Shanti Sparrow describes her occupation as “problem solver.”
It’s not about watching the joy on children’s faces while they read her delightful books, or seeing her illustrations on a range of exclusive luggage, or even winning another Indigo Design Award, of which she has seven. What springs the Australian designer from her bed each morning is the excitement of finding solutions to design problems.
“My family are all in medicine and I’m the oddball creative,” says Sparrow, speaking from her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I think I get so many of my traits from my mother because she was a hospital crisis manager. You know, if there was a fire or a flood, she was that person who would try to figure out strategy and problem-solving. And she would make some of the most incredible, tough calls.”
For Sparrow, the early stages of a project are the most rewarding, when questions remain unanswered. “You’re trying to figure out the solution, and that’s addictive. I love that moment of feeling unsure and trying things, and failing, and trying again. And I can feel it when I’m cracking it. I can feel it when it’s right.”
Moving to New York in 2017 was one of those gut feelings, and it has clearly worked out. Sparrow has been named one of 33 Women Doing Amazing Things in Graphic Design by Canva, and one of 60 of the Best Graphic Designers to Follow on Behance by Creative Boom. In 2018, Creative Market included her in a list of 15 Inspiring Illustrators to Follow on Instagram. Today, she teaches at the Shillington School of Design in New York, helping budding designers find their own place in the world. She often tells them that her own career almost didn’t get off the ground.
“Well, I graduated in 2008,” she explains. “So it was smack bang in that horrible global financial crisis moment. It was a bit of a depressing outlook really. I applied for anything and everything. I was finally able to get a design position in a very small independent company, and I learned a hell of a lot. I learned discipline and time management. It was a very unglamorous start in design.”
“I love that moment of feeling unsure and trying things, and failing, and trying again. And I can feel it when I’m cracking it. I can feel it when it’s right.”
Soon, Sparrow moved to an agency, Colourcorp, and began working on projects for Red Bull, Coca-Cola, and the alcohol giant Diageo. She developed brand identities bursting with individuality and personality. “It was hyper-commercialized, and it was all about selling and consumerism. And there’s a big place in our industry for that, and it does pay the bills. But I was doing that for two and a half years. So when I saw an opportunity at a company working predominantly with nonprofits, I jumped at the chance.”
At Bug, a communication agency, Sparrow moved away from major beverage brands and started to apply her vibrant and bold work to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Greenpeace, and the Red Cross. “I like to give back,” she says. “I was just so excited by the idea of transferring my skills to make an ask for help, not an ask for purchase. And it’s satisfying to see how donations directly lead to research breakthroughs.”
No matter the client, Sparrow’s creative process is the same. “I use InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop,” she says. “I think I’m using InDesign 80 percent of the time. You know, because I’m always doing such big projects with lots of rollouts. I’ve used the Adobe suite of products, and every generation of them, for the last 12 years.”
Sparrow typically doesn’t work on identity elements one by one—logo, and then images, and so on: “I like to create them all together and get a system working first, collaboratively,” she says, “and then break it apart and make decisions on each section of that identity. I spend most of my time mixing it all together to get the right recipe. That’s why I spend so much time in InDesign, that’s where I solve problems.”
“I use InDesign most for key art creation. That’s a big part of what I do now. I try and figure out the basis of a brand or a new identity. And predominantly I do that through creating a poster or an advertisement. Because a poster has every key ingredient of a brand. It will have a bit of tone of voice, it will have a logo, and colors.”
“No two days are the same,” she says of her dream job in design. “When I wake up sometimes I don’t know what my day is gonna look like. And I might have a different problem to solve. It might be teaching or a new freelance project. “What few creature comforts Sparrow misses from Australia are shipped over in regular care packages from her mother. She is the proud owner of a rescue dog named Archie. She adopted him at five years old after he was urgently surrendered to a shelter—another problem solved.
“Sometimes in the studio I can feel isolated,” she admits. “It’s really important to connect with other like-minded creatives. Collaborating with peers is important. I have a really great network of people that I can send my work to get feedback on.” When delivering work to a client, Sparrow prefers a presentation. “I like walking clients through the process. To show them how I got to the actual answer, instead of ‘here it is, I hope you like it.’ I believe that bringing them into the journey makes them buy into it.”
“It’s really important to connect with other like-minded creatives. Collaborating with peers is important.”
Sparrow has also presented engaging tutorials for Adobe Live, despite a mild case of stage fright. “I can be uncomfortable in front of the camera, but it’s so important to have some representation there. When helping to organize design panels, I make sure there are more women present and that it’s not tokenism, that there isn’t just one girl."
“I do a lot of mentoring with young women designers,” she adds, “to give them that confidence to go for the higher-up jobs and to believe in themselves. Even when I’m uncomfortable, I try to push myself to do a bunch of things like I don’t feel comfortable doing.”
Her latest problem was how to tackle graduation for a class of design students, during the coronavirus pandemic, when huge events were impossible. How would the college show off its students’ work to prospective employers? “That was a strange problem,” says Sparrow. “I ended up using Adobe Folio to create an online graduate showcase, and I designed the website and branding. For the ceremony we added a special background to each person’s Zoom window, to make up a bigger picture.”
“It’s like we’re all stuck in our little boxes,” she says. “But we’re all connected.”