As Women in Leadership & Design (WILD) redefines paradigms of design leadership, we elevate the perspectives of the creative leaders in our midst. “WILD Portraits” shares the distinct stories of Bay Area women and non-binary design leaders, highlighting each individual’s unique path and point of view. Together, these profiles provide a sketch of the state of design leadership and how it’s evolving. We’re kicking off the series starting with our very own Chair of WILD, Rachel Gogel.
Our conversation with Rachel was wide-ranging, from understanding her career journey, to her hopes for the WILD community, to her perspective on design leadership. Join us for Part 1 of this two part conversation (see Part 2 here), and stay tuned for more!
I'm Rachel Gogel and my pronouns are she/her. I am an independent creative culture officer based in San Francisco originally from Paris, France. For 15 years now, I've been working at the intersection of strategy, product, editorial, and advertising. I have continued to use design as a tool for change — from building multidisciplinary teams at The New York Times award-winning T Brand Studio and GQ, to launching story driven experiences at Godfrey Dadich Partners, which is a small design studio here in San Francisco, and Meta. While my formal training is in graphic design, I’m passionate about building the teams that build the brands — with a focus on creative culture. As a passionate design leader and experienced people manager, I often dedicate my time to fostering spaces that unlock human potential.
Since launching my own consultancy at the end of 2020, I've led projects, ranging from developing global brand systems to scaling creative operations. For example, in 2021 I helped relaunch American Express lifestyle brand Departures as their executive creative director, contractor.
And last year, I supported internal brand initiatives at Airbnb, among other exciting projects. I thrive when I'm working at the intersection of culture, design, and technology.
2020 definitely served as the backdrop to a historic moment in remote work history: an exodus of workers from the traditional office to a home office, on a scale that had never been seen before. I took this transition one step further, and decided to leave my full-time role as Creative Director to become my own boss. Like many other creative leaders during this time, I've been on a journey to understand how to manage teams remotely, but now with the added challenge of also being an independent contractor. In my experience, most contractors rarely get to be in creative leadership positions, especially at a part-time capacity, but I've been able to figure out how to keep doing what I love without being full-time: I've been able to build and lead teams in a very embedded way and oversee work. I feel like I'm testing out new ways of working in real time.
Can you say a little bit about how you got your start?
I was always into art. After all, I grew up in Paris surrounded by cool typography and vintage graphics. In high school, I did a lot of mixed media and collage. I was even on the Yearbook staff, dabbling in Photoshop. When I was looking at universities in the United States, I found myself putting together a portfolio during the application process. I hesitated often about applying to art school, but decided on more of a liberal arts education since I wasn't sure if that's really what I wanted to do as a “career”. In 2005, I left France and moved to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania, which had a really, really small communication design concentration within their Fine Arts major. I recently heard that they've evolved a lot since, and now recognize Design as an official field of study and major. I even remember declaring my major early; I discovered how much I loved design thanks to classes they offered freshmen. I became a teaching assistant in the later college years as well. I basically fell in love with the craft, process, and history of graphic design.
Most of my internships in college were in publishing. Unfortunately, I graduated during the 2009 recession, and unlike all my Wharton friends, I didn't have a job when I left UPenn. I moved to New York, and crashed with my sister and just started freelancing. After months of looking, I took a design internship at Diane Von Furstenberg’s fashion studio in New York, and that really opened my eyes to the need for [graphic] design for any industry. Even though I was in fashion, I realized that my skills were needed for all sorts of things: whether it was marketing materials or email blasts. I was excited to have the opportunity to design layouts for her first- ever iPhone app. For context: the first iPhone had just come out two years prior and all the different fashion brands were navigating what that meant for them. That’s really when I started to combine my passions for design and technology. And then from there, I was in publishing for most of the early part of my career.
My big break was when I left Travel + Leisure Magazine as a junior designer. First, I did a quick contract job at USA Network for NBC during the summer of 2011. They weren’t my only client either; I was doing some freelance for GQ on the side too. I built a WordPress site for them, which again, WordPress was still relatively new and I had to learn how to use it for this gig. That’s when their art director left. The woman who had hired me for this freelance job asked if I would be interested in a full-time position and obviously, I was intrigued. Although I was more junior than the person who had just left, they considered me for an associate art director role — and I got it. Then when I joined, the creative director announced that he was leaving too. And in no time, I found myself (at 22-years-old) in a managerial role and in charge of an art department full of people who were older and more experienced than me. That's also when I fell in love with people management, and really just figured it out. And… I loved it! Then from there, I rose in the ranks to design director, which is what I left as.
That’s when I moved over to The New York Times as creative director, and I helped found their in-house branded content team called T Brand Studio, which is still around and thriving. And I've been a creative director ever since. That was around 2014. I love that I usually get drawn to building teams from scratch, or when there's a cultural shift or new technology that's on the horizon; I help brands navigate these big seismic changes. I've been really fortunate to have the career that I've had. In 2020, I built up the confidence to finally launch my own thing, which is still quite raw, but I'm having a lot of fun.
Congratulations! The really quick career trajectory sounds like it's fueled mostly by your skill to just jump in and figure things out. And it sounds like that's what you're doing with your own business, too.
I think there's some comfort in knowing that if a full-time job were to appear and it seemed like a major opportunity for me and my growth, obviously that's still always an option. But I really love being more selective with my time and feel very privileged to be more intentional with the projects I work on and finding the clients that really align with my values. I've also had some health stuff pop up in the last few years, so it's allowed me to find more balance and focus on myself, which I find really important. So far, so good, but I'm just kind of taking it one day at a time.
What’s one thing you wish you'd known as a young designer?
Always ask for what you want, and be your own advocate for your career growth no matter how great your manager is. You have to believe in yourself first before you can expect others to believe in you, too.
Let's shift to talking a little bit about WILD. What drew you to WILD, to wanting to refresh and relaunch WILD?
Great question. Maybe I'll take a step back and talk about AIGA SF. When I moved to San Francisco, I had heard about the local chapter. Unfortunately, because I was commuting to Menlo Park for Facebook, (pre-Meta), I never could attend their events on time. They were all in person; they were here in the city for the most part. By the time that I would have taken the bus to come back into the city, I would have missed their event entirely. So I never became a member of the SF chapter. But when I could find the time, I did attend some of their talks, which were great. And then I started to find ways to work with AIGA SF directly. For example in 2019, when I was still at Godfrey Dadich Partners as one of their creative directors, I facilitated an SF Design Week event called “Promoting Inclusion Through Design.” I'm really passionate about contributing to the design community in whatever city that I live in. It's been really interesting to watch and be part of what’s happening thanks to people working from anywhere and the acceptance of virtual or hybrid events, because I feel like it allows all kinds of communities to have more access to programming or other inspiring initiatives.
In November of 2021, I saw an opening to join AIGA SF’s Board of Directors. They specifically needed a chair for this initiative called Women in Leadership & Design, for which the acronym is WILD (how cool is that?!). I read the mission, and really anything with “women” and “leadership” and “design” in the title, I'm already sold. I was really interested and obviously the acronym is a good hook. Not only had I not really heard about WILD, because it seemed like they had just launched this initiative in 2018, but they hadn't really done much with it yet… and then the pandemic hit. So it clearly had not even gotten to the point where it was extending beyond certain circles. I nominated myself for the position and formally applied, because I really wanted to find more ways to address gender-based disparities in the design industry. This initiative was dormant when I inherited it, and I had the opportunity to rebuild a committee. In the latter part of last year, we had just started to re-engage with the community through casual meetups , with more to come this year!
In 2022 , we really focused on who WILD is, what we are about, and what is appropriate for WILD in this new world that we live in amidst the pandemic and even just generally. I feel like the global pandemic was also a catalyst for other brands and organizations to recognize certain disparities and spaces that were not truly equitable. It was good and healthy from that perspective; a lot of important reflection. I've had some great workshops with my leadership committee and we’re slowly building our new community. Really, it's been in this building stage, whereas I feel like this year will be much more active. First and foremost, we’ll be introducing an evolved brand identity for our program, which we’re super excited to share!
As someone who self identifies as being a woman and queer, generally I've come to care deeply about using my voice and privilege to help create inclusive and connected communities. It's important to highlight the things I care about. I have always made time for helping other women in particular, non-binary folks and queer creatives, by supporting their causes or using my power and platform to help uplift them. I've spent over a decade hoping that I can put something out into the world that matters, working hard to earn my seat at the table. I mentioned how my career got started.... I was young, and there was definitely some bias in terms of my age and the fact that I was a woman. Only later did I end up coming out as bisexual and then I married a woman. Even initially, I was very self aware about who I was and how I would climb the career ladder, what it meant to have a certain title in certain spaces. So for me, just recognizing that early on, I always wanted to pour that energy into helping emerging talent because I was also young when someone took a chance on me.
I started a newsletter early on in my career to help other people — mostly creatives in the magazine industry — get jobs. And I've supported other women-led initiatives. Here are some random stories that support this idea: I walked the runway for New York Fashion Week in 2015 for a designer, her name is Carrie Hammer. She had this initiative called “Role Models Not Runway Models,” and that was super fun! I have facilitated trips to Israel with REALITY for a select group of women featured on Forbes’ “30 Under 30.” I once did a Story Takeover during Pride for the 3% Movement’s instagram, which I also think is a great organization; they're trying to change the ratio of women creative directors. And I've done other things related to helping women. Even in the Bay Area, there was an initiative I was part of for Lululemon called “Lululemon Luminaries.” Those are just some examples.
All of these passions and beliefs have transpired into talks that I've developed or curriculums that I've created for different universities. I used to teach at SVA in New York, and now I teach at CCA here in the Bay Area. I feel like these types of values and things that I care about tend to come through in how I talk about the state of design, what I find important, the speakers that I bring in to add various perspectives. I would just end by saying that I'm really conscious of my influence, and I want to use my time on this planet to spread positivity and hope. Right now I'm continuing to listen and learn more from people who are different than me. There's still a lot of work to do in terms of fighting systematic inequality with a focus on decolonizing graphic design. There's so much that drew me to this idea of WILD, and I feel like we're just getting started!
Check out Rachel’s work at rachelgogel.com or follow her @rgogel on Instagram and Twitter.