“When you create for the pleasure of creating, you develop the creative skills you need to succeed in future roles, while discovering the mediums you love most.”
Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how they managed to land that insanely awesome job? While that might seem like smooth sailing, there’s no doubt been a lot of hard work to get there.
So what lessons have been learned and what skills have proven invaluable in taking them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?
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welcome to how i got herewhere we chat with successful people in their respective fields about how they landed their awesome jobs, exploring the highs and lows, failures and victories, and most importantly the knowledge, tips and practical tricks they gleaned along the way.
This week we are talking about Rylie Cookea multidisciplinary creative and the junior art director of the Melbourne-based creative agency, Small disco. Working in graphic design, branding, public relations and marketing, Rylie’s job is to help bring dynamic creative campaigns to life.
After four years of design school in New York, 10 internships, multiple job opportunities and many breakdowns on her fire escape, Rylie has gained valuable knowledge, both personally and professionally. Here’s what she learned along the way.
What do you do and what is your official function?
I am the junior artistic director of Small disco. As a content production agency, we work to bring campaigns to life for brands like Sephora, Dan Murphy’s and Ultra Violette. Art direction basically means that we take a campaign from idea to execution – so everything from moodboard, color palette and graphic design elements to props, styling and storyboards for the films. The Art Director is also responsible for the staging on the day of shooting to ensure our vision comes to life.
Take us back to your beginnings. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start with an entry-level internship/role and work your way up? Tell us the story.
I was lucky to have grown up abroad (in Europe) as a child of expatriate parents. When we came back to Brisbane and I finished high school, I always thought I would end up going to university in Brisbane. Fast forward to the end of high school and a dear friend sent me a list of the best design schools in the world. I was told that I had to apply for each of them. After reading the list half-heartedly, I landed on Parsons in New York. It was always one of my favorite cities growing up.
It took months to complete my application and go through all the student visa processes, but after being accepted to Parsons on a partial scholarship, I decided to move to the Big Apple! I spent four years living in the city and attending design school. Luckily, I always knew I wanted to have my own design agency or be some kind of interdisciplinary creative. I found a degree called Integrated Design that allowed me to explore all avenues of industry.
My first internship in New York was for a magazine called white wall. I had applied for about 10 internship offers and only got an answer for one. After my nine months there, I was going to London to stay with my family for the summer and decided to do an unpaid internship. I started messaging brands on Instagram I wanted to work for until I heard from Rixo.
From there, I ended up interning with them as a graphic design and social media intern. After that, I was able to apply for internships and job opportunities with a much higher success rate. I completed 10 in total (including a summer in Berlin) at the end of my four years at university.
My last role in New York was as a communications and digital specialist, where I worked for brands like Aesop and Peter Do. After four years I decided to return home to Brisbane before moving to Melbourne in early 2022. I found Tiny Disco on Instagram and immediately contacted them as I loved their creation. Fast forward through several interviews and a creative brief and I had landed the gig.
What challenges/barriers did you face to get to where you are now? Can you name one in particular?
I think one of the biggest challenges has been ‘grind culture’ At New York. It’s certainly the most amazing and (sometimes) glamorous city, but I think people often don’t see the work needed to maintain their careers, well-being, finances and social life. I was working two jobs alongside five full-time courses in college and still trying to socialize every weekend.
It was definitely a go-go-go period of my life and I was sick at least once every semester. It was also difficult to be so far from his family. I didn’t have a close network in New York, so the friends and colleagues I made ended up being big supporters for me.
That being said, I think it’s nice to reminisce about all the times I’ve cried on my fire escape or on the subway and thought “I’d do it again, exactly the same way”. While it’s important to take care of your mind and health when you’re young and living in New York, you want to absorb as much as you can from both work and life experiences.
What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?
I was into all aspects of design: from graphic design and branding to marketing, PR and content/social media creation. Discovering the artistic direction was a great blessing for me. I think it’s one of those jobs you might not hear much about in school or college, but it’s an amazing role for someone who wants to be creative every days and work through different ways of thinking.
One of my favorite parts of my college design projects was the ideation, conceptualization, and moodboarding process. I think that’s always been my forte, so it was interesting for me to land a role with that in mind. I think people should look at what they like and look for a role that suits them; rather than searching for the job title first.
What is the best part of your role?
Four things: customers, work, team and culture. It’s great that Tiny Disco’s customers are brands that I really love, believe in and buy from. This makes campaign work much more exciting and rewarding. The job challenges me every day and I find myself loving all the different ways I can be creative.
The team is absolutely amazing and I am both in awe and inspired by their work. Lastly, the office culture and work-life balance are great (something I haven’t experienced in a while). While I believe in hard work, it’s nice to have coffee with your team and feel like everyone wants you to do your best (and live your best life)! Plus, the Tiny Disco Desk is the cutest desk ever. If you haven’t seen it, you have to follow @tinydisco!
What would surprise people in your role?
People might be surprised at how collaborative it is and how fast it can be. It really surprised me with the number of creations on different projects. At the same time, I’ve found that collaboration opens up new possibilities – often the best ideas come from something small, like a reference image. It can also be quite quick, depending on when we receive project information. Often the creative process happens quite quickly, which can be hectic but just as rewarding.
What skills have served you well in your industry?
Be a bit of a dreamer and planner. I don’t know if this counts as a skill, but I’m a compulsive organizer and a compulsive planner. Being able to plan ahead where I wanted to be [in my career] helped me figure out what I needed to do to get there. Planning where I wanted to work (and what types of internships would be beneficial) is why I graduated with what I feel like a lot of experience accumulated in four years.
Being an interdisciplinary designer is another big thing that I’m incredibly grateful for. I may not be a graphic designer or a marketing coordinator, but I understand both and can take my basic knowledge in those areas and apply it to art direction.
I think skills like Photoshop can still be taught, but understanding design from an artistic perspective and having a creative eye is also something I attribute to my four years in art school. This is something that I think has served me well and is more difficult to teach.
What advice would you give to someone who one day wants to play a role like yours?
1. Gain as much experience as possible – whether that’s applying for internships, messaging brands you love, or seeking advice from mentors.
2. Never stop creating for fun. Your creative style and approach will be enhanced by exploration that isn’t meant for college or a job. When you create for the sake of creating, you develop the creative skills you need to succeed in future roles, while discovering the mediums you love most.
3. Know your value and have confidence in it. If you know you’d be great in a role, don’t stop until you get it. Whether it’s doing an unpaid internship or emailing the company even though they don’t have a position available, it’s important to sell yourself and your creative ability.
How about some practical advice?
Talk and walk. When you have built this bank of internships and experiences, own it. Walk into your dream job interview with confidence (as scary as it is) and express what you can bring to the role. Whether it’s how you walk into the room, what you wear to an interview, or how you present your portfolio or CV, remember that you will stand out with your unique creative eye. .
If you don’t know where to go for an internship experience, I recommend that you search your university portals. Often they will have job boards and work experience offers. Or (even better) make a list of where you’d like to work and start emailing/calling/messaging on Instagram. It never hurts to let a brand know you love their work.
Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.
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