In this installment, we speak to Shawna Murland, an associate creative director in our Austin studio. We cover her early love of art, learning empathy as an exhibit designer at the Holocaust Museum and the craziest thing she’s ever done. The interview was lightly edited for clarity.
I’ve always been interested in the arts since I was a kid, but I didn’t necessarily know that was going to lead me to design. I was always drawing, always wanting to go to the museum. My perspective on the world was constantly around organizing it in a visual way. It included rearranging my room a million times; every month my bed was in a different place. That said, when I entered college, I started down the pre-med track because I had a deep sense of wanting to make an impact on the world, and pre-med was the only very clear path I thought could fulfill that. After a few months, I realized that was not the direction for me. I needed to figure out how to merge my passion for making a difference with staying true to what I actually, truly loved, which was to create. To that end, I turned to the fine arts and studied painting.
I worked at the Holocaust Museum in Houston as an exhibition designer for our temporary exhibits. Specifically, I drove the contemporary genocide program, which involved designing exhibits featuring genocides that happened after World War II and even ones currently happening in other countries. We were trying to communicate that [genocide] should never happen again by bringing awareness to genocides from which people otherwise felt removed.
Prior to the Holocaust Museum, I worked at a grief center for kids who had just lost a parent or a sibling. Both of those organizations really highlighted, for me, the resilience that humans have. While it sometimes became just a job for me, at the end of the day, continuously being surrounded by individuals who had gone through experiences that were beyond my capacity to ever truly empathize around was really inspirational. It drove me to continue pushing myself to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.
(Shawna Murland, Associate Creative Director, frog Austin)
Wow. Let’s see. When I first came to frog, for me, it was almost a “pinch myself” moment. I never thought that I would ever get to the place where I am today. Like I said, my journey to becoming a designer has been fairly circuitous and off the beaten path of what many designers follow. I don’t have a design degree, and coming out of school, I didn’t work my way through design agencies or firms. I started out in non-profit, so it was really hard for me to actually break into the for-profit design world. It’s one of the reasons why I moved to Austin. I came here to go to grad school at UT Austin to study advertising with an emphasis on art direction. It was a program focused around creative strategy and ideation thinking, but not necessarily a school that impressed any type of design principles on me. Those are all things that I’ve had to acquire and learn on my own by seeking inspiration, finding mentors and working with people whom I respect.
For me to find myself at frog, there were moments in which I had to check myself and think, “Is this really happening?” but also, there were moments of feeling scared shitless. I also found myself in awe; I was going to go to work and be surrounded by some of the best designers that I would probably encounter in my entire career. These were designers that were going to challenge me every single day to be a better designer myself. For me, that’s huge because I have really, really high expectations for myself and for the work that I produce, so to be able to have that external challenge on me every single day was pretty exciting.
I’m here to challenge myself, to challenge those around me, but ultimately, at the end of the day, to produce amazing work. A mentor at frog gave me permission on some level to take ownership over the programs that I’m leading and encouraged me to lead them in such a way that challenges the people on my team to a point where it might make them uncomfortable—all for the sake of producing really great work. Finding my voice at frog has meant doing that, and not necessarily apologizing for it at the end of the day.
“It’s really cool now being able to lead teams of other creative designers and being that inspirational springboard and sounding board for them, and then watching that inspiration manifest itself in the work that I see come out of frogs. It’s really, really powerful.”
That’s a big question. Looking back and seeing where I am today, what’s so fascinating is how inspired I am by other people’s work and their drive and commitment and passion to continue doing what they’re doing. When I was in art school, I lived, breathed, ate everything art, design and architecture—anything creative. I would spend hours upon hours upon hours reading about artists, looking at artists’ work. For me, it was always, “If I could just make a career out of being inspired by other people, that would be amazing.” It’s really cool now being able to lead teams of other creative designers and being that inspirational springboard and sounding board for them, and then watching that inspiration manifest itself in the work that I see come out of frogs. It’s really, really powerful.
Honestly, I am not a crazy person—in the sense that you’re asking. I sometimes wish I were. I overthink everything. I am constantly thinking about the multitude of outcomes if I turned left or right and how my entire life might be affected by a single step.
That being said, I’ll tell you that I have rescued, saved or fostered about 20 dogs and cats, each with their own stories. That doesn’t include the occasional squirrel or bird I have scooped up and taken to the Wildlife Rescue. So yes, people say that it’s “crazy” to do that, but I feel personally responsible for helping these animals who can’t help themselves. So, in some instances, I have gone to extreme measures to help them.
We live in a world that is oversaturated with everything from social media apps to retailers, furniture, blogs and you-name-it. There are so many options now and it can be overwhelming. What excites me is the challenge of producing really great work that stands out in a world where things are so disposable and so accessible.