In 2014 and 2015, Shannon Gabor served as Communications Director for AIGA Los Angeles. Her company, Clever Creative, acted as the chapter’s agency of record during this time, producing artwork and communications materials for the programs and events. Earlier this year, Lavinia Lumezanu sat down with Shannon to hear her experiences as a designer, the joys of running an agency, and the benefits of working with AIGA.
Walking into the Clever Creative office, one finds beautiful typography on the walls, garden gnomes that welcome you as you enter, and everyone is smiling. It’s like walking into another world. Shannon Gabor, CEO and Founder, has this amazing energy about her and fills the room with light when she walks in. Our interview felt like a conversation between old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while and have a lot to catch up on.
LAVINIA LUMEZANU | You started your agency at 28 and you’ve been a role model for women entrepreneurs and designers everywhere. How did you decide it was time to build your own dream and what advice do you have for other young designers out there who are looking to take on a similar challenge?
SHANNON GABOR | I had always been extremely proactive in my career, I did a lot of internships during college, then evolved into work on the agency side before moving on to the client on the brand side so together it was about 10 years of experience combined. I was at a juncture in my last position as a Toy Packaging Designer and Licensing Designer for Mattel that I just wanted to take the leap of faith.
I was never really the normal creative, I never found myself in the dreamer, the creator, and the thinker; I always had this other very pragmatic and strategic mindset. And it wasn’t something I was willing to ignore. I knew that part of me wasn’t maximized in my role as a designer in house.
I wish I could say I had the insight at 28 to know where I would be today, but the reality is that I just wanted to try to move forward in my career. When I left Mattel, I had no intention of starting my own agency, my goal was to leave that position, continue to freelance while at the same time looking for another full time position. Once I started freelancing, I realized that a lot of my former peers who valued me and were in executive levels at different companies would ask me to work on various projects with them. Within a couple months, it became evident there was no point in interviewing for a full time position anymore and I gave first priority to the freelancing aspect of my work. About six months later, I looked around and I had a company, I had my own clients, I was building things on my own.
I never planned on starting an agency from scratch; I started slow and evolved from that. I think the realistic goal for young designers is to start small, start freelancing and building, recognize your strengths, build on them and hire people who can add value where you may not be as skilled. As a young designer, you always have to ask yourself what are you bringing different in the industry because there are a million good agencies out there recognized globally and nationally and if you don’t have something that stands out, you will easily get lost in the crowd. If you can do that and if you can learn to lead from a place of authenticity, things start to fall into place.
What is your greatest inspiration as a female designer?
Since I don’t come from a traditional graphic design background (my major was in Fine Arts at USC), the most influential women creators for me are people like Barbara Kruger. I was always more inspired by contemporary artists who are able to connect fine arts with modern commercial design. I’m the type of designer with the big bold type that’s cropped off the page. I am not quiet and perfectly kerned and I think my inspiration shows just that.
Has being a mother changed the way you run your business?
I think there’s a stigma about a woman running a business because we tend to think that women get too emotional and they can’t keep their emotions in check. While the majority of Clever’s clients have been men, I’ve never had a challenge interacting with men and I’ve never been afraid to show my nurturing side even before I was a mother. We treat our clients with a high level of service. We want our clients to feel like they are nurtured and take care of. I think it’s not only ok, but also valuable as a woman to lend your personal experiences to uncover the truth in brands. My experiences as a woman and as a mother bring value to a brand because all those things just make me a better creative.
Your mantra is “all things good.” How did that come about? When did it start?
It was one day when I was having a really hard time with a client who was just negative about everything, no matter what we suggested, and I remembered something my mother said: “Kill them with kindness and don’t shift your day to the tone that you’re getting.” So I replied to one of his emails by saying
“All things good,
I realized then and there that as a person and as an agency that’s something I need to always bring to the table because if I don’t have that positive energy, that belief in “all things good” then it’s only going to create friction with a client who’s already stressed by his day.
What are you most proud of in your career? Apart from starting Clever Creative.
Deciding to come to USC instead of RISD. I got into RISD and USC and I really wanted to go to RISD because I wanted to stay on the East Coast and I had also spent a few summers there in their pre-college program. The challenge was that at USC, I got a full scholarship, but I would have to move across the country and it was a university, not an art school, while RISD, I would graduate with massive debt. So at 18, I set out for California without knowing anyone here. I think it was a great decision because being away at such a young age allowed me to grow and stand on my own, but at the same time, being at a university allowed me to learn things about communication and running a business that I got to use later on when I started my own company.
Your agency spent 14 months as the agency on record for AIGA Los Angeles. I know you have a busy agency life and a busy family life. Out of all the organizations out there, why AIGA? What made you decide to donate your time to this organization?
I was raised in NY/NJ, working class family, very blue collar, my parents were never entrepreneurs and my mom would always say: “Always remember your roots and where you come from. When possible always give back.”
I was guilty of being that person who paid for her membership, paid for the memberships of her staff, but never really attended any events, got involved or contributed. I wanted the status of being part of the community, but I wasn’t adding any value and that just wasn’t ok for me as a person and as a professional. It was time for me to give back to the industry that had made me successful.
What did you gain as a designer, as a person and as an agency from working with AIGA?
From a personal perspective, I’ve been exposed to a major resource of talent and passionate individuals and I’ve made some great friendships along the way. And it’s been very fulfilling to be able to bring that cohesiveness and that brand connectivity to the AIGA brand. As an agency, it was very inspiring to see the work of our designers out there. Some of them are just a few years out of school and there was a sense of pride in seeing their design represent such a great organization.
What are your thoughts on the local AIGA community?
I think our challenge, as a chapter is the landscape of Los Angeles. There is a little bit of disconnect and a bigger challenge in planning events because of how spread out the city is. Other cities are smaller and have better mass transportation so it’s completely normal to hold an event on a Tuesday night on one side of the city and expect everyone to be there. Even with those challenges, the Los Angeles chapter is seen as an innovator, a place full of storytellers, maybe because we’re all somehow involved in the entertainment industry. And I don’t think any other city can claim that.
How do you view your role as a leader in the community and what are a few values you have as a leader that you are looking to infuse in the AIGA community?
I’m a very genuine and empowering leader. I don’t ever want to micromanage, but I also make sure that the people around me are accountable for their work and their actions. Sometimes creatives tend to dream and be inspired and come up with a vision, but it’s always important that the vision stays within the scope. We work in commercial design so we’re not doing art for art’s sake, but art with a purpose in mind. The word “commercial” is important to recognize.
What do you see next for Clever Creative? Any upcoming projects you are particularly excited about?
Every year for the holidays, we send out a creative mailer and this year for Christmas we’re sending out cookbook filled with recipes from our childhood and some recipes that our clients contributed. It’s being printed in Finland. We’re very proud of it as it showcases our talents as creative, but also our diversity and our backgrounds since we all come from different places. We’re looking to do more work in the hotel and food industry so we’ve had a lot of fun with this book.
Shannon started Clever Creative 10 years ago with herself as the creative force and two Apple computers. While a lot has happened over the years and she has grown as a designer, as a person and as a leader, she always looks to give back, remembers her roots and directs her positive energy towards making a difference in this world.
To find out more about Clever Creative, check out:
Hailing from a family of engineers, Lavinia specializes in multi-cultural marketing and publicity campaigns needed to create change and adapt to diverse market needs. Check out her blog JustLav.