how maia mcdonald smith reset her life.
by victoria comment


how maia mcdonald smith reset her life | sfgirlbybay

maia mcdonald smith, art director at rue magazine.

next up in my series on women who have successfully abandoned somewhat traditional jobs in favor of careers that are much more creatively challenging: maia mcdonald smith, freelance graphic designer, art director at rue magazine and blogger extraordinaire at design conundrum. i’ve been invited by Smartwater to share inspiring stories from women like maia who changed careers and might inspire you to find your dream job (or perhaps create one of your own!).

With an inspiring and impressive 1.8 million Pinterest followers and design experience at Shopbop and Williams-SonomaMaia found her creative stride as the art director at Rue, an online lifestyle and design magazine where she’s the in-house expert at finding and sharing hidden gems, from good food to brilliant boutiques like those around oakland, which she now calls home after moving west from viroqua, wisconsin. maia is also a new mom, and juggles her various freelance endeavors with caring for eight-month-old ingrid.

how maia mcdonald smith reset her life | sfgirlbybay

i met up with maia in old oakland, the newly revitalized neighborhood that she calls home. it’s booming with inspirational spaces and entrepreneurial stores and galleries, many of which started as a result of their temporary pop-up shops. i’d never visited before, but maia is the resident pro and proved to be the perfect guide.

What profession were you working at before leaving to start at Rue?
I worked most recently as a graphic designer at Williams-Sonoma. Before that I spent four years as a designer at Shopbop.

how maia mcdonald smith reset her life | sfgirlbybay

Were there specific challenges about your former position that just didn’t work for you anymore?
The biggest change was moving from an in-house corporate environment to freelancing from home. (Technically I work now as a freelance creative director/designer /online curator.) Even though Rue is my main client, I work for myself on numerous projects, which is a huge change. I became really sick of the corporate world – it always seemed like everything had to take forever and be run up the chain of command before getting approved. So it was really hard to stay creatively motivated. Now I have more control over not only my projects, but who I work for, and I love working with smaller teams like rue because everyone is really inspired and feels like their ideas can be heard.

how maia mcdonald smith reset her life | sfgirlbybay

Was your new career path motivated by a particular creative need or personal goal you wanted to fulfill?
It had always been a dream of mine to work from home for a variety of reasons. But creatively, as an introvert, I felt like the office environment was zapping a lot of my energy instead of nurturing it.

How has starting a family affected your day-to-day schedule?
I always knew I wanted to start a family, which was one of the reasons I wanted to move towards working from home more. I thought I was set up pretty good, but my pregnancy totally threw me for a loop. I was so sick I had to turn down projects and clients because I couldn’t even sit at my desk. It was really stressful. But that taught me when it comes to mixing work with babies you have to be really flexible. Right now I’m technically on maternity leave but I’ve started working a little. I’ve found it much easier to get stuff done with a newborn than when I was pregnant. Luckily my husband helps out a lot – he’s a student/stay-at-home dad, so both of our schedules are really malleable, which works well with a baby since she doesn’t understand the concept of 9 to 5.

how maia mcdonald smith reset her life | sfgirlbybay

How has technology and social media made your job easier (or challenged you in some way)?
Technology has allowed me to do what I do from home, and social media connects me with so many people, whether it be new clients or someone who really inspires me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. On the flip side, it’s very distracting! Especially now with Ingrid, I just want to send out Instagram photos of her all day!

How did you attract so many Pinterest followers? Did that impact the career opportunities that came your way?
I was lucky to be on Pinterest very early, back when their logo was blue and they had a dropdown menu of suggested followers. Pinterest featured me as one of their top users in a couple categories. That helped me gain a lot of followers. Also, it was a site that I instantly loved using, so I was always a very consistent pinner, which helps. And I’d also like to think my taste has something to do with it.

how maia mcdonald smith reset her life | sfgirlbybay

What advice would you give to a person wanting to change career paths?
Making a big career change is very similar to starting a family. You can plan and plan and never feel quite ready. So when it comes down to it, you just have to take the leap and make it work.

From your experiences, what are the top three things someone should consider before changing careers or starting their own business?
• Taxes – get a good accountant.
• Insurance – be sure you and your family are covered.
• Consider what sort of work environment you think you’d thrive in, which is also related to who you want to work with.

What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve found about your new career?
All the amazing people I’ve been able meet, and that I can work from bed if I want to!

how maia mcdonald smith reset her life | sfgirlbybay
• photography by cindy loughridge for sfgirlbybay.

this story is brought to you by vapor-distilled smartwater, who found unique inspiration for their water by looking up to the sky. we hope the change in perspective this piece offers will help inspire you.

32 responses to “how maia mcdonald smith reset her life.”

  1. “making a big career change is very similar to starting a family. you can plan and plan and never feel quite ready. so when it comes down to it, you just have to take the leap and make it work.”

    Love, love, love. This hits so close to home for me right now, so thank you for the nudge :)

  2. I’ve admired Maia from Denver for a long time! Love her knack for uncovering cool finds, her style, her wok at rue, and now THAT BABY! Perfect person to feature!

  3. I would like to learn the particulars (not just “save money” or “have a support system in place in case something goes wrong”) about how to make a “reset” financially feasible, particularly when you don’t have a partner/husband. Thanks.

    • hi carlene,

      i am unmarried & partnerless and have been for some time now, but i think saving money was what actually gave me the courage in the end to finally take the leap to full-time freelance. i worked extremely hard, and for long hours, doing both my full-time job in advertising and the blog for 2 years with the goal in mind that eventually i would be able to quit my full time position and just run the blog. i worked on the blog at night, after my regular job, and on weekends which was tiring, but i also loved doing the blog, so it didn’t feel like work. i quit TV, and just focused hard on what i was trying to create. i also ran an etsy shop and sold prints, profits of which all went into savings, too. i took workshops on photoshop, and attended conferences on blogging, and spoke with bloggers i admired for advice – in other words, i just did double-time until i felt comfortable enough, with enough savings in the bank (about 9 months worth of rent payments) to take the leap and leave my job. i’ve never been great in the finance dept, and don’t know how to tell you much more than ‘put it in the bank’ – sorry.

      it’s difficult to be sure when there’s not a partner to rely on for a cushion, or emotional support, so i suppose it has to be a labor of love. i also knew, that i had skills (in the advertising industry) that if all failed i could fall back on. i could always go back to work if need be. in our economy now, i realize that’s not always the case, but in 2008 i was able to do that. i think i always know my family would never let me go hungry, which is something i am very grateful for. surrounding yourself with the kinds of people who encourage you and perhaps share similar goals can be motivating, and a great support system too.

      i hope this helps a bit! best wishes! :)

    • I would like to 2nd everything Victoria said in response to your question because although I am married and my husband is great emotional support, as a student and now a stay-at-home dad he does not provide anything financially. I also worked for years at my daytime job while working on my blog and Pinterest and other freelance design jobs. I didn’t quit my day job until I felt I had a comfortable amount of savings because I never had someone else’s income to fall back on. So I do think having some savings is key. As for other things that I found very helpful other than saving. Maintaining good working relationships and building new ones was a good way for me to feel like I had a network that supported me professional and I could reach out to whether for advice or collaborate with or to find additional work. I hope that helps! :)

  4. This post is so great. I’m a longtime SFGirlbyBay reader, and recently became an admirer of Design Conundrum and adorable Ingrid (congrats!). But this post hits so much with me right now – I recently lept out of 9-5 Advertising Land and into Freelance/Blogging/Interior Design Land. Although it was scary as heck (and still is), the success of women like the two of you is what motivates me to keep at it and chase the life I really want to be living. Thank you for sharing, with honesty, what this transition gives and takes. And for your encouragement to just go for it! The best! xo

  5. Lovely advice. I can relate to the having a new baby and trying to juggle career thing…I have a new 7 wk old…and it has been fun but tricky, especially when he wants to skip nap-time a.k.a work-time for me. Thanks for the introduction to Maia:)

  6. Lovely feature, Victoria! I grew up not far from Viroqua, Wisconsin (LaCrosse!) so it’s especially exciting to see someone from “home” thriving in a creative field. Congrats, Maia! You’re an inspiration.

  7. so inspiring and so tenacious.
    when you start a family it is so easy to just ‘give up’ on your dreams or aspirations and ‘settle’ for this ‘new’ life. I admire anyone who can juggle family life and have a successful career as it is not easy. I had to make changes to accommodate my 2 children and for a while i was in a bit of a rut but in time if you remain strong you can carve out your new route which is what I am trying to do now and I think the example we set our children in doing so will be invaluable.

    love this interview :)

  8. Thanks, Victoria and Maia for this. I have always had the dream of being really awesome at all the design work I do (and eventually going out on my own) and also being really awesome at having a kid. Sometimes, especially since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve felt like that’s impossible. I really appreciate the thoughtful, honest look at the hard work, but also the feasibility of doing both.

  9. Great series Victoria! Loved learning more about Maia. Even though I took the leap from private practice psychologist to full time fashion designer nearly 3 years ago it is always a boost to read how others have made the change. It can be hard out here and knowing none of us are alone in this keeps spirits high on the days when the going gets tough. Can’t wait to read the next post.

  10. Great interview, very inspiring. This is the best comment: “making a big career change is very similar to starting a family. you can plan and plan and never feel quite ready. so when it comes down to it, you just have to take the leap and make it work,” – that tipping point between it all playing out or never even getting started!

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