Communiqué Creative — Madeline Wukusick, Founder & Creative Director
Updated: Nov 9, 2021
Welcome Madeline Wukusick!
Madeline is from San Diego, CA who is super talented in crafting thoughtful design solutions for complex, science-focused content and has worked for companies like UCSD, Waitt Institute, Padi Aware, Scripps Research Translational Institute, Pew Charitable Trusts, and numerous San Diego-based biotech and health tech companies. This summer, Madeline created a full branding suite for a biotech company with her partner Little Dog Communications, which resulted in a very successful IPO!
"It was super fun to see the logo we crafted displayed on the Nasdaq screen at Times Square!"
So cool Madeline!!! Congrats and thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions to help shed light on your creative career path—this is an amazing resource for younger creatives who may be interested in designing for science focused content or building their own creative studio in the future!
Read on to learn more about Madeline's career road map, where we'll discuss everything from her career starting as a page designer at a daily newspaper, to a multidisciplinary designer, founder, and creative director, to her love of climbing, e-biking, old school doodling and her recent rekindling of her love of the Gelly Roll gel pen!
Part 1: Career Details
Let's start from the beginning, what industry do you work in?
I work in an overlap of spaces, since I work for myself and have the luxury of pursuing the clients and niches within the design/creative industry that inspire me. I started out as a visual journalist (creating informational graphics), then moved into traditional advertising (for various Fortune 500 companies), then moved into the creative services— mostly visual design and illustration—for science communication (helping science-focus organizations better communicate their complex ideas). Over the years, I've worked at agencies, studios and in-house teams before branching out on my own and establishing my own studio. And someday I could see working with a more established team again. I love the flexibility we have as creatives to ebb and flow with the phases of life. From my perspective, it's very valuable to have various types of work experience. Even if you know that ultimately you want to work for yourself, you learn so much about the business side of design by working for others for a few years. Today, I would describe the space I work in as a visual designer expanding more into product design.
What is your job title?
Founder & Creative Director
What does this career’s ladder look like?
Where should I be looking for job postings for this type of work? My online go-to's are Angel.co and Builtin.com. But in my experience, the best place to start is with your personal network. Mention to friends and family that you're excited about XYZ type of work and looking to gain experience. I cannot tell you how many clients I acquired by this type of un-intentional networking where word of mouth from friends of friends led to a new project or account. It's human nature that people like to make connections and to help other people out — and they can only do so if they have some insight into your goals. Stay open — opportunities often present themselves when and where you least expect them!
What do you look for in a portfolio when you are hiring?
Beyond the basics of craft, attention to detail and skill, I look for self-awareness as a designer, an overarching mission or goal (Why do you do what you do?) and authenticity. Don't be afraid to have a portfolio that speaks to who you are as a person and designer rather than whatever the current portfolio trend is a the moment. And curiosity! To be a designer is to be a perceptual learner!
If I have no work experience, what's the best way to get my foot in the door?
The truth is everyone needs design work, it's just that not everyone or every organization can afford it. When I was first starting out in design, I volunteered to make posters for the local bookstore and menus for the cafe where I waitressed. Look for design needs for organizations or non-profits that you care about in the industry you're interested in working. While I don't believe in unpaid internships or free labor for exposure, I do think when you're just starting out looking for opportunities to create things for organizations you care about can be an amazing learning opportunity and great content for your portfolio. It shows initiative, plus it's just good karma!
Advice on choosing a business (or industry) where my creative powers are being used for good and not evil? Ha! I have been there. I'll bet a lot of creatives have. The reality of being a commercial designer, or any creative that works for industry, is that there will most likely always be some level of tension around this question. This is where a personal mission as a designer comes in. I think it's important to periodically check in with yourself —especially when you're just starting out—and ask yourself "What do I care about? What are my goals as a designer? What values can I use as a compass to stay true to my mission? What other ways in my personal or professional life can I stay true to this mission? If it's not possible right now in my day job, are there side projects I can be doing to be in better alignment with these values?" And the thing is, you may from time to time find yourself farther away from those values than you would like. Don't stress, just check in with yourself, be honest, and adjust as necessary. You can always make the decision to circle back to where you want to be.
What skills or programs will I need to know? What hardware or art supplies will I need?
Design software and technology are always changing! (The design programs I learned in art school 10 years ago are very different than the programs I use daily now.) So be ready to be adaptable and learn how to learn. I think it's a good idea to have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of visual communication, psychology, and illustration techniques as well, This type of knowledge is more about the philosophy of art, design and humanity and doesn't change as frequently the tools of the trade. It just teaches you how to be a better communicator and therefore a better designer. Having said that, the tools you might consider learning today include: Figma, Sketch, Illustrator, Photoshop for design; Notion, Teamwork or Wrike, Miro for project management. All the design environments I've been in have always been on Macs, so it's probably helpful to know how to navigate around a Mac environment too.
What type of work will I be doing in an entry level job or internship?
It depends on the size and type of company, but in my experience junior designers often get pulled onto projects to help source stock images, resize and export assets, assist with mood boards and supporting documentation for brand guidelines. At this stage, it's all about getting you familiarized with the design process, how to work on a creative team and understanding file management and collaboration. A lot of what you learn is by observing the team around and soaking it all up, so be observant and don't be afraid to ask questions!
What does an average day look like for a professional like yourself now?
I take my dog out for a walk first thing in the morning. (I just read an article about the importance to our circadian rhythm of getting at least 5 minutes of natural sunlight outdoors before 10 am.) Plus it allows me to fully wake up and set my intentions for the day. Then espresso time and a quick check of emails for anything urgent. After that, I block out a few hours for deep work.This is usually time set aside for the most important or most creative task I want to work on that day. This could be any thing from sketching to designing to concepting, depending on my current projects. I find I do my most focused creative work between 8-11am, so I try to schedule my calendar to accommodate that. Then a midday email check, handling of less creative tasks, and lunch. I try to schedule meetings and calls in the afternoon. These could be calls to meet with new clients, current clients to review design milestones, or calls with my team or partners to move projects forward. I aim to wrap up my work day by6pm and to avoid email in the evenings to fully recharge.
Do you work for a company, own your own company, or work as a contract employee or freelancer? Are you repped by an agent?
I'm self-employed. My studio is called Communiqué Creative and it focuses on creating elegant design solutions for complex, scientific content. It really depends on your goals and where you are in your career. For me, working for agencies and in-house prior to opening my own business really helped me understand the business and client management side of design. I think working for someone else for a few years (whether that is in a freelance, in-house or contract role) can be very beneficial foremost designers. You don't know what you don't know so it's helpful to have mentors and a point of reference.
What client or company or project are you most proud of and why?
I'm really proud of this interactive infographic I created for a marine conservation non-profit called Project Aware (now owned by Padi and called Padi Aware). The process is what I'm most proud of because it was truly such a collaboration between theProject Aware team, consulting scientists and myself. We ended up turning what was a 200 page technical report into a user-centered, educational tool informing and engaging users about the current state of the global shark fin trade. It's a testament to how collaborative relationships yield the most successful results!
Where do you work? Do you work in an office, your own studio, can you freelance from anywhere in your line of work?
Prior to the pandemic, I always rented a separate office in my neighborhood, somewhere within walking distance. I have alwaysthrived having a separate working/creating space outside of my home. I am energized and inspired by a change in scenery andenvironment..
Part 2: About The Artist
What are your pronouns?
What were you like when you were in elementary school?
When I was in elementary school I loved all the subjects. Art, math, writing, reading... I remember wanting to be an author/illustrator, an architect, a fashion designer, an engineer, a psychologist ... I didn't want to have to choose and one thing!
What were you like when you were in high school?
In high school, I felt torn between having to choose between art and math/science ... at that time, there was less of a discussion around careers that embrace all of these disciplines than I think there is now. I loved physics but also art and design. I didn't really know that you could make a career out of art and design besides the career paths of being a fine artist (painter) or an illustrator. Spoiler: you definitely can!
Is college necessary for this role? Did you go to college?
I don't think college is a must for a designer these days. There are other ways to gain the same skills from online bootcamps, community college, or even apprenticeship-type models. I think like most things, college can provide opportunities and a network to grow your skills. But I have to say, I learned WAY MORE at my first job than I ever learned in design school. You can also learn so much online from resources such as Coursera, Lynda and honestly YouTube.
How did you land your first job?
In college, I started working on the creative team at the daily student newspaper, from there I started working on theAds/Marketing side. For my first real job outside of school, I was able to use projects from these previous roles at the college newspaper as portfolio examples. I remember the hiring manager being impressed that I had real world projects in my portfolio despite being a recent grad.
When you were just starting out (think first job), how did you handle life and finances?
It's an important consideration and it's definitely possible to make a living as a creative. Make sure to know your worth by talking to other designers and don't be afraid to negotiate your salary. Check out levels.fyi, glassdoor.com or design Twitter to gain a sense of the market rate for your skillset. You might also consider community college or state schools if you do opt for the college route rather than a top tier private art / design school. You'll receive a comparable education without the burden of such large loans. And as mentioned previously, the design world is always changing so you'll most likely learn more on the job than at school.
Part 3: Musings Of A Creative Superhero
Has your career evolved from one industry to another?
Yes! Visual journalism to Advertising to Science Communication... and I'm always curiously learning and evolving!
Do you have a creative outlet outside of client work?
Yes! I like doodling, sketching, painting, beading, pottery... just making things whenever the inspiration strikes. It keeps me in a flow state, helps me unwind and reconnect with craft.
Where would the world be without creative thinkers / creative problem solvers / designers / artists?
Haha, every field has benefitted from creative thinkers—science, medicine, technology, you name it... so we'd be in the dark ages!
You can thank Madeline for his story, learn more, and follow Madeline at:
Thank you Madeline !!!