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Life & Work with Dena Verdesca

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dena Verdesca.

Hi Dena, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
My path to design wasn’t a straight one. I studied journalism and writing in college. In my junior year, I interned on Capitol Hill for my state senator. After graduation, I moved to Washington, DC thinking I would continue my work in politics, but my first job was in communications for a non-profit association.

After writing and designing newsletters, I was promoted to something less creative and wanted to get back to something more visual. I went in on the weekends and taught myself design software and surprised them with a finished marketing piece that the company needed. They loved it and they gave me a shot as the designer for their in-house magazine. With a bit of that experience under my belt, I was convinced that I was ready to move to New York. I wasn’t actually ready, but the belief was enough to get me there!

The first magazine I worked for was Young Miss (YM), and I hired illustrators to draw “teenage most embarrassing moments.” There was usually a girl’s first tampon falling out of a purse or pimples before a date. I sat next to the beauty department and I helped an editor by being a thesaurus for makeup colors. I could describe pinks endlessly… coral, raspberry, peach blossom; it was a lot of fun. I spent a number of years at Men’s Health. I also spent time at Conde Nast working at Glamour and at Hearst with Redbook.

I would say my “highlight” had to be working at O, the Oprah magazine. I went from designing strong and sleek – think black and red bold, sans serif type – at a men’s magazine, to using delicate little thin stars and rainbows of colors. I’m a classic designer. I tend to do a very clean look with square photos in a tight grid and nothing overlapping. But there is a time and place for everything, so bring on the script typeface at an angle—we can make it work.

I’d been living in NY for almost 15 years, working late hours, living in a small apartment. I wanted a house, a dog, a garden and beautiful skies. I chose Durham after city shopping with a very specific checklist: I wanted a town with an entrepreneurial spirit, a welcoming art scene, green space, an emphasis on sustainability, and amazing food! I feel crazy lucky to have found all that here. Durham has such great energy and a pioneer spirit. 

I thought the best way to connect to my new community was to start volunteering, and I’ve met terrific people and grown great friendships from it. I started walking dogs at the Animal Protection Society and have gotten very involved there. I train dog-walking volunteers, I’m part of the social media team, and have worked on many of their events. I’m able to bring my design skills to the table, and I work in tandem with a fantastic photographer, Ashley Sherrow of Assorted Poppies Photo.

Ashley and I collaborated on the Walk for the Animals promotions over the summer and the campaign we created was fun and eye-catching. Combining two of my passions—design and making a difference where it’s needed—has been incredibly rewarding.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
When I moved to New York with my starry-eyed optimism, an HR person at a large publishing company said to me, “We only take people from the top three design schools.” She had seen my resume; I didn’t even study design! But, fast forward and I saw her in the elevator pretty often after I got a job there. I’m stubborn, so I always take obstacles as a chance to redirect and potentially grow. And along the way, I always work to further refine my craft.

Because I hadn’t studied design traditionally, I had mentors who pushed me to go to the School of Visual Arts and study typography. While working in magazines, I was just a sponge, and loved being around talented creatives. I learned a lot about design by watching other people who are amazing at it.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
When designing a magazine, you have just a moment to catch the reader’s attention. The text of the story could be brilliant, but it’s the image and the headline that is going to bring them in. The design makes all the difference, and once you’ve sharpened that skill you can use it anywhere. In advertising, in development, in book design—the thing most needed is to quickly grab the audience and pull them in.

I approach design as visually organizing information. I want to tell the client’s story. What’s their style? Are we creating an identity? Who is the audience? This informs things like point size – not too small for older eyes. Are they affluent? If so, we can use white space and a quiet, smaller typeface. For busy moms, for kids, you have to go louder and brighter. You need to know the tone. What kind of noise am I allowed to make in this space?

I’m also a translator of sorts. I need to learn the client’s story before I can help them express it visually.

I still work designing print. I work on non-profit annual reports and books, but I also work with a start-up craft cidery from New York. I’ve done all of their packaging and we now distribute in six states. Every flavor has a unique look. I have several other food label and packaging clients, and I also work with small businesses such as a magnolia farm, and an urn company that creates beautiful wooden inlay boxes. Sometimes people come to me with a logo and not much else and we create all of their collateral.

I have also created business identities from the logo all the way to the product photoshoot. I really enjoy all of my projects; each one is a puzzle to solve—What do they say? Love your job and you’ll never have to work a day!

What makes you happy?
I don’t think I could touch on happiness without mentioning flowers. My garden has taken off, and during the spring and summer I share countless bouquets with friends and neighbors!

When I am painting or creating textiles, the designs are always based on flowers, leaves, and nature. 

During COVID, I adopted a bonded pair of adult german shepherd mixes, they are 5 and 9 years old. Their names are Rascal and Remington and they’re so funny and sweet. We go on lots of long walks and they keep me laughing with their ridiculous antics. So I got the garden and the dogs.

What do you want people to know?
The first step to design is listening.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Portraits of Dena Verdesca by Ashley Sherrow/Assorted Poppies Photography

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