This design leader wants you to know it’s possible to balance creativity, health, and fun—even amidst crisis
The dog wants a walk. There’s a load of laundry that could be done. And at 11 a.m., the neighbors, for some reason, are singing show tunes at the top of their lungs. Working from home has its own set of perks —and challenges. This is especially true for those trying to manage a team in a creative field during a time of economic uncertainty. But Aja Shamblee has taken the Chicago lockdown in stride. Having led a design team remotely for over a year, she’s no stranger to the #WFH life. And because she launched her career during the 2008 recession, she projects a confidence that’s inspiring. Despite all that’s been happening over the past few weeks, Aja’s found an exceptional method to balance work and life. For this installment of Designer Spotlight, we uncover how Aja got to where she is today and how she’s getting sh*t done in the face of changing times.
Name: Aja Shamblee
Title: Senior Designer, Marketing
Location: Chicago, IL
Fun fact: Her first name comes from the critically-acclaimed 1977 Steely Dan album
Roommates: John Ingraffia, best friend and partner; Ellie, dog; Soba and Aiko, cats.
How did you get into professional design?
I went to school for game design. I really wanted to create maps and character models and thought I would do the CGI route. The biggest takeaways from those classes were about storytelling, and also learning new tools and exploring the unknown – trying a bunch of things and learning from failure.
I graduated into the 2008 recession—a super fun time for me and my generation. (Sarcasm.) There were no jobs in Ohio, so I moved to Chicago.
In the time since heading to the windy city, I’ve collected a broad range of experiences, from leading learning sessions at the Apple store to design consulting for top-tier agencies, and most recently landing on the marketing team at InVision over a year ago.
Tell us about how you manage. How did you arrive at your management style?
The first person who managed me was super harsh. I wasn’t very good at my craft at the time, and he was blatant about it.
Then the day before a presentation I said to myself, “I’m just going to get this right.” I started Frankenstein-ing all these designs into what I needed and stayed up all night. Afterward, he gave me the first compliment I’d ever had from him, and I thought, “I think I found my process.”
When I left that place, I never looked back, but in my head, I thank him all the time because he really lit the fire under me. It helped me leverage my curiosity and drives me to constantly challenge myself.
My goal is always “How can I be a better person to others who are going through something similar?” Because you can’t get anything out of a designer who feels like crap. I want to empower everyone on my team, to give enough responsibility so as to challenge, and also think about design as a problem-solving skill.
How has anxiety related to COVID-19 impacted how you lead?
As the only non-parent on my team, I’m extra sensitive to the fact that schedules need to accommodate the new normal. Many have babies, and those with older children are working out ways to entertain and homeschool. We get a few kid cameos during our meetings and it’s honestly really heartwarming to see them. If anything, I now have even more admiration for my team. I feel really grateful that we can all collectively empathize with these changing situations and be flexible for one another.
Before our alignment meetings, we take a moment to just check-in on everyone. How’s everyone feeling? They almost always spin-off to something more personal and you get to know each other on a much more authentic level.
How about outside of work?
I feel oddly prepared for this quarantine. I’m grateful to have worked exclusively from home the last year. I have pretty much developed a system for myself that works. I realize that it’s a privilege to not only do what you enjoy but also to get to do it today while so many are not equipped to work remotely or work in industries that are taking a hit. I feel a lot of gratitude for that.
The things that have changed are my life outside of home. I used to force myself to attend design meet-ups a few times a month and those have gone virtual. My boyfriend and I have been cooking at home a lot more now. Weekends are interesting because I use the same tools to video conference my friends that I use to chat with coworkers. Zoom is where it’s at.
Before quarantine, Aja and John ate 70% of their meals at neighborhood spots.
There are whispers of a magic video game room in your apartment. Any truth to these rumors?
The game room is our prized possession. It’s without a doubt our best idea ever.
The game room in all its full glory.
We had this extra bedroom that we were going to turn into an office. But then one day I was browsing Instagram and saw this ad for a handheld projector and it clicked. In lieu of a bedroom and TV, I said, let’s get one of these things and create a game room! The next thing I know my boyfriend said the projector would be there the next day. We set up our PS4 on it and it feels like an event every time we play or watch movies there.
But because it’s a separate room from the living room, it also gives each of us space to separate for a bit while we’re stuck at home. Everyone needs some alone time, whether you’re introverted or extroverted. Seeing as we’re stuck together for the foreseeable future and can’t really escape, the game room has probably saved us from annoying each other to death.
Aja’s tips for staying hopeful and creative during hard times:
- Don’t let go of your routine. “Get ready every day, just like you were going into an office. Take a shower, work out, do what you gotta do.”
- Take time for yourself. “I make breakfast. I have a bunch of animals to take care of. Before social distancing, I’d go to boxing class, but now I work out at home. Then I read for an hour while drinking coffee before I start work.”
Ellie is very punctual for her walks.
- Set up your space for productivity. “As long as I’m working in a really beautiful space, I feel clear-headed. For me, that means a clean and sparse environment. I usually just have a sketchpad and my laptop.”
- Find your inspiration. “I love watching sports, and I might see a motion graphic on the screen that will randomly trigger an idea for what I’m working on.“
- Give Brain.fm a try. “For those who are looking to tune out and improve their productivity at work. It’s a radio station that plays music to help you focus. I can’t explain the science but it works!”
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.