Don’t underestimate Heather. Those are the first 3 words you’ll read when browsing Heather Gray’s impressive design portfolio including clients whose names pack a punch like Macy’s, Sephora, Kohl’s and Target. Since graduating from Kendall College of Art and Design located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Heather has lived and breathed design in cities like San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago to name a few—but more recently family and community called Heather back to the northern realm of her home state.

This month Traverse Magazine and MyNorth Media welcomed Heather Gray as the new art director. MyNorth’s Dani Knoph sat down with Heather to learn about the surprise transition back home, what she’s learned along the way, and how her creative experiences will shape the art direction for Traverse Magazine and MyNorth.

Dani: Heather, you were raised in Novi, Michigan, but then you uprooted to attend Kendall College of Art and Design, and after that your career took you on quite a trip. Can you talk about your decision to move back to Michigan after a design career that took you to some of the most prominent cities around the country?

Heather: I never ever, ever, ever thought that I’d come back to Michigan. It was never in my plan, but sometimes life hands you an opportunity, and you have to look at things and know it isn’t just a coincidence, it’s really happening. We were in Traverse City last Labor Day with family, and we saw this house, looked at it twice in one day. Then we flew home, put an offer in the next day and we got it! I told my husband you just have to have faith, let’s dive in and do this—who cares? Let’s just try it!

Dani: Is this your first time art directing for a magazine?

Heather: I’ve always wanted to do magazines but my career path has proceeded one job to another. I stuck in that retail category for quite some time. I’ve done packaging, branding, huge retail campaigns and mega-fortune photo shoots. I’ve done a variety, but good design is good design, plain and simple. In essence a magazine is a paper package of all those core components—typography, color-photo story-telling and so on. So, working for the magazine brings all my experiences together.

Dani: So, take us back a little…give us the bird’s-eye view of the type of creative work you’ve been doing since graduating.

Heather: My very first job was for Meijer. It was my first job out of Kendall. It was a great thing. I started out there as a freelancer, and it seemed like I was making huge money at the time. Within 3 months I took over the entire art department at 23 years old. It happened fast and it’s always kind of been like that. After that, I went on to work for Kohl’s, numerous agencies, Sephora, Macy’s, Target, and Sears.

Dani: What does it feel like to go from working with huge national companies to a Northern Michigan focused business?

Heather: It feels normal. No matter the size of a business, all businesses face the same challenges. No matter what you’re selling, all businesses have the same core kind of questions, like how do we communicate this? How do we look at the bigger picture, how do we back up?

Dani:…and according to the times—like you said—good design is always good design. That doesn’t change whether you’re working for big or small business. Working in the field of art & design more than a decade into the 21st century, what are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the industry?

Heather: Definitely work-life balance. That’s a pretty good one! I’m very passionate about what I do, and I put a lot of myself into it.

When I was younger I had a really hard time separating myself from my work. You can get your heart broken, but now I have a better force field. It’s not about people approaching my creative and telling me their opinion, it’s more about delivering on a project super awesome, and then seeing it get hacked down. I’d work on these huge campaigns and develop big style guides and then the design would go out to the different departments and deliverables. Then I’d see it get kiboshed.

Dani: What are 3 essentials to outstanding design?

Heather: The first is definitely typography, the second one is going to sound so old school! The golden mean, which was created by Leonardo da Vinci. There are so many essentials—but for a third, I’m going to say balance.

Dani: …and what do you enjoy most about being a designer?

Heather: My hands are everything to me. I’ve always been a creative person, I couldn’t be anything else, I just couldn’t. I don’t do math. I don’t balance a check book. In the big picture, when I’m thinking about things, I’m always visually scanning and then applying what I see.

Dani: When did you learn this about yourself?

Heather: When I was 8, I won a coloring contest, and that’s when I knew I was going to be an artist. I won like a dog bowl, or something super kickass! (laughs)

Dani: Did you have any mentors who inspired you and changed your life?

Heather: Everyone I’ve been around since Kendall. That was the first time in my life that I felt like I found my people. It was an incredible feeling! I learned at Kendall how to connect and communicate with creative people and what that did for me moving forward was allowed me to connect and communicate with people every step of the way. I understand how to communicate with people better because I know from my career just what kind of people are out there and how to work with them.

Dani: Was there any one person who really inspired you?

Heather: Yeah! It’s crazy! Laura Hahnefeld is her name. She’s an amazing badass woman, and she’s from Michigan. I saw her speak at Kendall when I was there. Then when I got my job in Chicago, she was my client, and when I moved up to Kohl’s she became my colleague. She embraces the idea of what an artist is—she’s unique, she has a strong value-system and integrity in her work. Laura is a singer in a punk band, too! She’s an inspiring chick with a big personality.

Dani: What upcoming Traverse Magazine feature is exciting you the most right now?

Heather: Plain and simple, it’s 2016! New Year, New You!

Dani: Well, it’s good to know you’re looking ahead! Thanks for sharing a bit of your story with us, Heather. There’s so much we have to look forward to already!

Photo(s) by Dani Knoph