Xanthe Wells – Global Creative Director

My name is Xanthe Wells and I am the Global Creative Director for Nest, which is owned by Google. We do what everyone calls ‘smart homes’, but we prefer to think of them as ‘thoughtful home’ products. I do all the advertising and creative for the world for this particular brand. 

Let’s start with a little origin story.

I was born and raised in SanFransico. I’ve always known I wanted to be doing something artistic. In high school, I started to paint and experiment with oil painting and played around with Illustrator. It was adobe Illustrator 1.0. Photoshop wasn’t really round yet, but illustrator got me excited and then I started to take some summer classes at CCAC Academy of Art. And then I went to Brown University where I majored in art history in visual Art. And whil I was out brown I spent a year at Rhode Island school of design, where I majored in illustration so I learned how to paint and draw pretty well. Meanwhile, I also took a comic book storytelling class and I found that that was something that I really loved to do because it had to do with sequential storytelling and seeing characters and a plot unfold over time seemed really interesting. I didn’t really know that this kinds of hands-on work was going to lead to advertising. I didn’t really pursue that. I went to Pixar as an intern my junior year. I spent time in the art department on Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. I did some drawing but mostly I helped the artists get organized, make it to meetings, help file their drawings. I worked on the archive of Pixar archiving some of John Lasseter’s original drawings and making sure that they were archived and catalogued properly – a really typical kind of intern job. I went back to brown, graduated, went back to work at Pixar full time – and then about a year into Pixar I decided I wanted to be a better artist.  I went to Art Center College of Design, where I started as an illustration student and I found that quickly to be boring and antisocial. It was way to much time by my self – not really talking to anyone else. I realized that wasn’t for me. I was also interested in getting my hands dirty and doing more design work on the computers. So I switched my major to advertising and loved it. I never looked back. I graduated in 2003. So, I’ve been in the business for 14 years if you look at – maybe 15 – if you look at my Pixar days. So that’s kind of where I started.

Was there any family influence or anything like that helping you come to choose the path that you went down?

Absolutely! I actually had a really pivotal conversation with my parents in high school. I went out to dinner – we always went out to dinner every Friday night to our local pizza place – my parents would have a couple glasses of wine and ask me about my week and, at the time, I was really focused on science and trying to be great in science, especially because my father was one of the early engineers in Silicon Valley. I grew up around computers and around the forefront of technology. I was thinking that computer science or programming or something like that would be me. I wanted to make my dad proud. My mom had been quietly working behind the scenes to let him know that she didn’t believe that I find happiness being an engineer so she encouraged him to kind of ‘set me free’ which is what he did that night. He said, “Look, I know you don’t love science and it’s okay if you dont. I really want you to be happy and I know that if you pursue something and you’re the best at it, the money will follow. We know you love so it’s okay to go for art and see where that takes you.” So that was a really pivotal conversation.

What about any other kind of pivotal moments in your career like rubbing elbows with the right people at Pixar?

Yeah that’s a good question. Pixar was incredibly formative for me. The people there taught me that you can be creative and still make a living and that you can also be kind and egoless and just incredibly fun to work with, while still being considered a rock star in the industry. They were incredibly humble easy to work with people. My boyfriend at the time was an animator and seeing him sell Pixar stock to buy a house in San Francisco was incredibly impactful because I realize that you could do art and you could make a living.

You talked a little bit about your education. Would you say that –and I’m sure there’s a lot of variables here – but would you say that school is still really necessary for someone if they want to get into design or are there alternative paths where they could use to get in?

Where there’s a will there’s a way. I think you’re better off if you can get some sort of training. But, some of the best people that I’ve met have gone to college’s that no one ‘s heard out. You don’t have to go to a pretentious well-known art school. No matter what’s around you, you have to make the best of it and focus on creating a great portfolio.

I hire on attitude more than I hire on talent.  The eagerness that someone shows, their enthusiasm, their general positivity, and their sense of humor is always something that I consider. I can look at 1000 portfolios and 900 of them are decent. Maybe 500 of are good. And then 25, you know, percent are goodish/very good and then you get into the weeds of those top 25 percent. They’re really good but who am I going to choose.  Someone who can handle feedback who actually really likes working with other people, doesn’t take themselves too seriously ,I think that that is the number one priority

Have you seen any large significant industry shifts that have happened over the past 10 or so years that might give a student a kind of perspective on where we were, where we are now, and where we’re going in the industry?

When I was kind of coming up in this everyone still carried around giant portfolios with their work mounted on boards that we’re showing. In this digital age, their is a proliferation of tool and programs that are available at a very low cost effective level that makes the entry point much lower now. But I also think that even though there’s a lot of people with the tools to create things, very few people are good at coming up with conceptual thoughts that fundamentally change perception. I think our our job as designers and creators is to shift paradigms and change people’s minds. There’s a lot of noise. I see a lot of beautiful things but I see very few ideas.

What about resources for students interested in design?

Books are expensive, but I still recommend books like The One Show, The Art Directors Club, Volumes, Archive Magazine, Communication Arts.  Those are all great titles for people that wanna learn more about graphic design and advertising. The Cannes Lions International Festival Creativity is really the go to place for seeing the best of the best in the industry. A lot of students refuse to buy books and exist on design blogs and I think there’s something to be said for spending time with an image and thinking about it rather than scrolling past it.

Would you have any advice for them about how to go about kind of discovering what that might be for their career.

Yeah, I think first stop putting pressure on yourself to figure it out so fast I mean,  I meet 22 year olds are absolutely paniced because they have no idea what they want to do and that’s okay. No one says it’s all gonna happen immediately. I mean I think there is a good amount that’s “Follow your heart.” If something is stimulating to you – no matter how small or insignificant it seems – behind that is probably an entire industry. If you’re interested in something it could be the tip of an iceberg and I would encourage someone to explore that even if the people around you don’t understand it.

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