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Haily Zaki on Design and Digital Storytelling

MAKING IT is exploring the theme of “Women as Agents of Change,” highlighting entrepreneurs, creatives, and activists who are using their platforms to introduce new voices and ideas to their communities.

For Haily Zaki, founding and running her communications agency, Secret Agent, alongside the LA Design Festival wasn’t always the master plan. The LA Design Festival, which was supported by Squarespace this year for its 10th edition and first virtual iteration, has grown from a social experiment into an internationally recognized design event — a full time job in and of itself. Haily recently talked with Squarespace about the career experiences and personal passion that led her to pursue both ventures, the power of working with and learning from other women, and the importance of digital storytelling in an increasingly virtual world.

SQUARESPACE: You have over 15 years of experience in communications and brand storytelling. What inspired you to choose this career path, and has it always been linear?  

Haily Zaki: Nothing linear here! There was a necessary amount of trial and error involved in finding this career path. I'd worked in international relations, marketing, community relations, and PR before starting Secret Agent and the LA Design Festival, and all of that varied experience I think was ultimately to my advantage. The most gratifying part about our line of work is that we get to work with so many different creative people and brands, and we get to tell their stories.

SQSP: You founded the LA Design Festival in 2011 and continue to run it as it's grown dramatically in scale. How has your vision for the festival, and your approach to its execution, evolved over time?

HZ: To be honest, I don't think there was really a vision when we started out. It was all more of a social experiment and we started out basically as an aggregator of pre-existing happenings.  But as the Festival matured and we listened to what the design community wanted and needed, we took a much more curatorial approach. The story of the LA Design Festival is not quite linear either, and we are aware that the LA Design Festival is unlike other design weeks or festivals out there. The LA Design Festival is reflective of our city's diverse design culture, and we're proud of that.

SQSP: The pandemic has reshaped events all around the world. What were your key takeaways from running the festival virtually this year? 

HZ: Personally, I found it challenging because my favorite part about the Festival is connecting with people. Seeing the streets of DTLA filled with people, installations, human interaction. Overall, the silver lining of having a virtual event was that it broadened our reach. We had people tuning in from around the world, speakers who could participate from other cities. By not being locked into the physical, and by generating so much great digital content, we are going to stretch the Festival beyond its actual dates. It was challenging to switch to a virtual format, but if this is the future, which it most likely will be for a bit longer, then we're embracing it.

SQSP: Your communications agency, Secret Agent, is staffed by all women. How has building community with other women influenced your personal and professional journey?  

HZ: It's absolutely amazing working with a team of strong, intuitive, skilled women. I think since our work is never formulaic, it's been imperative to have a team that is highly adaptable, supportive, and nimble. We check our egos at the door and still have fun, which is key.  Managing a team and keeping our company culture alive while we're all working remotely is definitely challenging, but we're figuring it out. Cultivating our own distinct Secret Agent culture has been fun.

SQSP: What advice do you have for women who are pivoting careers, or pursuing passion projects and business goals outside of their primary jobs? 

HZ: I think one of the most important things to keep in mind when pursuing a passion project or starting a new business or brand is focus. There are a lot of good ideas out there, but translating an idea into a business takes focus, perseverance and clarity. (And a fair amount of blood, sweat, tears, and wine.)

SQSP: How should women entrepreneurs and creatives think about folding design and storytelling into their online presence?  

HZ: There is so much power in communication. Given that we're living in an increasingly digital era, tools like Squarespace that help you hone your public image, are so key in controlling your own narrative.  We live so much of our lives online now that storytelling through digital means should be the first step in any brand's strategy.

Ready to bring your creative ideas to life? Start with a Squarespace template.

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