The Designers: High Tide’s Elizabeth Goodspeed on collaboration, freelancing and design history
The Designers delves deep into the world’s leading design studios through a series of in-depth conversations with the individuals that make them tick. For the twenty-third interview in the series, we spoke to Elizabeth Goodspeed, an independent designer, and the second ‘Design Director in Residence’ at New York-based creative studio High Tide.
EM Hi Elizabeth, how are you doing?
EG I’m doing well! I just came in from walking my dog and am drinking a coffee and trying to warm up – we just had a big snow so it’s been a little dreary and extra cold this week.
EM Prior to starting, what appealed to you about joining High Tide as their resident design director?
EG High Tide was actually one of the first places I applied for a job when I first graduated from art school so I’ve been a fan for many years! I’ve always admired the studio’s ability to work confidently across such a range of industries and formats, and I love that their ‘house style’ is super malleable in order to best suit the context of a project.
When I first saw High Tide posting about the new Design Director initiative, I was really intrigued by the structure; it seemed like a really wonderful way to offer juniors mentorship and diversified perspectives while also giving more senior creatives the chance to explore a personal project and gain management experience in an already thriving studio. So, when Danny invited me to participate, I thought it might be a really unique opportunity to get to learn from the team and level up my own skills. I’m also a huge fan of the Design Director in Residence who preceded me, Kristina Bartošová, so I considered it a huge compliment to follow her up.
This feels like a rare chance for me to see the complex inner workings of a mid-sized studio.
EM What do you hope to gain from your five months there?
EG As an independent designer, I don’t often get the chance to work with other brand and identity designers, especially over a longer period of time, so I’m really looking forward to the extended collaboration time with folks who work and think differently than me. I’m actually really eager to fine-tune my administrative abilities as well; the entrepreneurial side of running a studio isn’t discussed very openly in the industry, so this feels like a rare chance for me to see the complex inner workings of a mid-sized studio and better understand those processes.
EM Before High Tide, what were you doing?
EG I’ve been freelancing as a designer and art director for just over two years now, and prior to that I worked as a full-time designer at both RoAndCo and Pentagram. I’m a devoted generalist, but definitely specialise in idea-driven and historically inspired brand identity projects. I work directly with clients and also collaborate with studios and agencies like Creech, Zero and Gander. In addition to my work as a designer, I also teach at Parsons, write for AIGA Eye on Design, and give talks about design history, ephemera, public domain materials, and other image sourcing and archive related topics to various creative teams (generally under the purview of my ‘casual archivist’ project).
EM Where does your passion for design history come from?
EG Honestly, I always wish I had a more succinct and inspiring answer to this! In reality, it’s a passion that’s been marinating and developing for so many years that it’s hard to untangle neatly. I think some of the initial impulse definitely came from a bit of insecurity early in my design education – I was in a dual degree programme in college (studying cognitive science and graphic design simultaneously at two different schools) which often left me feeling like I wasn’t smart enough for science OR creative enough for art. Looking at design history felt like a way to check the work I was unsure about against proven design solutions; if this layout worked for Massimo Vignelli or Paula Scher, it would work for me, too. But I also think there’s a significant emotional bent to it: I’m quite a nostalgic person, and tend to feel pretty emotional about the past, but I also have a surprisingly poor visual memory. As a result, I find that I’ve always really valued having tangible artefacts (pictures, letters, books) that connect me to the past irrevocably. When it comes to design in particular, collecting tangible pieces of graphic history feels like a way to create an intimate and direct link between myself and the past, as well as to the many everyday designers who came before me and whose work has been forgotten over time.
EM How does that interest and knowledge inform your work today?
EG Generally speaking, my personal taste definitely tilts pretty retro, which is maybe a side effect of spending so many years looking closely at ephemera and old things. But I think when my interest and knowledge in design history becomes a real asset, and extends beyond pure aesthetic preference, is when it allows me to embed deeper conceptual references into the formal decisions I am making in my work. That is to say, I always try to ask myself how the use of a certain colour, composition, typeface, or illustration style links to an art movement, trend, or visual cue from the past, and what that connection says about the final product.
One example of this thinking in action would be my branding and art direction work for Inka, a high-end food storage brand that launched in 2020. When I was first brainstorming how to approach the visual identity, I realised that the company mission was essentially a reimagining of a very 1970s attitude towards home goods – a belief that reusable containers can actually be fun (think: Tupperware parties and collectable Pyrex) and that good things can be reused again and again. As such, it made sense to take aesthetic trends from that era, like bold colours and John Alcorn inspired linework, into the brand via our saturated colour palette and the use of wonderful throwback illustrations by contemporary illustrator Clay Hickson (who has a very Push Pin-esque style).
What I love so much about this approach is that it allows my work to be read on different levels by different people; while some folks looking at Inka might identify a clear connection to the ‘70s via that illustration style and colour, others might instead read the minimalism and informality of the illustration style and palette as just a fun way to show food (also true!). In that way, using history has always felt like an amazing superpower that allows me to have a secret conversation with my audience, if they’re looking closely enough.
To me, being a casual archivist means taking inspiration from things around you.
EM What does it mean to be a ‘casual archivist’?
EG To me, being a casual archivist means taking inspiration from things around you, especially the past, without being too precious about it. It means allowing yourself to be playful with how you think about and engage with the past, and constantly rethinking your own understanding of what history looks like. It’s about creating an archive that works for you, not against you, whether that’s a bookshelf full of alphabetised old cookbooks or a big messy folder of favourite images on your desktop.
EM What have you found most challenging in your career so far?
EG While going freelance and building my independent practice, specifically during COVID, has been difficult in its own way, I actually think the early part of my career was the most challenging for me. It took a really long time for my technical and executional skills to catch up to the ideas I had in my head (probably a solid three to four years into my design career) and as a result, my first few years in the industry felt really frustrating because my work never matched the result I was imagining. On top of that, as a young designer in the industry, I didn’t have any existing network of collaborators I could rely on for advice or collaboration, nor did I have a lot of past projects to use as jumping-off points when I was stuck, which meant I was always having to start from scratch. Compared to now, several years into my career, while I may still be taking on new challenges all the time (for example, directing my first live-action video shoot for Eadem this year), I can at least draw on overlapping past experiences like doing art direction for still photography or working on other skincare brands, as well as reach out to peers who have done video to get their advice on how to start.
EM Do you have a project you consider to be your best work?
EG I love all my children equally! But I am particularly proud of my work on Public Wise, as it was one of the first times in my design career that I carried a project through from start to finish, including naming, brand identity, and art direction. It was also one of the first times that I was able to execute a full identity that really leaned into my love of history and archival imagery – within the identity itself, which heavily referenced Mid-century design motifs (particularly Chermayeff & Geismar’s work for the 1976 Bicentennial), as well as in the brand photography, which was made up of public domain imagery curated from the Library of Congress (a handy workaround that gave the organisation a broad toolkit to work with without spending money on a shoot, while also doubling down on the organisational mission to empower and utilise the everyday citizen and their work).
EM What does your setup look like?
EM What do you find makes for a positive working environment?
EG Honesty, trust, and accountability. To me, this means leadership and seniors who are open about knowledge gaps and candid with their team about why and how decisions are being made by the studio. It also means an environment where junior and mid-level team members feel safe asking questions, taking risks, and challenging their superiors. While it’s not as common in the design world just yet, I think this kind of accountability would ideally also extend to more formalised peer support structures like unions and profit-sharing.
EM Are you good at managing your time and staying organised?
EG To be honest, not particularly! Despite being extremely thoughtful about how I organise my files, I’ve always struggled with focus and time management when it comes to parsing out my own schedule. It’s absolutely something I have had to spend many years working on and developing strategies around. That said, in addition to trying to create clear check-ins to structure my day around, I’ve also learned to respect my natural ebb and flow in focus a bit more; for example, if I find myself super scatterbrained on a project one afternoon, rather than spending tonnes of mental energy to and get my attention clear, I find it can actually be far more productive in the long term for me to take a break from designing altogether and come back to it when I’m feeling excited and energised again.
EM What do you think is the most important skill a designer can have that isn’t design?
EG Writing and critical reading skills! Text is to graphic design what clay is to pottery – so it makes sense that having some copywriting skills will help you when it comes to setting type properly (i.e. avoiding spelling errors or creating the best rag), as well as set you up to better understand and interpret things like creative briefs and RFPs. I think the ability to write and read critically can also be very impactful on your ability to speak to your own work. Knowing how to translate your visual thinking into verbal or written forms makes for an easier time explaining your design and getting buy-in from collaborators and clients.
EM What would you like to see more of in the design industry?
EG More openness and allyship. I think a lot of designers have a scarcity mindset when it comes to their work, and are afraid to tell others where they get their inspiration from, how they achieve a certain unique texture, how much they charge, etc. But particularly for designers like myself (a cis white woman) who are part of the industry majority, we can have such impact on the overall diversity and equity of the design world just by being candid and generous with our knowledge, resources, and referrals. A nice bonus is that I have really found that the more I refer work to others, the more work comes my way too – a rising tide really does lift all boats.