Elise Santangelo

Elise Santangelo — DesignStudio

Elise is an Australian/American designer based in London, working as a Design Director at DesignStudio. She spends most of her time helping businesses solve problems with design, and sometimes makes things out of clay.

What led you into design?

When I was a teenager I moved across the world from Southern California to Sydney, Australia, where I finished high school and eventually went to university. In high school, I was really into academic subjects like history, and I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist. Spending my teenage years on the Northern Beaches of Sydney meant that I naturally started getting into the surf culture and the art scene there at the time, which was kind of connected. There was this new, locally produced magazine called Monster Children that caught me by surprise — it was this unusual format, no-bullshit magazine that was just kind of crazy and punk and publishing whatever they wanted.

From there I started getting obsessed with editorial design and all things print. I took a ‘design and technology’ class during my last year of high school and made loads of dodgy Photoshop graphics. The next year I went straight to design school — seemed like the next logical step.

In my first studio job, I discovered some original issues of Colors magazine, which then led me to the work of Tibor Kalman, whose work blew my mind, and led me to discover Fabrica. I worked in a few different studios in Sydney and Melbourne, then eventually found myself doing a residency at Fabrica in Italy — someplace I never imagined I’d get into. I worked with a truly multi-disciplinary, international team of incredible people for almost 2 years, then came to London. I started at DesignStudio my first week in London as a freelancer, and the rest is history.

What does a typical day look like?

There isn’t one, really. My time is split across 2-4 projects at once, and as a Design Director I’m responsible for leading each project from kickoff to final delivery. What I do day to day changes a lot. Sometimes I'm checking in with different teams to see where they’re at and helping push things along, hopefully helping people think differently about things and do the best work possible. Sometimes I’m out of the office running around to different meetings, facilitating workshops or travelling round the world on immersion weeks (one of my favourite bits of the job). Essentially it’s a big mix of meetings, presentations, recruiting, miscellaneous, and actually jumping on the tools and designing.

What’s your setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

Galleries and museums — London’s always got something going on.

Podcasts like Making Sense (previously Waking Up) with Sam Harris I’ve been finding really interesting lately, particularly the episodes about digital capitalism and digital humanism.

The pottery studio.

I find lots of weird and cool things on Instagram.

I’m interested in a lot of product design (physical objects, not digital products), and super into different materials. I’m also a bit of a film geek and try to go to the cinema once a week if I can or watch something on Mubi. Nature (when I’m able to get outside of London).

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

This lemon juicer from Hay. Such a beautiful, simple object. I love it.

The Extinction Rebellion logo. Such a poignant symbol for right now. I wish I designed it.

The ‘chapter' titles in The Favourite — surprising and odd, but so well done. So fitting for the film.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

This is tricky to answer — I’ve worked on so many exciting things at DesignStudio recently but most are still yet to launch! I also tend to look back on almost everything I’ve worked on and wish I could do a little differently or start over again. I’m proud of all the work we produce at DesignStudio, and everyone in the team has a role to play in getting it out into the world. Our recent work for Riot Games was an amazing project that truly tapped into a complex, niche community and shook things up but resonated really well (complete with a Reddit hug of death).

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Ever since I joined 2 years ago as Design Director, it’s been a challenge being in a more leadership-focused role. It’s been amazing leading projects and pushing teams do incredible work, but it means I often have much less time actually on the tools designing. I’m more used to it now, but sometimes I miss it (a lot). Seems like such a luxury now to have a day that’s a bit calmer and I can actually spend time making stuff.

In addition to that, as the most senior female creative in the studio, I try to be as much of a mentor as possible, particularly to the other female designers in the team. Finding time and energy for those kinds of things can be difficult while also trying to focus on delivering the best design work possible.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Don’t stick to your discipline. Ask dumb questions. Get off the screen. Form your own opinions. Have conviction but be open to change. Be nice to yourself and others. Don’t be precious. Find alternative pathways into things. Do stuff outside of design that you love and let that seep into your work — my ceramic work is something super important for me — it lets me explore function, form, and materiality in totally different ways, and I really do see it as a supplement to the work I do at DesignStudio.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

We’re looking for amazing people to join our team at DesignStudio in London — all kinds of designers, strategists or copywriters — or just interesting people who think about things way beyond their discipline. Get in touch!

And if you want to see some of my pots, you can follow me — @esceramics.

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