Elise Thomason


BFA in Visual Communication, 2000
Atlanta, GA


Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking? 
That’s a three-way tie, in chronological order:
A. My high school band director, Stacy Goss. In my hometown, half the kids in the school were in the band—I had no idea that some people found band to be nerdy till I went to college. It was a total blast. We did some great travel and competitions. The director instilled in us a sense of esprit de corps, a work ethic of never being satisfied, and never resting on our laurels. I played the oboe, which is a tough instrument, and I’m by no means a musical genius. Because he pushed us to “take it to the woodshed,” I practiced that doggone thing till my fingers hurt. And you know what? I got pretty decent at it. Not good enough to play professionally (by a loooong shot), but, like, “high-school good.” That experience made me wonder what would happen if I applied the same work ethic to something that I actually did have a little bit of natural ability at: art. I took that work ethic with me to Auburn, and set out to do the best I could in graphic design.

B. All of my brilliant professors at Auburn. They were, without a doubt, responsible for my success. I have to give special props to one Ray Bernard Dugas, originally of New Orleans. I believe you all know the Man, the Myth, the Legend. He picked up where that band director left off. He never let me settle. He needled me when I wasn’t thinking broadly enough and pushed me to open my mind creatively. He exposed me to his beautiful work and the work of his heroes, dragging my taste level way up in the process. He’s also a person of genuine character and integrity. He found me one morning in Biggin Hall, still there after an all-nighter (Senior Project plus a freelance logo for the agency I’d just accepted a position with). He turned right around, walked across the street to McDonald’s, and brought me back a coffee. To this day when I’m designing, I mentally apply the WWRT test (“What Would Ray Think?”). I should have a bracelet made with WWRT stitched on it.

C. And of course, the wonderful Brad Copeland. Brad was my boss for 13 years at Iconologic, and we formed a flourishing, fun, challenging creative meeting of the minds. He was a lot like the previous two men—never totally satisfied, always insisting that the work could be better. And he was absolutely right. He taught me to make my work “more so,” to have a stronger point of view. Brad perhaps is the most optimistic person I know. He can see the silver lining in a project that seems doomed, and his genuine excitement for design rubs off on everybody. He’s brilliant, of course, but it’s his charisma and common touch that kept me from job-hopping all those years.

“He (Prof. Ray Dugas) needled me when I wasn’t thinking broadly enough and pushed me to open my mind creatively...”

While you were in school at Auburn, do you remember a specific graphic design project that challenged you the most? Oh, goodness. That grid project from Graphic Processes nearly killed me. Do they still assign this? If not: the assignment is to use a technical pen to draw a perfect grid (maybe 100 square cm?) with a perfect circle situated inside it. You had to use a ruler and compass, but somehow they didn’t help much. It was pass/fail—but you had the entire quarter (yes, quarter; I’m getting long in the tooth) to pass. It had to be deemed “perfect” to pass. The quarter was winding down and I had to get this grid turned in by the next morning.
     So imagine me sitting at a desk in Biggin Hall sometime past midnight, pen in hand, almost done with this son of a gun. Almost. Then my pen slipped and a jagged line sliced across the edge of the board. I howled a few colorful words that I won’t retype here, and then I pulled myself together. I erased the ink gently, but it wouldn’t all go away. And the erasure made a shaggy spot on the board. In desperation, I grabbed a piece of chalk from my art box and gingerly repaired the surface of the illustration board with alternating layers of chalk and spray fixative. By some miracle, the chalk layers matched the color and texture of the white board perfectly. To this day I don’t really know if that was cheating, or whether the assignment was designed to push students to dig deep for a way to get it right.
     In any case, I think the assignment was designed to teach resilience and respect for craft, which it did in spades. What it also taught me was not panic under pressure, and to look for unorthodox and unsanctioned solutions to seemingly intractable problems. So I am  forever in the debt of that ^!#%&* grid, and to Corky Nell, who assigned it. Corky, if you ever read this: I seem to recall that I was a pretty sophomoric little brat about the grid project. I’m sorry about that. Thanks for putting up with this cheeky college kid. Time brings perspective.

How would you define success? Do you think you’ve found it yet? I would define success as being satisfied with all the major aspects of your life at any given time. Success comes and goes, by that definition. Sometimes the “exciting work” or “heaps of awards” categories are really going really well, but maybe they’re putting pressure on the personal life categories (hobbies, friends, family, etc.). I’ve found success at various times.
     Right now, I’m an aspiring children’s book author. That’s tougher than it sounds. I have a fantastic agent, and getting her representation easily made me think the rest of the process would be easy, quick, and fun. My first manuscript got a sack full of no-thank-yous (but some editors who loved the illustration), which was incredibly tough. It’s testing my resilience and my patience. But I’m working on another book idea—because it’s really and truly what I want to do when I grow up. I have to keep trying. So you could say I’m looking for a new kind of professional success, but meanwhile my personal and family life has never been better.

You are a successful designer and illustrator. At this point in your career, how has your work/life balance changed? My work/life balance has changed in stages. Right after college and for many years after, I pounded out graphic design at my job night and day. The hours were tough. It took a toll on my personal life—it was hard to cultivate a hobby or put a ton of time into maintaining friendships. But I was really satisfied at work, creating fun and exciting stuff. It was a tradeoff.
     There came a time when I hit a fork in the road. The project I was working on at work wasn’t my cup of tea (less design-focused), would last at least a year and a half, and the hours were grueling. We cranked out a revised presentation to the client almost daily. Meanwhile, I was getting to the point in my career where I felt like I either needed to pursue becoming a partner at the design firm where I was Associate Creative Director, or stop gunning so hard and follow my heart a little more. I compromised. I made the tough decision to tell my boss that I wanted to work 3 days a week, strictly 8 – 5. No more late nights. The other two days I would devote to developing an illustration style and pursuing illustration clients. That conversation with my boss could’ve gone terribly (like, “3 days a week? Okay, well, we don’t need you anymore.”), but it went fine. That arrangement allowed me to become and illustrator and improve my work / life balance.
     Nowadays, I have a little boy. He’s two and a half, and I left the agency life when he was born. Now I work independently, picking up freelance. You’d be amazed how much work you can do during a little guy’s naptime.

Do you believe that it is harder for women to become successful in the design field? The short answer: yes. Ladies, your male colleagues can pal around with a male boss in a way that you can’t (at least, not without raising eyebrows). And palling around with a boss never hurts when promotions are handed out. You won’t be able to socialize one-on-one with a male boss as often or as freely as the guys can, at least not in a dude-bro kind of way—and that’s a definite disadvantage. But that’s not the end of the story. Women have to work harder.
     We’ve often been socialized since childhood to be overly polite, deferential, and apologetic. We have learn to not phrase statements as questions. We have to not say “I’m sorry” all the time. We have to be brave. We have to keep talking in meetings when that male colleague cuts us off midsentence. We have to ask for raises when we genuinely believe we’ve earned them. We have to recognize our value. I’ve been guilty of all of the above many times, but it’s gotten better with time and maturity.

Is there a difference between working in design with women or with men? Have you ever been treated differently because you are female? Whether there’s a difference in working with men versus women depends entirely on the individuals, and their collective chemistry as a group. I once had a male supervisor who had a tremendous bias toward men. In critiques he threw softballs to the men, usually gushed over their work, and listened raptly to their ideas. By contrast, he nearly always talked over the women when they presented their ideas, and would become surly if women did not fawn over his ideas. Uncannily, I feel certain that he was 100% unaware of this bias (and would’ve considered himself extremely progressive). For years I thought it was a flaw in my own perception—so I never discussed it with anyone but my husband. But over time, completely unprompted, other women colleagues began to share with me that they observed the same phenomenon. It made me feel less isolated (and less crazy!), and it was freeing to be able to shrug off this supervisor’s behavior as his own problem—not mine.
     By contrast, I had another male supervisor who was refreshingly blind to gender. He was absolutely mercenary in his acceptance or rejection of designers’ ideas—which is how it should be. He couldn’t have cared less whether an idea came from a man or a woman, so long as it was good. I thrived under his tutelage, and he and I formed a strong creative bond.

Are there any rules or habits that help you design more efficiently? Keep your mouse moving. Or your pencil or pen or marker or crayon or tablet. It’s easy to get sucked into “analysis paralysis,” a state in which you overthink your work so much that nothing seems right. You could spend the whole time allotted for any project on research, and then have no creative product to show. It helps me to learn as much as I can as early as I can in a design project, and then get moving on design. If I keep my design tool moving, I give my subconscious a chance to bubble up and onto the page—often with a surprising solution. If I stop to fret over whether the idea totally matches the creative brief, I get stuck.
     Conversely, it helps to know when to abandon an idea. As I’ve matured, I’ve gotten faster at spotting an idea that’s going nowhere, and moving on to the next thing. My initial files are a junkyard of half-executed, awful ideas. You’d totally laugh. But somewhere in that steaming heap is usually an idea that has potential.
      Also, I personally work best when I have some privacy, because I can put something ugly or goofy or dumb on my screen without someone bouncing up behind me who wants to talk about it. That ugly thing might have potential if I can chip away at it and refine it, but it won’t get that chance if I give up on it too quickly because someone saw it and made me overthink it. For this reason, I detest the trendy “open floorplan” offices adopted in recent years by many creative agencies. I honestly believe that designing in a state of constant display pushes designers toward safer, less adventurous and less idiosyncratic solutions. If you work in an environment like that (and chances are you will), maybe find a way to get some privacy when you’re in the early stages of a project, if you can do so without seeming standoffish.

“I really think designers should put much of their spare energy into learning about the world.”

Would you recommend some resources that young designers might find useful? (books, websites, podcasts, etc.) Everybody can (and must!) find great design work to look at. Consume as much of that as you can. One of my favorite sites is Baubauhaus for eye candy. But students can find that stuff so easily.
     I really think designers should put much of their spare energy into learning about the world. I love to read about science, and I devour Discover magazine every time it comes in the mail. It’s written for lay people, like us, and it feeds my creativity by opening my mind to the incredible things scientists are doing. It’s wildly inspiring.
     Also, I highly recommend that designers listen to This American Life, a radio show and podcast. The host, Ira Glass, is a master at putting together a story. That’s a skill designers can benefit hugely from. And Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She’s incredible at conducting interviews with various luminaries, and listening to her show will teach you a lot about current events. But it’ll really, really teach you how to ask questions, which will sharpen your client-relating skills, big time.
     And, ladies: Bossypants by Tina Fey is a MUST. Get it as an audiobook, because she reads it. She’s one of the most successful and hilarious female creatives out there. And, bonus: her book will help any young woman become more assertive in the workplace. Run, don’t walk, to your Audible account.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were in school? I wish I’d had the work /life balance a little more in check while I was in school. I wasn’t great at managing my time, which is part of what kept me up at all hours (even though those late nights were full of awesome bonding). But a little more efficiency—and thus a few more beers—honestly wouldn’t have gone amiss in college.

What should a young designer avoid doing when applying for jobs in the design field? Avoid being generic. Avoid having work that’s derivative (or worse, plagiaristic—your interviewer is familiar with CA, too, you know). Avoid having a portfolio that’s too homogenous. Avoid being mousey in an interview. Avoid being cocky in an interview. Avoid coming to an interview hung-over, in last night’s clothes and wreaking of cigarette smoke. And for the love of Mike, AVOID BEING LATE like the plague. All of the above are observations from real interviews that I’ve done with college students.

Design Samples

Designer responded to questions in 2016 via email.