Chelsea and the City: Lessons learned after 2 years in NYC

Chelsea KardokusKardokus, designer at TIME, moved to New York City in 2013 and we followed her transition from Ball State University to life as a young professional in Manhattan through her blog series for SND, Chelsea & The City. Two years later, Chelsea shares what she has learned and gives us a look at her recent projects.

You started with TIME as a freelance designer. Can you share some details of your experience breaking into the magazine industry through freelance?

When I started freelancing at TIME, I was thrown right into the hustle and bustle of magazine land. It was a little different than what you normally think when you think “freelance” – I was doing the exact same things as other designers, working the same days and hours and was being held to the same standards.  It was the real deal and SCARY. But I am so, so thankful for that because it truly taught me the ins and outs of working at a magazine.

What is the biggest lesson learned since you started your career?

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to always push yourself further than you feel comfortable. Just the other day my Creative Director pointed out I had been using the same font styles for the past few stories I worked on and she was totally right. I took a step back, scratched everything I had done and looked at the story with a new perspective. The first time I showed my designs for TIME 100 (that in my head I thought were great), the editors wanted more. They wanted to push the design further. I struggled internally because I thought “I don’t know how. I already liked this”. But once I sat down and really focused, I was able to come up with something I loved more than I thought was possible!

Your role at Time requires substantial art directing. Tell me about what you’ve learned directing photo shoots and working with illustrators.

This is one of my favorite parts of my job! When I get the chance to work with a photographer and sketch out what we want and see it all come together it is one of the most rewarding experiences. You learn to be very mindful of your design and really plan out the architecture for the page.

I get to work with illustrators almost on a weekly basis and love seeing their creativity! One thing I’ve learned the most about illustrators is not to put too many restrictions on their creativity 99.99% of the time they have a way better idea than I do and I love to see what they come up with.

Kardokus Time 100

You had the opportunity to design Time’s annual “Time 100,” a double issue. Tell me about your creative process, your timeline and who else was involved.

Well I have to say, without a doubt this was the most rewarding and challenging project I have ever worked on.

It was different than any other, because there were so many tiny details that had to come together  perfectly in order to make it all happen. I worked on the issue for about 2 months – only about 2 or 3 weeks of not designing anything else. There was an editor over the whole project, several writers and editors gathering all of the stories, an incredible photo editor with a few assistants helping and then the designer (me!) along with a few other very talented art directors who worked on a few graphics pages.

Kardokus Time 100 2

It’s really intimidating to start. I had about 90 pages, 100 people and 5 sections. I had to figure out who went where and why and how – how many single pages I had vs. spreads, who needed to be on the spreads and who could be on a single. I was given a majority of the photos and just kind of had to start. I don’t think any of my pages ended up looking like they started. I had mini versions of all the pages hanging up in my office to look over and really stare down. That was SO helpful to be able to see the flow of the issue. Sometimes we would realize person X can’t go next to person Y so we would have to move person Y to a new page but the person on THAT page would have to move to a different page because they couldn’t be next to person X either – you get the idea. It was complicated and crazy and I loved it! I worked so closely with the photo editor and we really had to be a strong team for all the visual pieces come together.

I also hired an illustrator to create several portraits of people we either couldn’t find great photos of or get a shoot with, like people such as Mohammed Yusuf. I had to make sure the illustrations would work well as secondary with strong portraits and pick up. It was a big balancing act and everything had to be taken into consideration.

At the end of the day and all the late nights, it all somehow came together! I still can’t believe I had the opportunity to work on it and I’m so thankful for everything I learned.

What was the biggest takeaway for you from working on a project of such scale. Any successes or frustrations that will influence your approach to future projects?

I think the two main things I learned were time management skills and how important using style sheets is. There is so much to manage not only with the pages, but the editors, the photos – everyone uses a different system that works for them and it was a process to figure out how to make everything work smoothly!  I have worked on a few other bigger projects but nothing to this magnitude – so it was great be able to create a process I can use in the future for myself that I know works.

I also spent a LOT of unnecessary time opening every single page and changing kerning by .25 or adding 2% black to a color. If I would have made my styles perfect in the beginning, it would have cut out a lot of time doing silly production work that I messed up! Paying attention to the details was key.

Kardokus Time

What were your other favorite designs or projects in the past year?

Last summer I got to work on my first big issue which was The Smart Home Issue. It was the first time I was thrown into a fast paced double issue and had creative reign over a big project. The subject was super interesting and it was so great to be able to work closely with the editors and be a part of the whole process. I feel like when everyone works together on a project and has a clear vision and understanding, everything comes together so well! We got to hire a model maker to create the perfect model smart home for us that we used on the cover and or the opening spread to explain the whole story – it was such a neat process!

After working and living in New York City for 2.5 years, I would imagine you’ve discovered some great sources of inspiration. Tell me about what inspires you.

I probably should say all of the incredible museums that are all around me – but to be honest, I am a big sucker for quaint coffee shops, walks in the park, flower shops, markets – anywhere that makes me smile! I find more inspiration in things I see in my daily life then when I go searching for it. Just walking down some of my favorite streets I find inspiration in architecture, colors and patterns. I love stationery shops and book stores – being out in the world, you never know what you are going to see that will inspire you!

Can you share three pieces of advice for current design students or recent grads?

Don’t be happy with your first idea. Like I’ve said a few times – this is a huge lesson I’ve learned this past year! Always keep going, try something different or add something new. You never know where your first idea can take you if you push it a little more!

Don’t be discouraged when someone gives you critiques. Sometimes when you love something it’s hard to hear that someone else doesn’t. But in the end, if you open yourself up to critiques and constructive criticism you are going to become such a better designer! There is always something new to learn and a way to grow.

Don’t be afraid to try something totally out of the box – let your style shine! It can be really easy to have your “go to” solutions or designs when it seems like there’s not another answer. But trying something that hasn’t been done before – if it fails or not – can help you and others sprout new ideas and try new things! I keep a bunch of layouts in a folder of things I’ve tried that didn’t work for a specific story, but hope they will work for another somewhere down the road.


About Courtney Kan

is a designer at The Washington Post and the editor of

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