Dava Guthmiller is founder and chief creative officer of San Francisco-based Noise 13, a women-led strategy and design firm with unparalleled expertise in turning brands into lifestyles—from food and beverage to B2B tech—including Uber, Tile, Planet, Twitter, Pacific Catch, World Wrapps and Amber & Ash.
Dava is also founder of Revel and Rouse, a newly launched women-focused cannabis lifestyle site; and co-founder of In/Visible Talks, a year-round series of small-scale creative salons that culminates in a wildly inspiring summit on the creative process with top global designers and artists.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up with entrepreneurial parents had a profound effect. My dad was a mechanic who started a classic automotive repair shop, where my mom managed the accounting and operations side. From a young age I was in the business, going to swap meets, washing car parts, doing bookkeeping, and developing an insatiable love for classic cars—and design! Observing my parents, I learned the value of customer relationships in keeping long-term clients and gaining the trust of new ones. I also learned the importance of community as my parents genuinely cared for their employees and treated them like family—from giving great benefits and salaries to creating an open and connected culture.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Noise 13?
My first full-time design job laid a strong foundation. As one of the company’s first employees, I was given enormous responsibility from the start—doing client presentations and managing other designers—rather than being treated like a junior designer (which I was). I learned an enormous amount in building and running creative teams and the importance of trust between employee and employer…and what happens when the trust is gone. This keeps me fully transparent with my own team and why I make regular personal check-ins an office must at Noise 13.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Noise 13?
Noise 13 is now 18 years strong, built from the ground-up with passion and hard work. Highlights include bringing on my first paid employees; the first time we hit one million in sales; and landing our first winery client, Mondavi, which was a personal milestone since it was wine branding that made me fall in love with graphic design and inspired me to go to design school.
The biggest challenge (that persists) is learning to say “no” more often. No to clients who are not the right fit, or even just no to meetings that I don’t need to attend. My “I can do it all” nature pops up more than it should. I have an amazing team and need to delegate more.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
We’re living in a time where women are marching and speaking up more. But designers, especially women, tend to be apologetic, or shy about their skills and abilities. If you have an opinion about how to solve a challenge, do not wait for someone else to sell your ideas. Learn how to clearly present your ideas verbally (not just visually) and you will vastly increase your chances of success.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
Last year, we had a client stop paying mid-project, eventually involving attorneys and the court. It was heartbreaking, but one of the greatest lessons I learned was the importance of standing up and championing for my team. The work we create and service we provide is invaluable. My team needs to know that I always have their backs—they’re the reason my company exists today.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
While I’m not always the best at work/life balance, I always make time for meditating, cooking for friends, and spending most mornings with my husband before the workday rush. I also find that getting out of the office each day for a walk, or making time for art—whether a quick stroll in a gallery or an hour at the museum helps my mind back into the creative space.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Since Noise 13’s office is women-led, we don’t have the standard workplace issues. But in general, there’s still a huge issue with workday flexibility, especially for mothers. Women run most households, from home operations to childcare. Not all of that can be done after work or on weekends. It’s especially difficult for new moms wanting to enter back into the workplace. The lack of or cost of childcare, flexibility of hours, and other factors lead to low rates of women in senior and executive positions. As open and flexible as we are at Noise 13, we have still lost amazing team members to commute and school schedules. This is something we are continuing to work on.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Wow, where would I be without mentors! It’s crucial to have someone to motivate you when you’re in a low space, and lift you higher when things are great. Each mentor I’ve had has been a combination of inspiration, support, sounding board, and sometimes needed kick-in-the-ass. Since I run Noise 13 by myself, mentors have been essential to my success. I currently have two who have been invaluable in delivering an outside view of work challenges and personal motivation.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
At the top of my insanely long list is Michelle Obama, and closer to home, Maria Giudice, vice president of experience design at Autodesk. Both these women lead with their whole hearts, provide inspiration and support for all those around them, and are unapologetic in their style and opinions.
What do you want Noise 13 to accomplish in the next year?
I’m excited to take Noise 13 to the next level by expanding our creative team; working with more amazing clients; and growing our latest venture, In/Visible Talks, a year-round series of small-scale creative salons that culminates in a one-day design conference on the creative process. Launched with renowned artist/creative director Arianna Orland, our goal is to create a place where designers and artists of all mediums can refuel creative reserves; stay inspired; and ultimately mentor each other through the real, raw stories about craft and practice.