Design Army’s Pum Lefebure: ‘Change Is Part of a Designer’s Job’

By Robert Half October 2, 2018 at 11:00am

In this era of rapid technological change, it’s understandable that many creative professionals feel like they’re in a never-ending race against time to keep their skills up to date. But creative industry thought leader Pum Lefebure says adapting to change is a part of life, whether you were born in the 19th century or three decades ago.

“It’s challenging, but you have to do it,” Lefebure says. “The world is not going to slow down, so don’t complain about it — it’s a waste of energy.”

Designers would be wise to heed her words.

Lefebure is co-founder and chief creative officer of Design Army, an award-winning creative firm that provides design, strategy, branding and creative direction. Based in Washington, D.C., Lefebure has developed high-profile campaigns for clients worldwide, including the Academy Awards, Adobe, Disney, Ritz Carlton and PepsiCo. She was named one of Adweek’s Creative100 and one of Graphic Design USA’s 50 People to Watch.

The Creative Group (TCG) recently interviewed Lefebure to find out how she and her team at Design Army stay current with trends and technology. We also asked for her thoughts on some of the results of a recent survey we conducted of more than 1,000 creative professionals. Here’s what Lefebure had to say:

TCG: In our recent survey, 90 percent of creative professionals said it will be at least somewhat challenging to keep their skills up to date as they advance in their careers. Do you agree that it’s hard for creative pros to keep pace with change today?

Lefebure: I always tell my team at Design Army that what we are doing right now might not be relevant in six months or a year, so we must keep learning. Change is part of a designer’s job. You must keep looking forward and anticipating trends.

One thing that does not change is the need to understand basic design principles. It doesn’t matter what type of designer you are — web, fashion, interior, whatever. You must understand the concepts of scale, proportion, flow, alignment and more. You have to be aware of elements like texture and rhythm.

TCG: How does Design Army, as a creative firm, keep up with change?

Lefebure: Design Army has evolved into a “hybrid” agency over time. We provide graphic design and creative consulting. We take all we know about graphic design and apply it to other areas, like art direction, social media, and film and digital video.

About two years ago, I opened a content studio, which is now like a second business to Design Army. We have two full-time animators and several content and social media specialists and strategists. We develop content for the way that people communicate in the real world today.

TCG: You opened a content studio so that you could create content to fit how many people today want to communicate — that is, digitally. That ties back to what you said about anticipating trends.

Lefebure: Yes. Communication mediums change, so designers always need to keep looking forward.

I went to school for graphic design and learned all the traditional skills — like creating brochures and logos and typography. But today, most people don’t want to get a brochure in the mail or even a marketing email. They want to get their information from and communicate in the social media realm — like on Instagram and Facebook.

Personally, I love print and paper. But why would a client spend money to produce a printed brochure or catalog if people don’t want it? It’s just a waste.

TCG: How do you like to communicate through social media?

Lefebure: I like Instagram. The work that Design Army creates is collective. But what I share on Instagram, that’s truly me.

I started using Instagram before it was popular — and now I have almost 28,000 followers. It’s like my journal. It tells the story of where I have been. I love design, I love to travel and I have many different tastes. Instagram lets me express my personal point of view.

It’s also like a scrapbook. You see a beautiful seashell on the beach, with interesting color and texture. You capture it and post it, and the next thing you know, it inspires a new creative project.

TCG: We asked survey participants if they feel that new technology will create more or less demand for their skills in the next few years. Forty-five percent of respondents said they anticipate more demand. What do you think about that finding?

Lefebure: It depends on what they do, whether their skills will be in demand. I do think designers should always learn new skills and experiment with technology. And they can’t be afraid of change or worry that technology will take over their job, or they will get left behind.

But again, they must also understand art history and the language of design.

TCG: You’re saying fundamental skills are what help designers stay relevant?

Lefebure: Technology changes but the principles of design don’t. I work with many young designers who don’t understand what I mean when I say, “The proportion is not right.” That’s a problem.

Color is another issue. If I ask for green, a lot of designers will go straight to the palette in their design software and pull from those shades. It drives me insane. There are about 250,000 shades of green out there. When I say “green,” I am asking for a complex color. Something you’d see in a garden or on a tree. You have to get away from the computer, and out in the world, to see all those nuances.

So, much of what goes into design comes from the designer’s experience — their senses. Computers or robots can’t draw from real life. You can learn the latest software, but if you don’t learn the language of design, you won’t be hirable. Forget it. And you’ll create a world that has zero feeling.

TCG: As a creative leader, how do you make sure your own skills stay relevant?

Lefebure: I have to force myself to stay current. I am a strong believer in learning by doing — it’s the only way. For example, I had never worked in film until I founded Design Army. I pushed myself and my team to do something new. And the more we do with film, the better we get.

TCG: And how do you drive the team at Design Army to deliver their best work?

Lefebure: My job as a creative director is to push my team. They are here to work and learn. Why wouldn’t I challenge them? I admit I have a reputation for being tough. But good designers want someone pushing them so that they become better designers and create work that makes a real impact in the world.

I look at my team’s work like this: “Is this good? Yes. Will the client be happy? Yes. Can we do it better? Probably. OK, let’s figure that out.” Even if we try five different things and land back at the first thing, that’s fine. At least we explored other options.

TCG: How do you see new technologies, like artificial intelligence, changing the way that designers work? And do you welcome that change?

Lefebure: I’ve never worked with a robot, but I think it would be fun to see what that’s like. I’d like to know how we, as humans, could interject our feelings into that process. Maybe, because a robot could get certain basics down faster than a human, a designer could work collaboratively to create things like logos. But the human would still need to add the emotional element.

I do think a partnership with AI could be interesting. I’m open to it. Maybe we could end up creating something that humans alone couldn’t do.

TCG: How does technology help Design Army to be successful?

Lefebure: Technology lets us collaborate globally and bring together the best people for our team. It has made the world much smaller, and it allows us to do work around the world. Without technology, Design Army would be a creative agency in D.C. serving clients in D.C. We wouldn’t be the agency that can manage two film shoots, and two production teams, in Paris and Hong Kong at the same time.

Top photo courtesy of Pum Lefebure.

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