Key Art's Great Women Designers: Akiko Stehrenberger and Desi Moore

The first in a new Q&A series

For Women's History Month Tami Shelly, partner and creative director of Greenlight Creative Inc.—one of the few woman-owned design agencies in the entertainment industry—connected with some talented friends to talk about their creative histories. This is the first of three articles showcasing six female artists. The first two key-art stars are Akiko Stehrenberger and her cohort in crime Desi Moore. They came up through the industry trenches together and lived to talk about it.

See the other two articles in this series here:

Key Art's Great Women Designers: Diane Nguyen and Jen Elbogen
Key Art's Great Women Designers: Flore Maquin and Eileen Steinbach

Tami: Desi, you mentioned that "women especially need a shoutout in this male-dominated industry. We've been at this job for so long and it feels like we're just crawling out of the shadows." Do you believe things have changed since you started?

Desi: Until recently we didn't get much recognition in general as individual art directors. Like your poster was totally invited to the premiere, and you might be. I think there are more women in our industry now. More creative women working directly with the filmmakers and studios, and being closer to the film brings more recognition. I also think more women are making films now, and wanting to work with other women, and that is pretty cool.

Akiko: It's true. Key art designers in general don't get much credit and mostly stay behind the scenes. In addition, there are many talented female designers working in our industry. But now with social media, there's finally a chance to put a name to the artwork and people are slowly realizing I am not a dude.

Tami: How did you two meet?

Desi: It was 15 years ago and I was working full time at Trailer Park, and she came in to freelance there. One of my co-workers Mike had gone to ArtCenter with her and said, "Wait until you meet Akiko, you two will be best friends." I remember her walking in all collected, tall and beautiful with red lipstick on, and at the moment I was doubting she would really be that cool on top of it, she kinda tripped a little bit on literally nothing on the floor and said something dorky. I was immediately disarmed and our bromance bloomed. Eventually I went freelance too, and we would end up at the same agencies a lot and had some good times.

Akiko: We met when I started freelancing at Trailer Park after leaving a full-time key art job at Crew Creative. This was almost 15 years ago, which makes us sound ancient. We hit it off pretty quickly. Pretty soon she became freelance too, and we'd end up at the same places, wreaking havoc with our antics and our overuse of the word "dude."

Tami: You both started your career by answering the call for a receptionist position at creative agencies. What's the best way nowadays to break into the industry?

Akiko: I did interview for a receptionist position, but Charles Reimers [an owner of Crew at that time] asked me to try out being a junior designer instead when he saw that I could paint and draw. I had only an editorial illustration background and very little computer skills at that point, so I had to learn everything on the job through lots of trial and mostly errors. I would stay late every night and work weekends because I felt so underqualified and really wanted to learn the vernacular. 

For new designers, I always recommend trying to get a full-time job at one of the movie poster agencies so you can really learn the language and pace of this industry. I don't think anyone can fully grasp all that it entails unless they are actually working in-house. But if that opportunity is not there, I recommend using social networks to show your work and streamlining your posts to feel like your portfolio. Someone should be able to look at your page quickly and get a clear idea of what you do.

Desi: It is such a specific job with much more jargon and intricacies than you would imagine, so I think you have to start working in-house at a movie advertising agency to really grasp it all and learn the formula. It's about making art but it is also marketing—and you can't forget that part. In fact, you have to master that part. The pace is really fast and I think working in-house is basically like bootcamp in learning how to do that. I think participating in group critiques helps you develop the thick skin and fast (re)thinking you need.

Akiko and I came up in this biz in a very fun and very un-PC time in the biz, so sometimes our crits were like being on one of those Comedy Central roasts and the subject was everyone's posters. Shit was laughed at, defaced in red marker, literally balled up and thrown on the floor or kept alone on the wall all week. People laughed, people cried. If you can't get in at an agency, try and seek out smaller-budget films looking for a poster and start to build a good portfolio and make connections. Also maybe just start making alternative movie posters and start an Instagram account. Does that work? I feel like it might, if they are great.

Tami: Tell us about your first major project that boosted your career.

Desi: Bridesmaids, for sure. I got to work on that campaign from initial concept sketch to finished poster. It was the first major photo shoot I got to art direct as well. Mark Seliger shot it, and that cast of ladies were so fun to work with. I was working for Damon Wolf at Cimarron during that time. I loved working with and learning from him. I am so grateful for all the opportunities Damon gave me and how much he let me do my thing.

After that job, I felt that boost in my career. I went on to art direct a lot more photo shoots, and started traveling to the filming locations and worked with a lot of great actors I admire. I really fell in love with that part of the poster process. The energy on set, and working with the actors to bring your ideas to life, is so rewarding. It opened up new doors for me.

Tami: Which is your favorite part of the design process, coming up with the concept or creating it?

Akiko: Concept, first and foremost, as that's the stage I always need the most brain power for. I can't make a piece without some sort of an idea behind it ... even if it's not evident to the viewer. This is where my art director hat comes in, as the style of illustration has to make sense with the idea so everything ties together. Once the idea is locked, I can relax a little and have true crime shows and 90 Day Fiancé playing in the background as I do the painting process.

Desi: Coming up with the concept is exciting. I am excitable. I love visualizing the big picture and the little details. Creating is obviously cool too, you just have to get in the groove and put in the work to make it happen. Which at times can be less exciting.

Tami: Akiko's Portrait of a Lady on Fire started with acrylic paint, and Desi, a large number of your posters have a tactile/handcrafted quality to them, like your Kajillionaire collage or Girls for HBO. Do either of you have a favorite medium?

Akiko: I love acrylic because it can be so versatile and I can easily hide my mistakes. However, since the deadlines have gotten more insane, I've moved more digitally over the years, but still continue to scan in textures and paintings so it can have more of a handcrafted look.

Desi: Yes, I love getting tactile and building little physical elements to incorporate into my posters. If I get to make random things like a diorama, a logo drawn in honey, origami animals, whatever by hand, I am stoked. I paint a lot of typography in Sumi ink. Sometimes I paint posters in acrylic, but I bought a Cintiq a few years ago and started to really enjoy digital painting and do that a lot now.

Tami: Do you have a genre preference?

Akiko: I love any film that can use art and a strong and simple concept for its imagery. I also love films that take place in periods I can reference artistically.

Desi: Indie arthouse films are my favorite to work on. Visually stimulating films, colorful ones, dark and strange ones, '60s to '80s-based ones.

Tami: Your bodies of work reflect a wide range of illustrative styles. How do you decide which style best fits a new project?

Akiko: Some concepts and visual tricks can only work with certain illustration styles. Also, if the film takes place in a certain era, the illustration style should reference this as well. Every element should be considered. The piece should be respectful to the tone of the film. I remember what Andrew Percival said when I was just a junior designer. He said, "Don't make art just for art's sake." Since then I've always believed illustration should serve a purpose.

Desi: I like to just catch a vibe from the movie or script and do what I think would visually compliment and represent that best. If the film is of a place and time, I'll research that. I have a lot of art books and obscure magazines of different genres and eras that I will look through. Even if they have nothing to do with the project, a technique or colorway may inspire me or a concept gets sparked. The book Overspray: Riding High With the Kings of California Airbrush by Norman Hathaway, hand-painted movie posters from Ghana and old murals in L.A. have inspired me a lot over the years as well.

Tami: Desi Moore is "the toast of Hollywood." How has she made Hollywood a better place?

Akiko: In the 15 years I've known her, I don't think I've ever seen her have a bad day. She's perma-stoked. This is hard to find in our industry, where we all feel overworked and taken for granted. I know I can always count on laughing my ass off with her.

Tami: Which poster do you think Desi is the most proud of?

Akiko: Oh man, she has a lot of bangers! But if I had to guess, her favorite ones she created are ones that probably got axed by the client.

Tami: What's your favorite poster of hers?

Akiko: Hard to choose! I love what she made for Youth in Revolt, The Girl on the Train, but of the official ones I'd have to be obvious and choose Bridesmaids.

Tami: Desi, what's your favorite poster of Akiko's?

Desi: I Am Thinking of Ending Things. It is so beautiful and smart. It represents such a specific feeling of the film. I also really love the Last Black Man in San Francisco one where he is standing at an angle because of the hill—so damn clever and perfectly painted.

Tami: Which do you think Akiko is most known for?

Desi: I would say Funny Games and The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

Tami: Akiko, Last Man in San Francisco echoes the portraits of painter Barkley Hendricks. Who are other artists that inspire you?

Akiko: Yes, I definitely took heavy cues from Barkley Hendricks' work for that specific project. The tonality of his work felt spot on for the film. My inspiration changes daily per project but it includes Nancy Fouts, (I'm ashamed to have just discovered) Javier Jaen, Chuck Close, Milton Glaser, Bob Peak, Charles Ray, Eric Yahnker, Heinz Edelmann, I can go on and on...

Tami: In 2011, Akiko was deemed Poster Girl by Interview magazine. Desi, how do you think she's lived up to that title in the last 10 years?

Desi: That was like her Beyoncé "Dangerously in Love" era of her career and now she is Beyoncé Coachella 2018. She has always been great, and only gets better. She has lived up to it, for sure.

Tami: What's the coolest thing Akiko has in her studio/office?

Desi: I don't know if it is still there, but she had a little stuffed animatronic dancing cat speaker that she bought at Target or something. But she modified it with sunglasses and a tiny T-shirt that said WEED in iron-on letters, and had it play and dance to "A Milli" by Lil Wayne.

Tami: What about in Desi's?

Akiko: Her neon light and maybe lots of weed.

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