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Nikki Owens:
Designing with Earth and Illustration

What are you currently working on?
I'm currently working at Record Printing & Design in Ellensburg, where I've worked for almost 3 years while at school. I'm designing for Charlie's Produce (dressing), and Seattle companies such as Sticky Fingers Bakery, Market Spice, and Seattle Chocolate.

What lead you to study design?
Where I grew up in San Diego, I was confined to a yard the size of a swimming pool, so I got creative, you know, hanging in the "Tree Forest." I always loved art and wanted to work with it somehow. I love working with colors and abstract things. My step mom was an in-house designer for the San Diego Zoo. She reminded me in college that design was a way to go.

I took my first art class in college. I went from studying education, to art education, to art, and finally graphic design. There were 20 graduates majoring in graphic design at Central Washington University. We were a pretty tight group, we had at least one class together each quarter, and two great instructors: Glen Bach for graphic design, and Chris Hendricks for illustration. They're both great. We barbecued with them both at the end of school.

What do you enjoy about graphic design?
I LOVE illustration. And giving fresh new look to old packaging. But any way I can work illustration into my projects, I do. Like for Fallingwater (a Trapeze winner). Our assignment was to create a poster for Fallingwater that would sell in the gift shop. Fallingwater is a house in western Pennsylvania built by Frank Lloyd Wright. It sits atop a creek, a cement structure created over a waterfall, surrounded by birch trees... it exists around and within nature. There are boulders coming up through the base and floor. Wright tried to not move the existing nature. He built around everything. It's falling apart right now because it's built on a creek.

What did your peers think of the Fallingwater poster?
They liked my portrayal-the architecturally straight-edge trees, the subdued natural color palette, overall the relationship of nature and architecture represented. Yeah, they really liked the illustration.

What time of day do you do your best designs?
Definitely in the morning.

Which design are you most proud of?
Zoko Perfume is my favorite project. It was fun because I worked on it for an entire quarter, from developing the scent to creating the logo, all the way through packaging and press checks. First I had to find a scent that related to the image I wanted to portray. Mine was an earthy scent, which matched the African/earthy design. I chose desert colors for the bottle-rusty red & cream colors for the label-and the logo is an African symbol meaning "harmony." The photograph in the direct mail piece is "Out of Africa" and safari sunset. I just really liked it. We did the press checks as a class in Yakima, which I thought was really cool. Now I see one every day.

How did you name the perfume?
I was sitting at a local coffee shop brainstorming, trying to think of a fun name. The big espresso machine caught my eye-La Marazocco. And somehow it became Zoko.

What is the most important consideration when designing?
How the client wants to be portrayed [to] the consumer. What kind of image they want to get across. From there you can go anywhere. But they're important - their audience, how you want the audience to see the company.

What's been your biggest real-life challenge?
Getting the client to warm up to a design idea. Having them see it the way a person coming into the experience would see it. Charlie's Produce wanted a new line of organic dressing, to market to their Whole Foods and Larry's audience (nature, health-conscience folks). They were reserved, not wanting to push it, so we went to press with a safe design-a watercolor of salad, simple border, logo. Two months later they came around and went for a more upbeat, contemporary look. Now they're really happy with it.

What's your method? Sketch first or straight to computer?
I have to sketch first. Definitely. I'll sketch a bunch of tiny thumbnail concepts, run them by other designers, create comps for clients, and have them pick a way they want to go.

What do you look to for inspiration in designing?
I'll look through design annuals, research the product and what the company wants to do, and then I go outside. I think better outside. Usually I'll go to a park.

What designs have influenced your own design? Why?
I really love Starbucks design. It influences my color palette and illustrations. I like the rough earthy textured kind of look. My boyfriend is a designer; he influences me a lot. I probably get the earthy look from my step mother too.

What advice do you have for students who want to get into graphic design?
Make it what you love. Do what you love and then it'll all just fall into place after that. Keep going at it, finding a niche and what you do best, and work on that (for instance illustration). Make it as good as you can get it to be. Develop a look for yourself.

Have you been involved with AIGA?
It's geographically hard, but I've gone to some events over the past 2 years. "Reality Check" is a 2-hour opportunity to show your portfolio to a bunch of different people and get feedback. It's a HUGE help because they're completely honest and tell you what's up. It was really great at the time-a lot of it was new to me, so getting out there and meeting other students, and hearing what to expect upon graduation was really helpful.

How has AIGA had an impact on your design career?
Keeping involved is a big thing in design. Otherwise stuff gets dated. It's always good to talk to other people and get opinions.

What is your dream job?
To own my own business. And maybe get into environmental design-design the storefront and look of a company.

What do you think of the REI in downtown Seattle?
Love it. The signage, the look, I LOVE that kind of stuff.

Who are your dream clients?
Anything Starbucks. Packaging. And poster design for Bumbershoot & Folklife would be awesome.

Written by Francesca Merlini, a Seattle-based freelance copywriter.

Nikki Owens in a nutshell
AIGA Seattle Trapeze Award
Student Winner 2003