Heather Lee Allen is a Footwear Designer at E.S.Originals originally hailing from Long Beach, CA, currently living in Brooklyn, NY, who has been specializing in trend-based youth accessories, apparel and product design for over a decade. With extensive experience in licensing design and footwear, Heather's character and non character based designs delight customers at Target, Walmart, Claire's, Hot Topic and other specialty stores across the country. I asked Heather how she got started in design and how she stays creatively energized.
Who do you credit for setting you on a path towards design?
Heather Lee Allen: My dad. Ever since I can remember he’s supplied me with all manner of art supplies and taught me how to use them...paints, pastels, charcoal, wood carving tools, etc. My father is an artist and has been a teacher of art, math and ceramics for fifty years! Through his influence, I developed a natural inclination towards art with a practical purpose.
Which artists had the greatest influence on you when you were younger and how did you come to discover them?
HLA: When I started high school, my favorite artist was Salvador Dalí. His work intrigued me and awakened me to the psychology of art. There’s a dark, surrealist style to my drawings from that time, that I’m sure was Dalí-influenced.
By senior year, I was enrolled at Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA). At OCHSA I was exposed to exciting and provocative artists like James Tyrell, Andres Serrano, and Chris Burden. I wouldn’t say that their work influenced my own artistic style, but it was enlightening in terms of broadening my sense of what art can do.
What did you do to distinguish yourself from other designers that got you hired by Honda, Isuzu, Cogent Healthcare and Avery Dennison?
HLA: I like to utilize the element of surprise. While it has always been an important part of my work to stay on top of trends, I try to incorporate some aspect into my design (be it graphic, product, or fashion) that is unexpected. Maybe it’s a typeface that I’ve altered from the original or the introduction of an unusual material or an offbeat color combination. The user deserves a product that is visually rewarding.
Did Sanrio seek you out or did you approach them?
HLA: I approached Sanrio. They had posted an ad online for a job opening in their design department. I applied immediately. Working at Sanrio exceeded all expectations. We had incredible creative freedom on the projects, which helped me grow as a designer and gave me a sense of personal accomplishment. My co-workers were all hard working, had well developed aesthetic visions, and great personal style. It was an especially inspiring experience that made me want to do my best work every time.
What was your favorite project to work on at Sanrio?
HLA: That would have to be working with Fender on the Hello Kitty and Badtz-Maru Fender guitars. I generally don’t include that project in my portfolio because it was a very collaborative process and I was more in charge of directing and approving the designs. It was an interesting challenge given that this was an entirely new canvas for me to work with. For instance, we had some back and forth problem-solving about where to position the screws on the Hello Kitty-shaped pickguard so that she wouldn’t look like she had a tiny mouth or funny pupils. We wanted her to look her best without sacrificing function.
What has been the most rewarding project you've ever done?
HLA: It’s the work I do now, the on-going creative project designing Hello Kitty footwear. There’s a satisfying feeling seeing my work on store shelves, but the real payoff is spotting people wearing my designs in public. That’s the biggest thrill of all because I never know when it will happen. Just recently, walking in midtown Manhattan, I spotted a little girl wearing Hello Kitty shoes that I designed. I introduced myself to her mother and we had a nice chat. As the girl modeled the shoes for me, I took her picture, and I found out that they had bought the pair in all three colors because they are her daughter’s favorite shoe. I find moments like this particularly gratifying.
Tell me about why Sanrio would recommend you move on to work at E.S. Originals?
HLA: That’s a good question. The benefit to Sanrio was that by having an experienced Sanrio designer at a company that produces their goods, they were assured of proficient design and quality product coming out of that company. There’s a symbiotic relationship between a licensor and their licensees, since both sides profit if the designs are successful. I also took on several freelance jobs for other Sanrio licensee companies, so essentially I still had a working relationship with Sanrio, indirectly.
Who are your biggest contemporary heroes?
HLA: Jonathan Adler’s combination of nostalgia and humor continues to bring me joy and inspiration. Stefan Sagmeister, for his fearless innovation, always challenges my sense of what can be done in design. He truly bridges the gap between art and design. I’m a long-time fan and was particularly excited to see his collaborative work with Jessica Walsh at the Jewish Museum this past summer. More recently, on a European research shopping trip, I came across fantastic British shoe designer, Sophia Webster. Her designs are eye-catching and playful, yet totally wearable.
Do you have any habits/routines that keep you creatively energized?
HLA: I find the kinetic energy of New York endlessly inspiring. I try to be as culturally active as possible, taking in as much art, music, film, and theater as I can. One of my favorite pastimes is attending gallery openings because I get to check out the art and people-watch at the same time.
When I’m home, I work on my own personal art projects and I’m always keeping up with trend and fashion websites. Travel is also invaluable for creative inspiration. My work sends me to London and Paris twice a year before each new development season. Every time, we return with an abundance of ideas and inspiration. Seeing the world anew breaks you out of your mental and creative routine.
What advice do you have for designers starting out these days?
HLA: Two of the keys to having a successful design career are learning how to communicate your creative vision and knowing how to collaborate with others. Design can be highly subjective. Clients and creative directors often have an entirely different vision of the final project than your own, so I find that it’s important to keep your ego in check. Constructive criticism can help you grow as a designer allowing you to see possibilities from multiple perspectives.
Outside of footwear, what would you most like to work on for a living?
HLA: While I love working in footwear, I’m also interested in parallel design fields like toys, apparel, housewares, novelty gifts, and accessories. If it’s useful and well-designed, I’m into it!
I'd like to thank Heather for sharing the origins of her creative career with me. See more of Heather's work in her portfolio here on Coroflot.
If you’d like to be featured in the Talent Showcase, please send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm always looking for interesting designers with cool stories to tell about how they landed the jobs and careers of their dreams!