Key Art's Great Women Designers: Diane Nguyen and Jen Elbogen

Their careers, creative approaches and much more

Two designers—talented, and relentless in their passion. Diane Nguyen worked on Disney's tentpole films, while Jen Elbogen created her method of mastery for television key art. Both women are passionate about the work they love. This is the second of three articles celebrating the women in key art design, as interviewed by Tami Shelly of Greenlight Creative.

See the other two articles in this series here:

Key Art's Great Women Designers: Akiko Stehrenberger and Desi Moore
Key Art's Great Women Designers: Flore Maquin and Eileen Steinbach

Tami: What is it you do in the entertainment business?

Jen: I generally say I'm a graphic designer who designs posters, billboards and artwork for movies, TV and video games. The nuances of everything else I have worked on are so varied that this little phrase sums it up nicely. If I tell people that I am an "art director," they usually think of people working on a film set—so this makes it more clear. Though I have also worked on film/TV sets in my previous role as a producer in A/V.

Diane: I design key art, which is a visual that defines an entire marketing campaign's look and feel. It's most well known as movie posters, but also applies to product branding, such as books, video games, albums or clothing.

Tami: Diane, you're clearly creative—I believe your Taco Bell wrapper wedding dress went viral (go ahead, reader, Google it)—how did you decide on a career in key art?

Diane: Thank you! That Taco Bell dress was a fun ride while it lasted. It's fun to still see it pop up every so often in a listicle about horrible wedding dress designs. I was a late bloomer. I didn't decide upon my career in key art until the final semester of college, and I'm so happy that I discovered it. I was feeling sort of down on graphic design because I couldn't really see myself doing the traditional stuff for the rest of my life. I remember walking through the halls when I came across a glass display case featuring student work from Cheryl's Entertainment Design class. I felt lightning strike me and just poured everything I had into that one class. Movie posters or bust!

Tami: You both started careers at design agencies. Diane, you went on to Disney, while Jen, you moved up the ranks of the big shops in town. Is there a preference being on the studio or vendor side?

Diane: That's a great question! They both taught me valuable lessons and I think it's a great idea to explore both sides during your career. At BLT, there were long nights, weekend work, and really demanding clients. However, I exponentially grew as an artist during my time with them. There were some really intense days and that job really pushed me—even though everyone told me I was on the nice team! But you can either quit or push back harder. I pushed back.

Transferring to the studio was an entirely different vibe! It was like a vacation working there. The only downside, for me, was only working on Disney properties. I yearned for variety. What it gave me was time to hone my existing skills and the opportunity to explore other artistic endeavours. I grew in a different way! During my time there I took improv classes, sculpted, designed pop-up books, built a clock, took public speaking courses, and did so many other amazing things. It also gave me the clarity that I wasn't cut out for an office or cubicle life. I loved having the freedom to pursue whatever caught my eye.

Jen: I have yet to work in-house at a studio, but I am defo open to it! I am a born and bred creative ... so no matter where I work, I can't help but try to push myself to learn and grow as an artist. I have been fortunate to work alongside some of the most talented creative directors and art directors in L.A., which is also why I tend to seek out the big shops—as they attract a more high-end team generally. Switching careers in this business was a big risk for me, so I set my sights on the best of the best when I did, because I wanted to be immersed in the most creative campaigns possible. So far, so good!

Tami: Tell us about the first major projects that boosted your careers.

Jen: It wasn't the first, but it was a huge campaign buy-out for print, digital and OOH ... so it was the most high-end and broad thus far in my design career. I was freelancing at Known, formerly Ink by Stun, and had the opportunity to concept and design a campaign for CNN's The Movies. Of course, this type of large-scale job is always a team sport! What was amazing for me personally was I got to concept, execute most of the designs, work with the creative director to finesse the art with some very talented finishers, and co-produce the execution of all the OOH takeovers and print campaign with a cutting-edge team—which later was translated to digital. Working on a high-end job like this from concept to completion is both a challenge and a great reward when the final product hits the street, as we say!

Diane: It was in college! I entered the student competition for the Key Art Awards. I designed a poster for the film Atonement and won first place. It became the most important credential in my portfolio and helped launch my career.

Tami: What research do you do before beginning a poster?

Jen: I'm a former copywriter, so research is a big deal for me. I generally start my process by either attending a client kickoff meeting and/or reading through every note, visual referenc and creative brief the client hands off. Then I look online for any and all additional reference—any trailers that may be in the works, pertinent posters in a similar genre for general inspiration, etc. One important thing I think most commercial artists like me do is also check out what's been done before or on similar titles, just to be sure to keep the current job fresh and not too close to an equally creative piece for another title. I'm also a dancer and love music, so sometimes I select music that is relevant to a job—and listen while I look around and while working for extra inspiration and good vibes!

Diane: I love to gather inspiration from everywhere. I'll start by sketching out some initial concepts floating in my head. Then I'll start a new folder on my computer to pull inspiration from all over the internet. Photography, illustrations, previous movie posters, gig posters, international stuff, fan art; I'll take it all and see where my thoughts diverge and what it inspires. I also have a ton of books that I flip through if I get stuck. Most ideas come immediately, but sometimes it can brew for a couple of days if time allows it.

Tami: Jen, in your career you've directed photoshoots, TV spots, posters and a multitude of undertakings. At my agency, Greenlight, everyone's involved in every little thing, which challenges us in different ways. How has working in different mediums helped fine tune your key art talents?

Jen: I know, I know—I wear many hats! Like I said, I'm a born creative! And yes, being a team player in what is ultimately a team sport is crucial to being successful, in my opinion. Working in different mediums has allowed me to see and absorb many facets of the business. I still write copy for my posters when I'm inspired, and some have even made it to the final art—so that's a nice way that my former role gets incorporated these days. And because I was a producer, I know how to be on time and on budget, which most bosses and clients really seem to appreciate, too—so that's a great skill to have as well. As they say ... time is money!

Other than that, I just feel really happy and lucky to be getting paid to do something that I really enjoy and love—not everyone has that luxury—and I'm well aware of that. To me, this 20-plus year ride and counting has been an awesome career and not merely just a job. On a personal note, I have made countless lifelong friends along the way, and despite the entertainment biz's ups and downs, I really have only love for this endeavor.

Tami: The majority of your portfolio is television, amid a number of amazing movie graphics. How is the creative mindset different when designing for theatrical versus TV/streaming?

Jen: To be honest, for me, art is art! Of course, there is a nuance with the more high-end or indie films, which require very forward conceptual thinking usually. But again, in my eyes, great art is great art—film, TV, gaming ... I treat it all as if the job is ultra high-end. Of course, for the streaming services, there are many guidelines and templates which, as designers, we need to be aware of when we build art—just so the art doesn't get clipped or cut up in any strange way. So, that would be something we try to decipher ahead of time. The user experience is very important in order to deliver the visual message as successfully as possible.

Tami: What makes for great key art?

Diane: Good key art is something that is well laid out and does its job of promoting the product. Great key art is something that falls in between the realms of design and art. Not only should a great image capture the essence of the film, it should look iconic, evoke emotion, inspire conversation and also create incentive for someone to invest in it. The poster is an experience in itself. Creating that is the challenge I love about designing key art.

Jen: I think there's a lot of beautiful work out there ... to both enjoy and be inspired by! But to me, great key art should have a concept. I just re-read a quote from one of my design books recently and it sums it up quite well ... "Have a concept. If there's no message, no story, no idea, no narrative, or no useful experience to be had, it's not graphic design. It doesn't matter how amazing the thing is to look at; without a clear message it's an empty, although beautiful shell." [Design Elements - A Graphic Style Manual - Timothy Samara]. Knowing your client's needs, the demographic of your audience, and doing your proper research, hopefully lends itself to working out an appropriate concept for every piece.

Tami: Diane, I understand Jon Favreau is a fan of your Mandalorian poster art. What other memorable responses did you enjoy?

Diane: There was a HUGE response to my X-Men posters. I loved seeing all the fan-art spin-offs as well as deep Reddit discussions about the meaning behind the design. There was a lot of debate over very minuscule things, like how I chose to line up the actor's eyes. One person even went so far as to "fix" my work! I love reading internet commentary, but I'll never reveal which side got it right.

Tami: You've worked on a lot of major franchises: Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men, etc. What credentials are you most proud of?

Diane: Definitely X-Men and Star Wars! Outside of gaining mutant powers or controlling the Force, I probably accomplished some sort of unspoken childhood dream. It is such an honor to have my work be part of those legacies. If you think about it, did I achieve immortality? Is that my mutant power? Not in the realm of key art, but I'm also really proud of the restaurant my brother and I built during my off hours. It's not a major franchise yet, but just you wait! :)

Tami: Have you ever worked on a project where being a female designer worked in your favor?

Jen: To be honest, I'm a bit of a tomboy, so I have the good fortune of being able to work on more male-centric, gritty, grungy art and then flip easily into the more beautiful, feminine or minimalistic look. To me, the individual job really dictates the style, but I will say, most of my male co-workers don't enjoy neon, especially neon pink, as much as I do. What can I say ... I'm an '80s baby! Haha! With that said, I love that more and more women are coming up in what was once a more male dominated "sport"/line of work.

Diane: I'm sure being female has edged me out in small ways—maybe in which photos I choose to use in my designs, or if I get placed on a male-focused property for a different point of view—but I honestly can't think of anything specifically. I've worked alongside so many talented, incredible and multifaceted artists. At the end of the day, we're all the same. We just want to create something special.

Tami: Is there a woman in your career that you'd like to acknowledge?

Jen: Absolutely. When I was a writer/producer, my boss Karon Aghotte learned of my interest in graphic design. I had worked with her at two different shops, and then she opened her own along with her husband Mike. She gave me my first shot at being an art director, and even contributed to some of my early design classes. Without her support and encouragement, I may not have been as eager to switch roles in the same entertainment business. She saw my passion and ambition, and I will always be grateful for her mentorship, guidance and friendship.

Diane: Yes! My college professor, Cheryl Savala. I would not be the designer I am today without her guidance and support. Her class prepared me for the intensity of the career path ahead of me. She was also a huge help post-graduation when I needed to make more pieces for my portfolio. We still keep in touch to this day, and I'm constantly inspired by her tenacity and talent.

To see more creative from these designers:

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Tami Shelly
Tami Shelly is partner and creative director of Greenlight Creative Inc.

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