because when I got out of school, I worked for Ellen Ziegler Designers—she used to be one of the key women of Seattle design, along with Anne Traver, and Pat Hansen and others. I started out working for her and got a taste of a small, boutique design studio that in some ways, I would love to do again. Just that whole concept of talking across the room to whomever you need to, you know what I mean? And decisions could be made quickly and easily, which isn't how it is for me now. So that was nice, having something so direct with the client.
However, she also had some really practical clients like semi trucks and hospitals—yet for all the time I've been at Nordstrom, everything I work with is pretty and functional (to sell stuff). It's all about making things look beautiful. It's quality-of-life, so the creativity was always right where I needed it to be and the kind of work I wanted to do. Plus, it is a good environment.
Any stumbling blocks or moments of falling on your face, that made you think, "I better go back to picking blueberries?"
Oh. Yeah. There was definitely a point in my career when I really, really needed the approval and I was very motivated to work really hard for it. Whether it was the creative director or a merchant, whenever they critiqued my project in any way, I took it so personally. Now, I find that the work doesn't get critiqued as much as it used to, I'm more likely to deliver work that makes people happy. But on the occasion that I do get feedback I can hear it with much more open ears, whether I agree with them or not, I can see that there's another way of looking at things. It really, to me, is an opportunity for me to see things in a way that I hadn't seen before. So that's a huge difference over the course of twenty-three years. (starts laughing) I mean, I should hope so during that time!
And I think that what I've grown to value, as a person, is good communication, and my work is an extension of that. I value communication in my personal relationships, and so I think that's why it works for me to do the work that I do. I see it as a way of communicating. I always try to think in terms of the way that I'm approaching something, as though, I'm talking to someone who is hearing this for the first time, like it's totally new information. How do I deliver the message so that they understand it? I try to never assume that someone already has a sense of what I'm talking about. This is how I go about working on an idea or a project—I step way back first.
What about working with fashion models. How is that, and how do you handle having an impact on women? You have a daughter who is a "tween."
Well, I think there are a lot of misconceptions that it's either a) glamorous or b) bitchy and catty. But, you know, sure, there are personalities just like there are in any workplace. Every place has its personalities. And, some of the models are more responsive to input than others, some get it right away and they can understand when you're going for a certain kind of feeling or when I try to show them a certain pose, they get it.
Or sometimes they don't have a sense of their body, which for me is hard. Occasionally models will get started because they have a certain look, but don't yet have an awareness of how to align themselves. Sometimes there isn't a sense of how to get there, to get at what I'm looking for. Even if it only means the hip is tilted back a little bit. The models and their abilities really vary.
But you are able to make it work eventually, which is why you are able to keep doing what you do, producing this great work that they've come to count on.
Well, it's hard to say. All art directors have a different way of working. I am very hands-on, and I've had both photographers and models give me the feedback that I give a lot of direction.
Initially when I first started, I wondered if that was a good thing, or a bad thing. Control or clarity? But the response I often get is "Oh, we love it! We love clear direction, and the sense of knowing what you want." So I get the feeling that there are a fair number of art directors that don't have that quality. I usually know what I want, and I'm able to draw that out.
Everyone reading this is going to want to know, do the models eat when everyone breaks for lunch?
Well, they eat lunches. Just…small lunches. And usually the crew is tuned in enough to make sure that your model is going to eat and have the energy and blood sugar to do the work well.
Isn't there the chance that a model could change in appearance since the time you booked him or her? That's not your fault then…
No, actually, it's my responsibility and if I think there's a chance that someone has changed, that I get a Polaroid that day, from the agency, so that I can see how she's going to look today. They shouldn't be that drastically different from their book, but still you never know. Even though it's natural, it's better if the models don't change. I feel a responsibility for not showing excessively thin models. So when a model shows up and she's too thin, I've been known to ask the retouchers to "add flesh." It's less expensive than canceling the booking.
A lot can be done in post-production, to make the models and the clothes look right. It's odd to do that, I know, but it's a reality.
Do you think expectations are more relaxed because you're in Seattle, instead of the other big cities?
Well, not so much, because when I'm shooting, it's usually in New York. Everybody is keyed into what is going on, currently, so it's important to keep up with that. And because of the internet our images are viewed worldwide, they're not just viewed in Seattle. It's not as local as it seems.
What would you be doing if you weren't a designer?
I'm really drawn to illustration, I love creating artwork. Illustration is that in-between of doing some level of self-expression, but it's still for the end result of communicating a concept.
Do you think it's important for all designers to have a sketch pad?
I do. But do I have one?
But I think it's really important, and I always jot things down and sketch things quickly, but just as often I'll drag a jpg to a file folder. I've got piles and piles of digital and scrap file folders of things that inspire me.
Do you think that sketchbooks should play a role when hiring?
Hmm. Ideally, sure, but that doesn't usually happen. No.
Do you think it's important to be a good writer?
As a designer?
Interesting that you should ask that. If you're not a good writer, you need to work with someone who is a good writer. I do find that I pay a lot of attention to the words, when I'm working on a project, I definitely like to give feedback on the copy and collaborate on it to where it's just right, I'm not the kind of person that just takes what they're given and puts it on the page no matter what it says. I think content is important.
If something were too serious, or too...
Oh, yes, definitely. That's how I choose who I work with, I have to know if this person is going to be OK with my suggestions, so I always ask if s/he is OK with it. Sometimes, the writer will be inflexible, and it can be really hard for me, really frustrating. It's important to work in tandem. "Good enough"" isn't really good enough. In one case the writer only wanted a superficial solution. Whatever emotions might come up, even from looking at shoes, wasn't interesting to her. It's important to get people to connect with the pictures, one should look and explore more.
How important are hand skills and drawing in design?
Well, it's something I value because it plays a large part in what I do. I love being able to see the hand of the designer, to incorporate that, when it's appropriate of course. There's more of that in the BPNordstrom.com work, hand-created elements and hand lettering. For that age group, that quality makes it very approachable.
Sometimes I have to step away from the computer, I'll draw it on paper and scan it. Other times it's OK to create it with a computer and mouse.
Getting back to fashion, give us an example of something people should never, ever wear. For example, something that is a blight on society. Something like stirrup leggings…
Honey, I just shot some stirrup leggings last month. They were black and shiny and I'm telling you they were gorgeous, it was a gorgeous shot. I wasn't sure how I was going to make it work, but in the end it really did.
But you hid the fact that they were stirrups?
Absolutely not. She also had on a dolman sleeve sweater!
I really pay attention to finishing the line of the body, no claw hands! I'm constantly watching for that, watching the models hands because it's a sculpture that I'm making. Sculpture is part of what I do when I set up a shot, it's not just "clothes on a person."
Tell me about the launch of "Designer Collections" with Fashion Week in New York.
Well, we talked about a number of ways to promote it, but in the end we simply distributed cards announcing the site. Because it wasn't going to be e-commerce enabled at launch, it was more like a soft launch.
The customer service Nordstrom is known for was still there, even if the ability to purchase directly wasn't. The intent was to make the experience the focus, and then roll the rest (shopability) out in stages.
Do you have advice for students or those starting out?
Well, there's no one answer for all people. I can only speak from my own experience, you'll know if you have it or not. And if you've got drive, you'll keep exploring. As for me, I spent so much time trying to broaden my life and to not focus too tightly, that…I don't know that one path fits all. Immerse yourself in the world, pay attention to what speaks to you, what inspires you, and try to figure out how you can incorporate that essence in what you do.
What are your hobbies?
Parenting is time consuming, parenting and community are my hobbies and being involved outside my work. I love to dance whenever I can and take classes 2-3 times a week, depending on when you ask. Being physically engaged allows me to be really present and in the moment. I love that. I can feel it in my body when I'm onto some tasty design. In my core, I can tell whether I'm there, at a good solution. Gotta keep that instrument tuned!
I have a garden most of the time—though it's rather sorry looking this summer...again due to work demands.
Are there any films a designer should see?
Talk to Her, by Pedro Almodovar, for his storytelling, luscious use of color. Born into Brothels, for illustrating how accessing one's creative process can bring relief from an otherwise painful existence. Napoleon Dynamite for its opening title sequence. The Science of Sleep. I could go on and on...
What kind of music are you listening to?
Brazilian Girls. Michael Franti. Juana Molina. DJ Krush, not for any good reasons other than it makes me feel good.
If you knew you couldn't fail, what would you do?
I'd be a performer with Cirque du Soleil. It's physical expression, loud music, conceptual, community, passionate. Those are all of my loves!! Well almost all – my daughter would need to join, too.