Career Path Interview: CEO/Creative Director, Maria Rapetskaya



Maria Rapetskaya


As Undefined Creative’s CEO/Creative Director, Maria Rapetskaya combines timeless aesthetic, a personal approach to client relationships and a socially conscious backbone. Over the span of her design career, she has amassed an impressive client base – most recently NBC Universal, Discovery Networks, National Hockey League and Meredith Publishing. Her work has been recognized internationally with awards, publications and screenings. Maria is a firm supporter of professional volunteering, producing pro bono content for international organizations, like the United Nations and BRAC – and local efforts, like NYC’s based Transportation Alternatives. Maria’s personal creative outlet is, well – anything creative. She loves photography, drawing, learning and any “pet projects” that fall in her lap. If not at her desk, she can be spotted on horseback in offbeat places like Mongolia or Easter Island. (But alas, more often, powering up with a cup of coffee a block away.)

Here’s what Maria had to share with when we recently interviewed her:

What tips can you offer a recent graduate that is preparing to interview for an entry-level position within your industry?

Be patient. It will likely take time to find a good position, or any position for that matter. Even if your goal is a full-time job, pursue freelance or independent projects while you look. You’ll make some money, get more experience, make connections, etc.

Don’t be afraid to take chances. Do acknowledge your limits. You can take on a project that’s over your head and wow the client. Or you can flop and ruin a relationship. Learn to honestly gauge your abilities.

I think everyone pays their dues in one way or another getting started, so be prepared to have some frustrating experiences. Every situation is a learning opportunity.

Remember that attention to detail and ease of working with you make a huge difference in whether or not you will be invited back to freelance, or get a post-interview callback. If you are difficult to work with, or can’t show up on time, or spend hours playing on the internet, it won’t matter how talented you are. Talented, skilled people are easy to find. Talented, skilled people with common sense, a good work ethic and ability to pay attention to direction are a lot harder to come by.

Check your ego at the door. You don’t know it all, and you never will. None of us do. Learn to pick your creative battles. At the end of the day, the clients pay the bills. If you want to have 100% creative control, don’t go into commercial art. Being a successful working artist-for-hire means you solve your clients’ creative challenges, not create whatever you want. Make the best decisions you can, offer advice and suggestions, but do not be inflexible, stubborn or difficult with your clients, art directors or co-workers.

If you were hiring someone for your position, what five skills would you require in all applicants?

What I require attention to detail, ability to think independently, great communication, willingness to improve, easy-going personality. I don’t list talent – that’s pretty much a given. And, believe it or not, there are very simple ways to weed out candidates before I even bother with looking at their work. I list a number of “musts” to reply with on every job post. If a single item goes unaddressed, the email is tossed. I don’t care if this is the most talented designer on earth. If he/she couldn’t read one paragraph and follow basic instruction, they are clearly deficient in the above. May seem extreme – but it’s been tested and believe me, it is an accurate first impression.

What piece of advice do you wish you followed earlier in your career?

Freelance more. I spent nearly six years working at the same facility, which limited my scope of contacts, experience and exposure. I did freelance for about a year or so, but I do wish I stayed out there longer. I think it would have benefited me long-term.

Tell us about an internship or volunteer experience you completed that was related to your field during or after college?

I interned the summer before my senior year, but unfortunately, I didn’t pick wisely. I majored in animation, but I never quite fit into either the character or the experimental models which were the division lines at my school. I never considered “motion graphics” as a field of focus, simply because I didn’t know it existed.

So, I chose a traditional studio. It was two hours away, and the work was tedious. Eventually I fumbled through and fulfilled my commitment. It was a professional lesson, as well as than a personal one, confirming that traditional animation was not for me.

I have been much more successful as a professional volunteer. I started doing murals for public schools through NYCares. I spent a couple of weeks in Ecuador with an after-school arts program. Most notably, I have been working through Catchafire since 2010, taking on “professional volunteering” projects. I do a lot of promotional videos for non-profits, using motion graphics to clarify their message and help them spread the word.

What advanced education, online training or development programs would you recommend for people interested in becoming a Motion Graphics Designer?

I personally love, where you can access a wide range of videos. I like the site since it is very affordable and has both straight-forward “how-to-use” software lessons, and also more in-depth lessons on design, aesthetics and tricks.

As far as “advanced education” – if you are looking to stand out of the pack, don’t simply focus on learning software. Being a “software operator” is easy. Being a designer is harder.

Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently while in undergraduate studies?

I would transfer once I discovered my direction. At the time, my university was unprepared for the digital evolution and I would have gotten a better education elsewhere. I would definitely take on a better-suited internship. I would take more advantage of electives, taking courses in as many disciplines as I could to broaden my understanding and skills.

What specifically motivated you to go this direction in your career?

I was always very independent, able to juggle multiple projects and not afraid to take risks. I wanted a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and the only way I saw to achieve that was to run my own studio.

Creatively, all I ever wanted was to play with colors, shapes, type. I love music and dance, and have a good sense of rhythm. Combined, this was a natural fit for motion graphics. The field is wide enough to have consistent work opportunity, but not as over-saturated and competitive as web design. The projects tend to turn around quickly, which is great for someone like myself who thrives on change.

What type of activities, appointments and meetings do you have during a typical week?

A lot of hands-on work, in design and production; communication with clients and potential clients; working out budgets and deadlines. I don’t have too many face-to-face meetings these days, the majority of the conversations take place over emails or conference calls.

Tell us about an unpleasant work experience that resulted in an invaluable career lesson?

The first project we took on as a company was very low paying, but with very high demands. On top of that, the clients were incredibly difficult and unprofessional. They were rude, abusive even, calling my partner “an idiot” on a phone call!

We got the job done, but after that I made a decision. I love what I do. I don’t want to grow to hate it. Avoiding negative people in my life was always a priority, and now that I have the power to turn down a red-flag project or client, I will. (I am happy to say, that happens very rarely.)

Who has inspired you as a mentor during your career and what was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?

I honestly can’t say I ever had a mentor, though I wish I did! What I did do was observe and analyze everything from creative strategies people had to how they ran their business. It helped me build a mental list of what I want and what I don’t want, how I like things run, what seems efficient, what works, etc.

A good example I suppose is: I knew people who grew their business too fast and too far, beyond what actually made them happy. It became an all-absorbing monster force, leaving little time for family, health or anything else. It made what they love become a source of constant stress. Seeing that made me eternally conscious of the need to balance work with life.

If you had an opportunity to broadcast a special “thank you” to anyone via this interview, who would it be and what would you like us to say?

It would be mom. She ran her own business her entire life, making balancing work and life appear effortless. She enjoyed her profession so much that I never felt that it was a “job” for her – it was simply what she did. She worked hard when she had to, took time off whenever she could. She was always so humble, so matter-of-fact about how she made a living, it took me years to comprehend how much risk her professional choices involved. I modeled my life after hers, without even recognizing that until much later.

What is a favorite quote that you try to live by?

Wow. Depends on what day you ask me! Right now it’s: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. It was on the cover of a girl’s journal and it caught my eye.

What books would you recommend for upcoming designers?

  • Typographic Systems by Kimberly Elam
  • Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Muller-Brockman
  • Any book by Trish and Chris Meyer for After Effects
  • The Business of Being an Artist by Daniel Grant

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