Episode 2: Alisa Olinova — On the Not-so-Secret Sauce to Creating Diversity

Kate Darby: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Design Work. A podcast where we learn from creatives who are designing the work, lives and everything in between. I'm your host Kate Darby. You'll also find me designing brands at my own studio and being co founder of Dovetail X a platform to discover and curate epic creative talent go check it out at DovetailX.com .This week I speak to Alisa Olinova, Design Director of verynice, a design consultancy based in LA that gives away half of their time to great causes. Verynice counts Disney, Unicef and Google as clients plus lots of amazing not for profits.  Alisa chats to us about her journey going from intern to design director at verynice, plus running a woman's design salon event series, logos as tattos and her favorite Olympic sport. So without further ado, let's get on with it.

Today I'm here with Alisa Olinova, who's design director at verynice a design strategy consultancy based out of LA. Thanks for joining me today, Alisa. I'm really excited to talk to you about your work at verynice and some of the other exciting stuff that you do.

So I like to start off by asking my guests a little bit about how they got started in design. And if there was a point that they realized that design was the career path they wanted to take.

Alisa Olinova: Awesome. Yeah, thank you for having me. Yeah, totally. I definitely did not know that graphic design was a thing that it would be an option for me. I originally thought I would be interested in psychology or I then switched to international business. And, you know, as I was getting ready to start my classes, I was just really had no interest. I didn't want to take them. So I went on a resource to look for other options for things to major in and graphic design came up. And I was like, oh, like, it's not the thing that they do in that movie called What Women Want, which has Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt in it.

They made it seem really cool. I was like, Oh, yeah, that's, that's where I can combine psychology and art. And all of a sudden, I was like, oh, wow, that makes a lot of sense. And I haven't really looked back since. So I ended up studying graphic design at Cal State Long Beach, and I just haven't looked back I just love it.

KD: That's cool. Yeah, I was very similar in terms of wanting to do something that could combine a lot of interest I had across different types of subjects. And design just seems to be this awesome amalgamation of psychology, science, technology, art all into one thing that you get to do and get paid for, which is cool. And so you have had quite a bit journey with verynice starting out there as an intern, and now you're design director. So that's a pretty inspiring story, especially for all the interns out there right now. Can you tell me a bit about how that journey went for you?

AO: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I do want to preface that with anything good, it seems to be a matter of being in the right place at the right time. So a bit of luck, but also obviously, hard work and dedication. So when I started as an intern, the team needed more help. So they wanted to hire me as a senior designer. And I was already graduating and I had been doing a really good job. So obviously, I was excited to join the team on a more permanent basis. And from there, I really had my hands on every type of project that they needed help with. So I ended up learning a lot more about different types of design work, including web design, and print design, and just being able to be helpful in all those places, I think, set the tone for me becoming the designer as we started hiring more people. And that's really when I started to realize that I also had a passion for helping others and really interacting with them to kind of make bigger projects happen. So from there, I became the art director, and I was the art director for two years. And I just recently this month became the design director, just kind of as a better way to describe what I tend to do on a day to day basis.

KD: That's awesome. I think you're so right in talking about how just being involved in putting your hand up for jobs that may not have been in your job description originally can take you a really long way in a company, especially when you're a junior, and you're trying to make an impression on people. And so I think it would also be interesting to hear some more about verynice, because verynice is a design consultancy, which there are plenty of in the world. But verynice has got a really interesting business model and way of working. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that?

AO: Yeah, absolutely. This is definitely some of the stuff that put verynice kind of at the top of my list when I was looking for work. So we have a unique business model where we give half of our work away for free to nonprofits. We also work on a sliding scale, but where we've been able to give over a million dollars worth of design services to a ton of different organizations. So over the years, I've been able to work with nonprofits big and small. And it's just really great to be able to use your skills to do good. So I love the fact that I'm not only you know, I can always choose to go pick up trash on the beach, which is a great thing to do anytime. But the fact that there's all these great  organizations that end up using so much of their resources. In fact, there's $8 billion a year spent on media for these nonprofits every year. And so while we have been able to offset that by over a million dollars, it's still just kind of a drop in the bucket. But I'm still really proud of the fact that I can use something that I think I happen to be pretty good at, and use that to help other organizations literally get more donations. Get their story out there, entice more volunteers.

KD: Yeah, that's really cool. And it is challenging as a designer sometimes to figure out you know, you want to give your services away to these great causes, but you're also like I do need to put food on the table or pay rent this week, how can other designers who maybe are freelance or work in a more traditional model agency use this kind of model or incorporate more pro bono work into the career while still paying rent, putting food on the table?

AO: Yeah, totally. I mean, our give half model is one of many, many models. And in fact, we have a whole game that's all about that called models of impact. And so there's a lot of different ways that you can give back, you can choose to give less than 50%, for example, you can choose to do a trade of services, sometimes that kind of thing can be really helpful.

And yeah, I think that when it it comes down to it, it does take the extra amount of time and effort to do that work for free. But there's a lot of different ways to do it. And as long as you're trying anything at all, I think that's wonderful.

KD: Yeah, totally. And so verynice obviously has the 50% model. I also was reading more about it, and you use a lot of volunteers and a wider network. Can you tell me a bit more about how that works with projects and how you collaborate with those people?

AO: Yes, I'd love to talk about that. And in fact, if there are freelancers out there, or people that do want to, you know, give some of their work, but maybe don't have the capacity to find those projects or something like that, that is part of how we accomplish getting the work done here is that we work with volunteers and contractors within our network. So if you email us at info@verynice.co, you'll basically get in contact with our people and Operations Manager. And she'll hook you up with a awesome form that'll tell you all about the kinds of services that you're able to do and what your interests are, and we'llkeep you top of mind to be able to complete one of the projects that we have coming up. So for example, we recently work with an organization that helps people coming out of prisons to find work. And we had worked that was a completely pro bono project, the organization was called Freedom to Choose. And they are currently developing their website that we worked with volunteers to create. So we had volunteers working on the UX of the website as well as the UI. And so those volunteers, they essentially become a part of our team during that time. And there's iteration rounds with the clients and feedback and everything like that. So we take these projects just as seriously as we take our for-profit projects. But it's really cool because we get the opportunity to bring in new people with different interests and skill sets.

KD: That's really awesome. And so is that for people all around the world, you do these projects remotely? Or are they mainly based in LA?

AO: They're definitely all around the world. We have worked with people in Germany, we have worked with people all around the globe. But obviously, if you are in LA, and you want to work with us, you're welcome to come by and work with us in-house, you don't have to work remotely. But for a lot of the volunteer projects, we definitely are able to find ways to work remotely.

KD: That's cool. And I think it's exciting to hear about projects that are being run successfully remotely, it as well as being pro bono projects. So yeah, I'll be keen to learn more about that. And so another thing you had mentioned to me before we started the interview was some of the other projects you're doing like the Women's Design Salon. Can you tell me about how you got started with that? And what the Women's Design Salon is?

AO: Yeah, absolutely. It's basically a way for us to connect our community together. It started as an initiative by the AIGA, which is a design network, and they weren't able to take on the series anymore.

And I was going to all of those events, they were one of my favorites, it was always a different speaker, or a couple different speakers. And people would go and hear them talk. And then we would drink wine and discuss issues. And so at the time, our founder Matthew Manus was on the board for that organization, AIGA. And as they were closing out the series, he basically offered that verynice take it over, knowing how much I already enjoyed the events. So I kind of went from attending the events to hosting them myself. And I do that with our people and Operations Manager, Clarissa and so we've been doing it for two years now. And we've been part of the Los Angeles Design Festival, we usually partner with the General Assembly, which is nearby. And it's a really special event because each one is a little bit different. So we've talked about the future of technology, we've talked about Freelance 101 was one of our topics, we're are coming up to one called the Faces of Leadership that's coming up in October on the third. And that's where we'll be talking to Ann Kim who designed a game that helps you use data to understand the diversity in your workplace and hopefully create equity over time. So we invite, you know, it's an intimate event. So we generally have around 50 people and the events last about two hours. And I've just had such a great time talking to people at these events. And so it's the Women's Design Salon, because we want to empower women. But everybody is welcome. It's not about excluding people, it's more about giving people a platform and empowering them. So I yeah, I'm really looking forward to this next one coming up in October. So if anyone's in LA, please do look it up.

KD: Yeah, co I'll, I'll get the link from you, and put it in the show notes so that people can check it out.  And so going from, you know, the participant in an event like that to be any being an organizer, has that given you a new perspective on the design community in LA or the women's design community overall, you know, is it important that more people step up to the plate and start to take part and organize events like this?

AO: Yeah, to be honest, I think that is the secret sauce behind the progress, it's just about doing it and making it happen. There's really no secret to it. Like, if you want a more diverse set of creative leaders, then you literally just have to include a more diverse group of leaders. And it really starts at people being motivated. And being willing to take that extra step to maybe set up an event that takes more time outside of work, or maybe hire somebody that they wouldn't normally hire, which might take a little bit more time to, to think through who they are, what they're looking for, and really just giving more diverse people opportunities. And that's something I love doing with the event too. So making sure that our speakers or people that we think can benefit from speaking, but also our other volunteers, like our photographers, or our blog writers, that's all kind of, part of it is I guess what I'm trying to, to convey is that, really the secret sauce is just to make it happen. So it's not really a secret.

KD: Yeah, totally. And I feel like these kinds of events are such a great way to give people exposure and visibility on a stage which they might not usually get to be exposed on to others. And for young designers or young women who are coming up through their careers to, you know, see people have gone out there and done this, and maybe they haven't been given permission, but they've gone and done in anyway is a really powerful thing. And it's the same with, you know, starting and running these events. I think sometimes people almost think that somebody needs to give them permission, or they need to be at a certain stage of their career. But in reality, it's just like what you said, you just have to go out there and do it. And nobody's judging you based off what stage of your career you're at or what type of design you do that they're just like, excited to usually come out and meet more people.

AO:  Yeah, yeah, definitely. If you're presenting like a real product like, and you're passionate about it, that is going to come across in the people you meet and the places you go.

KD: And so you must I imagine you must be pretty busy organizing these events and mean, obviously, running the design side of things at verynice. What are some ways that you stay on top of that, stay grounded? not go too crazy? Do you have any particular productivity tips or things you like to do is to sort of unplug from work?

AO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, first of all, I can't say that I don't go crazy, because I you know, not every day is some sunshine, beautiful day. But I do, you know, really try and keep the big picture in perspective and, make sure that I'm taking care of myself literally, like making sure that I get exercise. And even like the little things like I've just noticed how much the little things really add up. Like how much water am I drinking and am I having too much coffee? It literally affects your mood, and in turn, affects the mood of everyone around you. But I think what also really helps is that the team that we have a verynice is very diverse. And so all the team members play a really, really crucial role. So I don't always have to worry about the project management because that's being handled in a really great way.

And I just try and get ready for tomorrow. I'll usually try and keep my inbox clear. I'm not a I'm not a messy inbox person. I don't have a lot on my desktop either. I think that helps. Yeah, and I guess in terms of on the more personal side, I always try and like read or something during lunch. Like I just finished a great series called The Mad Adam trilogy by Margaret Atwood. And so that kind of takes me out of the moment. Because I do kind of bulldoze through my work like a crazy person. So it's important to me to take that full hour and and make sure that I include something that's more like human and not productive.

KD: Yeah, I think it's nice to give yourself a bit of a break and, you know, read or watch something that's not design-related or not business-related, and lets you kind of have that escape. And then you can, you know, pull yourself back into reality and move on to the next thing without being too drained by whatever else you've been trying to pack into your brain that day.

AO: Yeah. And it really creates the space to ideally come up with new things that you want to work on. Like, I, you know, I get so into all these design projects that I do. I'm literally always thinking about them. But what's great is when I think of something totally unrelated, that ends up helping me while I'm at work, like at the end of this trilogy that I read. I was like, wow, I wonder if  there's any tools out there that can help me like expand my vocabulary in like a fun way. And that way I can write better creative briefs or design direction descriptions or something like that.

KD: Yeah. And so on that topic of writing briefs and design direction, how have you found the transition going from the more practical design roles that you've had with verynice to design director and overseeing projects? Has that been challenging?

AO: It's definitely been challenging. One thing to keep in mind is that our in-house team at verynice is quite small. So I do, I am very hands on on a lot of the projects. And I think that's maybe a place that I have some room to grow, where we do have a really great designer, her name is Olivia. And we also have a junior designer, her name is Alexia. And it's been really interesting, kind of working in tandem with them to make sure that our projects get done. So usually, what I'll do is try and get a high level idea of, Okay, well, what's needed for this project? How long do I think it'll take? Can I break it down into smaller tasks for people? Or should I have Olivia break it down into smaller tasks. And setting the design direction is definitely one of my favorite things. But it's not always something that I need to do by myself every time. I definitely want to make sure that even though I really enjoy looking at mood boards, and coming up with like, little stories to describe something like the mood of something, I want to make sure that I make the room at the right time for some of my other designers. So I think that's been kind of one of the more challenging journeys is figuring out you know, which projects are those and at what point in the project process do I step back a little bit more, or come back in and make sure that we get it the way that we originally intended?

KD: Yeah, absolutely. And have you found managing the other side of the business that's doing the pro bono projects with the network of volunteers that you're using who are quite often remote, you were saying how have you found coordinating those kinds of projects?

AO: Yeah, totally. And, and like I said, we do have like Clarissa is the one that manages our volunteer network. So her along with our assistant Managing Director, Flo will work to find the right person and get them set up and ready for the project and generally will do a kickoff meeting with them so that we can get a really good idea of what their skill set is and bring them on board into our process and get an understanding of how they might go in and improve that process or add to it. And like I said, we really don't treat the pro bono projects that much different than our for profit projects. So sometimes I literally don't even know which projects are pro bono or not, I just kind of do them anyways. And it takes a lot of emails, it takes a lot of Google Hangouts, we have internal feedback rounds, as well as feedback from our clients. So we we include the volunteers and all that.

KD: That's really cool. And it sounds like a really collaborative process that, you know, your volunteers get to learn about your process, but you're obviously learning from them as well.

AO: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I'm lucky to get to interact with like, new people.

KD: And so have you got any particular projects that have been favorites over both the paid and pro bono projects?

AO: Yeah, totally. I think that the one that really comes to mind is for the AIDS Lifecycle. And that is an annual bike riding events in support of ending AIDS. And so the event is, it starts in San Francisco, and they ride 545 miles all the way to Los Angeles. And that's all in support of ending AIDS. And what's really cool about this organization AIDS Lifecycle is that it's not just about the one event that only happens once a year, it's really about the full community of people. And they talk, they talk to each other all year round. And they're raising money. And they, you know, make friends like this is really important. It's an important community for, for the people involved. And so they were looking to refresh their branding for their event for the campaign. So the team, we worked on a strategy for the new campaign. So that included the naming of the campaign as well as the visual identity and the tone and the messaging and everything. So I think that the reason this one comes off as one of my favorite projects is for how much we were able to dive into this one project. So we ended up doing like jerseys and hats and printed banners, including the design of their logo. And recently we even received a photo that somebody actually got the tattoo the campaign is called Ride Love Live, and they actually got that tattooed on their forearm. And funny enough, in our brand strategy, we have a list of success criteria. And one of the criteria was, is it tattoo worthy? And so I was like, Okay, well, dang. Like, that's it. I might as well just retire now.

And it was really fun making the little icons and stuff for them. Like they have one that's they have two different icons that kind of go together and one's called Stronger Together. And the other one is Stranger Together. So I just really enjoyed working with the brand because it's like, a little bit more fun and outgoing, and I was just really proud of the work and they even asked us to do a refresh on this style for this year.

KD: Oh, awesome. That sounds like a really fun project and fun when the client lets you push the boundaries a little bit and, you know, create all of these other bits of collateral around the central branding.

AO: Yeah, that was that was wonderful to really get to expand on the brand. And that was also the first time I ever made like a jersey design. That was really cool. Yeah. And so what about what would be your dream project, if you've got one totally, I think that in a similar vein, I've always thought that working on the Olympics would be my dream project, because that's also just a really large version of branding. And it it has so many touch points, like in terms of like, literally like, it just spans so far, and it would be such an interesting challenge to get all of that to work together. And I've certainly been, you know, a fan girl of the 1986 Olympics in Los Angeles, where Deborah Sussman was the lead designer for that. So I think something like that would be a dream project.

KD: Yeah. What's your favorite Olympic sport?

AO: Haha, um, you know, I've actually really been enjoying watching curling lately. Oh, Winter Olympics. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Winter Olympics are a lot of fun, I think.

KD: Yeah, they are. Yeah, the curling I'm yet to fully understand the rules and the premise.

AO: I mean, honestly, me too, but I don't know if it matters.

KD: I kind of love that it's just like it's very different to a lot of other sports that are going on there. Actually, the Winter Olympics in general have some really wacky, bizarre sports, but they kind of just people just go with and people are obviously still competing. . It's great.

AO: Yeah, and the luge was freaking me out at the last Winter Olympics. I just. I can't believe people are they're basically like, bullets going down the ice.  

KD: Yeah. Human bullets it's crazy. Thank you very much for chatting with us Alisa. It's been awesome to hear about verynice and all the work you do with them and the stuff you've started with the Women's Design Salon and hearing more about models of impact. So I'll link all of the stuff we've talked about in the show notes so people can come check it out. And if they are keen to volunteer with you, they can sign up there as well.

AO: Wonderful. That'd be great.

KD: Thanks, Alisa.

AO: Awesome. Thank you for having me.

KD: Thanks for tuning in to Design Work. If you enjoyed it, give us a rating to help spread the word and subscribe to get your fortnightly fix. Design Work is brought to you by Dovetail X. Find epic creative talent and assemble teams for your next project. Head to dovetailx.com to get started. See you back here for more interviews with trailblazing creatives on how they design work.

Kate Darby