Interview with Ksenya Samarskaya

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

The definition has evolved, but as long as I can remember, starting at perhaps four or five or six, I knew I wanted to be an artist. It was the allure of the lifestyle. A space where I could think on different planes; where I felt like I wasn’t as restricted in terms of how I structured my life. And then at some point art and design merged in my mind. I still have a hard time defining exactly what design means in terms of what I do. As an entrepreneur and solo business owner, so much of what I do isn’t actually design at all. It’s thinking, assembling, connecting. It becomes about everything else. 

2. How did you get started and what was the biggest hurdle you overcame?

The hurdles—they don’t stop coming, do they?

I think initially I followed the belief that I could hustle early in order to coast later. I had bought into a lot of false narratives from the world I grew up into. That I could plan, or prepare. And while I definitely don’t regret any of the sweat or muscle I put in while embedded in that worldview, that isn’t exactly how it plays out.

So now it’s much more of: you start again every single day. And the hurdle is never bigger than that day is long. It’s a different framework for how I move through time, or how I understand success and accomplishment. It lets go of the hero archetype. 

3. What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

It was after I learned to redefine networking for myself, to no longer see it as a dirty word. And then burnishing the craft of organically meeting people and creating connection. Structuring toward mutually shared value that went beyond just me and another person, but nested win-win-win scenarios: myself, the other person, my values, the community, the greater world. 

I’ve been working to put those activities into repeatable structures, and encourage others toward the same in the hopes that it brings them as much good fortune. I’ve designed prompts and lead workshops to activate transitional spaces and awkwardness (Friendshop Workship at Core77’s conference), and created courses for graduating students where I have them map out where they want to be, who they are, and draft different pathways of navigating that terrain (Strategic Pathmaking at IE University, Manufacturing Luck at Harbour.Space University). 

4. How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

Well, you can’t get someone to do something, can you? I think the ones that align, stay. And the ones that don’t align move on, and free up my time to focus elsewhere. For too long I had the habit of hanging onto failing dynamics, because I was scared of seeing it as a representation of myself as a failure. But sometimes people are just going in different directions. Sometimes they’re not good people. And having an easier hold on those relationships has been incredibly beneficial. 

For the ones that stay, it comes from authentic alignment. From being passionate about what I do, what their needs are. I get excited when seeing possibilities and ways in which I can help and make a difference. I give a lot: not just in terms of design, but strategy, energy, ideation, positioning savvy, an understanding of markets and trends. I’m not scared of offering things to the side of what I was asked to do. I often think in terms of what the clients problem and next goal is, along with what they are directly asking of me. 

5. Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

Yes, paying late, not paying at all. I’ve been through all of it. I had one client that refused to pay the final fee, and then ended up doing a knock-off version of the design I presented them (by then I knew to only be sending low-res presentations to clients I didn’t have an established relationship with). It happens. The lesson is to not walk into any situation where I wouldn’t be okay to walk out at any point, and then be okay walking away earlier on as the flags start raising rather than continuing to dig (see #4). 

6. What does your typical work day look like?

My favorite days are when I wake up early due to an idea that lights up, or with the answer to questions I was chewing on earlier right in front of me. Sometimes this happens early morning, sometimes it’s still the middle of the night. I don’t usually get up then, but lay awake and think or jot down notes. Then I sleep-in again until it’s time to get up. 

I try to break up my day into little pomodoros. I work for a bit on something, then go on a walk, work, shower, work, lunch. I take phone-meetings while I’m walking, I read in the background or flip through bookmarked videos or make voice-notes for myself. I send out ideas in half-sentences and later when there’s more time I come back and assemble or stitch them all together. In some ways it’s a method to avoid the terror of the empty page, so there’s always something I’m working with or responding to.

Another good habit that’s helped me is to set an intention early on in the day or the night before: one or two things that I need to get done. Everything that I might accomplish beyond that in the day is bonus. It keeps me from checking task lists or calendars that would otherwise take mental energy and infuse anxiety. It keeps me on track for important deadlines and prioritizing, while allowing the other work to move ahead organically. 

7. Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give the readers at This Design Life?

Hopefully I’ve included something useful in the answers above as well? 

When I’m working with students, one of the things I try to maneuver toward is individualized advice. It tends to be equally frustrating and rewarding, because you can’t bulk it or automate it or provide it in advance. But I think it’s important for everyone to figure out what they really want for themselves, to trust their senses, and not follow someone else’s path. I think it was Rory Sutherland who said in a podcast or an interview that he doesn’t take any jobs that someone else has had before. That’s… definitely not generalized advice for everyone reading this, but it’s a certain take that I believe is important. 

The other piece of advice is to deal with your demons: addiction, trauma, impostor syndrome, whatever have you. You can only run so far while in their shadow, and the sooner you address them head-on the more of your life you get living to your full potential. 

Ksenya Samarskaya is a creative practitioner and art director, running Samarskaya & Partners—a studio rooted in typography and strategic visual communications. For the past several years, S&P have been engaged in more grounded start-ups, dealing with regeneration, sustainable construction, and creative education. Ksenya can be found on TwitterLinkedIn, and likely wherever else profile data is sold.  

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Interview published on: Feb 8, 2021

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