Although Katrina Romulo is making it look easy, breaking into the design industry is no small feat.
As a recent graduate from UC Berkeley, Romulo has already worked on projects taking the design world by storm—as I type this, her packaging design for Hyper! has already hit Sephora's shelves. However, the most compelling thing about her story is that she didn't go to college intending to study design; by happy accident, she found herself in a student-led design club, and the rest was history.
While Romulo has found that gatekeeping is sadly prevalent in the industry, her positive attitude and knack for persevering are helping her make strides. We had the pleasure to sit down with Katrina and ask her a few questions about how she got to where she is today, her steps creating for clients, and who her dream clients are. Despite often finding that designers don't want to share their trade secrets, Romulo has offered quite a bit of insider secrets in this interview, and for that, we're forever impressed.
How and when did you become interested in graphic design?
I started my first semester/freshman year of college! I actually came to UC Berkeley enrolled as a Conservation and Resource Studies major because I really didn't know what I wanted to do. The first week of school, someone handed me a flyer for a class called "Intro to Illustrator and Photoshop" hosted by Innovative Design, which is Berkeley's largest creative student-led organization/agency. As it turns out, this was one of the most popular student-led classes on campus because there's no official graphic/visual design program at Berkeley (which is quite crazy and also sad). I applied because the flyer looked cool, and I thankfully got in. The rest is history.
From the very first class I took, I was captivated by the idea of graphic design. I had really never done anything like it before, and I loved the idea that you could take a blank canvas and make whatever you wanted. I hadn't really considered myself an artsy person, but I quickly learned you don't have to be an artist to be good at graphic design. I spent hours practicing on Illustrator. In my sophomore year, I switched my major to Sustainable Environmental Design (which was still not remotely close to graphic design but was the closest I could get to a design major). Any chance I could get to use the program, I would. Anytime a class required a creative project, I would bring graphic design into it. I joined creative clubs on campus like Innovative Design, pieced together many random courses from Berkeley's Jacobs Design Innovation program, and continued taking student-led courses like "Graphic Design Principles" and "Brand Identity and Graphic Design." I'm thankful that Berkeley's student-led design community was so strong. If it weren't for those clubs and independent courses, I don't know if I would've ever gotten into design.
Your style seems to be very bright and playful. Have you ever experimented with other types of design?
I'm always trying to experiment with other styles all the time, whether it be a different style of illustration, a new color palette, or a choice of fonts. I also really like challenging myself to use different mediums, whether it's painting, hand drawing, or collaging. My most recent passion project—The Messy Market—took on a more retro style, with lots of black and white imagery inspired by 1950s ads I found in a LIFE magazine. I try my best to experiment with other styles and types of design, but I always find myself leaning towards bold and bright colors. I can't stay away from blues and pinks.
Did anything shock you in the industry when you first began?
First, there seems to be a lot of gatekeeping in the graphic design world—lots of independent artists won't like to tell you what font they used, where they got their mockups, etc. Luckily, I've noticed that's changing.
Second, I felt pretty isolated when I first joined the industry because of the lack of diversity. During my first design internship, I was the only person of color on the creative team. Whenever I interviewed for design jobs and met other teams, it was especially pretty rare to find another Asian designer. It was pretty disheartening. However, I've learned that there are agencies and companies that value diversity in company culture. It's just a matter of finding them.
You're very open about your mental health and the struggles you often go through. Can you offer some advice on being easier on ourselves, especially when the work we create doesn't go as planned?
I've been struggling with anxiety ever since I started high school, and I never found a way to quell irrational thoughts and worries in my head until I found design. It's the only thing I can do that really gets me in the zone and allows me to get out of my head for a little bit. That's why I channel a lot of whatever I'm feeling or my thoughts into passion projects that call attention to mental health.
When I first started designing, it was so easy to get frustrated because I had so many ideas in my mind but didn't have the technical skills to execute them. I think I just had to initially accept the fact that for the first year or so, I wouldn't be satisfied with whatever I created—I tried not to put so much pressure on myself.
My best advice is to never go into designing something to create something that is objectively "good." The coolest things I've made have come about because I was having fun while designing. I didn't go into the process with the fear that it wouldn't meet my expectations. Most designers are seldom 100% satisfied with whatever they make, so creating something that goes perfectly as planned is rarely attainable. Also, creating something that is different from what you imagined doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad or worse than what you wanted to make. Just adopt the same mindset Bob Ross had and think of your mistakes as "happy accidents!"
Also, remember that you are your worst critic, so even if you aren't happy with what you created, chances are there is someone out there who really loves what you made and thinks it's wonderful.
Know that every time you design something, you're getting practice, and you're getting better. You
're just that much closer to being the designer you hope to be.
When creating branding for a new client, what are the first steps you take to ensure that your designs fuse with their vision?
I like to ask them some initial questions like:
"What mood are you trying to evoke with this brand?"
"Who's your target demographic?"
"What does the ideal customer look like/what brands do they like?"
"What are some brands you like, what are some brands in the same space you dislike, and why?"
"What are five words to describe your brand?"
From there, I create mood boards for different design directions and present them. We go over what they like from each mood board, which direction they're leaning in, any must-haves, and anything to avoid. Branding is a pretty iterative process, so I design two different brand identities based on their feedback and constantly communicate with them about what they like and what they aren't as excited about. Communication and honest feedback are very key to the whole process.
What is your dream of a brand to work with, and why?
I'm so glad this was one of the questions because last week I literally made a list of brands and products I wanted to design. My sweet spot is DTC (direct to consumer) brands for Gen z and millennials. At the top of the list of dream brands to work with: Warby Parker, Ace & Tate, OK Drugs, Chobani, Girlfriend Collective, Everyday Humans, Spotify, and Minor Figures. I think they're all branded thoughtfully, and there's a lot of potentials to have fun with social media assets, illustrations, merch, etc. I am a genuine fan of these brands and use their products, so working with them would be the ultimate dream.
In terms of brands that don't exist yet, I want to brand a new product in the CBD/THC space, a chocolate bar, a canned drink, a hot sauce, and anything concerned with sustainability and making the world a bit better. As a designer who does a lot of packaging, I really want to design with materials and environmental impact in mind!
We love the rebrand you designed for Hyper! Can you walk us through the process from start to finish?
At the start, Desiree (founder and CEO of Hyper) only had two real limitations—keep some poppy orange in the color palette and the exclamation point. Since one of the biggest deliverables was redesigning the packaging for their serum, I started focusing on how I wanted the wordmark to look, keeping in mind that it would have to fit on a tiny bottle and scale well.
The old packaging separated the exclamation point and the actual wordmark, but I immediately knew I wanted to combine them so that whenever customers read the brand, it would be read in an exciting tone of voice. I also knew that I wanted to slant the exclamation mark to give it emphasis and movement. I wanted a font that had some personality to it while still looking friendly, so I went with Gelica from Eclectotype. The rounded curves of each character made every word look so approachable and fun. I chose a really simple, no-frills sans-serif for body text and a secondary monospace font for callouts and icon titles.
My original idea was to make the bottle orange and write text in a light cream color, but what the manufacturers sent back was a very neon color, and we immediately scrapped that. I decided to build out the rest of the color palette based on the original cream and orange combination—I chose a blend of pastel pinks, purples, and yellows that allow for really light and playful graphics.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration, and why?
My biggest inspiration changes really frequently. Usually, I discover a new agency and admire everything they do, going through all their case studies and following them on all platforms. Right now, I'm very into COLLINS. Their rebrand for Match had me so inspired, and their work on the San Francisco Symphony was incredible. The typography, color theory, and illustrations on every project are unmatched, and I'd love to work with them on a project one day. In terms of websites and platforms, my top two go-to's are Pinterest and Instagram. There are so many talented designers, and these platforms make it so easy to find them (my current favorite is Jade Purple Brown).
When you find yourself in a creative rut, how do you get yourself out?
When I'm in a creative rut, it's usually because I'm going through a period of burnout. That's my sign to step away from work and do something else. My favorite things to do outside of designing are working out, finding a new restaurant with my housemates, making smoothies, going for walks, and playing with my cats. Taking time away from design to recharge is super effective. I also find a lot of inspiration from daily life—paying attention to the "small things."
I recently made a poster called "CALM" depicting my favorite calm moments in the day, like watering my plants, listening to music on my record player, and eating eggs for breakfast.