[Interview] In GIFs: Art Director Denyse Mitterhofer On Creative Design, Brand Strategies & Mastering Both

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Don’t you love it when some of the most talented artists and designers out there also have the best sense of humour? Or when their answers to questions thrown at them are as lovely as their work? Or when their story is so inspiring you could read it every day and still not get tired of it?

The little birdies here at TYS recently got the opportunity to interact up, close and personal with one such talented artist. She’s as witty as she is extroverted and as fun as she is conversational. She’s bubbling with energy and we swear it’s contagious. She captivates you with her words and we’re pretty sure she doesn’t know how charming she really is!

Because, you know, there are some people in the world who you can’t help but like. If we had to describe that phrase with a person’s name, it would – hands down – be Denyse Mitterhofer! Graphic designer, illustrator and GIF artist with years of work experience at We Are Social, Denyse is sassy, not afraid to voice her opinion and, most of all, someone you can learn so much from!

So when we got the chance to interview her, no way were we letting it go! Read on to know more about her, her creative design journey and her experience with brand strategies; we can guarantee that you’ll love her as much as we did!

Q. First and foremost, tell us a little about yourself! What is Denyse, the person, like?

Ha! That’s a loaded question – next! Just kidding. I have the ability to adapt to any type of situation and environment. Some people call me an obnoxious-overachiever (also as separate adjectives), which is fucked up since these are the people I call my friends.

Personally, I see myself as a bit of a dreamer. I ponder about things like, “What if I owned a cow farm?” or “What if I were a person who liked to exercise instead of eating pastries every day?” And my Tuesday favorite – “What if I were married to Matt Damon as Jason Bourne while I was also a trained lethal weapon that could save the world from injustice (read: Trump) by only using my middle finger?”

Generally, I’m very cheerful (but definitely have my emo/bitchy moments). I have a very loud recognizable laugh… that turns heads (and not in the “I’m so sexy, look at me laugh” way). I’m whiny when I’m hungry – actually that’s a lie, I’m just whiny. Sarcasm and cursing is in my nature. But I guess, above all I’m just another person trying to “make it” in this crazy world.

Denyse Mitterhofer illustrator GIF artist designer

 

Q. What would you describe your style as? How important is it for you to pursue a different style or method, something that sets you apart?

I don’t think I have a style, but I do generally enjoy creating things in motion and am not afraid to use color.

As for the importance of having a style or method, I don’t think Designers should have a style, it limits you. Having a style is not always what sets you apart. Things like having original or crazy ideas, clean executions, clear messages and being really passionate can also bring you a lot of attention.

However, if you are both a designer and an artist and do have a style as an artist, just learn to separate the two so that potential clients/employers know that you are able to execute their briefs and put your personal preferences aside. Keeping a style or learning different ones really depends on where you want to take your career/passion.

I feel that in order to grow as a professional, it’s important to be open to experimenting.

But I’m also very aware that there are two schools of thoughts on the subject: Do you master one skill/method and become an expert in the field? Or do you try everything and anything to feed your creative brain, keep evolving and become a jack of all trades? I chose to keep things interesting by learning as much as I can and trying new things all the time, mainly because I get bored very easily.

Q. Having said this, how do you think your work has evolved over the years?

As for the progression of my work, I guess the biggest jump I’ve had from when I started designing was going from static to motion (it really is a whole new world). Before, I concentrated a lot on illustration and typography. Then, I got to the point when I really wanted to bring things to life and see them move, which is when I taught myself After Effects and never looked back. Motion has really widen my options when coming up with ideas.

 

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Q. You’ve worked quite a bit at We Are Social! Can you tell us a bit more about it?

To tell you a little bit about We Are Social (WAS), it’s an agency that produces branded content and campaigns that solely live on social platforms. A social media agency is, in fact, very different from ad agencies. For one, timelines are much shorter on social (as well as budgets, because clients tend to be skeptical about investing on something that is not tangible) but the levels of approvals are also less, so things move a lot faster.

For example, if there was something trending on Twitter, and a brand wanted to jump at an opportunity like that, the agency has a matter of a few minutes to an hour tops to come up with a relevant idea and execute it. For it to run its full course and actually be worth it, you had to be FAST and CREATIVE at the same time, otherwise the trending topic could be gone an hour later.

At traditional advertising agencies, you get to finesse things and think it over before you show it to the world and there are plenty more layers to go through since most people have a very specific role. Though, all things are shifting towards social media more, so this too will change.

Q. So how has your experience been, working at WAS?

Let’s call my experience a unique and wild one, haha.

I think I grew a lot as a person and professional while working there. I got to work with cool clients, made new friends and got the crazy experience of working for an international social media agency (not to be confused with a regular advertising agency; it’s very different).

 

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My role at WAS started as a Designer; they needed someone who could do a little bit of everything to work with one fashion brand. Slowly my workload grew into producing content for 4-5 different types of accounts and then got promoted to Senior Designer about a year and a half later. While working there (as you would on many other startups), I got to wear many hats within creative: including art & creative direction, photography, animation and even time management.

I worked along a team of amazing women Designers, an incredible woman Account Director, and exceptionally talented women strategists and R&I Analysts (Yes, there are a lot of women working there). On a regular week, I would be creating stop-motion content for a tech company, creating a shot list for another brand, visual guidelines for new clients or ideating and creating mock ups for a new business pitch.

It was definitely a bit chaotic at times, since there is a lot of freedom within roles and not a lot of set rules but I guess it helps you grow fast. I think, because social media is still somewhat new to the advertising world, there isn’t a lot of precedence to guide you, so we were all learning every day.

My last day at We Are Social was exactly on my 3rd anniversary. I decided that it was time for me to try something different. Since then, I have ventured into the freelance world full time, which is scary as fuck but also refreshing. Luckily (and so far), agencies and individuals keep reaching out with new project ventures and I have created some cool stuff already, which will be added to my website soon enough (because #NDAs and all that jazz). But you know, just trying to keep things interesting!

 

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Q. Who are some of your current favourite artists?

I stalk/follow a shit ton of designers and artists, some are super well-known others a little less, but all these women are forces to be reckoned with. Here is my top list:

Jessica Walsh: Designer and Art Director, who has the biggest balls in NYC. She is everything I want to be: honest, courageous, unapologetic and as creative as they come.

Jaime Beck: Photographer and owner of Ann Street Studio who was the first one to experiment with “cinemagraphs”. She travels a lot and publishes gorgeous and enchanting photos on her blog that easily transport you to wherever she was.

Margaux Motin, Illustrator and blogger who has worked with lots of fashion brands while blogging about her cool French life.

Annie Atkins, Graphic Designer for the films The Budapest Hotel and The Boxtrolls – I mean, COME ON, CAN SHE SET THE BAR ANY HIGHER?!

 

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Q. What inspired you to create the eerie ‘Enchanted Twins’? Can we expect more projects of this sort in the future?

The idea for The Enchanted Twins had been in my mind for a VERY long time. I’ve always been a fan of creepy-cute characters; things that look innocent and sweet but when you really think about it or look closer they are as fucked up as they can be. That’s why I love artists like Sigmone Legno, who created Tokidoki and Tim Burton for all his movies.

Sometime in 2009-10, I made a quick doodle of a boy and a girl holding hands with their eyes closed (I was obsessed with drawing kids with their eyes closed. Perhaps because I love to sleep or maybe because I hate loud children so I generally want to put them to sleep when I’m around them; I’m not sure).

I wasn’t thinking of any type of story at the time, I was just doodling. I put the drawing to the side and a year later, someone saw that same old sketch and goes: “They look like those creepy 1800’s photos of dead children”, and that’s when my mind started rolling. I kept asking myself, “Are they dead? Are they asleep?” The what-ifs continued and I started writing all those questions around this doodle.

Little by little a story developed and I decided to name them: The Enchanted Twins and work on their story. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to come up with other eerie characters or stories; it’d be cool if I did. For now, I have been working on a lot of twists and turns to the Enchanted Twins story line, including the intro to new characters and settings; I just have to find a bit more time to put my ideas in order and execute the art for it.

 

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Q. Your powerful piece ‘Things I Take for Granted’ speaks about the different scenarios that you have been a part of and points out the many comforts that people enjoy without realizing their position of privilege. How was this project born and what was went into its making?

The Things I Take For Granted is one of my favorite projects; it is the most personal and honest. I was born in a country where terrorism and crime were very real and not too far from my neighborhood. Where safety, food, water and electricity weren’t always guaranteed.

Then, somehow after moving to a First World country, I no longer had to worry about any of that but instead only had to worry about studying, trends, and which movie was coming out soon in order to fit in. I grew up and forgot.

I mean, why would you want to remember those things anyway or be concerned by them?

Well, because you should.

When I got to the point when I was comfy in bed thinking about buying a new outfit because everything I owned had already been worn and somehow I got unbearably annoyed that was raining – meaning I “couldn’t” go out because I had just gotten my hair straightened… I needed to pause.

Somehow I had forgotten, I had forgotten that there was always someone out there, not in a comfy bed. Someone with no electricity, no water and with nothing to eat. Someone not concerned about what clothes to wear or that it was raining but instead thinking about how to stay safe or what to do to feed their family. It is just wrong. My now-privileged ass had forgotten.

I had to do something immediate about it, something that made me always remember. I started making a list of all the material things I owned that served a purpose in my life – things I should be thankful for; from something insignificant like Chapstick to my beaten-up Mustang that got me from point A to point B with no problem.

I made simple line sketches with the objects I had listed and then executed them digitally. Played around with colors and type, which developed into the poster series. I think we all want to be better humans one way or another. To me, this project was a step in the right direction.

 

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Q. You have been featured in many projects associated with building brands and establishing identities. Can you tell us about the importance and relevance of doing so in today’s world?

Humans generally don’t think of themselves as such, but we are all walking and talking brands; some perhaps forgettable but nevertheless a brand. Everything from what we do and say to what others think of us is building our story and therefore building our brand.

When it comes to getting a good job or a strong audience, I have noticed that whether well-known or not, from individuals to corporations, the brands with a biggest faithful audience are very consistent in their storyline and always keep it #Real. Consistency and honesty are just two of the many things you need to have in order “to make an indelible impression” like Robin Landa says, and therefore, a strong brand.

Take Kanye, for example. He is the most narcissistic artist out there. He is both despised and loved, and even when he raps things that literally make no sense, he becomes even more successful which causes still more people to talk about him. Why? Because everyone knows that Kanye is unpredictable and does not give a shit about offending anyone, he just IS. That’s what they seek from him: the cryptic shit he says, the random drama he creates with other famous people, designing clothes that literally no one in their right mind would wear. People know that whatever comes out of him (whether gibberish or not) is himself, it’s honest. He’s a genius (as much as it pains me to say it).

Fashion Blogger & Social Media Influencer, Luanna Perez-Garreaud (AKA Le-Happy) is another successful brand with a massive following. She shares her thoughts about fashion, home decor and travel. Because of her strong look and online presence, she is also very expensive for marketers. She has a very consistent and honest storyline and it works. She curates her image very carefully, from what she chooses to wear to what she chooses to showcase on social media. While, sure, people do follow her because she is very beautiful; she is also very memorable due to her unapologetic style, fire-like hair and strong personality.

So why do you need a consistent and cohesive brand? Because you want others to understand what/who you are and quickly (especially now that everyone has a very short attention span).

Whether it is because you need a job, get new clients or a bigger audience, you need a “strong brand”. If you can describe your brand in 3 adjectives or less and have people match your assessment, you have succeeded.

If you are really interested in reading more about brand building and how to do this with your personal brand, definitely check out Robin Landa’s book “Build Your Own Brand“, this book is gold.

 

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Q. Your gif works are super loud, quirky and relatable, often making observations in everyday life. Can you tell us what you enjoy most about the process of making gifs, and why?

My GIF madness started early this year as a passion project, to let my mind just relax and create with no rules.

As a designer working for different types of clients, you generally have to abide by their guidelines and rules in order to create things for them. Color restrictions, type limitations, political correctness etc., are some of the things you always have to worry about when designing something for someone else.

The GIFs I make generally look messy, spontaneous and have crazy colors because it’s my way of not caring about all the design rules and entertain myself for a bit (but if along the way I made someone else smile too, even better!).

The super cool Dani, Art Director at GIPHY, reached out to me sometime in March, inviting me to become a GIPHY Artist. Shortly thereafter, we collaborated in creating a GIF to promote Gwen Stefani’s new single “Used to Love You”, which I still can’t believe. Since then, I’ve had a few brands reach out to me for freelance work – to create GIFs for them. How cool is that? I can make money while having fun! What!?

 

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Q. What is the most important part of a project to you?

As you get more experience, you understand that the story and main idea is everything. Whether a series of posters, beautiful typography, a logo, or a product, the project will not be successful unless the story behind it as strong as the product to back it up.

When I say “story”, it can be anything from one paragraph to something with more substance, anything that determines exactly what you want to achieve and where you need to take the thing you are making. Trust me, physically creating something is the easier part (and this is coming from someone who can communicate better visually). Explaining why you created that “something” is the hardest part, so always spend more time on the story.

 

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Q. We have read that you’re a certified mediator! Can you tell us a bit about the field and what kind of an impact this study has had on your life?

Before I decided to become a Graphic Designer, I was very interested in law (still sort of am). I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be an “attorney” but I knew I loved helping others and enjoyed research so someone suggested “trying it out” by taking a few courses of Paralegal Studies at a community college – so I did.

I went to school part-time while working as an administrative assistant at a non-profit. As part of my required courses, I had to take 40 hours of training in mediation skills, which along with my professional degree in the field, certified me as a Mediator for civil cases in court. Couple of years later, I got my Associates in Applied Studies for Paralegal Studies and got promoted to a Case-handler Paralegal at the same non-profit.

The skills I gained with my Paralegal education and work experience comes in extremely handy in my current field. For starters, it’s very easy for me to lay out a plan to find a solution to a design problem. In the legal field, when trying to solve a problem or help someone, you always start with a list of questions to gather information and then break things down into smaller parts to solve them one by one until you conquer it all. The same can be applied to design.

As a Paralegal, you have to be very resourceful to find information or answers; I took a very intensive course in legal research and writing. This course taught me to find a million ways to ask the same question, because what good is Google if you don’t know what to ask?

And of course, mediation skills, something that anyone can apply on any situation, especially when dealing with clients or overseeing staff. In order to be a strong mediator, we were taught to always “find the middle ground where both sides were equally UNHAPPY. They will be unhappy together and connect” (Yup, that’s a direct quote from our instructor.)

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Q. What do you think are the things that have aided you in your journey as a designer and traveller so far?

Definitely, a combination of a lot of little things I would say. Having a curious and open mind is probably the most important one. As a curious person, my mind is more open to learning, asking questions, experimenting and exploring, never staying still.

Conformity & monotony is your one-way ticket to death… of all creativity.

(Definitely have my “I don’t feel like trying today” moments but I don’t let it take over my life for more than a day or two).

It also helps having passionate, supportive and positive people around you; others that like you want to make something of their lives. Not sleeping much and working on passionate projects during my limited free time has helped me get noticed and, therefore, get more projects under my belt. But honestly, none of this would’ve happened without coffee, so thank you coffee.

 

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Q. What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What advice would you offer to aspiring designers out there?

Don’t be afraid to try or ask. Never assume what the outcome or answer will be.

Seriously, you are not a psychic, you will never know if something is possible or not unless you ask or try it. (But if you are in fact a psychic, could please tell me if eating so many sweets will really kill me before 50? I don’t trust doctors.)

Hands down, best and most relevant advice I’ve gotten, and applicable to so many things. I always dreamed of working at Marvel Entertainment (mainly as a super heroine but as I got older I realized that wasn’t a thing). When I was close to graduating Design school, I blasted a LOT of emails to all the places I wanted to work at (total shot in the dark) and asked for an internship. It took MONTHS before I heard from some of them, but they all replied! The two biggest ones I got positive answers from were MTV Networks and Marvel Entertainment. Just going to the interviews made me feel like I had hit the lottery.

After the interviews, I had to sit down outside their offices for a solid 10 minutes to process what I had just experienced before I could go back home. A few weeks later, I heard back from Marvel Entertainment for the summer internship and *dramatic pause* I got it! So again, I would’ve never gotten this opportunity if I kept telling myself “it’s never going to happen.”

Fast forward a couple of years, interviewed at We Are Social; they liked me but gave me a salary offer that was pretty low. Even though I really wanted the job and was scared to be shot down and then rejected, I asked for more money (over the phone and with my eyes closed – also close to having diarrhea from anxiety). Well, needless to say, they agreed to give me a bit more money and I started working there the following week.

Not saying everything will work your way or that you will get positive answers all the time, but you will never know unless you try it or ask.
With that said, the advice I have for you, aspiring designers and creatives, is:

  1. Stop being lazy, it won’t do you any good. Put your ass to work.
  2. Ask and try, don’t assume. (Unless it’s drugs, you don’t need to try that, just google Lindsey Lohan.)
  3. Work on passion projects and share it with the world, it helps you stay motivated, get used to feedback and get noticed!

 

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Q. Who or what do you draw your inspiration from?

Definitely a cliché, but generally exploring the world itself is my fountain of ideas as well as books and music. While I definitely do some good old internet search when I’m feeling creatively stuck, I generally rely on short trips to new places (lucky to live equally close to both New York City and Philadelphia), flipping through a good book (If you haven’t read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, you should.) or listening to some music album (Lemonade on repeat). At the end of any of those activities, 99.9% of the time I will have an idea to create something.

 

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Q. How do you like your coffee?

Light and sweet (unlike me).

Q. What are the three things you’re dying to scratch off of your bucket list?

1. Hike the Great Wall of China (originally wanted to aim for climbing Mount Everest but then watched the movie Everest and 80% of people died, so fuck that.).

2. Design or art direct the opening credits for a TV Show (American Horror Story at the top of my list, but I’m not picky).

3. Open my own creative studio (or throw a shoe at Donald Trump’s head. Both would make me equally happy).

Q. Name three songs which describe your life at the moment.

6 Inch by Beyoncé

Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones

Dreaming by Blondie

 

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Denyse has touched new highs in her career that only very few people have been able to, but yet, she is down-to-earth, relatable and has her head firmly between her shoulders. She maybe a dreamer but always has her feet on the ground. Honest, outgoing and humourous, her passion for her work is awe-inspiring and her talent is enough to reach the skies. We wish her all the success in the world and hope many, many great projects keep coming her way!

We’ll end this by telling you that all the gif images used here were made by Denyse especially for this interview with The Yellow Sparrow. Lovely, aren’t they? We know you want to know more about her so we’ll just give you the link to her website here.

 Feature Image Courtesy – Denyse Mitterhofer

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