Characterized by her immaculate taste (whether it be a dish to die for, a new record, a ring, or a new photobook,) Jordan Levinson always seems to know what people want; she's a tastemaker. Throughout her graphic design degree at Pratt, the LA-native was never not working. To this day, her stack of research materials tower over her petite stature while the tabs on her computer are endless. After working in PR, music, and editorial, Levinson landed in beauty where she briefly worked at Milk Makeup before going full-time with Smashbox Cosmetics.
This interview took place over the phone between Ella in Brooklyn and Jordan in Los Angeles.
EJ: How did you get to where you are today?
JL: I think that the biggest thing that brought me to where I am today was working throughout school. When people go to college and they're studying under a certain profession, they sometimes forget that they need real-world experience before they graduate. For me, I learned more outside of school in real life than I did being in classes.
Studying graphic design at Pratt gave me an excuse to be in New York. I did so many internships; I never didn't have a job when I got to New York. By the time I graduated, I was leaps forward compared to other people.
What was the first work experience you had while studying?
I worked as a sales rep at VeraMeat which is a jewelry brand with locations in New York and Los Angeles. I got really close with the owner, and I got to see her process as an artist and what it takes to own a business, how stressful it is. I was there for about a year and a half.
When I came back to LA for a summer position, I worked at BOLD, which is a German PR company. I was kind of in this weird realm between graphic design and PR. I found that I really loved talking to people and establishing relationships —being behind a screen designing I didn't get to experience the people part of it.
When I arrived back in New York, I went to another PR firm called SERIOUS BUSINESS PR as their designer. I was a couple of positions under their head of PR. In this period, it was helpful to just pump out a bunch of design work because even if it wasn't going to ultimately be what I went into, it's what I was at school for. Plus, the more work you make, the better you get. It's just a fact.
Then I went back to VeraMeat as the head of PR. I did that for a bit but realized that I was more into design, so that's kind of when I entered Milk Group. I interned at Milk.xyz (their editorial platform) as a graphic designer. They had never had an intern that was versed in design, video, print, and digital. At this point, Instagram stories were just becoming a thing, so I took that on for the whole channel. This is also when I began playing around with photography.
And then you actually started taking photography courses at Pratt, right?
Yeah, I took a 35-millimeter course and I loved it. When I was in school, I was always trying new things because that's the time to figure out what you want—and that's when you can actually learn way more about it. It was such a new realm for me, and I learned such a new respect for photography and photographers in general. I saw an opportunity to combine my interests in music, PR, and design by working with more music PR for Milk's site. I started getting myself into all these shows that I wanted to see, but I also got to photograph and get my work out there in a different way.
From there, I got hired as a freelance graphic designer at Milk Makeup. They were just a year old. I was in my last semester at Pratt, and I had this almost full-time job, which is just insane.
Eventually, it kind of came to this point of choosing between NY and LA, and I decided to move back to LA because I have so much family out here that I'm very close with. It was hard because I felt like I had really started something at Milk Makeup, but I knew that if I was talented enough, I could be happy working somewhere else as well.
How did you adjust to being back in LA?
LA is my bread and butter. It’s where I grew up and I feel like the core of who I am stems from there—the cool Los Angeles, not the one you find on like fucking Melrose or something with scooters and selfies, but the authentic one. Anyways, I started at an agency called HAUS and found that I hated it because my clients were Facebook and Uber. I could care less about giant tech companies. I always had something on the side, so I was still working with Milk, I was still photographing, and keeping options open freelancing here and there.
I knew I wasn't completely settled into where I was.
Then Smashbox found me. At first, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back into beauty, but I liked their heritage and that they were born and raised in LA. So I went there as a designer, and a year and a half later, I'm their main art director now.
How did they find you?
I was poached by a recruiter. I always make sure to update my website at least once every three months because I've noticed that recruiters will go and look at your stuff over and over. There are so many recruiters that have so many different jobs that they need to fill, so if they're checking in on your site every few months, and it stays the same, it's not going to excite them. You need to show them that you're doing different things, even if those different things are just personal work. It doesn't have to all be commercial work, they need to know, "hey, this person is moving forward."
Now that we're caught up to your current role—what does it consist of?
I do 360-degree campaign work for the brand globally. So, that includes in-store visuals, digital and online visuals, video, music, casting, styling, makeup, the whole shebang. I touch everything from concept to pre-production, to post-production to release. It's awesome, it's such a process. Over time, it's cool to see how that process is going and the things that you're able to accomplish.
As Smashbox is part of a larger corporate umbrella and ideas must run through several teams, how did you adjust your working style?
First of all, I'm a very strong-headed person. I can explain my work really, really clearly. And also explain it in a way that is easy to grasp and understand. Given the current economic and overall state of the world, everything I do, even though I'm doing it in an artistic way, I also have to make sure that it's business savvy. Proving to people that I have the knowledge to make those decisions has been what has led them to kind of let me do my thing, so to say.
I definitely had to prove myself and make sure to ask questions. If I'm not receiving certain data explaining why we aren't meeting our goals for that fiscal year, I need to make the effort to reach out to the marketing team to understand why. When you're working for a company like this, you have to be more than the "art person" in the creative building. You're meeting with people who are in such different positions that will never get what you're doing, so you have to meet them halfway.
Being on the pulse of things has helped a lot too. With big corporate companies, a lot of people have been there for 20+ years, which is awesome, but they might not always know what's going on in the world outside of that company.
It’s also about bringing on your friends that you believe fit into the picture at that time. Get your friends paid! I have a friend who's in a band repped by Terrible Records called S. Product, and they're super punk, retro-y underground; I brought them on to do the track for our holiday campaign. And now they're blowing up on their own.
I think for a lot of creatives, it can feel stifling or intimidating to have to consider analytics when trying to create from an artistic place. How have you found a way to support your ideas with numbers, and how have you made that process work for you?
It took a really long time. I was very stubborn. I used to do this thing where I would hone in on one idea and I would get so attached I would almost get offended if it wasn't used, not understanding fully why the concept didn't work, or why it wasn't going to make us the money that we needed.
I really had to ground myself and understand that this is the reality for the company I'm in, right now at least. I had to train myself to check myself in the creative process. If I understand the marketing angle, for example, then how can I approach it from a creative way that no one has seen before? Over time, I learned that if I check all the boxes (of what’s needed from me) at the beginning of my creative process, it's like 10x more likely that it will get used. It’s the reality of working for a bigger company needing to meet certain goals.
What kind of boxes do you have to check?
Well, first off, you have to know what your competitors are doing. You have to do research. I don't care who you are or what the knowledge you have, because every single day, there are things coming out. Once you understand what's out there, understand how it did. Why did it perform so well? What did people like about it? What did they hate about it? It's pretty simple stuff. You have to have purpose in what you're doing.
I think that when you go to art school, the only client is you. And then you get into the real world, and you have actual clients. And when you're not your only client, you're not always going to be making stuff that you absolutely love; the goal is to do that, but you also have to make stuff that other people will love too.
How do you approach research? Where do you find your sources and inspiration?
I have an Are.na I use constantly for a lot of my design in general but for makeup specifically, I am always looking at the past or upcoming seasons in fashion shows; that's a huge way of projecting what's going to happen in the real world. And then magazines, reading, Instagram, friends. I think friends are a really great resource.
What skills do you think are most important for your role?
Flexibility, knowing how to take criticism, working beyond the set office hours, being both introverted and extroverted, and being willing to learn. Understanding what process works for you (not for someone else) so you can produce good work.
Apart from mindset shifts, what technical skills do you think are important?
I think every young designer needs to know most of the Adobe Creative Suite, at least within still and movement; so Photoshop and Illustrator, InDesign (if you're going to be doing more print work), and After Effects (if you want to go into the 3D video world.)
If you are a designer, and you only have one medium you can work in, it's going to be really, really hard to get a job. It just is. You need to be multifaceted, and also willing to teach yourself. At Pratt, I couldn't take the After Effects class because it was too full, so I taught myself that while interning at Milk. YouTube is a great thing. You don't have to know the whole programs inside and out; I still don't, I just kind of know what works for me and then I continue to learn.
What different mediums are you focused on?
There is print and there's digital. Then there's still versus movement. I think a lot of our stuff lives in a digital world today, but you know, people are still designing for billboards and magazines. I also took a class on website design and a class on app design, because those aren't going away anytime soon. I sometimes do packaging design, if needed, for Smashbox, too.
The more you know!
It's literally the more you know. I feel like being a creative is like this weird treasure hunt, and you're trying to find this golden idea or concept. Along the way, you're gathering all of this knowledge and information and the more you gather, the better it is. So you just have to keep doing that even if you're tired, because the person who is on Are.na or Pinterest every day, subconsciously will just gather more information than someone who isn't. (Not to say that you shouldn't take a break, because that's important too!)
To give an idea of the infrastructure of your team, who do you work with on a daily basis?
I work with a video producer who handles the video channel, and the E-commerce and social producer who handles our website and our main channels like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram. And then I also work with the main campaign producer, who handles 360-campaign that lives in-store and online.
What was your most exciting project to work on and why?
I collaborated really closely with the founder of Smashbox, Davis Factor, and our creative director, Vinny Cresta for our holiday campaign that we've been pulsing out and will be putting out for the next four months or so. COVID-19 had just started when we started concepting, and we had a full-fledged concept that had just gotten destroyed. I had to rethink the whole thing, and we were pairing up with this artist, Donald Robertson. He's a super big, fine artist, and also a friend of the brand.
We took a wide-angle approach shooting the models which made them a little bit more distorted. Afterward, I took a more fine art approach and created swatches to mimic paint being put over the photographs, so it was bringing Donald Robertson's world into the Smashbox world and vice versa. I had my friend Alex Assil style that shoot, and the models were put in Jean Paul Gaultier and vintage Balenciaga. I think that was my proudest moment because I saw a concept that I made and presented (not watered down by marketing) come to life in an even better way. I'm really happy to have it out in the world.
What advice do you have for someone that's emerging in your field?
Trust yourself and your work. Continue to make sure that you're doing at least one thing every day that's going to either make you better as a person or better in your work. Don't try and look at everyone else's portfolio and wish that you were making that because that's not why you got into this field. You're not supposed to look the same, and that's okay.
Now that you have been working at home for the past several months, is there anything that you do to create balance or stay motivated?
To be honest, I don't have great boundaries so I'm working on that. I get really into my work and it becomes my life. I'm trying to learn to shut the computer. After I'm done with work, I either pick up my book or I start cooking. Cooking has been something for me that has been huge in keeping me sane. It’s physical and it makes me use my hands, but it’s also another art form. I’m a huge foodie. Either way, practicing things like cooking or testing my brain with reading has kept me motivated, it gives me something to look forward to.
Curious what Jordan listens to while she designs? Look no further:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Jordan Levinson