The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Roanne Adams

Roanne Adams

  • designer
  • entrepreneur

Roanne Adams launched RoAndCo in 2006 after being recognized as one of Print magazine’s “New Visual Artist (20 under 30).” In 2010, she was named one of the city’s most “outstanding up-and-coming design professionals” by T: The New York Times Style Magazine and she received an Art Director’s Club Young Guns 9 award in 2011. Roanne currently serves on the Board of Directors for AIGA’s New York Chapter. With her keen eye for style and a skill for visually embodying brands’ personalities, Roanne has earned the trust and respect of clients and collaborators alike.

Describe your path to what you’re doing now. I live in New York City, but I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, which is about 45 minutes away. I’ve always felt a gravitational pull toward the city. When I was growing up, there was a lot of money around me because many of the kids I knew were children of Wall Street bankers and wealthy businessmen. While my parents did well for themselves, I by no means lived in a mansion or rode around in a Rolls-Royce like some of my peers. Greenwich was the kind of place where wealth and luxury brands seemed to rule people’s lives—perhaps that’s why I work with luxury brands now. You can take the girl out of Greenwich, but you can’t take Greenwich out of the girl!

I developed an interest in drawing and painting early on. While my classmates were considered jocks or cool kids, I was known as the artist in school. I felt a sense of pride in being different, and my teachers and parents encouraged me to pursue my artistic interests.

When I was eleven, my dad’s job at IBM moved our family to Paris. That is where I truly discovered art and began to consider myself an artist. I had the opportunity to take art classes at the Louvre and École des Beaux-Arts, and I was passionate about going to museums and galleries to study art history. We lived in Paris for four years before moving back to the states.

That’s an incredible opportunity to have at such a young age. Yeah! I was really, really lucky. The early teens are such formative years: I was so impressionable. I was a sponge for culture and started finding inspiration all over the city. I was heavily influenced by European art and design, and I discovered the work of London design studios, which were doing design that I aspired to. I spent a lot of time looking at British fashion magazines like Dazed and Confused, The Face, and I.D., and I realized that those things didn’t manifest by themselves—a designer, writer, photographer, and art director had to work together to create them. When I moved back to Greenwich at age 15, I was desperate to return to a city and be part of a creative community.

To go from Paris to a small town in Connecticut at that age would be challenging. Yeah! I didn’t have the Métro or a driver’s license, and I couldn’t go out to bars or clubs or even buy alcohol—the rug had basically been pulled out from under me. (laughing) Greenwich was devoid of the culture and freedoms I so cherished in Paris. Don’t get me wrong—I now love Greenwich, and I spend practically every weekend there, looking for any opportunity to escape the city. It all comes full circle I suppose.

But just when I thought there was no one in Greenwich to relate to, I met my now-husband, Johnny. He was a fellow artist who also wanted to move to New York City. We started dating on my sixteenth birthday, Sixteen Candles style, and we’ve pretty much been together ever since. He and I made our way into the city as fast as we possibly could by taking painting classes at Parsons after school. We rode the Metro North train into Manhattan, took painting classes with continuing education students, and then took the train back home.

After that experience, we both made up our minds to graduate high school early, attend Parsons together, and start our careers as soon as possible. I graduated half a year early, but Johnny graduated an entire year early, which was kind of devastating to me. It felt like I had lost my soulmate and, all of a sudden, I was on my own in Connecticut again. That motivated me even more to get myself to New York.

I was accepted into Parsons early, so I didn’t apply to any other schools. Immediately after high school graduation, I started commuting into the city to take classes at The New School and to intern at the now defunct art gallery, Thread Waxing Space. I officially moved to the city the summer before my freshman year at Parsons so that I could apprentice in the Modern Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“If you think you can do something, go for it. I’ve always imagined myself in a role like this…I saw myself living in New York City and being successful in whatever creative industry I chose. I wanted that for myself, and I was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to make it happen.”

Loeffler Randall
Art Direction for the Spring/Summer 2015 Collection for New York-based footwear and accessories brand, Loeffler Randall
Loeffler Randall
Art Direction for the Spring/Summer 2015 Collection for New York-based footwear and accessories brand, Loeffler Randall

Once you started at Parsons, did you immediately know what you wanted to study? I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into graphic design, photography, fine art, or fashion. I was interested in all of them, so I took one class in every major. My graphic design class was taught by Stella Bugbee, who is now the editorial director at The Cut. At the time, she was a writer and graphic designer who, along with two other partners, had a studio called Honest. I looked up to Stella: she was in her mid-twenties, ran her own studio, and was a whip-smart, brutally honest lady. She was tough when critiquing my designs, which motivated me to go back and work even harder to impress her. That’s when I decided that someday I would go freelance or, if I could, I would start my own studio, like Stella. It was during my sophomore year that I decided to major in communication design, and Stella hired me as an intern for Honest for the following summer.

Did you work for someone else after school? Yes, I needed a job once I graduated. I worked at a brand consultancy called Wolff Olins for three and a half years. The job wasn’t necessarily a detour from my career path, but it definitely wasn’t where I expected to be after graduation. I assumed I’d go into editorial design or work for some fashion-related firm, like ARMedia or Baron & Baron. But that wasn’t the case, and I ended up loving the Wolff Olins team. They were all really smart, and I knew I could learn a lot. I worked with big brands like OshKosh B’gosh, (PRODUCT)RED, New Museum, Target, GE, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Working for a larger firm taught me how to work with clients and approach branding in a holistic way. Because I worked on such a big scale, I wasn’t afraid to go out on my own and apply what I had learned on a smaller scale.

After three years at Wolff Olins, I decided that I wanted a more authentic and personal connection with my clients. I felt disconnected from the process and the end product. I didn’t want to be the designer who might not be included in the client meetings. I wanted to hear feedback directly from clients and really understand what their challenges and motivations were. It was time for me to move on and try freelancing. I had nothing to lose at the time: I was 25, lived with my boyfriend, and could get another job if freelancing didn’t work out. I had no real responsibilities in life.


In 2006, I started my creative agency, which I first called Roanne Adams Design. I renamed it to RoAndCo two years later to celebrate the company and collaborators who helped me get the business up and running. I knew a lot of people from living in New York City as long as I had, so I had connections needed to get new business, and I was lucky to get a lot of work from the get-go. Many of my peers were starting their own companies, or at least taking a stab at it, so they came to me to do their branding. This was also during the onset of a recession, so many companies’ marketing budgets shrank. They were no longer able to work with large design firms and had to work with freelancers. I think I was the cheaper option, so people hired me, and everything evolved from there.

When you started as a freelancer, was it ever your intent to have your own studio, or did you think you’d freelance forever? When I look back on that time, I don’t know what I was thinking. (laughing) I knew that I had to get serious about starting a business, but I didn’t necessarily intend on having a functioning studio with twelve employees. I thought I would freelance, then maybe have a tiny studio with two other designers. But I thought I’d eventually go back to work as a creative director for a big firm.

The other day my mom reminded me that I once told her that female graphic designers in this industry can’t become creative directors within the first five years of their careers. You literally have to go out on your own, appoint yourself as a creative director, and then get hired by a company—that’s what it takes. If I had done that, it would have taken me a decade to become a creative director at Wolff Olins or some other big agency. You either have to do that or be incredibly talented and driven, and I don’t know if I was necessarily talented enough to push through all the men who were in the way.

Things have changed a lot since then, but it was interesting to have my mom remind me of that. At Wolff Olins, I felt like men ran the whole industry. I didn’t see women moving to the top as quickly, and I also felt like it wasn’t necessarily the place for me to thrive. I knew I had potential and that I would be more motivated if I went out on my own. Since then I’ve benefitted from doing everything myself, because there’s nothing more motivating than having it be your ass on the line.

Kaelen
Kaelen
Kaelen
Branding and Art Direction for the Spring/Summer Collection for women’s ready-to-wear line, Kaelen; view more

Was there an “Aha!” moment when you realized that you wanted to be a designer? I realized I wanted to go into design as a freshman at Parsons because I’d always been drawn to editorial and magazine design, art direction, and photography. Photography is what first influenced my decision to become a graphic designer and pursue art direction, particularly in the fashion realm.

While I was still at Wolff Olins, Cary Murnion, a partner at Honest, nominated me for Print’s “New Visual Artist (20 Under 30)” award. I never thought I’d actually win, but when I did, I thought, “Oh, I can get recognized for my work. I don’t have to be a cog in the wheel of some company and only contribute to someone else’s vision.” That was the moment when I realized that people were actually looking at my website. People thought I was good at what I did, and they were pushing me to do more of it. I began doing more freelance projects on the side, and that’s what eventually motivated me to freelance full-time.

Going freelance and deciding to start your own studio are pretty big risks. Have you taken any other risks to move forward? I’ve taken a lot of risks, but I haven’t done anything so bold as risking my life or anything! If you have an appetite for it, take big risks when you’re young and have less responsibility—and before you have kids. Risk-taking is a good thing, but it does evolve into more risks. The longer I run my studio and the larger it grows, the risk of something going wrong or falling apart becomes greater. But your threshold for those scenarios becomes greater over the years.

You mentioned talking to your mom about going out on your own. Have your family and friends been supportive of what you do? My mom’s a worrywart and she’s instilled that trait in me, too. When she told me, “I’m worried about you quitting your job. It’s crazy,” I reminded her that she said the same thing when I decided to move to New York and when I wanted to go to Parsons. She would joke about those decisions and try to offer a more practical route. I had to take everything she said with a grain of salt and believe in myself. If you think you can do something, go for it. I’ve always imagined myself in a role like this. I don’t know what my exact vision was, but I saw myself living in New York City and being successful in whatever creative industry I chose. I wanted that for myself, and I was willing to work hard and do whatever it took to make it happen.

Now that everything has worked out, my mom doesn’t question my decisions or tell me I’m crazy anymore. (laughing) It’s nice, and I’m proud of that. At the end of the day, that’s what you want from your parents: you want them to trust you and your instincts and the decisions you make.

It’s hard for parents. They want us to live an amazing, safe life. But if you want to do anything worthwhile, there’s a little risk involved. You just have to chase that, and hopefully the people around you will be supportive. Exactly. I do have supportive people in my life, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. My husband has been a huge supporter of mine since I was 16. My family, his family, and all of our siblings have been equally supportive. Everyone who has worked at RoAndCo has also helped to push me along and make decisions that I never would have made on my own.

They’re looking to you to lead. Yeah! They’re not only looking to me, but some of them are also helping me lead and telling me what we should do and what the next step is. Sometimes I’m risk-averse or not ready to move on, but they’re there to say, “No, you’re ready. Let’s do it!”

Have you had any mentors along the way? I’ve had a ton of mentors. Obviously, Stella Bugbee, who I mentioned earlier, was really helpful during my college years. Cary Murnion was another huge supporter, who was always available to answer any business-related questions that I had during my freelance years.

Todd Simmons, my former Design Director at Wolff Olins, is probably one of the strongest designers I’ve ever worked with. In terms of design, he set the bar really high. The standard he set for me has helped me find and hire incredible design talent—designers whose talent far exceeds my own.

My husband is my business mentor. He’s a creative person, but he’s also very business-minded. He was brought up in a family of business-minded people and graduated with a business degree. I have no formal training in this area and have learned all I know from him and on-the-job learning. Johnny has pushed me to embrace the fact that I, too, am business-minded, whether or not I like to admit it!

Fellow Barber
Branding and Complimentary Package Design for upscale barbershop, Fellow Barber; view more

“There’s a lot of advice I would give to my younger self. Thinking about it now, I should have taken stock and appreciated what I had along the way. I was constantly concerned with wanting more. I had an inherent determination to keep going forward, to keep trying to succeed and quickly move on.”

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself, or outside of yourself? Definitely. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced that I’m part of a larger graphic design community, and I get satisfaction from being involved in it. I’m on the board of directors for the AIGA/NY chapter and it’s amazing to sit around a table with other designers and business owners who’ve experienced similar challenges, successes, and situations. I’m so excited to be a part of that. Aside from serving on the board, I also like giving back to the community by hosting events and moderating panels with other designers.

With age and perspective—and since having my daughter—I’ve grown to look at the world differently. My very selfish world has been turned on its head. I no longer think about my personal achievements. Instead, I think about the success of my business and the employees who work at RoAndCo. I’m working on helping them evolve as individuals and grow into their roles, beyond their initial expectations. That has been a wonderful experience.

How old is your daughter? She’s two. She’s a special little lady, and she rocks my world. I love watching her personality develop. She’s everything and more: she’s the sweetest, most terrible, cutest little devil. She definitely gets the drama from me—my husband is even keel. But I have to remind myself that her brain is developing and that the terrible twos will pass. My mom told me that a two-year-old’s brain goes in out of equilibrium. Some days my daughter is so sweet, and I think, “Oh, you’re in equilibrium!” And then she throws a fit and I think, “Ugh, now you’re out of equilibrium.” (laughing) I can definitely relate to those emotions—running a service business is like going in and out of equilibrium!

What advice would you give to a young person starting out? So many people ask me this question, but it’s hard to answer.

Is there anything you’ve learned over the years that you would want to share with your younger self? There’s a lot of advice I would give to my younger self. Thinking about it now, I should have taken stock and appreciated what I had along the way. I was constantly concerned with wanting more. I had an inherent determination to keep going forward, to keep trying to succeed and quickly move on. I didn’t take a step back to think, “I’m so grateful for what I currently have.” I also didn’t take the time to thank the people who helped me as often as I should have. I guess we take a lot for granted when we’re young.

I’d love to go back and ask more questions and be less self-assured. You don’t know anything when you’re 22, but you think you know everything! It’s almost hysterical to think about how other people must have perceived that: “Ugh, these entitled little 20-year-olds!” (laughing) But maybe that’s what you need at that age to push yourself forward and become what you want to be: chutzpah!

Altuzarra
Fully Responsive Website Design for New York-based ready-to-wear fashion brand, Altuzarra; view more
Altuzarra
Fully Responsive Website Design for New York-based ready-to-wear fashion brand, Altuzarra; view more

Are you creatively satisfied? In some ways, yes. I get to work with amazing designers and great brands every day. We’re always on our toes, thinking and creating and building. At the same time, I sometimes wish I could sit in my backyard and craft with my two-year-old all day, but that’s not the easiest reality to achieve when I have so many responsibilities with my business. I think about Stefan Sagmeister and the one-year sabbatical that he takes every seven years, and—oh, god, I wish I could do that! I have a two-year-old, a family to feed, a mortgage to pay, and a business to run. I wouldn’t want to put my twelve employees and all we’ve accomplished on hold for a year. Although I know if I had a chance to take an extended sabbatical, it would be like pressing reset on the creativity button.

In the next few years, is there anything you’d like to do or explore that you haven’t already? I love self-initiated design projects. For 2015, I want to create more things outside of our day-to-day client services. Whether we create design products to sell or make something for ourselves, I’d like to get those creative juices flowing instead of only responding to client briefs. That can lead you to get caught in a pattern, especially after a decade of the same work.

I’m also interested in interior design, and I would love the opportunity to build a brand in a 3-D space. It would be great to collaborate with an interior design or architecture firm to make a space come alive. Maybe retail spaces? I feel like that’s the next realm I’d like to get into.

We’re always responding to what our clients’ needs are, and a lot of their needs have grown up and evolved to include more content creation and more brand and marketing strategy. That’s something we’ve been working on building out as a service for our clients, and it’s a big goal for 2015.

How long have you lived in New York? Too long—maybe 16 or 17 years.

How does living here influence your creativity and work? It’s hard to even quantify. Other than maybe London or Paris, New York is the design Mecca of the world. This city influences my work mostly because of the close proximity I have to the most talented people in the world. This morning I met with an incredible photographer and prop stylist who I’ve known for a while. Listening to them speak about art and design catapulted me into the mindset of wanting to create, collaborate, and keep pushing the envelope. Talking to them inspired me to want to be that person for other people, too. New York makes you want to inspire other people because everybody’s at the top of their game here—or at least they’re trying to be.

It sounds like it’s important to you to be a part of a creative community of people. Absolutely. I don’t think I could live here if I wasn’t part of a community of like-minded people. It’s such a harsh place to live, especially after 16 years and after having a kid. If there wasn’t a creative community of amazing people, I wouldn’t be here. I’d probably be somewhere warmer, somewhere with a view of the ocean.

Svbscription
Package design for luxury delivery service, Svbscription; view more

“If you have an appetite for it, take big risks when you’re young and have less responsibility—and before you have kids. Risk-taking a good thing, but it does evolve into more risks.”

What does a typical day look like for you? Actually, my big goal when I went out on my own was to not have a typical day. I don’t want to have to wake up and show up at the same time every day. I was never good at that and was always 15 minutes late to everything, no matter what. I do not like monotony, and I don’t like being able to predict what’s going to happen over the course of a day. I love waking up in the morning knowing I have to do a few things, but then being bombarded by a million other things as the day goes on. That’s what keeps me on my toes.

If I had to describe the most typical days, I’d say the first thing I do is see my daughter. I go into the office every day, but my schedule fluctuates. I usually critique designers and meet with existing and potential clients. It doesn’t sound that glamorous, actually. (laughing) At the end of the day, I try to get home in time to give my daughter a bath, read her a book, and put her to bed.

Is there any music you’re listening to right now? Right now, I’m listening to some old Paul Simon and Ariel Pink’s new album, pom pom. My husband loves music and is constantly searching for new stuff for us to listen to—he’s been making me mixes for 20 years!

I also put together a playlist every year, called the “Wintry Mix”, which I send out to friends as a holiday gift. You’ll notice that a lot of the bands are on the record label my friend runs called Mexican Summer. I’m a big fan of most of the bands on that label. I’m actually planning to go out to Marfa, Texas, in March for a Mexican Summer music festival.

Oh, yeah, and my husband got me tickets to see Fleetwood Mac!

Any favorite movies or TV shows? I have so many favorites, and I’m not sure where to begin, since my taste can be eclectic. I love Werner Herzog’s documentaries; Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence; Kubrick’s The Shining; John Hughes classics, like Weird Science, which is probably my favorite comedy; French films, like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine; and Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. Some of my other favorites include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Casino, Edward Scissorhands, Paper Moon, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

The golden age for film was the 1970s and now TV is having its moment. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that it would make such a comeback. The TV show I’m watching right now is on Netflix, and it’s called Black Mirror. It’s really depressing and dark. I watched an episode the other night and it was so traumatizing that I couldn’t fall asleep. It was horrible, but also really worth watching. (laughing)

Honor invitation
Invitation to Honor’s Spring 2015 New York Runway Show; view more

Do you have any favorite books? I have a ton of favorites. The one that seems most relevant is Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. It’s set in New York City in the near future and discusses manipulation through consumerism and media. It really gets you thinking about what technology is doing to the human race.

Do you have a favorite food? My favorite type of food is Mexican: tacos, margaritas, and guacamole—the whole enchilada! I recently went to Mission Cantina on the Lower East Side and thought their tacos were really good. But, unfortunately, my favorite Mexican food is all the way in California.

My husband is an amazing cook, so I’m really lucky to have such good home-cooked meals. I think what we cook at home is sometimes better than what we’d get at a restaurant. With that said, Johnny is part-owner of a restaurant called Vinegar Hill House in DUMBO. It’s a rustic, American, wood-burning fireplace type of place, and it’s really good.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave? Now that I’ve had a child, more than anything, I want to be a good role model for her. It’s important that she can look back at what I’ve done and feel empowered to do whatever she wants to do. I want my daughter to dream big and achieve each and every goal. The world will be a much different place when she’s an adult, but seeing that her mom ran her own business and provided for her family and raised her is extremely important to me. If that’s the least I leave, I’ll have no complaints.

Do you think the legacy you would have wanted prior to having your daughter was more work-focused? I don’t think I ever thought about leaving a legacy before having a kid. When the women’s empowerment movement started receiving more attention, I was surprised that people emailed me to ask if I wanted to talk about being a female business owner and the importance of female role models. I never stopped to think I was a female business owner—I just viewed myself as another designer running a design firm. I never thought I was a feminist who needed to advocate for women’s rights in the workplace, but now I do think it’s important to have female leaders and strong women to look up to. I did, and if I hadn’t, then maybe I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I think it’s good that I can provide that for other women—and men, while I’m at it.

Having a legacy isn’t something I dwell on too often. I don’t think I’m going to leave a huge impact on the earth. That’s not my goal, although I think we need to think more seriously about ways to help our environment and reverse the effects of climate change—but that’s a totally different interview! If I can impact a few designers’ worlds, then that’s fine by me.

I’m sure you already have. I hope so.interview close

“With age and perspective—and since having my daughter—I’ve grown to look at the world differently…I no longer think about my personal achievements. Instead, I think about the success of my business and the employees who work at RoAndCo. I’m working on helping them evolve as individuals and grow into their roles…”

Honor
Spring/Summer ‘12 Art Direction for Honor; view more