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VP of Creative Katie O’Brien on Bad Clients, Setting Boundaries, and Landing Your Dream Job

The best way to summarize design leader Katie O’Brien’s approach to work and life is a nugget of wisdom from our interview for Making Ways: “Being able to find something interesting about each project [I] work on, no matter the industry or business, is really my job. So if you’re not able to turn every single one of your projects into a dream job, then I think you are doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Throughout her career in design, Katie’s approach to creative endeavors and career has been fluid, a purpose-driven path that goes along with the ebbs and flows of the work she loves doing. For nearly six years, Katie has been bringing that attitude to her work as vice president of creative at event and experience design firm FreemanXP, out of the company’s San Francisco office in Potrero Hill. With an illustrious career and more than a few success and horror stories under her belt, Katie shares insightful lessons learned along the way to the career she loves today on the latest episode of Making Ways. You can listen to that full episode here. And included below are even more insights from our extended conversation on bad clients (and whether there is such a thing), work-life balance, time management and meeting overload, gender pay equality, and the qualities she looks for in design candidates she’s hiring.

How to avoid bad clients (Hint: look in the mirror first)

Katie has a unique viewpoint on bad clients: it’s usually not their fault. In fact, in most cases, it’s a matter of not establishing the right guardrails from the get-go. Katie explains, “My belief is that [having bad clients] is actually much like raising a child, in that you are part of the problem. So if somebody is acting inappropriately or not getting it, it’s likely because we haven’t set it up appropriately.” Katie and her team spend a large amount of time upfront with the client to lay the foundation for successful projects and relationships. She added, “A lot of what our process does is dig out the opportunity and formulate ideas, bringing the client along for the process so that once we get into the build phase where we’re producing the work, there’s no confusion or mismatch on expectations.”

So whether you are in a day job working with your manager or at a client-oriented service company, spend as much quality time as you need in the beginning of the project. It will serve you and your work together well.

In some cases, it’s not lack of preparation that leads to bad relationships. It’s just that some people aren’t good apples. Katie said, “What I’ve learned is don’t do business with terrible people. In any industry, there are horrible, unkind people. And we just don’t work with them anymore. The money is not that important. If they’re not going to respect you or themselves or be a part of that process, then you just need to move on. You’re going to be happier and just more successful in general.”

So first prepare for success with your clients. If they are truly bad clients, chances are they aren’t right for you or your business.

Setting boundaries and equal pay

Katie used to have a workaholic mindset, but over the past few years as her family has grown, she has adopted an improved work-life balance. That’s not to say that her work is not without its challenges. She noted, “The boundaries are tough. I travel a ton for work. I have clients and events in a variety of areas in the world. I put limitations up to make myself feel better, like not being gone for more than three days and things like that, but [when I have family commitments] I just make sure that people know I block off my calendar.” She’s also razor sharp about ending the workday on time to ensure she’s there for her children and husband. She said, “People know that I leave every day at 5:00, and that I if I need to I will [do more work] once [my son Archer] is asleep at 8:30. But you know that’s the way that I function — I get a ton done during the workday.”

Katie also has a no-holds-barred approach to spending her time in meetings: “I’ve been known to be in a meeting that if it seems pointless I will leave.” So if it’s not relevant, she’s out. I was shocked when she first explained it to me but soon realized I really love the idea. Being fiercely protective of your time inside and outside the office seems like the road to productivity for Katie.

No job will have the perfect balance, but by setting realistic objectives for your time and your needs as a life-loving individual, you can build productive habits that lead to even greater success.

Katie also shared advice on navigating a career as a woman and how the earnings gap can creep up on you. She said, “The way that I went through my career, I was constantly like, hey, I’m already doing this; I’m eager; I’m making this happen [and taking on more and more responsibility]. And one day you wake up and realize that you’re a vice president who is paid significantly less than your male counterparts. [Higher-ups] allowed it to happen, but you [are also partly responsible for] being OK with the way things are moving. I righted it, but that’s not the way that you really want to go about it.”

Nowadays as an executive leader, Katie keeps those lessons in mind when she’s working with her staff. She added, “It’s so important for women to be in [managing] positions. There are not many women who are creative directors — in fact there’s a whole conference dedicated to it, the 3 Percent Conference (because three percent of creative directors are female). So I’m very grateful that I’m in this position, [and] I’m grateful to be working for a company that allows for that [and has supported me]. I make sure that as a manager, I do the same thing for the people under me and [help them not] make the same mistakes that I [did].”

Landing a job in experience design

The diversity of experience Katie gained working at agencies prepared her for a career in experience design. And now that’s what she looks for in the roles she hires for as well. Katie said, “[My] advice is just be curious and be up for the challenge of figuring something out [on your own]. A lot of people come in like, oh, I don’t do that. If you come from a world of don’t, that’s what you’re going to get.

“Of her experience, Katie added, “I kind of dabbled in so many different things [from magazine layout to design branding to communications design] that once I got to FreemanXP and [started] working with environmental design and things like that, it seemed really natural. When I was interviewing for the job, I [thought], “Actually this makes so much sense. I don’t have the exact background that you’re looking for, but I have a lot of different pieces.” That tends to be what I look for in people [I hire], because I don’t necessarily need somebody who’s done it before. I want to see people who are going to be able to tap into many different areas of their world to get there. So I think like the biggest [lesson] for me was actually not getting hung up on the fact that I didn’t have environmental background or an architectural background and just knowing that I have [enough experience to draw on from] all these years I’ve been working in companies that have clients in different projects.”

So don’t be stopped from pursuing an area of design that is interesting for you just because your experience isn’t an exact fit. Roll up your sleeves, bring your curiosity and interest in learning more, and get out there. And remember, the breadth of experience you’ve built up over a career, whatever the context, counts for a lot.

To learn more about Katie, check out and listen to her episode on iTunes and SoundCloud. You can follow Katie’s adventures on Twitter and Instagram. If you’re interested in having a chat about experience design, reach out and say hello.


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