Women In Design feat. Natalie Sullivan

Meet Natalie Sullivan, Director at One Studio. Natalie is a seasoned creative and agency owner based in Nottingham. With over 25 years of experience, Natalie brings a wealth of expertise in graphic design, honed through her diverse portfolio of projects spanning advertising, marketing, and branding.

Here she shares her journey navigating challenges as a female designer and offers empowering advice on building confidence and overcoming self-doubt in a competitive field.

Could you please introduce yourself as well as your background?

I’m Natalie, a creative and agency owner from Nottingham with more than 25 years of experience under my belt. My background is in graphic design – I have a degree from Bournemouth Art College (now the Arts University) – and I’ve worked mainly in advertising and marketing agencies throughout my career.

My first art direction job was with an independent advertising agency in London, where I gained my absolute love for concept generation. There’s nothing better than generating ideas and coming up with campaigns – the buzz when you come up with a winning idea is unreal.

My time in London was immense, but after a few years, I wanted a change. I moved to Nottingham and became a Senior Art Director, and then Creative Director, at a small but mighty marketing agency. The well-known names among their big leisure and tourism and FMCG clients excited me from the off.

Throughout my career I’ve designed for many brands – I guess I have been lucky not to have been boxed in. Names like Weetabix, Bodyform, Tetley Tea, BetterYou, National Trust, 3M, Nottingham Trent University and Ragdale Hall Spa are only a few of the amazing clients I’ve produced work for.

Now, running One Studio with my amazing business partner Lisa, I’m part of everything we create, and we get to choose who we work with. I can proudly say I do what I love and love what I do, too. That’s probably the best it gets when you spend a third of your life at work.

When not designing, I’m all about my people. I love socialising with family and friends (with the occasional cheeky drink in hand). And if I can squeeze a gig or two in while doing that, even better. I’m equally happy curling up on the sofa with my boys introducing them to some classic 80s movies (The Goonies is one of the best) or doing a jigsaw puzzle or two. If it’s a Lego one – even better!

In your opinion, what unique perspectives or contributions do you think women bring to the design industry?

I find women challenge and question naturally. Maybe, because we are far more critical of ourselves in our everyday lives, we bring the same attitude into our work. Many of the women I work with are always looking at how they can improve a design, push a brief or really question the thought process that goes into something to make it better than it already is.

They also bring a different perspective into the thought process. Which, when you consider we represent an important part of many purchasing decisions, can be key when trying to target your marketing. Over three-quarters of household purchasing decisions are made by women, so having a female perspective when designing websites, branding or campaigns is invaluable.

What is the 1 thing that you’d like to pass on to your peers as well as the future generation of talent within your sector?

The biggest thing – have the confidence to never doubt yourself (I know that’s easier said than done at times). We read so much about “imposter syndrome”, and self-doubt is really something that can hold you back. Confidence and self-belief are essential if you want to convey your ideas and sell-in your work – not only to your team but to clients as well. Confidence and self-belief will win respect and trust in your abilities.

When presenting, talk confidently about your idea and why it fits the brief. Never start with a negative – I’ve had creatives in my team begin their presentation with “Not sure this is any good” or “Don’t know if there is anything in this”, and I always tell them to start again. It’s amazing how different a concept comes across when you believe in it. Some of the best ideas I’ve seen have come from a seed someone thought wasn’t good enough to bring to the table.

And then you’re meeting clients, hold your head up and stand tall. Be a presence. When saying “hello”, smile, shake their hand confidently if appropriate and, most importantly, keep eye contact.

I believe some women think if they are too confident, people will interpret that as arrogance or bolshiness. If you can take advice on board and always have a willingness to listen and learn, then this only helps defeat self-doubt and those looking to criticise. Humility is a part of confidence. Successful, confident female creatives will always be humble too. And they’re never afraid to admit they aren’t right, don’t know everything and always have more to learn.

Have you encountered any specific challenges as a female designer, and how did you overcome them?

Aside from the common challenges many women have in the workplace, I would say mine has always been managing how I’m perceived. What I mean by this are the assumptions people can make because I’m a woman, albeit not always consciously. If women are assertive, some people take that as aggressiveness. If you set out to lead, you’re bossy. If you’re honest or probing, you can be seen as being difficult or being awkward. I don’t believe this is always the case for men and I bet lots of female designers reading this are now nodding their heads in agreement.

Let me also give you a couple of other examples that may resonate. I’ve had clients and senior members of the team ask less experienced male colleagues to affirm what I’m saying. Obviously, if a man says it, it must be true. I’ve been asked to sort lunch or tea and coffee for a meeting where I’m the only female, only reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes. Once I was even told that I needed to look “more the part” of a Creative Director when we lost a pitch. Because it must have been my outfit choice that informed the decision, not the presentation or work. I’ve even known clients look elsewhere because they feel they’ll get a better product from a male-led team.

I refuse to let anything like this get to me. I believe in myself, what I do, and other women I work with, and that has carried me throughout my career. And I’m always happy to challenge and debate when this type of thing raises its head. I make myself heard in a genuine way backed by experience and positivity. I also surround myself with people who are talented, honest and supportive and take on board advice while learning all the time – because you’re never too old or experienced to learn more.

What is your take on the importance of role models?

I think role models can play a big part in shaping your career. Even more so when you’re under-represented in the workplace. I’ve been lucky enough to have some great role models throughout my career, who’ve taught me to trust my instincts, champion myself, keep learning and not be afraid to be a strong woman.

In my first two roles, both my Creative Directors were women, and I learnt so much from them not only as creatives but also as women in business. They provided me with a template for success, showed me that anything and everything is possible, and also brought me down to earth when it was needed.

I don’t think the importance of positive role models in any aspect of your life can be disputed and I will always be grateful for mine.

If you’re inspired by the stories and wisdom shared in our ‘Women In Design’ series and would like to contribute your own experiences, we’d love to hear from you. Creatives at all levels, please email us and your story could be the next we feature.

Written by

Head of Design Recruitment

User Experience & Design Recruitment

View profile

Sam Firth