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D&AD Leadership Interviews – Miho Aishima of Superunion

The Design Director on coming into a leadership role during the pandemic and why giving back is so important

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Illustration by Alysa Browne

Design Director Miho Aishima almost didn’t become a designer. She was on track to become an accountant when she decided to take some time out and realised she wanted to go into design. 

Currently at Superunion, where she was promoted to Design Director at the start of 2021, Aishima has worked on some ground breaking projects. She sat on this year’s D&AD Writing for Design judging panel. She herself has won pencils over the years including a wooden pencil for the rebrand of the Science Museum in London in 2011 whilst at johnson banks.

Her strong sense of social conscience has led her to participate in mentoring for D&AD New Blood, and the New Blood Academy and sees creative leadership as nurturing as well as a pursuit of excellence. Aishima believes strongly that giving back strengthens the industry and support for junior creatives, who have been affected by unemployment over the last year, deserve encouragement and support.  

She has also set up Rye Here Rye Now, a monthly event in South London which brings together creatives across London in a friendly and relaxed setting. We asked Aishima about coming into a leadership role in a pandemic and why giving back is so important. 

Leadership isn’t just about being in charge

Coming into a creative leadership role at a tumultuous time was a challenge but it was both new and familiar territory as often in teams of creatives different people will take the lead at different points in the work, meaning that past a certain point in your career you will be leading from time to time.

“In terms of creative leadership… sometimes you become a creative leader without thinking about it, and I've probably done a lot of Creative Leadership things before without having a particular position on it but now I've been consciously thinking about what that means,” recalls Aishima.

She believes in both leading and working together to get the best out of a team on the basis that if people feel like they are part of a team then they will perform better. “It's about leading projects and ultimately teams and people, but it's also about giving back and connecting people,” she says.

Success means it’s time to give back

As a creative who has worked both as a freelancer and in-house, Aishima has a well-rounded view of the design industry. Exchanging ideas and advice is extremely important to her and she gives back to the industry in many ways such as mentoring, hosting events, working with colleges and universities and at Superunion.

“There’s a team of people across the agency including designers, strategists, account managers and the marketing team putting together a programme called Happy Hour, and we’ve been checking in with students and graduates and giving portfolio reviews every few months, but also putting together panel discussions.”

Addressing subjects such as ‘landing your first job’, ‘what happens in your first job’ and ‘what it’s like to be in the studio’, they offer invaluable, realistic, friendly advice. Happy Hour is intended to help launch young creatives into the industry. This advice is important at the best of times but in the current tumultuous climate it’s essential to have confidence in bouncing back from disappointment.

“Hopefully, then young designers can see that we’ve all had setbacks in our careers but if you persevere, you can get back on your feet and find other opportunities,” says Aishima. 

Networking isn’t just about getting work

After working as a freelancer Aishima realised how isolating it can be and how alienating some traditional networking events can be. This is when she and a friend and fellow designer Kat Garner, decided to set up Rye Here Rye Now, a creative community of designers, illustrators, photographers and creatives of all sorts that meets in Peckham. 

“Whenever you think of networking, you imagine people spending an evening handing out as many business cards as possible and I did actually do a bit of that when I was freelancing, looking for work and trying to find clients,” Aishima explains.

Rather than a meet up in a corporate environment they meet in the pub or a local venue for a more open, laid back atmosphere for people who want to connect about work or just need to get out of the house and have a conversation.

“I realised that that doesn't work, you actually need to connect with people and talk to them and get to know them,” she added.

Cognisant of the fact that freelance creatives sometimes operate outside the realms of business and 9-5 life, Rye Here Rye Now seeks to bring people from both worlds together. They have been operating online throughout the pandemic and hope to re-start in-person events soon. 

Finding inspiration in uninspiring circumstances

Usually someone who finds inspiration from seeing exhibitions or going to museums, Aishima had to look for alternatives when everything was closed.  Rather than experiencing culture she would go for a walk, look through some books or just take time to think.

“I had to think differently,” she explains actually talking and collaborating with our project teams and hearing about what was inspiring them during lockdown as well as the plethora of talks and events that popped up online like the Typographic Circle, Nicer Tuesdays, Design Calendar, LDF helped too. Within Superunion, everyone shared what was inspiring them and our department heads also organised discussions and debates around design.

“For me, it’s not a moment of inspiration, it's more a process of gathering stuff, then processing, talking and collaboration so that process didn't disappear while in lockdown we were still able to collaborate and discuss.”

As things got increasingly busy as massive changes came in for brands, this flexible, holistic approach helped the team get the results they needed. 

Adapting in spring during the pandemic

This adaptive approach was played out in real time with projects realised in one of the most rapidly changing climates ever. In today’s post-pandemic world, wherever you are in the world the focus is now on digital.

“Even at the start of the pandemic, we were talking to clients about global brand launches, they still wanted to present their new brand at a conference, but now those conferences are largely hybrid events (both online and in real life). So, it’s been interesting,” says Aishima.

The collaborative spirit also extended beyond the team and to clients as working relationships became more open. “Previously, a conversation with a client would be a phone call or face-to-face meetings but perhaps due to scheduling you may not have seen them as much, but now, you get to know people quicker through the video,” she explains. “The formality sort of goes out the door when you can see everyone's backgrounds and kitchens, and even sometimes meet their kids!”

Utilise the digital leaps and bounds made during the pandemic

“I feel like work has definitely become more blended. We have people working from home and in the office, and I think that's going to be an option that people will continue to take,” explains Aishima.”

The way the company works has also become more international with teams communicating on a global level. “Within our company, there's been collaboration across different offices,” she explains.  “I have a meeting every couple of weeks with different design directors, creative directors, the Creative Leadership Team across our offices, sharing and learning from each other, and getting involved with other projects. If you have an idea, you can just ping it over.”

When gathering ideas for our clients, our teams use an online collaboration software which allows everyone across the Superunion network to contribute. Not only does this boost morale but also facilitates the creative process. “That is really exciting to see; what would come from that and everyone being able to contribute hundreds of ideas.”

Interview by Amah-Rose Abrams

For more insights on how the way we work has changed, Asana surveyed over 13,000 global workers to explore how issues brought to bear over the past year have affected creatives and other knowledge workers. The findings and solutions are designed to help organisations thrive in a hybrid-working future. Download Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021 here.

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