From Bogotá to London with creativity and resilience - #MemberSpotlight

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Karen Burbano tries to find inspiration everywhere around her, especially in the stories of other successful graphic designers and artists from all around the world.

A talented art director and designer, Karen has been living in London since 2015, and after a three-year course in design, she set out to be a freelancer with her own personal business. Her style is incredibly colourful and vibrant, a testimony to her energy of spirit and her passion for creativity, and a legacy of her incredibly inspiring and fascinating story.

For this Member Spotlight, we are learning more about Karen and her journey through the world, from her homeland to London, to find her fortune as a talented professional in the UK creative industry.


How did you get into the industry?

After finishing my BA in Graphic Design in Colombia, I was considering continuing my studies abroad, but unexpectedly I received a phone call from a Creative Director at MullenLowe (Alejandro Aponte). He expressed interest in my portfolio and invited me for an interview, and as a result I got my first job as an Art Director! I was lucky to work there with la crème de la crème of Colombian advertising, and this opportunity allowed me to significantly improve my skills as a visual communicator and creative. 

Where are you based now and who do you work for?

I left Colombia in 2015, and since then I have been happily living in London. After completing my MA at UAL in 2018 I have worked as a freelancer, positioning myself as a specialist in the area of brand strategy and visual communication. One of my particularly interesting recent projects involved working with The Nave, an art collective looking to create awareness about mass consumption and equality. This was an exciting opportunity to build their brand model and resolution from scratch, and this project was featured on the Creative Pool website.


If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

I probably would be an architect because I was excellent in geometry, technical design and arts at school. Rogelio Salmona, a Colombian/French architect, designed the well-known Virgilio Barco Public Library in Bogotá, and I fell in love with his romantic designs. This particular library was inspired by Alexandria; it is a circular building made of red bricks that radiate a lovely warm red light over the neighborhood when the sun hits. Waterways around the complex work as mirrors reflecting the library and the sky. Inside it is like a labyrinth that leads you to the top roof, where you can spend your lunch with a magnificent view of the mountains and the downtown of Bogotá. 


Can you explain your creative process?

For me it is fundamental to understand the brief or the client’s information from a broader perspective. This stablishes the basic areas from where to expand upon – this can be from different sources such as the internet, books, magazines and most importantly, talking to colleagues. Having the opportunity to share points of view can spark a potential path that solves the design problem. 

Next, I bring the information gathered in the research phase and organise it into mind-maps or lists. This categorisation exercise reveals a wide range of paths that I could take. I then select the appropriate path, combine ideas and see what happens; observation is a powerful tool in the creative process. After all of this hard work I always follow Stefan Sagmeister’s advice: “follow your gut feelings”.

Taking the new concept and materialising it is my favourite part of the project, because I able to see how the delicate stage of research brings visual results. I start sketching with pencil on paper and create many different proposals, and then once again I use my gut feeling to select the 3 best sketches and bring them alive in digital media, and iterate the designs with colours, thickness, contrast, etc.

Next, I present to my client my 3 different options that can solve their design problem. I present 3 proposals because I acknowledge that I am a designer that is still learning and building a reputation, otherwise I am a super fan of Paula Scher’s idea of presenting only one idea that is completely developed.

How would you describe your style?

From a visual communication perspective, I am more inclined towards simple and minimalistic designs with vibrant colours, because they give the viewer space to breathe and process information. The concept has to be the strong and main character of my creation; I believe that designing for the sake of designing does not mean anything.


Which individuals do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

The person who most inspired me to get into branding was Wally Olins; I had the opportunity to met him in 2013 when he visited Colombia. He triggered in my mind the idea of moving to London to specialise in branding and identity when he talked about combining design and business strategy.

Another brilliant mind that inspires me is Kenya Hara. His intelligent way to translate complex concepts into minimalistic outcomes is something which I find very hard to do. I love his book ´White´.

How has technology affected the way you work?

In Colombia finding art and design books is a complex and expensive matter, but when the internet arrived it give us unimaginable information about everything. Additionally, it is now easier to contact designers and artists on the other side of the globe and ask for advice. This interview is a clear example of that; I am here sharing my personal experience with any designer around the world. 

What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

I found that my motivation depends on three important factors: curiosity, passion for design and obsession for finishing a task and being able to cross it off my to-do list. 


What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

The first time that Margarita Olivar (Creative director, ex-boss and good friend) approved a concept and look and feel of a campaign without making any changes. She is well-known in the Colombian industry for her exceptionally high standards, so this was a good feeling!

How do you recharge away from the office?

Talking over the phone with my close friends in Spanish; Latin American Spanish tends to be very empathetic. Sharing a bad day in Spanish with them helps me to laugh about the problem. This playfulness helps me to cope or even solve my dilemmas. 

What is one tip that you would give to other aspiring creatives looking for work?

Do not forget to dream. When your dream is crystal clear in your mind, you will know what steps to take to get it.

What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?

Cultural diversity. When I was working in Ad agencies in Colombia, I met creatives from different parts of Colombia and I learnt a lot from them. However, working with creatives and strategists from other countries was the moment that I boosted 3 different skillsets: critical thinking, processes and perspective. 


If you could change one thing about the industry, what would that be?

Equality between women and men. Although the creative industry is going in the right direction, progress is slow and there is not equality just yet.

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

During this difficult time, people struggle in many different ways: losing a job, long working hours, loneliness, changing career, imposter syndrome, etc. I was lucky to meet Roberta Ronsivalle Pearce in 2019 at a Pentagram event at D&AD. She has been coaching and mentoring me during Covid, which helped me to undercover many incredible things about myself, and enhance the ones that I already have.

For the women that want to improve their profiles and get promoted, I highly recommend an eye-opening book called ‘Nice girls still do not get the corner office’ .

If you are freelancing for the first time or you feel that your business is not achieving your expectations, you will find impressive and useful information with the energetic Chris Do and The Futur.

If you are a creative expat woman moving to the UK, you will find great support at Ladies Wine and Design London. They are a group of women that welcomed me when I just started to network when I moved to London.


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