Toronto & Everybody is an interview series with creatives who have worked in Toronto and in other cities. We seek out the similarities and differences between cultures, industries, and people, to see how people’s experiences abroad can help us improve and grow in our work and lives here in Toronto.
I spoke with Caitlin Wharton about her experience working as a graphic designer in Calgary and Toronto, how she runs a design studio across two provinces, and what different kinds of clients you find on the east and west sides of the country.
So to start off, tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.
I’m Caitlin Wharton, the founder and creative director at Trout + Taylor, which is a branding agency based in Toronto and Calgary.
And you have a business partner in Calgary, right?
I do. Our agency is purposefully split 50% business and 50% design, because we found that our experience with agencies is that they’re notorious for slow timelines and bad communication, so we saw that as an opportunity for us to really capitalize on having amazing timelines, amazing communication, amazing client care. So the business team is in Calgary and design is here.
How long have you been running this agency?
Trout + Taylor is three, just a baby!
And you moved to Toronto about a year ago?
Almost two actually, Halloween 2016.
It’s pretty unusual to be divided across two provinces (and so many time zones) – many agencies have multiple offices in different countries, but they don’t always operate across that border. How do you find that’s working for you guys?
Um, good. I think it would probably be a lot more difficult if we had designers in Calgary as well, but I think because it’s split across two cities and split across two departments, that makes it a lot easier. When I first moved out here we still had our design team in Calgary, and the communication time zone thing was just too difficult, so we were like, nope, too hard, move the design team here.
Tell me about why you moved here in the first place, what started this whole divided operation?
Well this is a lame story, I wish it was more interesting, but my husband got a job transfer to Toronto. Prior to moving here I’d only ever visited for a weekend. I think we just were relying on good will and chance that we were gonna love it here. Aislinn [my business partner] and I were working full time, in an office, and then we just made the call to split it up. I joined a coworking space here and just started from scratch, without ever having set foot in Toronto. So it was kind of a leap of faith to be honest.
What was your impression of the city before moving here?
There are inter-city rivalries, and I lived in Vancouver prior to living in Toronto. Vancouver hates Calgary, so we moved to Vancouver we were like “why do you hate us?!” and then when we told our friends and family that we were moving to Toronto they were like “why would you go there?!” I’ve never been a part of this – it’s mostly sports based rivalries – but when we moved to Toronto, there was this impression that everybody here was stuck up, thought they were the centre of the universe – I didn’t know what to expect before moving here. But I have been so pleasantly surprised at the warm embrace of the community and how interconnected even diverse pockets of design are. Copywriters know designers, know web designers, know developers, it really is connected here. I don’t know if it’s just the point in my career right now that I’m starting to meet those types of freelancers but I didn’t experience that in Calgary or Vancouver.
So then what’s the industry like in Calgary and Vancouver in terms of networking and scale and diversity of skill and that kind of thing?
So we’re in branding so I can only speak to that little portion of it, but I think that the entrepreneur community is strong in Calgary. So many people starting up larger scale businesses than the circles that I know in Toronto. A lot of tech, a lot of social good or innovation type businesses starting up there, and because the industry in Calgary is mostly oil and gas, geology, engineering, a lot of the branding agencies are supporting those types of industries. Vancouver I found had a lot less money – people don’t have a lot of funding when they’re starting a business – but a lot more lifestyle, so a lot of the more sexy brands are there. Tons of restaurants, bars, and a lot of people in Vancouver had side hustles, so a lot more small scale branding opportunities there. You would be a backpack designer at MEC but you would also have a lentil grain company on the side, or you would be working at head office in accounting at Lululemon, but you would also have a dog accessory line. So that was more small scale but a lot more fun. Then in Toronto what we found is that it’s kind of everything: there’s a huge tech industry here, obviously huge finance and wealth management here, and a lot more of the big players are here too. So you get experience in all these different pockets; there is that sexy restaurant and bar industry, and then you can also have one client in Rugby Canada and one person starting the dog accessory company, so it’s a little bit of everything and that keeps it fun.
Once you moved here – since you didn’t know anybody in Toronto – how did you meet people here?
I cold called people! For me what’s important is community, I need to know my design crew, so I actually did what a student would do when they’re looking for a job and I would seek out people that had amazing design portfolios and I was like “Can we meet for coffee? I just wanna be friends with you”. So I just went on blind dates with various designers, and we’re friends now! I think it is unconventional, but you almost have to be aggressive with finding friends in the same way that you’d be aggressive in finding a job.
So now that it’s been about two years, do you feel pretty comfortable here? Do you consider this city home?
I do consider it home. It feels like a cold embrace, ‘cause it’s a city with no ocean and nature, and so you’re like “what is here?” but as soon as you break into those circles, people really are amazing here, so wonderful. So we’ll stay, haha.
Would you ever move your business operations here?
Oh my god I would love to! At the same time it’s been really cool having at least two people on the ground. A lot of the big design events come through Toronto, some come through Vancouver, but almost never go through Calgary. So it’s been great to have at least [the design team] here to attend the big conferences. But it’s also great to have a different perspective and different people going to different events. Our business team goes to a ton of pitch competitions, startup events, startup networking drinks, and we go to events to be inspired.
You kind of have a wider reach that way.
Yeah for sure.
You’re right, a lot more design events do come through Toronto than the rest of Canada – do you feel that’s impacted your output and your work?
Yeah, I think from an inspiration standpoint for sure. We have a running joke with some design friends that there’s literally an event to go to every night of the week. And if you attended every event you would basically burn out from inspiration overload, and I think that’s so cool. You have the opportunity to go to one of the greatest museums if you’re feeling stuck or hit up a cool event in the evening if you’re feeling like you need inspiration. That is an invaluable tool, and we have set up a specific “inspiration fund” for our team to be like “here’s $120 a month, go to whatever inspires you” and to know that those opportunities exist in Toronto. You don’t have the same design communities and art communities in Calgary as you do in Toronto.
So when you were living out there what did you do for inspiration?
Calgary has a wonderful home base for nature retreats, so if you’re inspired by the greater world around you… that is one thing that I miss so much about being in Toronto: nature. For me, when I’m feeling stuck I know I have to go find a mountain somewhere, find some trees, and walk around in them. That was really instrumental for our business. We used to go to Canmore when we were feeling stuck, and just go on a retreat. There’s not quite the same nature here.
Yeah, I think a lot of Torontonians are envious of the west coast mountains. They’re gorgeous!
Yeah definitely, I would take pictures of the same mountains and the ocean every day on my walk to work. I’d have 365 pictures of the mountains and ocean on my phone, it’s so beautiful! And I’m not giving Calgary enough credit ‘cause I think the design community there is small but emerging. There’s new cool restaurants in Calgary that are cropping up and there’s really cool smaller agencies in Calgary that I think are doing a phenomenal job of servicing those emerging businesses. So many craft breweries in Calgary! How are there still craft breweries popping up? But there is an emerging thing happening there which is cool to be a part of.
So knowing that it’s growing, would you move back there?
Um… no. And said with so much love for the city that I was born and raised in. But, no.
Are you ready to settle down in Toronto or would you go somewhere else after this?
I would love to live in Toronto for a while. And I think the next step in the journey would be to live in Europe. I’m really inspired by Scandinavian design, and I would love to just live there for a year. I think I would come back to Toronto though.
What’s kind of the feeling overall between Calgary and Toronto, based on your experience? You said there’s a lot more nature in Calgary which makes sense, but there’s a beauty of its own kind here as well. And Toronto is obviously a lot bigger, so what would you say are the overall differences between the two?
That’s a hard question. I think the sense of Calgary is – I don’t want to say more of a community but maybe more of an obvious community? There’s really great strips in Calgary, like Inglewood is the place to be. When you go to Inglewood you know you’re going to run into everybody you know and love. The stitching of Calgary is a lot tighter in that way. And I think Toronto is a much looser net to cast over everything, and I think the beauty in that is that you get to find what interests you and you get to hang on to those pieces versus like, Calgary’s community is pretty… it is what it is.
Is there anything you would tell somebody coming from Calgary, or even Vancouver, moving to Toronto to look out for or do when they get here?
Definitely events, there are so many. Go to events, follow designers that you love. I’ve been so surprised that people are just willing to meet you for coffee, or a glass of wine. And everybody wants other people to be successful. So go to events, cold call designers, go on blind dates with people, that has been really great in my experience.
Do you find that this community is really supportive? That people look out for each other?
Yeah. I don’t know if that’s a Toronto thing, or if that’s just a design thing. In Calgary we shared an office with our biggest competitor, and we would often refer clients to each other, we’d go out for drinks with them all the time, same thing here. You’re always pushing people to each other. I think it might be a design thing, and that’s so cool to me, community over competition.
That’s definitely what I try to champion.
Yeah, and I mean I think it’s just where Trout + Taylor is in terms of our growth. But we’re also working with a lot of students, and I feel bad for students right now because it’s so competitive. It’s really hard to get your foot in the door. We didn’t work with a lot of students in Calgary so I can’t speak to the student perspective over there, but there are great art schools here, so I’m sure OCAD and George Brown attract students from all over Canada. I don’t know if I have advice for students, ‘cause I see the struggle of trying to break into the industry and the agency world here and it’s just really hard. Where possible I’ll go for coffees with students and look at the resumes and see if we can get their portfolio up to snuff, but it’s really difficult.
It’s definitely really difficult, I felt the same way when I graduated from school years ago. Part of that was not knowing where to go, which is the story behind why I started the Directory, but the other half is having the skills to get somebody’s attention, which is it’s own challenge. There are more agencies around here than I would’ve thought a few years ago, which I see now having done the research to build the Directory, but there’s even more students, and more people moving to this city. There’s definitely a lot of competition.
You’re right, and I think it’s really obvious to go and find the huge agencies, so I think you graduate with the idea that “I’m gonna go work for Blok or the huge guys”, and maybe that’s why it seems harder to break into jobs, ‘cause of course it would be harder to go with those guys. But in Calgary or Vancouver there aren’t really the big guys, they’re not really there.
You’ve hired in both cities, so in terms of how many resumes you get, is it different between Toronto and Calgary?
Yeah, I think more here. Definitely more graphic design and art students here, Calgary there’s a lot more informational design, kind of hybrid degrees, especially out of Mount Royal University; they have an amazing program for communication design. We were in that community really heavily in Calgary. And here it’s like, artists who go to design school to get a degree to be profitable.
It’s interesting that you find such a contrast between here and Calgary in terms of education.
Yeah, I think there’s also maybe a lot of self taught designers in Calgary, which are great as well ‘cause I think, if you have a degree in English for example and then you teach yourself design, it positions you in a different way than if you know acrylic versus oil painting.
What was your education in?
I have an English degree.
So you speak from experience.
Yeah, I’m self taught in graphic design. I worked in marketing, I was doing invitations for an interior design firm, and then I realized I loved graphic design. So I started going to school at ACAD, and that’s when I got a job transfer to Vancouver, so I stopped that. But I started working at Lululemon without a graphic design education, so I had a lot of experience-based learning. I actually went to school at Parson’s after I quit Lululemon, and I decided to go there because of the level of education. I took a program remotely at Parson’s while I was living in Vancouver, and actually I have one class left.
It’s an internship. And I was like “can I intern at my own company?” and they said no, you can’t. So that was about six years ago, and I haven’t finished my design degree.
You have to get that internship!
I have to get that internship! And I’ve actually been talking to my team about it, I would love to intern at my own company, I would love to get an inside perspective and be the intern of like our senior graphic designer. Teach me! So I’ll see if I can do that. But my education is very random. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way.
Yeah, I’ve known people who did English, history, biology, and ultimately came to design in their own ways as well, and they’re just as talented – you can be, I think, stronger having a background in a different field, you see connections between things differently. Having a foundation in something completely different like the sciences can be a huge advantage.
Yeah I totally agree. One of the founders of the big agencies back in Calgary has a degree in microbiology in ferns, and he says he’s so inspired by the shape of ferns! That’s so cool! And now he’s running this incredible agency. So yeah I agree, and I’ve made the plea to Aislinn my business partner, that the next hire I want to be a copywriter, and teach them design. ‘Cause I think there are gaps that are missing from a traditional art background, where people don’t really know how to write any more, and a lot of what we do is writing and messaging.
Since you had friends from Calgary and Vancouver who commented “why would you move to Toronto” when you told them your decision, what would your response to them be now that you’ve been living here for a while?
Just that there’s way more opportunity in Toronto. In a way it feels like an aspiring singer from a small town moving to Nashville to try and hit it big. There’s just more opportunity in everything, there’s cooler tennis leagues and there’s more events, and the volume is bigger. So if you were interested in a city with more energy – it’s louder here, it’s dirtier here, it’s –
It’s windier here right?
It’s way windier here! What the hell is with the wind?! That’s something I could do without. But yeah it’s just that there’s more here than there is Calgary. And I love Calgary, and if the Leafs are playing the Flames, am I gonna wear my Flames jersey? Hell yes! I’m still a Flames fan (and a Raptors fan, and a Jays fan).
What’s one thing you would tell Torontonians about Calgary? If somebody was moving there what would you say?
The ease in which you can find a community is amazing. Everybody knows everybody in that community, and that is really cool. A lot of cool things are coming out of Calgary right now. If you were to move there from Toronto, there would be a really great base to land on, and I think it would be a lot easier to meet people. You probably wouldn’t have to cold call designers like I did here. It’s so friendly.
We go back and people ask us how it’s going in Toronto, and we’re like “it’s great” and they say, “No, how’s it really?” and it’s just awesome. We love it here.
What do you think they expect you to say?
I don’t know. Maybe there is that illusion that it’s business and banking and corporate here, but I think because of that or maybe in spite of that there is also an amazing creative community here, it’s just another thriving industry here that isn’t immediately apparent.
I think there’s a natural artistic wave that moves to either Toronto or Vancouver. If you know you don’t belong in Toronto you definitely belong in Vancouver. I have friends who moved from Vancouver to Toronto and just immediately went screaming back to the west coast. I think the trends that come up the east coast are fashion, and publication, and music and art, but the trends that come up the west coast from LA are like green juice, yoga, meditation, so there are trends in Vancouver that still haven’t started in Toronto. The two cities are like fraternal twins. Both great, both beautiful, but one likes green juice and one likes tattoos.
Because of the proximity to Vancouver there are a lot of people in Calgary that are picking up on really cool trends, and that’s why there’s a really cool community building in Calgary. I remember coming home at Christmas from Vancouver one time, and somebody had just started cold pressed juice in Vancouver, and I was like “Dad I need to borrow thirty thousand dollars, we have to start a cold pressed juice company in Calgary! We could be first to market here!” And the first juice pressed juice company started in Calgary about five years ago. I think there’s a lot of really smart, really inspired entrepreneurs there that are picking up trends from all over the world, and they get to start it there. So if the fraternal twins are Vancouver and Toronto, then Calgary is the younger sibling that’s picking up on everything and has the potential to be really smart and rad and cool, and gets to be humble and friendly for now.
I would move back to Vancouver, I will say that.
What do you miss from there?
Nature, pure and simple. It’s so pretty there.
I love living in Canada. It’s been cool living in three cities, they’re very different. Every city that I’ve been to has been phenomenal, I’m so proud to be Canadian.