Sean Adams’ 3 questions for Petrula Vrontikis

[Sean Adams] Balancing life and work is a struggle for most of us. It’s far too easy for me to fill each day with tasks. It’s a rare individual who can navigate this challenge and serve as a true inspiration. Petrula Vrontikis has. Most designers could be one of these things: good looking, hard working, committed to being an educator. Petrula manages to be all three. And she’s nice. Her answers here just prompted me to do a yoga session. Petrula may have saved a life today.

Q1: Petrula, let’s face it: You have the best body in the design industry. How do you do it? How can you manage that while designing and teaching?
In the early years of running a design business, I developed stress-related health issues. Exercise and relaxation through yoga became my salvation, and for over 20 years it has helped me balance strength and flexibility, whether behind my computer, in the classroom or in the midst of life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Graphic design requires that we focus on our monitors, not our bodies—and consequently not on our physical or emotional health. The trend toward virtual conferences and punishing piles of e-mail is just making it worse.

My inspiration grew out of an awareness of just how closely my need to get out and move, travel and play is tied to keeping my creative fires burning. I’ve noticed that my favorite designers are also the ones whose serious skills are matched by the way they embrace playfulness in their work and in their lives.

With Stefan Sagmeister and Marian Bantjes at AIGA Legends Gala, 2009

I think unplugging from this pervasive technology and immersing oneself in real relationships in the real world counteracts much of the discontent that comes from too much digital time. My friend and fellow yogi Max Strom says, “We have dedicated ourselves to a virtual life, not an actual one.”

Q2: I was talking with Michael Bierut and Michael Vanderbyl about success as a designer. We agreed that having talent is critical, but having ambition and managing a business over a sustained time is the true test. You’ve been in business for 23 years. How do you keep going? And what drives your ambition?
Career and business sustainability, as with yoga, is a balancing act requiring strength and flexibility. I’ve cultivated strong client relationships that have stood the test of time. These relationships yielded great referrals to other well-connected marketing professionals. Having clients say, “She’s a pleasure to work with” is more important to me these days than peer recognition.

Various projects from Vrontikis Design Office

My work is not rooted in a personal style, but relies on a consistent and individual approach to each project. This method allows my work to appeal to a wide range of clients. Economic downturns in particular industries—like entertainment or real estate—have not devastated my business. I am able to recalibrate as needed in a changing economy.

It’s also been a conscious strategy for me to downsize and simplify my business over the last 10 years. I used to believe that growing and maintaining a larger firm would yield better clients, better work and more profit. This did not prove to be the case. I am much happier and more creative being a smaller and more nimble design office.

Ultimately, career sustainability requires resilience on a personal level. I don’t postpone cultivating happiness and inspiration outside of the design world. One of my passions is adventure scuba diving. It’s the best antidote for being frozen behind a 15-inch virtual portal. While diving, I get to immerse myself in a 3D view of the world. If I can maintain calmness and humility, this world reveals itself to me in a myriad of delightful ways. Really Sean, if you think yoga is cool, you should try diving.

Unplugging underwater in Catalina, Rangiroa, Puerto Galera and Darwin Island

Regarding your question about ambition, I am a dedicated graphic designer and educator, but design isn’t my life. I continue to learn new ways of expressing who I am inside and outside the world of graphic design. These last few years I have been expanding my capabilities by also being a student at Art Center in interactive and digital media design. Today, staying relevant as a teacher and practitioner is what’s driving me.

Q3: Tell me about the best part of teaching and the worst part. What has made you the most proud, and what was a low point?
The best part of teaching is to see my students thrive in our field. I get much more excited when they win awards than when I do. I love seeing where their dreams take them. It’s been a great honor to be a teacher for the last 23 years, teaching the most talented students at one of the best design schools in the world. I don’t take that for granted—not for a moment.

Brainstorming in a class sponsored by NASA; practicing presentation skills for a U.N. project

The low points are when I see my students struggle, financially and/or emotionally. It is much more difficult to begin a career now than when I started. I do my utmost to give my students the best advice and guidance I possibly can, but our field is more challenging than ever.

The design work of Petrula Vrontikis has appeared in more than 150 books and publications and is part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. She lectures at conferences and universities worldwide about her work with Vrontikis Design Office, graphic design education and creative inspiration. She has taught the senior graphic design studies course at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design since 1989. In 2007 she received an AIGA Los Angeles Fellow Award honoring her as an essential voice in raising the understanding of design within the industry and among the business and cultural communities of Los Angeles.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Lindsey on 06.3.11 at 8:44 pm

    Petrula was my teacher at Art Center.
    She not only taught us how be a good designer, but also inspired us to believe in ourselves and take a pride.

    Taking Petrula’s class was one of the best experience.
    and she’s absolutely gorgeous!

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