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Art Director Ilya Sizov on Working for Big Brands and Startups

Ilya Sizov portrait

Ilya Sizov is a multidisciplinary designer and art director from New York. Currently, he collaborates with the startups Smartcat (the language translation and localization delivery platform) and TheXPlace (the community and marketplace for gaming professionals).

Before that, Ilya spent about 5 years working for digital agencies Red Keds and Friends on projects for Unilever, Panasonic, Range Rover, etc. Later, he led design in the transportation startup Fasten which competed with Uber and Lyft in Boston and Austin.

Ilya is also known for some noteworthy side projects such as the app for creative thinkers Pixride or the audiovisual art project Northiness.

What were your first steps in your design career?

I started designing really early, at the age of 13 or 14, by creating random pictures in Corel Photo Paint. As far as I recall I was 14 when I got my first design gig: One of the clients my mom designed interiors for was opening a local shopping mall and needed a logo. I created something like a red-blue spiral with text sitting next to it and got my first payment for design (it was $50 or something like that).

At this time, I had to decide what to study after school. Sadly, there were no good places to study design in Moscow, Russia, where I grew up in the early 2000s. And, honestly, I didn’t seriously consider design as a job back then (actually, I don’t know why). So I ended up getting a master’s degree in political science. I was lucky enough to lose faith in this profession during my education: Getting a couple of political-related jobs helped me clearly realize that I hated political science. I did finish my degree, but right after graduation, I went to study graphic design at the British Higher School of Arts and Design.

That was quite a move for me but I never regretted it. It was a post-graduate program that lasted a year and a half. After finishing it I landed my first real design job in a small, growing design studio.

How did your career go from there? How did you end up working with world-famous brands?

I spent two years in a small design studio which was primarily focused on the movie industry. With a spirit of experimentation and challenge, it was a lot of fun working there. But I always wanted to work in one of the major studios or agencies. After building a decent portfolio and making significant progress in my skills, I felt I was ready for the next chapter in my journey.

With some help from my fellow front-end developer, I created a website where I collected all of the work I was proud of and sent numerous emails to the most famous studios in Moscow. In a series of interviews, I got an offer from Red Keds, one of the most dominant and charismatic agencies in Moscow at the time.

So, my way to collaborating with big brands was through working in a really ambitious workplace. The very first project I had was the corporate site for Honda; with many projects for other big brands following after. We worked with Unilever, Panasonic, and Range Rover, just to name a few. There is certainly a specificity in working with major companies like that. On the one hand, there are many limitations like the tone of voice requirements, identity guidelines, legal restrictions, etc. But at the same time, such brands have a massive audience and what you do with them can have a big impact.

 Ilya Sizov portrait

What are the main challenges in this kind of work?

You should be able to work with clients’ feedback which is not always well-structured and constructive. You should be motivated to educate the managers on that side and explain your decisions. Something that may look obvious to you might be questionable to others and you should be ready to find a way to explain it in the simplest and most effective way.

How do you get clients and what were the best collaborations you’ve had?

I work more with agencies rather than end clients but for both types, the same approach applies. Networking and building up your reputation will bring you more and more clients. Word of mouth works really well. Even though some people might be reluctant to give out their precious resources, people will eventually know about you.

As for my favorite clients, they fall into one of two types: projects in which I have much creative freedom, or those with a really meaningful mission. For example, I’ve had some great projects with Panasonic — the client that was brave enough to welcome some really crazy ideas for promotional websites for their home appliances; and WildTatto — a meaningful campaign I designed for the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) to spotlight endangered species on the verge of extinction.

What design challenges do you face at your current company?

I am currently leading marketing design in Smartcat — a Saas platform in the content localization industry. We have a pretty small team of designers and one of the main challenges is optimizing the process and choosing the priorities in the right way. I need to design the right toolset to make sure all the communication channels have the necessary design assets. This requires a lot of work on automation and systematization. We strongly rely on some nifty solutions in our design system and on various sets of templates and workflows. This provides speed, consistency, and quality — things that are normally hard to achieve simultaneously.

How do you maintain a good relationship with your clients and make them stay with you longer?

This is actually simple: Be responsible and responsive. Staying organized and meeting deadlines should be a part of everyone’s work ethic, but surprisingly, designers often neglect the aspect of discipline. You might not be the greatest designer in the world but as long as you provide what is required at the time that is required — you will be in demand and clients will love you.

And being responsive doesn’t mean that you should respond immediately 24/7 (when it happens, this is a sign of an unhealthy process). It means that you should listen to the clients carefully. You should be curious about what they need and they will see that you listen to them.