Occupation: Art Director/Photographer
Biography: Catherine Aurelio runs a one person graphic design and photography studio in Santa Cruz, California. She combines creative design ideas and a savvy understanding of the business of marketing to produce the most streamlined solutions for her clients. Catherine’s enjoys helping companies grow by providing a combination of great marketing strategy and really great design.
What do you do and how did you start?
I’m an art director. My first job was on a C-grade movie in Arizona (Buffalo Heart: The Path of Death). It wasn’t a glamorous job-my duties ranged from painting a pig-butchering truck to making all the blood out of Karo syrup and food coloring. I didn’t like the uncertainty of the movie business, but I loved the fast pace.
Did you always want to work in the advertising industry?
My first declared college major (at the School of Visual Arts) was advertising, but after learning more about it, I realized that I hated the industry and the people that worked in it. That’s why I left and switched my major to photography. Having experience in the movie business brought me back around to doing something besides photography. I knew I wasn’t going to make any money as a fine art landscape photographer! I chose advertising because it I thought it was the only traditional business that had a creative element. I stayed on the creative side because I didn’t think that I was able to understand the economics of business-accounting, cost-flow analysis, etc. But really, the design element of the advertising industry is only a small part of what we do.
I don’t think the ad industry has changed from when I decided that I didn’t like it. Traditional ad agencies set up a level of tension between creative and account people that shouldn’t be there. The creatives shield themselves from knowing about what the account side does, and vice versa. But art directors should know just as much about marketing as the marketers do, and everyone should be able to meet and communicate with clients.
What kinds of jobs did you first get, and what made you realize that you wanted to go out on your own?
Having my own business is a way for me to change the aspects of the traditional ad industry that I don’t like. The way I’ve set up Firecracker Studio combines design, marketing and photography. The marketing message needs to be clear and concise and targeted. The design needs to be really tight and the best that it can be for the intended audience. The photography aspect comes into play when we need something better than stock options can provide. I find more and more that custom photography is an important visual element of a successful piece.
Keeping my business small allows me to do a lot of different jobs-during one day, I might be a bookkeeper, a designer, a photographer, an account rep, and a marketing director. It keeps it interesting, and my knowledge of any one area plays into and enhances the others.
What steps did you take to create your own business?
I didn’t take any obvious or planned steps. Ten years ago I was freelancing, so I was already self-employed, but then I lost my regular freelance gig (for reasons not based on job performance or attitude for the first time in my life!). That happened during tax season, and I had to use all of my savings to pay taxes. Having to go back to an old job out of financial desperation made me miserable, and it put a fire under my ass. I called everyone I knew, rebuilt bridges that I had burnt. I got really serious about doing design as a career.
I didn’t start my business in the traditional way with research and creating a business plan. Not that a business plan doesn’t help. I have since created one. But, when I started, I knew exactly what I wanted. I didn’t care that there was competition. I was determined to be successful on my own and to never work for someone else again. I was determined to carve out a space for myself in this market. So, to me the business planning aspect seemed like it had the potential to make me doubt my ability to just get out there and make things happen. I think the point is that if you know exactly what you want and how to get it then you already have a plan. So go for it.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do?
The most rewarding part of what I do is creative thinking about how to help businesses make more money. That to me is an incredibly rewarding feeling, to create that marketing plan, to create something that works well for my clients
The most frustrating?
The most frustrating thing is when I create a really great solution for a client, and the message through rounds of revision gets changed so drastically by the client, that it loses its original punch. Sometimes educating clients to look at their products from the outside, as a consumer, is a fruitless effort. They sometimes get stuck because they understand their product from the inside. They already know how great it is. So, they apply that internal techno speak that they use to describe their products to the outgoing consumer side message. The result is a that message that was generalized and punchy and meaningful to the target audience, gets made into muddled techno babble And, that really really sucks.
Do you have any fears about what you do, and if so, how do you deal with them?
My biggest fear is having to go back to work for somebody else. It’s that fear that drives me to make this work enough to support us.
Have you encountered any financial obstacles, and if so, how did you overcome them?
I’ve been very lucky with regard to finances. I’ve had so much encouragement, from everyone I know, to follow my dream. The thing that I’ve learned is to never live beyond your means. Don’t think beyond what you have now. There’s nothing wrong with setting a goal, but you have to be realistic about where you’re starting from.
What kind of work environment do you have?
I have a great work environment. People make a big deal about the isolation of working at home, but I disagree. I get a lot more done when there’s no one to distract me at the water cooler. I work in an environment that’s mine, and that’s priceless. I’ve got my pets. I have clients and colleagues that I get to talk to throughout the day. And, sometimes I get to take a two hour break when I want to to go surf for two hours. That kind of freedom is truly priceless to me. It is the end all reason that I do what I do.
What is your definition of success?
Who or what are your inspirations?
One of my inspirations is my stepmother, Linda. I remember her being successful in her own right before it was common for women to be aggressive in a business sense without seeming like bitchy loners who didn’t have time for their families. She did a good job of balancing her career and family and was still able to get what she wanted. She has a good amount of both firmness and understanding that helped her to be successful.
Any words of advice for those pursuing their creative goals?
It sounds stupid and really corny, but if you can see it in your mind’s eye-whatever “it” is, your goals, what you want from life, your level of happiness-you can do it. Hard work, a little bit of luck, and education are all necessary, but believing you can do it helps you put one foot in front of the other until you reach your goal.