For this month’s installment of A Quick Chat With… I’m chatting with the seriously talented Sarah Tolzmann who I “met” on Instagram a few years ago! She has a fascinating academic and professional background and is currently Art Director at J.McLaughlin (an incredible brand), where she manages + executes on a slew of design work including their photoshoots, retail catalogs, and digital assets. Sarah and I finally met in person last year and I wasted no time in asking her more about her background, client work, and how she got started, since, quite frankly, she falls into the #professionalgoals bucket for me. These Q&As are always so fun to put together but are particularly special when the answers are so insightful, thoughtful, and chock full of inspiration and nuggets of advice. Sarah is blew me out of the water with her responses and I can promise you that wherever you are in your career–and whatever field you’re in–you’ll find something valuable in what she has to say! Also, follow her on Instagram–you will not regret it!
A Quick Chat With… Sarah Tolzmann
Hometown: Baltimore, MD
Currently live in: New York, NY
Current profession: Art Director at J.McLaughlin
Tell me a bit about your career path and how you got to where you are now as Art Director at J.McLaughlin.
I honesty feel so thankful that I found this career. I was one of those college seniors who had NO IDEA what I wanted to do, or what my passion would be. In a way, I think I hit the timing just right and (honestly) made just enough mistakes to I end up here. First mistake: (not my fault) I graduated college the year the 2007/8 recession hit. Second mistake: working at an art gallery mid-recession, which quickly did not have a lot of business. I sacrificed the resumé optics for reality, deciding to go full-time at my previously part-time retail job at a J.Crew store for a year or so. We earned commission, and I was good at it. I ended up becoming the Merchandising Manager (doing the windows, dressing all the mannequins, styling the displays.) That experience made me really curious about the creative process behind the directives we were given, not to mention the iconic catalog, which was (at the time) best in class in terms of photography and copywriting.
I applied to design school and I started my blog in 2009, and in both cases discovered the entire concept of graphic design, styling, art direction from following people already doing it. At my first NYC job at Ralph Lauren, I started as a web designer, and then was bumped up to Art Director and then Brand Creative Director for about 4 years. I just kept saying yes and worked on everything: wholesale, retail, E-commerce, social media, and almost every brand under the umbrella: Ralph Lauren home, Kids, Polo Sport, Golf, Olympics, Polo mens, the Polo women’s launch, the mall brand Lauren, and Chaps. There is so much variety of business there, and it was like having 7 different jobs in one stint. It got pretty hard at the end when the stock dropped and they consolidated creative teams. I survived three rounds of layoffs but so many friends and legendary mentors were let go in the process. As much as I loved the brand, I couldn’t walk through the door happy anymore. I think I had PTSD! Luckily, J.McL came along looking for someone wit the same skillset that I had developed over the years at RL.
How did you decide to go back to school for design and if you hadn’t, what type of role do you think you’d be in now?
Partially out of curiosity but mostly out of necessity. It was a hard decision, and an expensive one (hi, student loans.) But I felt really stuck where I was geographically, developmentally, emotionally… I knew what I wanted to do but wasn’t skilled enough to do it. I knew I needed to learn more. There’s only so much you can do without mentorship or peer feedback. After work I’d stay up every night teaching myself how to use Photoshop and Illustrator, etc.. I pieced together a scrappy portfolio (with a lot of made-up client projects) to apply to design school. As an undergraduate Art & Art History major, I was technically behind the curve, but had all that research and writing ability to propel me into the program. The school allowed me to take some graphic design classes with undergrads as a 23-year-old (awkward.) After a year, I shifted gears slightly to the MFA program in Design Management, which puts a business strategy lens on branding, product and service design. I have no idea what I’d be doing without that experience, but I probably would not be as happy or satisfied… I certainly would dearly miss not knowing my grad school friends. They are family to me now.
Tell me about your current role as Art Director at J.McLaughlin—you wear so many hats!
I do! It is a TINY team for what we do by comparison to most brands. I oversee (and execute) a LOT, and I mean A LOT more than my last job. But because it’s small, I’m able to try and oversee a lot of different projects and things that were previously siloed off to different teams at my last job. We have our hands in everything. If I have an idea for an email, we can go shoot it. If I have a question about a sample, I can walk over to the design team and look at it. If I want to try something new with video, we can do it (all of this is as long as I’m willing to put in the work and loop in the right partners, of course.) This job has really tested my capacity as a creative person. It is demanding. It is unrelenting, it never stops. It was terrifying at first until I started getting down to work. Now I know I can do it and do it well, so I try to have fun with it, even when it gets stressful—and it often does. That comes with the territory.
Any fashion lover would be so impressed to see your resume (both Ralph Lauren and J.McLaughlin are such classic, established brands!) How did you get a foot in the door at these companies?
It was a blogging friend that got me my first job interview in NYC. My friend Alex (Dreams + Jeans), who is also a graphic designer/art director, was contacted by someone at RL about a web designer position. She was not looking to leave her job at the time, so she passed along my name and my blog link. It happened to be right after I finished my MFA at SCAD when I was freelancing (mostly for Loren Hope, another great brand!) I had one interview at RL and started work the next week. J.McLaughlin happens to have a lot of really talented RL alumni working there (including my boss and the CEO), so when things got hard at RL, I was able to make some connections at J.McL and start fresh there.
What advice would you give to someone looking to land a coveted role at a company, if it’s a position that doesn’t open up often or if the company is small and not hiring as often?
I would say (dun, dun, dun!) networking is important. There’s the sterile, professional approach: You can always reach out on LinkedIn or what-have-you. Sometimes companies are looking but haven’t posted the job yet. Often, companies hire out to freelancers, which means there is never a job posting, but often opportunity for a project. You can start the conversation and who knows? They may bookmark your portfolio and come back to it, even if the timing isn’t right. There’s also the more casual approach, which is to connect with people you admire. Ask them out for coffee, or make friends with “kindred spirits”’ however you can. I’m constantly asked for names and recommendations, and I look to my circle for ideas. Stay interested, and stay in touch! The perfect job will never fall in your lap, you have to put yourself out there. And the best opportunities come from people who know you well.
What are some of the coolest projects you’ve worked on?
I loved working on the Olympics campaigns at RL. I’m a big fan of the Olympic Games, and so it was a bit of a dream come true to get emails from the IOC about approved logos and whatnot. Also when I first started at RL, I was also given a giant RL Home project with Bloomingdale’s to create a “bed and bath builder,” which was basically a web tool where you can change the color and pattern of the sheets and pillows, etc. but it was for the 30th anniversary of RL Home, and included 5 different bed setups with 70+ colorways to cover. The budget was huge, and it was only my second or third time art directing a shoot and managing an interactive web project (something that has to be developed.) It was stressful and difficult to figure out how to shoot and build, but ultimately it was one of the brand’s most successful projects. I think it mostly feels “cool” to me because it wasn’t a complete disaster!
At my current job, this has been my first year working on a national catalog, and we put out 10 unique issues a year, with three shoots per catalog. So every month, it’s like giving metaphorical birth to a new baby. I’m usually designing one while proofing the previous issue about to go to print, and concepting/shooting the next one. And then we have to do all the emails, social and site placements to support the live issue. So, it takes a huge amount of effort to execute, and it’s great to get pictures from friends (and strangers) opening their mailboxes across the country holding one of the style guides in their hands. Hey, I art directed and designed that!
I love your print shop! I’ve had the “Smile, there’s gin” print in my apartment for years. When did you start it and how do did you decide what to create for it?
Thank you! I love your pictures of your space. I think I started it in 2012? I honestly can’t remember. And I did it to make fun things that I wanted in my own apartment. I love Society6 because they take care of everything—printing, framing, etc. I’ve been so bad about keeping it updated, I might need to get back to that… if only there were more hours in the day!
Based on IG Stories, you seem to be quite the cook! What are some of your favorite recipes to make at home?
I do love to cook. I have two main forms of stress relief: the gym and cooking. I’m self-taught, so it can be a bit of a disaster sometimes. I’ve gotten better though, so mostly my Instagram stories are “look, I didn’t mess up!” I love the NYTimes Cooking site. It’s honestly worth every penny for the subscription. Alison Roman is a favorite go-to recipe author, along with Mark Bittmann and Melissa Clark. Milk Street is wonderful for their famous Tuesday Night recipes (get this book, it will change your life), and Bon Appeitit has great ideas. I absolutely love Asian food, Thai and Vietnamese especially. I’m always on the lookout for a new way to use fish sauce or lemongrass. Plus I eat much healthier if I cook as opposed to takeout, which is all too easy to procure in NYC…
Where do you find inspiration?
That’s a great question. Old me would have said Pinterest and Tumblr, but it’s more complicated than that now. In my field, you could—in theory—go around copying what someone else is doing, but it won’t be the right thing, ultimately. Something designed or tailored to someone else will never serve the brand you’re working for correctly, and it’s not putting the best foot forward for the product strategy. So… I just try to pay attention. To customers. To the context. To the people around me, to the responses they’re having to the pieces. I’m not perfect and am often rushed, and while I’d love to spend weeks on any given project, the reality is often more a matter of hours. Inspiration is hard to come by in those moments, so you have to practice being aware of what’s already out there so the default design mode is more than copying or referencing others. Product first!
Aside from that, I love to read. I love to watch movies. I love to travel. I don’t walk around with my face in my phone or talking to someone in my ear. I listen, I look, I talk to people. I take a LOT of pictures. And if something strikes my interest, be it a sign or a piece of art, a quote or a reference in a book, I’ll research the crap out of it just to learn more. I think inspiration comes hand-in-hand with curiosity. You have to stay interested in what’s going on around you at all times.
If you weren’t living in NYC, where would you live?
I’d like to think I could live just about anywhere… I moved a lot as a child, my parents have also never been afraid to move wherever their careers have called them. So I don’t have a perfectly preserved childhood bedroom to return to, but I can say: I lived in NYC as a teenager, that I’m technically “from” Baltimore, but I’ve also lived in Virginia and Georgia (also, Italy in college.) I take pride in that flexibility or adaptability, whatever you want to call it! To me, NYC is the best of a lot of those worlds. Anyone can find their people here. Plus, it’s a great place to live working in the field that I do.
Last place you traveled? Seattle to see my older sister.
And where are you headed next? No plans just yet! I’m due for a vacation though. ;)
Favorite restaurant in NYC? It used to be Barbuto (RIP). But I also love Llama Inn (try the stir fry with a group of friends, and/or the banana quinoa salad and skewers for 2), Blue Ribbon Brasserie (the bone marrow!), and Balaboosta (OMG the hummus…)
Go-to weekday lunch? I usually make a big ole “whatever’s in the fridge” salad to take to work: red and green cabbage, carrots, avocado, almonds, cilantro, mandarin oranges, shredded rotisserie chicken… The works.
Go-to cocktail? Gin and tonic. Brockman’s is my favorite gin.
Piece of advice? Work hard but don’t work so hard you’re hurting yourself or people around you. I agree that hustling is important—to an extent. Ultimately, work is work and you’ll never get that time or energy back. Stress productively if it helps move things forward or get it done in the moment, but don’t let that anxiety seep into your off-hours. Build a wall around work. Lock the door, walk away. Protect your life. You should work to live, not live to work. It’s a true privilege to separate the two in this day and age, so if you can, do so.