The Leff Exchange podcast: Running toward the fire with designer and storyteller Erin Sarofsky

People who think of design as just a way to make an idea visually compelling are only scratching the surface of what great designers do. At a fundamental level, design is about solving problems, telling a story, and visualizing ideas or concepts. Great design also conveys a point of view on what should be communicated and how. Accomplishing all of those objectives requires designers who have skill, experience, curiosity, and fearlessness.

Erin Sarofsky embodies all of those qualities and more. Throughout her career—first working for established post-production houses, and then leading Sarofsky, a design-driven production company—she has excelled as a thought partner and artist for some of the world’s top brands, television programs, and movie franchises. In the following conversation, Erin shares insights from her career: how she went from designer to business owner and visual tastemaker, how project constraints can spark creativity, and how to build and lead high-caliber teams.

Podcast transcript

Scott: What drew you to the field of design, initially?

Erin: I was always a very creative kid—always drawing and painting. And, you know, whenever somebody had a banner to design, they came to me. Whenever a teacher had an illustration they needed for some pamphlet or newsletter, it was always me. Pre-computer, that’s where all of us kind of started. I love seeing the results of something very quickly.

I think when I was trying to decide on a college, I was looking at schools to either go more scientific or more art and design. I looked at schools like Carnegie Mellon and RIT because I knew, if I wanted to pivot hard, I could go the other way. I started my first year in design. I had a pretty strong portfolio, but I took a couple of biology and science classes, as well. I loved design, and I think I would see my work in an honor show; in the science classes, I’d see my Social Security number, and then a test score, and that was it.

I like the art of making. And RIT, being a technical school, also had photography classes and all of that. I felt there was a practicality to it as well. So I just kind of fell into it deep and hard after that first year. I was like, “OK, I’m committed.”

Scott: And when did you first realize that you had a personal style, or that your approach to design was distinctive or somehow stood out?

Erin: Not until later. I think I was at Digital Kitchen for a while before I started to see a pattern with my boards and with my work in general. I would say I was always hyperaware of the assignment, so I was always trying to solve a problem; maybe that’s the scientific part of my brain. But I always look at the brand. If it was a deodorant brand, I was going to do something appropriate for that. Or a beer brand—I was going to do something like that. It really did take a while for me to start seeing some common threads through my work.

Scott: Were there certain kinds of projects or points in your career where you can look back and say, “Yeah, that’s when it really crystalized”?

Erin: Yes—and a specific moment, actually. I was at DK for a while, and I was doing these really beautiful pitch boards to win work, and they were always well received, but they just were not winning. And Don McNeill, who’s the executive producer in the Chicago office, came from advertising. He’s a very practical, literal person. He was walking by my workstation, and he said, “Wow, that’s really beautiful; that’s just really cool.” He was over-enthused. “But it’s not going to win.” And I’m like, “What? Why isn’t it going to win?”

For those of you that remember PalmPilots, it was a PalmPilot commercial, and it was a really big deal. He said, “Well, you’ve got to have the PalmPilot in it.” And I was just like, “Oh, my God—of course.” So I put some PalmPilots in it, and I really connected it (the product) to what I was doing from a technique standpoint, and talking about all the attributes of it. I know that seems really crazy, but it was a really big “aha” moment for me: “Oh, yeah, I’m selling something very specific here.” And so it kind of pushed me away from the art aspect of it and toward connecting the art to the product. And once I was able to do that, I just started selling like crazy.

Scott: Could you walk us through how your career evolved from your first job to starting your own company?

Erin: My first big career moment was Digital Kitchen. At the time, there were really three companies: Digital Kitchen, Imaginary Forces, and yU+co. I took all this time and made this beautiful reel, and I sent it out to the three places—all the things that they requested. Then DK called back right away, and they were like, “We got your portfolio. What do you think about Chicago?”

I didn’t even realize they were opening an office here, nor did I realize anything was happening here. I was from New York, and a typical New Yorker doesn’t know anything going on in the world at the time besides what’s going on in New York and maybe L.A. or San Francisco. I was like, “OK!” I knew they were the people that created Six Feet Under, and that’s really all I needed to know. I came out, I interviewed, and they said, “Do you want to work?” I said, “Sure,” and I just drove right back out, packed up my stuff, and left. It was a no-brainer to me. Just having access to work and creative, and being in a Petri dish like that, was all that mattered to me.

I spent over six years there before I decided to move back to New York to work at a company called Superfad, and I just really missed Chicago. I wanted to get back here, so I started scheming and planning to come back.

I was asking around, and I wound up talking to Tracy Bernard, who was DK’s rep. She said, “Well, if you’re starting your own thing, I can rep you, and we can get you some stuff going off the ground.” And so we did; that’s how we started: a little job here and there, and eventually a big one hit, and we were off and running.

It was a really humbling experience because, to get back home, I had to really give up a lot. I don’t think most people realize that being at Digital Kitchen with Six Feet Under and all this amazing work on the reel—that’s what draws people to you. You could be one of the tentpole people at a company, but once you’re on your own, you’re starting over.

So I started over with Easy Mac commercials, and Rotary International commercials, and things like that, which really helped me build relationships. You can’t just show DK’s reel when you start your own company; you’ve got to build your own. It’s a different sort of thing: your resources are different, and your talent’s different. And what you can really do, just technologically—it’s different because of the infrastructure. So that was a big moment.

Scott: A lot of times, when people have worked at large, established companies, one of the things they’ll say is, “You can get me—who did a lot of the work and has the expertise to do it—but without all of the overhead.” Did that pitch even enter into it, or did you take a different approach? Or was it just a little bit more organic?

Erin: I think it was more organic. I never aspired to own a company—like ever. That was not what I wanted to do when I grew up. Once I really started making some headway at DK, I really aspired to be a creative lead and a creative director, or possibly a live-action director, but always within the scope of the style of work that we did. So I knew the lane I wanted to be in. The company came because I wanted to be in a certain place, and that was my path to getting the kind of lifestyle I wanted.

And in all seriousness, there was a lot of naivete involved. I was 30, so I was just talented enough. I had Tracy, so I was just connected enough. And I also didn’t know what I didn’t know; I was just naive enough.

Scott: It’s funny, too, the thin line between being naive and being fearless.

Erin: If I were good at marketing myself, I’d say fearless, but it’s naive, 100 percent. Putting yourself in a situation that you don’t really know is totally naive, but it is also fearless. I’ll accept that.

Scott: And it’s how you grow.

Erin: It is, absolutely. And at any time, if I don’t want to do it, I don’t have to. These are all choices I’m making and balancing. The thing I’ve learned is—when I don’t know something or I don’t want to do something, I hire somebody to do it for me. It doesn’t absolve you from it, though. At the end of the day, if it’s your company and you’ve got to let somebody go, you’ve got to be the one to let them go. We’re a small company; we’re a bit of a family, and company culture is super important. There’s a lot you’ve got to take ownership of.

Scott: One of your company’s specialties is opening-credit sequences, and I know you said Digital Kitchen also specialized in that. How did that become one of your company’s niches?

Erin: When I went to New York to work at Superfad, one of the things I missed was main titles. They didn’t want to do them; they didn’t have any interest in them. Main titles are not really a moneymaker. They’re for the love; they’re for the craft.

The main-title business is a very personal business, and it’s all word of mouth. Somebody had remembered working with me on a project—I don’t even remember which one—and Community was in a situation where they were looking for main title designers. It was an urgent, immediate need.

It’s actually kind of a funny story—maybe scary funny, but I think it speaks to my personality. They called us and said, “Hey, would you like to come in to pitch on the show Community?” We were like, “Absolutely we would.”

They sent us the pilot. I read it, and the meeting was the next afternoon. Jake, the producer, who’s still a good friend, called. It was like an hour and a half before the meeting. I thought this was a “download meeting”; this was them just telling me about their project. We were going to talk about it. It’s very normal to do that. They send you the materials, you talk to the producers, and then they tell you, “OK, you have three days or four days to do a presentation,” and then you do your presentation. So I thought this meeting was a download. They were all on set, and they were shooting, so they suggested, “Oh, let’s go to the studio and do the download there.” And I happened to be in L.A. at the time, which was perfect.

We’re down the street, me and my executive producer, Louise. We’re at Pizzeria Mozza—really great pizza, highly recommend it—and we’re eating pizza, and my friend calls. He’s like, “OK, do you need anything for this presentation? Any A/V?” And I was just like, “Presentation? I thought this was a download”—just being honest because I’m the world’s most honest human being; I don’t believe in lying or misrepresenting reality. And he said, “OK, I’m sure this is going to go well. We’ll see you in an hour.” So I realized, “Oh no, they want to talk about ideas.”

So, as I do, I take out my journal, I take out my pen, and I’m like, “OK, 13th grade community college. What could it be? Well, it could be this: Idea one—you’re waiting in line at a DMV, and you’ve got the oscillating fan, and in the end, you’re giving your community college ID; that could be a fun way, and a nice, short main title.

Another fun idea we had was all these rejection letters from all these other universities, like from Harvard. I don’t know how we would have gotten away with all the logos, but it was still a good idea. I liked the idea that—OK, this is where you’re going to school. I just went idea by idea. And eventually I got to—oh, you know what? The cootie catcher! You remember those things that you would make in high school. If you kind of considered community college to be the 13th grade, it would go with you. We could just use Bic pens instead of what you did when you were a little girl and you used to do those things.

So I went into this pitch meeting with my journal; it was on the set, and all the tables were ganged together. The Russos were there, and Dan Harmon was there, and all the producers were there. It was all guys, and then there was me: boom, right in the middle—right in the center of the table. And they’re like, “OK, what do you got?” And so I just started going with my ideas. I gave my first idea, and they said, “Oh, that’s interesting and funny, and then we could use the ID, and the ID could be like a thing.” OK, cool.

And then we got to the rejection letter one, and this also changed my life forever—this meeting and this moment—because I started talking about the rejection letters. What I loved about it is that you have these letters, and they’re floating in space, and I was thinking about how the type could work and how ultimately the logo for the community college could come down, and that could brand it.

The writers started talking about that, and the idea was getting pinged around the table right before my eyes. I was essentially in the writers’ room. And they were talking about it: “Oh yeah, that’s great. It could be this university or this university.” And then one of the writers said, “Well, but it’s rooted in rejection. And even though our test is they’re kind of rejects, this is where they’re lifted up, not taken down,” and they started talking about that. And I saw the idea get big and small, and then turn into nothing because it didn’t represent their show.

And I was like, “This is it. This is how they look at our work.” It doesn’t matter how pretty the frames are or how beautiful that idea could have been executed. It was a flawed idea. So that got me really aggressive in the future about coming at things more conceptually before I worry so much about what it looks like, and knowing that—especially in the main-title territory—you can evolve the look. In advertising, they come to us with a concept, so it’s got to look amazing right out of the gate; that’s why they’re coming to us. But on the entertainment side, it’s idea first and execution second.

Eventually, we got to the cootie-catcher idea, and they were like, “Oh yeah, what is that?” And I folded one up, and then they were like, “Oh my God. That’s great. Can you board up that?” I boarded up two ideas: I boarded up the cootie catcher and the first idea of them waiting in line. The next day, I just made a cootie catcher; I took pictures of it. I was like, “OK, here,” and they just said, “That’s what we want to do.” So how crazy of a story is that?

I would say just run toward the fire. Anything that makes me uncomfortable, I just head aggressively toward it, whether it’s a hard conversation or a pitch that I don’t quite know exactly what I’m going to do or say. I deserve to be at the table. It wasn’t my fault I only had a day to figure something out, and it wound up being the idea that is now kind of iconic. That conversation was the establishment of my relationship with the [Russo] brothers. They saw that I was a conceptual thinker, that I could go fast. There was a lot to it that really became the foundation for one of my career’s best relationships. I’m so proud of that. It’s such a cool story.

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A lot of the producers who were on Community went on to do amazing things, including the Russos, who went on to do Captain America, Avengers—all the things. Now what they’re doing is just incredible. So we have essentially gotten to ride along on their career, on the main-title side, and it’s been absolutely incredible.

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Scott: When somebody comes to you and says, “I’ve completed my feature film, but I need an opening sequence,” how does the project evolve from there?

Erin: We usually watch the main title, or if it’s early, we read the script and get a sense of what they want. Some writers, like James Gunn, write it into the script and the shoot for title sequences, which I love ‘cause then there’s the right space for it—everything’s considered. Sometimes people are like, “Here are the themes we’re working with. Come back with something.”

John Wells tends to really be more guiding in terms of characters and what the tone of the series is. And if you look at his last two, Shameless and Animal Kingdom, they’re crazy. How do you synopsize those two shows into a main title? So it’s interesting. We start with a lot of writing; we write a very detailed creative brief for the team that talks about themes and what you could approach—how you can break it down in a budget.

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We’ll start pulling imagery and reference, and kind of build out what the narrative can be and what that metaphor is. Usually, you need to find that one thing that’s a hook, and without it, you kind of feel a little lost. But that’s also what brands a main title.

Ideally, they have some thoughts about sound. Is it going to be scored? Is it going to be a song? A lot of these shows have amazing music producers. It’s nice to have them woven in so that they can tell you what they’re thinking because that’s obviously going to affect the tone. And I think—without an amazing track, a main title can just evaporate into the air; it doesn’t matter.

Honestly, on a main title, I think it’s music first. Without great music, you’re not going to have a great main title. Then, if you don’t have a great show, you’re not going to have a great main title either. A main title becomes great and iconic over time—after watching it, after falling in love with these characters in a show. People are starting to talk about Community in a really big way, now. It’s been twelve years since we did that main title, and people are like, “Oh my God. You did Community!” And it’s because they watched the series happen, and now they’re re-watching it on Netflix because it was just released there. And they just fell in love with it, so it’s a great main title now. But back then, nobody really cared, you know? It takes times for people to care about a main title.

Scott: You mentioned as part of that story, almost in passing, that you were the only woman in the room with a bunch of guys. How often have you found yourself in that situation throughout your career? How have you dealt with it and grown because of it?

Erin: It was weird. Until people have started talking about it, I don’t know that it’s been super on my mind. I’ve never had a female boss or creative director in the motion design industry. I never had myself reflected back at me. But I’ve always just been, maybe, aggressively confident. Maybe I got that from my parents and it’s just my personality type. I’ve been very work-centric and derive a lot of my self-value out of it. I would say that, the majority of the time, I’m still in the room with all guys. I’m OK with men, so I feel pretty fine about it, but it is nice having more and more women in the room, I’ll tell you that.

Scott: When people hear the Community story, they’re probably going to think, “I want to hire Erin; I want a conceptual designer to come in and help us solve our problems.” How do you scale a business and transfer some of that aesthetic or make sure that your team reflects your aesthetic?

Erin: That’s something we’re specifically going through now—and will be over the next four or five years because I do want to level up just to be able to accommodate a little bit more work. The only way we could do that is if we have more makers that have similar sensibilities to me. But I think that comes through in the hiring process. You look for people that, when they talk, you’re interested and engaged and you seem to have similar sensibilities as them. Nobody’s going to be exactly the way you are or do things exactly the way you would, but that’s a good thing ‘cause that kind of adds a layer of flavoring to the sandwich that is your company. It’s still a turkey sandwich, but it’s got a little extra zing in it now.

I really think that’s the hiring process and being thoughtful about it. And when something isn’t working or isn’t right, it’s about talking to the person to make sure that, when I see the work, I’m happy with it—I’m delighted by it and saying, “Oh yeah, you did what you should do, and then you expanded on it in a way that was interesting and amazing.”

I don’t ever want to be this giant, crazy company where I don’t see everything that’s going on. I definitely need a layer of creative leads and creative directors who are able to manage jobs and take calls without me and be super confident in them. And I think I do; I have a couple great guys that are doing that. I hope maybe to have one more. That would be great—one more.

Scott: One more would always be helpful.

Erin: One more. Isn’t that always the thing? I finally have the team that I’d always wanted, and I’m like, “But one more…”

Scott: What types of new client offerings have you been exploring, and how do you ensure that they feel complementary, rather than just an amalgamation of different things you do?

Erin: I think most business owners would relate to this, if not be vocal about it. To a certain extent, we’re reactionary: the business changes and the media shift, and we kind of shift with them. I will say that, as soon as social media started to be a thing—and I know some kids are going to be like, “What do you mean; social media became a thing?” But as soon as things moved away from the commercial—the 15 second, the 30, the 60, the 90 (the beloved 90)—all of a sudden, there became two paths things tended to go: really short—3, 6, 9. “Hey, can we make that 30 a 10 for social? Can it work in a sound-off environment?” And then things got longer: well, it’s going to be a YouTube video or a piece of social content that, if they’re interested in it, they click into and watch it.

What we’ve been exploring and working with is not only the quick things, which you would imagine a design company doing, but also the longer things. In addition to me, we have two other directors on our roster, and we’re starting to make things that are a lot longer.

One thing we just finished up is actually a series of documentaries: three 20-minute documentaries on people living with rare and interesting illnesses. They were brand funded, but it was an editorially independent project, which I’m super, super proud of. And that just shows the world is changing.

Brands and clients need content. They need to be able to talk to people differently, and we kind of straddle entertainment and advertising and commercial, I think. I need to be super open-minded and start chasing work. And not just chasing work, but making relationships with people where you don’t exactly know where it’s going to lead you. There’s a whole lot of new territory out there; if you’re slow in jumping in, you’re going to be left behind, for sure.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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