Texas-based climber and designer Courtney Bradford found her calling through design. A passion that began through printing a zine as a teenager led to her starting a boutique digital design agency, Telegraph Creative, with her sister Lindsey.
How did you become a designer?
For me, design has always been a form of expression and an opportunity to learn something new. I was homeschooled as a kid so most days I finished my schoolwork just after lunch, which left me with a lot of free time. So at age 13, I started tinkering with layout design using Microsoft Publisher. At one point I was printing and mailing a small “zine” to about 150 people each month. There was no discernible theme and it was definitely not setting any design trends. But it gave me a reason to learn about design—and to just “ship it” because I had a deadline.
I eventually stopped printing the “zine”, but kept tinkering with design throughout high school. It was then I realized that although I had okay taste, I lacked an understanding of basic design principles. That’s when I started buying and studying design books. I graduated high school right after the original iPhone was released. The web industry was rapidly evolving, everything about it was changing. It was an exciting time. But besides a traditional Graphic Design or Computer Science degree, academia really didn’t have anything to offer someone interested in designing for the web. I knew that for what I wanted to do, the traditional path of higher education wasn’t the right one for me.
I ended up interning with a small creative agency that did everything—from video and motion graphics to web design and development. With zero professional experience, I was given the opportunity to work on internal and pro-bono projects, then eventually paid client projects. It wasn’t very formal, but getting exposure to the industry, tools and processes was a huge opportunity. I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done without it. After my internship, I did freelance work with that agency and worked part-time as the designer at a nonprofit for a couple years before freelancing full-time. Then I started Telegraph Creative with my sister, Lindsey, in 2012. As they say, the rest is history.
How do you find your digital design style and where do you find your inspiration?
Even though I have an aesthetic I prefer, I really do design for the client (their brand, their audience, their message). Just like there’s a timelessness to good design of all styles, I hope there’s a timeless quality to my work. Some designers are very adamant that you should have a recognizable style evident across your entire portfolio and others strongly oppose that belief. I believe that style shouldn’t get in the way of the design’s objective, but it can certainly support it.
As a digital designer, I have to look beyond the screen for inspiration. Sure, I’ll browse Dribbble and gallery sites to keep up with what’s happening, but if you only look within your industry your work can only be an imitation. For me, spending time in a physical space that’s been meticulously designed (museum, restaurant, park, restaurant, etc) helps me separate myself from the digital world. By stepping into such a space, I’m immersed in the intentionality of the design, the tactile reality of it. This is more akin to experience and product design than traditional print design. Not to say I don’t have a small library’s worth of design books and periodicals (because I do), but design that engages all five senses is the most inspiring to me.
Thankfully there has been a big shift across all industries to user-experience-led digital design over the past decade. Many designers find clients can struggle with thinking user-first. How do you take your clients on a journey that creates a better user experience and ultimately a better experience for their brand?
That’s a really good question. I think humans, designers and clients, struggle with user-first thinking. It’s not natural to go into something knowing you’re going to put in a lot of effort, but it’s all based on assumptions until you get user feedback. You’ll learn you've made some mistakes and maybe you were wrong more often than you were right. But it’s okay: This is part of the process, not a setback. You're human and humans need each other to make sense of things. That’s why you need to test and talk with other humans early and often.
Ultimately, user-first design is an opportunity to stay humble, teachable and 100% focused on getting it right instead of being right. Clients that value user-first design will adopt this methodology and process for building their digital products, but their brand has to fully embody it—marketing, sales, operations, etc. Everyone needs to buy in for it to be successful. Only then can user-first design make a sustainable, measurable impact.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to make the leap and start their own agency?
Think about what lifestyle you want for yourself. Do you enjoy the idea of running a business, making your day-to-day about something more than design? I like the business side of things; I like working with clients and nerding out over process.
When we started Telegraph we kept the overhead low. Super low. We did everything except file our taxes (we’ve always had help there) and worked from home offices for the first three years. We worked really, really hard on not so glamorous stuff. But it helped us focus on doing great client work, growing the business, and keeping up with an ever-evolving industry which was enough to stress over. I’m really glad we did it that way. Bottom line: Focus on doing great work, but don’t neglect your brand (or yourself). Always keep an eye on the pipeline. Tend relationships without expecting immediate results. Stay true to your values. Don't work nights or weekends (unless you have a really good reason, even then it should only be for a season). Give grace to others, but set boundaries. Be kind.