Tech Role Models: Saana Hellsten, Founder and Art Director at Studio Hellsten

Today’s Tech Role Model is Saana Hellsten. Saana is a Finnish founder and art director at Studio Hellsten.

Today’s Tech Role Model is Saana Hellsten. Saana is a founder and art director at Studio Hellsten. Her studio is based in Helsinki and works with an international clientele. As a multidisciplinary designer, she works in the field of art direction, branding, packaging design, illustration and other visual design with a clientele that comes from all over the world. Outside of work, she likes to get her hands dirty with ceramics and cooking and mind empty with contemporary dancing and boxing.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I am the Founder and Art Director / Designer at Studio Hellsten. I have had my own studio for three years now.

What attracted you to this role?

My mother is an entrepreneur as well, so it runs in the family and I always planned on being self-employed at some point. I was in NYC for over three years and moved back from New York to Helsinki in 2016. At the time, I had some clients who wanted to continue working with me overseas. So I decided to give it a go, start my own studio, and stop freelancing for agencies. I loved the idea of being able to choose your own clients. Now I can work with clients that share my values, which makes working for them much enjoyable. I also like to travel a lot. Being self-employed has allowed me to have my own schedule, decide when to have time off and the ability to work remotely as well.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I usually start my day with reading emails at home while I have my coffee and breakfast. I get to my studio around 10:30 and I have lunch around 1 or 2 pm. My work includes a lot of client correspondence and scheduling. I work on multiple projects at the same time, so I like to get those out of the way first. Then depending on the day, I have client meetings and creative work to do. I would meet my clients in Helsinki in person, but many of my clients are in other countries, so I have a lot of Skype calls. Since my clients are around the world in different time zones, I try to be flexible with my time and be available late in the evenings, too.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

Being able to work cross platforms and being able to create a world that works in both digital and physical is important. Nowadays brand experiences usually start digitally, so it is important to make a good impression there. Then the physical connection with the brand, whether it’s service or a product, is equally important to make the client satisfied and keep them coming back. Being able to combine these two, and understanding how the details matter in both of them is important. I have designed the visual identity, the primary and secondary packaging, a mobile application and art directed for photography in one branding project so I need to know how to use all the related programs. I also need to be able to conceptualize a cohesive brand experience for when the customer engages with the the application and uses the product at home.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your art director role?

The fact that the projects vary so much and that in many cases, I get to start the branding from scratch, so I get to create the mood and feel of the whole brand. Creating the concept is the most fun part for me.  Every project is always different, some bigger, some smaller, so I never get bored with having to work with too similar things and definitely get to use all the creativity I have to come up with the design solutions.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

Handling all the stress that comes from having too many projects at the same time. It is really hard to allocate my time so that I would have just the perfect amount of work. It is hard to say no to projects, even though I would be busy with others.  I have an accountant and business manager who help in the non-creative work, and I do use freelancers when things get overwhelming, but there are still some things one can not delegate. When you are your own boss, you carry all the responsibility if something goes wrong, which can be stressful if there are too many things to do and remember.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

I have worked with architects and interior designers. For these projects, we created some wall graphics and other materials for a space. I also work a lot with photographers when creating brand images.

What’s an area where you’re trying to grow in your art director role?

I am definitely trying to learn how to delegate more of the creative work load and find a way to grow my business and projects.

Aside from technical skills, what personality traits/characteristics make for an ideal candidate in your role?

It is important to be able to be versatile. In my role, I wear a lot of hats. They can range from digital designer to packaging designer, from art director to project manager. The list can be as long as you want it to be. That said, this is something I like and I aspire to do a bit of everything, but obviously it does not suit everyone. Some would feel that method is too stressful and want to be able to concentrate on and excel in one thing.

But for me, I would get bored doing only one thing. I love learning new skills, even though that means getting out of my comfort zone and feeling the stress of not knowing if it’s going to work out or not. I keep educating myself all the time by going to conferences, talks, courses etc, just to stay fresh and updated on what others are doing.

Being an entrepreneur means that you never know who might be your next client. Being social is very important, and having a large network makes a big difference.

What skills (tech/non-tech) have you improved as a result of working in this role?

I have learned how to take a project from beginning to end and learned to understand how much time everything takes and how to make the process smooth and structured for everyone. Before, I would just design without having to think about anything else, but now it’s all a part of a bigger picture. I learned how to run a business and understand how much time and energy it consumes. If you haven’t been an entrepreneur yourself, you cannot understand the amount of stress and work it brings. But, of course, it brings a lot of good things, too, that’s why I do it! There is a difference when you work under your own name vs for someone else.

In your art director role, what metrics define success?

Obviously, making the client happy is the most important thing. I know they have liked the work when they ask me to continue with a project after we have completed the original project scope. If the client recommends you to others, it’s even better. Word of mouth is the best way to get new projects.

Creating a project that actually makes a difference and changes the way we think is important to me. In my case, I work a lot with brands that have strong ethical or ecological values. If the branding I have done for them makes them stand out, it means that the project has been successful.

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