Designing with Giraffes: Interview with Kirsten Ufer, Creative Director for the Houston Zoo

By: Katherine Humphreys | Faculty, Graphic & Digital Design, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh—Online Division

February 2, 2018

“Say ‘yes’ to opportunities that come along - even if you don't know how to do them - that's how you learn! And also how doors continue to open for you.” - Kirsten Ufer

When you take a break at work, do you hand feed giraffes their lunch? Do you get to play with parrots? Do you stretch with seals? This sounds like a job for a zoo keeper, right? Well, it is also the job of Creative Director, Kirsten Ufer! Could you imagine doing this job for a living? Kirsten explains how.

What is your title? 

Creative Director, Houston Zoo

What do you do every day?

I manage the graphics department at the Houston Zoo and oversee the creative on all of the projects.

How many people are in your department?

Four designers, plus myself.


What kind of projects do you work on?

We support the graphics needs of all 32 different departments at the Zoo, so we work on quite a wide variety of projects. From external marketing and advertising, to event graphics, annual reports and publications, park signage, and souvenir items. Pretty much any visual communication needs the Zoo might have!

Do you get to interact with the animals?

All the time! Our office is on the Zoo grounds, so it's easy to walk around and visit the animals when we have time.

How did you get this amazing job?

My first job out of school was at the Children's Museum of Houston. There I learned to create both event and marketing graphics, as well as exhibit graphics. Little did I know, that is quite a unique niche area of design. Many years later when I saw the Zoo job advertised, it fit my exact skill-set—event and exhibit design—so it was just a perfect fit!

What's your favorite animal?

I love the elephants, especially the babies. They are hilarious, just like little kids. Not too long ago we built a large pool in their exhibit area, and the younger elephants love to splash around dunking each other. It's so funny to watch.


What's been your most favorite project, ever?

One of the most meaningful projects I directed was a collaboration with our conservation team. They work with and support animal conservation groups all over the world.

So for their partner, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), they asked our graphics team to help redesign some signs placed along the beaches in Galveston, TX (a town about an hour from Houston). These signs direct beach goers what to do if they come across a stranded or injured turtle. The government originally designed the signs and, as you can imagine, they were not the best things to look at. There was no visual hierarchy and there were about 1,000 partner logos included, as well as three languages on the small sign. It was in definite need of an overhaul!
So we completely revamped the signs and, after they were completed, NOAA gave us a tour of their facilities as a thank you. While we were there, a truck pulled up with a HUGE 250 lb. turtle in the flat bed. The turtle looked to be in very bad shape. 

But almost a year later, NOAA and the zoo had completely rehabilitated the turtle and released her back into the ocean, which our team got to be a part of. We found out later that the turtle was rescued because someone saw one of our signs on the beach and called the number! So, it was a full circle moment of realizing that our design, quite literally, saved this animal's life!


If a student wanted to be in your shoes some day, what would you suggest they learn? 

Working at a city attraction like a zoo or museum usually means doing a little bit of everything! So my advice would be to try as many types of design as possible. Say 'yes' to opportunities that come along, even if you don't know how to do them, that's how you learn! And also how doors continue to open for you.

Thank you, Kirsten!

*All photos provided by Kirsten Ufer


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By: Katherine Humphreys | Faculty, Graphic & Digital Design, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh—Online Division

February 2, 2018