Working her way up “from an intern to a senior designer” at MATTE Projects after years of experimenting with various majors at Parsons School of Design, Shreya Chopra is now the Art Director at Milk Makeup, responsible for multiple campaign launches at the cult beauty brand. Her unique design sensibilities have seen themselves projected onto the streets of major cities in form of posters, jumbotrons, and billboards, as well as your local Sephora and Netflix screens.
On a breezy New York afternoon after a vigorous session of boxing, a habit Shreya picked up some years ago to keep her body and mind recharged and refreshed after hours spent in front of the screen, the Indian-born designer sat down to share with us her transition from a creative agency to an in-house team, her passion for motion designs, and her appreciation for TikTok as a democratic platform.
This interview took place over the phone between Duc Dinh in San Francisco and Shreya Chopra in New York.
DD: How did you get to where you are today?
SC: I went to college at Parsons in New York, but when I got there, I honestly still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Creative careers were still a loose concept for me, and people weren't really talking about them as something that you could pursue. I had people telling me that I was going to work at McDonald's for the rest of my life if I went to art school, but I’m from India, so it makes sense that they'd see it that way.
At Parsons, I flip-flopped my major a lot—from Fashion Design to a program called Integrated Design to Illustration—when I should have been in Graphic Design. I took so many classes because I wanted to learn everything. In the end, I graduated with a ton of credits and a bunch of internships.
Did you always want to work in the creative industry?
When I was in high school, art was the only thing that I genuinely cared for. I’ve always had an affinity for magazines and beautiful pictures. When we moved into our house, the one thing I asked for was a giant pinboard to curate ideas and inspirations—I needed visuals in front of me in order to grasp what I was doing.
The other thing I've always loved was film. I think cinema or moving image is the ultimate amalgam of everything you can do in the creative space—type, design, space, interiors, lighting, photography, and everything else.
Was there any class at Parsons that made an impact on you?
There was one class that changed my perspective on how to be a good designer. It’s called "Sketchbook Warehouse". Every day, we would work on our sketchbook and create something that we love. Then the teacher, acting as a client, would give us a brief and ask us to execute it by doing the least amount of extra work as possible.
The class changed my thinking forever because I love the idea that you should always create for yourself, and have it fit the client. When you get a project, you shouldn't have to overextend yourself because you probably already have a solution. Until this day, when I take illustration-based freelance projects, I don't think I draw anything new for them, it's something that already exists in my personal book.
Wow, that sounds like such an amazing course. You mentioned that you had lots of internships, can you tell me a bit about them?
I always knew I wanted to stay in New York after college, and because I’m from India, I'd have to fight for a visa. So I knew I needed to have a ton of work experience and recommendations. Since I got to Parsons, I was in the mindset of “I need to figure out my job situation, I can't really slack around.”
I interned as a marketing assistant at Songkick, then a company called PopGun Presents. I also worked for Alexa Chung for a while with her app called Villoid. They were based out of Sweden, and I was the first team member they hired in the US. I helped them launch the app stateside and build a brand ambassador system across different colleges. I did their launch parties, inviting influencers—anything that they needed on the ground.
After that, I worked as a freelancer for Red Bull Music Academy; an e-commerce intern at Diane von Furstenberg. I was testing everything out to see what I liked.
When did you choose to pursue design as a career?
It was when I got my internship at MATTE Projects, [a creative and production agency]. I was there as an intern, then begged them to take me back again in my final semester. From that, they hired me as a freelancer, which later grew into a full-time position.
They taught me pretty much everything I know about creative work. Because it was a super young company, it was the best school ever for learning how to pitch to different clients, how to create various kinds of work, and how to develop and be flexible with your skill set.
During those years, I was also taking tiny projects, whether they were cover artworks for musicians or doing title cards for videos my friends were making. Small gigs, anywhere I could, I would take on.
Now you’re at Milk Makeup. What was that transition like for you coming from an agency like MATTE to a company like Milk?
I was at MATTE for two and a half years as a full-time employee. I worked my way up from an intern to a senior designer. I loved being there because I got to work with so many different clients and events, as well as working on films and animating, but there was a little bit of burnout by the end of it.
When you're on the agency side, you want to make the coolest work that's going to get the biggest PR headline, but clients don’t necessarily need that. They need sales and something that will help their business. I wanted to work with an in-house creative team to understand how the client thinks and what they actually need, so I could be a better creative all around.
I switched to a brand like Milk because I align with their values and what they stand for creatively. I also needed to take a little break because agency work is much more fast-paced and a bit more cutthroat and competitive. I wanted to be able to work and focus on one vision for a little while.
Right. When you’re working in-house, it’s a different mentality, more "we" and less "me."
I needed to be a part of something instead of constantly fighting for myself and my voice. At an agency, everyone had so many different ideas and points of view that by the time you're presenting your idea, it feels like you're competing with each other. At Milk, even though we're all pitching independently, pulling our own references, somehow we always land on the same vision as a team.
What does your role consist of now?
Most of the time, it's planning the visuals behind every product launch—we have three to six a year. Every product has a different ingredient story, a different name, a different seal and purpose, so we translate that into what a beauty campaign will look like on billboards, jumbotrons, or social.
That requires a lot of scrolling through Pinterest, looking through books to organize the references, notes, thoughts, and ideas that connect to that specific product. It's a lot of research and organizing them into visual formats. I also build a lot of decks to plan out the entire storytelling.
Because of my agency background, I also do strategic planning, which includes picking out the photographer, stylist, makeup artist, etc. I also have to think about what the social tease, posts, paid media ads, and emails are going to look like.
Which team members do you work with closely most on a day-to-day basis?
I work mostly with Tyler Smart, our Chief Creative Officer, and Georgie Greville, Creative Director and Founder of Milk Makeup. I also work closely with our creative team, the art director and the senior designer, as well as our editorial director, who is instrumental in helping figure out the language, tone, and other aspects of the products from a storytelling point of view to help me translate them into visuals.
What skills do you think are the most important to the role that you have right now?
A strong ability to research and curate ideas, and a sound understanding of design and typography. Art direction doesn't really work unless you know how design operates in conjunction with it—understanding typography is super important.
Of course, the Adobe Creative Suite programs—they are the main ones that we use. I think understanding moving image is really important as well.
You mentioned the importance of research. How are you able to keep your mind fresh?
I have a couple of tips and tricks that have always helped keep me inspired. At the beginning of each year, I make a list of my top 10s—movies, music videos, shows, ads campaigns,...I always refer to those to remind myself of the most important to me right now. The minute you curate your own personality and the things that you love, it makes doing your work really easy and it keeps your ideas fresh.
The other thing—which could be healthy or unhealthy depending on how you view it—is to never stop consuming. I usually have a dual-screen with a new TV show or a new movie while I work. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters as well. Models.com is a great resource, not only for models but also for campaigns.
I also follow thousands of accounts on Instagram—photographers, magazines, and others— and I’m constantly scrolling to see what’s new. Everyone tells you not to follow more than your follower count, but I don't care, I need that information—it's priceless. Just make sure that your feed is helpful to your work because it's really easy for your social media feeds to turn toxic. For me, it's something that can inspire me and make me happy.
I’m the same way, I use Instagram as my magazine. Whatever I want to see, it's going to be on there.
Going back to your work, you touched on motion and animation design earlier while talking about Matte. I understand that some designers don't really do motion work, was it a conscious decision for you?
I definitely fell into it at MATTE Projects. Back then, there was a gap between the design and the film team. Sometimes, the film department was creating so much content, but they didn’t have the final flourish of a graphic designer to make the perfect title card or get the credits just right—and tiny details like that are what really make a product look finished or unfinished.
At the same time, we started to get a big demand for these internal presentations for clients that needed the videos to incorporate still images and text that’d look slick and cool. That’s where I stepped in because they needed a graphic designer to lay out the slides and then an animator to then animate them. So I helped develop and set these meticulous Photoshop files that would have perfect layers that are editable for an animator. I'd leave them little notes about where I think things should move and how things should appear and disappear. For some videos that were 10 minutes long, I'd be making 85 PSDs to pass on to the animator.
It became a really unique skill set that I developed because of a gap in our production chain at the time. Once I got the motion bug and understood how cool animation and moving images can be, all I wanted to do was making films, directing campaigns, and get involved in storyboarding and writing treatments.
What has been the most exciting project you've worked on and why?
There are two projects that I am super proud of.
The first one is our Kush campaign at Milk Makeup. We were shooting with Hugo Comte, a photographer that I was obsessed with. I also got the opportunity to direct the campaign and spotlight videos with three amazing musical artists. It was such a well-balanced campaign where the images and the video content work so well together—everything came together in such a beautiful way.
It was the first time that I touched every little step of the product, from planning to pitching to doing all the design details, as well as planning the fixtures, post-production of the videos, working on sound design—every part of it. It felt so personal and was like a product of my own.
Can you walk us through the process of ideating and executing this Kush campaign?
Before this, it had always been about the fact that it’s a cannabis-based product, which isn’t the most interesting. So we really wanted to focus on the efficacy and how high-performing our products were—high-volume mascara, high-precision eyeliner. In the end, we came to the idea of performers who need high-performance products—that was the lightbulb moment. So we worked with three amazing musical artists, Charlotte Lawrence, 070 Shake, and Mereba, for the campaign.
We wanted something in black and white and that had a sense of precision and strength in them, which is why Hugo Comte seemed like the perfect photographer. He has this ability to capture movement that's statuesque and precise, but also with beauty and softness.
For the product videos, it was about the focus on that pure black pigment. We also interviewed artists who talked about what performance and the act of creating mean to them, which is embedded in the products. We let the performers' voices speak metaphorically for what our products could do, which was a really conceptual way to treat a beauty campaign. It was so cool to see something like that come into a space that has a very traditional look and feel otherwise.
The campaign is beautiful and I personally love Hugo Comte’s work. What’s your other favorite project, you mentioned there were two?
The other was for a Netflix documentary I worked on at MATTE called Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, which was about Fyre Festival. It was funny because, before that, I worked on marketing materials for the festival itself, prior to it becoming what it is known as now—it really came full circle. I helped build the entire graphics package for that documentary. It was amazing to have helped make it into an award-winning documentary and see my name in the credits.
You’ve had a lot of varying experience in your field, do you have any advice for someone who wants to become a designer or art director?
Figure out what you like. I think those top 10 lists help you find out what you care about—not what the company, the product, or the brief tells you. It's important to make sure that your voice is always a part of your work.
I also think interning and getting as much work experience as possible is so much more helpful than just being in school to test out what you do and don't like. Having internships in different fields is super helpful because you can try a million things to see what clicks and what doesn't. I understand that internships are tricky because sometimes they're not paid or sometimes they only give you college credit, but the work experience is paramount.
The most important thing, for me, is that if you have an idea, you should just do it. It’s a much easier sell when you have something to show, and it's so much easier to show people something than it is to talk about it or explain it. It also cuts your workload in half because you've already done the work.
That's such good advice, I never thought about it like that.
For example, if you have an idea for video edits or logos, just make the video edits or logo mockups. If they don't use it, it's always yours, and you can use it somewhere else. Whenever in doubt, instead of explaining something, just make it yourself.
Just get on with it, don't worry about it too much. You're always going to have more ideas. If it gets rejected, it doesn't matter, you'll come up with something else.
Speaking of ideas, I have somewhat of a left-field question. Is there anything right now in the creative field that you're really impressed with?
I'm genuinely impressed by what TikTok is allowing people to do. It gives them an opportunity to showcase their work. I've seen children who are fifteen or sixteen years old who decided that they want to work at VaynerMedia. They’d make a piece of content, and tag VaynerMedia on it. Even though those companies might not respond, other people will, and they'll give them feedback to help them make it better—it’s a space that we can get immediate feedback to keep growing and learning from creatives in such a democratic format.
It allows younger kids to get real, professional advice sooner and faster, and I think that's really cool. You don't necessarily have to do the internship anymore, you can just ask for help online and people are willing to give it. I wish that had existed when I was starting out.
Has your job changed at all with the rise of TikTok?
Totally. We actually have a member of our social media team who's dedicated to the TikTok feed. It even has shaped the way we shoot film. We were shooting a campaign video for Sunshine Skin Tint, and we had to build in TikTok-style transitions into it. There's also a look and feel that it has that’s changed my thinking of shooting motion.
You've worked with a lot of designers. If you were to hire someone, what characteristics would you look for?
I would look for somebody who's passionate. I'm always excited to meet interns or junior designers who are excited about design, whether it's architecture, interiors, or magazines. Having design knowledge and history is imperative.
I also love people who are doers, who go above and beyond. If you ask for three versions of a design, they'll give you ten because they were excited to do it. I think that enthusiasm is something super exciting and also gets me excited to do my job.
What are you looking forward to doing this year personally?
It's been a pretty tumultuous time, but I'm looking forward to doing more film work and directing, more campaign videos—both big and small-scale. I've been working with some musicians, and I want to get really close to directing. I made a promise to myself to start editing more for fun as well.
Take a sonic tour into Shreya's artistic universe:
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Milk Makeup + Shreya Chopra
Special thanks to Polaroid