Creative Crushin': Katrina McHugh, the Designer Who Will Change the Way You Look at Pop Songs

What happens when you combine a love of music with a keen design eye, love of infographics, and visual sense of humor? One of my favorite art series on the internet, that’s what. Katrina McHugh’s 100 Days of Lyrical Natural Sciences is a collection of visuals I’ve been following since she kicked it off as part of #The100DayProject in 2015, and now it’s a BOOK! Aptly titled Pop Charts, this tiny tome of 100 iconic song lyrics visualized is exactly what your coffee table needs.

Now, how about the brilliant woman behind this series? Katrina McHugh, longtime friend of Brit + Co, who just happens to live two blocks up the street from me, is an artist, designer, founder, and general badass, and I can't wait to share her story with you.

Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner + CCO of Brit + Co, pleased to bring you this week’s edition of Creative Crushin’! Read on to learn all about McHugh’s creative practice, how she started her own design firm, and what inspired her to create this beautiful series of diagrams.

Brit + Co: First, the basics. Where are you from? Big or small family? What did you study in college? Did you always know that you wanted to be a professional designer + artist?

Katrina McHugh: I was born here in San Francisco and grew up in Santa Rosa as the oldest of three kids. In high school, I always found myself gravitating towards art class, which eventually lead to studying book arts at the University of Santa Barbara College of Creative Studies. I always knew I wanted to work in a creative field but I wasn’t 100 percent sure what that would end up looking like.

B+C: Before you founded Flight Design Co., what did your career path look like?

KM: After I graduated college, I took the first job that came my way (I was hellbent on moving to the city ASAP) and randomly ended up working in the travel industry. It was a blast, and I got to go to places I never could have gone on my own, but at a certain point I stopped and thought “wait... but I wanted to be a graphic designer!” I went back to the drawing board and got an unpaid internship at Dauphine Press, a letterpress company up in Petaluma, California. I ended up working there for seven more years while slowly moving from being an intern sweeping the press room floor to becoming a graphic designer to eventually the art director. I met and learned from some amazing people there (one of whom I am especially lucky to still be working work with at my design studio Flight Design Co.!) All in all it was an invaluable experience and it gave me huge insights into running a small business.

B+C: What led you to go out on your own and start a design studio? Were you able to dive in right away or did you start it on the side? If the latter, what was the turning point like when you realized it could be a full-time thing?

KM: I always had an inkling that I’d like to work for myself, but I was hesitant to just strike out on my own (especially after seeing firsthand all that goes into running a small creative company). I started partnering with my dear friend, and Flight Design Co. co-founder, Ariana, on some branding side-jobs. She was working as a strategist at the time and we decided to try to combine forces to see if we could bring thoughtful branding packages to small clients who were just starting out. Eventually, I got up the courage to ask my employer if I could go down to part-time to focus on these projects bit more. They said YES! That was a big learning point for me. Even if you think it might not be possible, ask anyway. It turned out that they were downsizing, and it ended up being great timing to make the leap.

B+C: What inspires you? Why do you love to make things?

KM: Gah, this question is always hard to answer because inspiration comes from so many places and I’ve always loved to make things. I tend to find inspiration in old books, libraries, music and often feel the most connection in those random moments of personal serendipity. Like hearing just the right song lyrics or reading just the right words for a given moment. That’s usually when I find myself wanting to drop what I’m doing to make something.

B+C: What does your creative practice look like on the daily/weekly/monthly? How often do you find time to work on creative pursuits outside of your job?

KM: I’d love to say “every morning I immediately wake up and crank out something creative” — ha! But the truth is that it is an absolute ebb and flow. I am lucky in the sense that there is a ton of creativity that goes into running a business. As far as my personal work goes, a lot of what I consider “creativity” is happening in smaller ways. Writing in my journal, going back through photos I might later want to collage, making doodles of ideas in my sketchbook, researching ideas. I would say it’s only once every few weeks that I’m really sitting down and getting in the ZONE to jam through a personal creative project. Otherwise, it’s happening in bits and pieces. But that’s all part of the process for me.

B+C: Had you ever participated in the 100 Days Project or any other community creative challenges before? How did this affect your creative flow?

KM: No, but I am a big fan! Before I even knew about the 100 Day Project I had this feeling that something was missing. Part of the skill of being a graphic designer is getting really good at solving creative problems for clients. Essentially, that can mean getting comfortable doing lots of different things and having lots of different voices or styles. After years and years of that, I was feeling like I had creative skills, but no real personal voice. Who was I, Katrina McHugh, the creative person, and what did I have to say? I didn’t know. And honestly, I’m always working on that. I read Elle Luna’s piece on The Crossroads of Should and Must and it was very powerful to me. I remember sitting down and thinking “what MUST I do?” What did I love to do as a kid? What do I get giddy just thinking about? What did I almost feel guilty doing because I loved it so much? I wanted more of that in my life. For me, the big A-HA that came while participating was that not everything has to be a masterpiece. You can make something small and share it. Then make something small again and share it again. It is a process of discovery.

B+C: Now, the reason we’re all here, POP CHARTS! Or the art series formerly known as Lyrical Natural Sciences. I was instantly smitten with this the moment I saw it on your Instagram. How did you come up with this series?

KM: Thank you! When trying to choose a theme for the project, I decided to treat myself like a client and got out my sketchbook. I started making lists of things that made me happy and things came together from here.

  • What was I doodling a lot of in the margins of other projects? Flowers, nature, botanical, and natural science type stuff.
  • What was I taking photos of? Nature again.
  • What was my most recent obsession? A series of vintage encyclopedias from my grandfather. I loved the illustrations.
  • What part of the day made me feel least like I was “working”? When I was looking for and listening to new music. Sharing it with friends.
  • What was feeling beautiful or meaningful to me? Poetry, moments of serendipity, dreams, secret messages, mysterious emotions I can’t explain.

B+C: I’ve seen this style reflected elsewhere in your work. Tell us more about this scientific style of visually unpacking songs, themes, things.

KM: Well, first of all, outside of its general aesthetic, I can’t say that my work is especially scientific. There are amazing designers out there that take great care to create useful and truthful visualizations and, while I admire them greatly, that isn’t what I do. I like playing. With words. With ways of looking at things. With emotional themes. I like thinking visually but that doesn’t mean the work is particularly logical. I like creating work that has a little mystery or feels like a puzzle to solve. My favorite part is the shared connection with other people who see it and think, “Oh, I know that song!”

B+C: Okay, given that you’re a music aficionado and seem to share my affinity for the ‘90s, what’s on your studio playlist at the moment?

KM: My playlist is a bit manic and changes constantly. At this very moment, it’s J. Cole, Frank Ocean, Lauryn Hill, Charlotte Day Wilson, Ibeyi, and Sade.

Favorite Quote: “It's a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” – Joel Cohen


Trivia About You: I wore an eyepatch as a kid.


Go-to Karaoke Song: "One More Try," by George Michael


Favorite Art Tool: Wacom tablet! Also my Polaroid camera.


Late Night Snack: Toast with butter. Maybe jam if I’m feeling fancy.


Currently Reading: Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

B+C: What other art/design books have most recently been added to your bookshelf/coffee table/nightstand?

KM: It Chooses You by Miranda July / Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light / Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton.

B+C: Who are some of your favorite artists + designers our readers should know about?

KM: This list could go on and on but a few that come to mind immediately are: Carissa Potter Carlson, Johanna Goodman, Lindsay Stripling, Meghan Bogden Shimek, and Jill De Haan

B+C: Back to your creative practice. When you’re feeling burnt out, how do you reset?

KM: Trips to museums, galleries or the library. Getting off of my computer and out into nature.

B+C: Finally, what advice do you have for artists and creatives who want to start a side project, but are struggling to take the leap?

KM: I find that it’s easiest to start with setting simple parameters. Personally, I’m much more creative when I have fewer options to choose from. What type of work gives you energy? What do you need more of in your life? When it’s the right project, and the right time, I think the drive to complete and share it will be there. That said, if you start something and it doesn’t feel right, you can always change your mind and move on. Trial and error is all part of the creative process! Just take the leap and start and be open to wherever it leads you.

B+C: Anything else?

KM: Yes! After years of working solo or in a small studio behind my computer, my biggest goal lately has been to find seek out creative community and connect with folks more directly. I’m currently hand addressing and mailing out FREE individual art print postcards from the series for a limited time. Sign up here if you’d like a little fun gift in the (snail) mail!

You can buy your own copy of Pop Charts here and follow all things Katrina McHugh at @katrinamchugh on Instagram. We can't wait to see what future projects this creative visionary has up her sleeve!

Be sure to check back on our Creative Crushin' series for stories of artists, designers, and entrepreneurs chasing their dreams. And if you have a creative crush you want to share, let us know @BritandCo.

Author: Anjelika Temple (Photos courtesy of Katrina McHugh, Monica Semergiu, Steven Peterman; Design by Sarah Tate)

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