Katie Sprague

Finding true north

Throughout the course of my life, I’ve found myself continually returning to one simple question:


Why have I devoted my life to this crazy thing called Brand Strategy? Why did I decide to go back for a second round of college in my 30s?

Why, indeed.

Even as a kid, I remember asking myself why the house that my dad designed and built—my childhood home in Manhattan Beach—looked so different from the rest of the houses in our neighborhood. Dad was a loyal follower of the Case Study movement, and our house was a testament to his devotion to that very un-beachy style. It was a simple, modern, mostly glass, flat-roof dwelling set quietly in the midst of all those Mediterranean villas, and it was the logical starting point for my preoccupation with creating brands for environments.

The “why” of what we do as brand strategists—and as creatives—is a more universal concept, mostly because it involves the notion of a team of minds finding commonality around one idea. I’ve worked for an architecture firm for more than 25 years, and while I’m not the one that has to come up with the look of a particular environment, I help our clients and design teams come to a good understanding of why we are building a project.

In other words, together we find a shared vision, a higher purpose, and something that’s uniquely true for each project. Sometimes we call that a brand, sometimes a story, maybe even just “the big idea.” But what really matters is that the entire team agrees on a way forward that will meet the goals of our clients, the needs of the users, and the intent of the designers.

In the end, what I do as a brand strategist is mainly about translation. I’m in the business of translating abstract ideas and values into stories, and then distilling those stories into spaces and places that deliver on the promises we made when we began.

I also believe that this is not something that is exclusive to the arts, design or strategy. Whether you work in a creative field or not, coming together in the name of a shared purpose, finding a “true north,” if you will…that’s something that we all reckon with at some point or another, both professionally and personally.

Looking for my own true north, when I was almost thirty years old I decided to go back to school at ArtCenter. I packed up my life in Colorado—where I had been working as a self-taught graphic designer—to move home to Los Angeles. I felt it was time: time to head back to the drawing board and get the kind of education that would help me understand design from a new point of view, design with a purpose.

I had previously graduated from Loyola Marymount University, where I studied Fine Arts and Humanities. I always say that LMU taught me to think, and ArtCenter taught me the craft of how—and more importantly, the why—of putting design into action. It taught me that asking questions is almost as important as finding the means of answering them.

I arrived at ArtCenter with a big bag of ideas I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. I left with a tangible skill set and a clear compass that has continued to point to my own true north.

Katie Sprague
Senior Vice President, CallisonRTKL—Strategic Branding
Board Member, FullCircle
BFA 1991 Graphics/Packaging

ArtCenter taught me the craft of how—and more importantly, the why—of putting design into action.

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