Design and the Art of Mentorship — A Conversation with Ruba Abu-Nimah

Text by Samantha Goretski
Photos by Julien Boudet

Text by Samantha Goretski
Photos by Julien Boudet

Ruba Abu-Nimah is currently the creative director at Revlon—with Bobbi Brown, Shiseido, and Pat McGrath also a part of her beauty brand roster. A name not just synonymous with makeup, Ruba has been linked to the pages of editorial with positions at publishing powerhouses, ELLE and French Glamour, and has been tapped by fashion houses and brands such as Phillip Lim, Tiffany & Co., Steidl Publishing, and Nike for her creative and brand image expertise.


I initially became familiar with Ruba Abu-Nimah through a shared aesthetic sensibility. I was lured into Ruba’s salacious and expertly curated social media feed, which serves as an educational deep-dive into visual stimulation. If you possess the slightest bit of interest in the art, fashion, or beauty industries, then you could easily find yourself perusing her selection of juxtaposed images, until your thumbs reach their scrolling threshold. A creative director by trade, her visual interests, and appetite are so intrinsically a part of her being, and, inherently, her work.

Her social platform is just one of Ruba’s many outlets in documenting and exploring creative inspiration. Creative types like Ruba tend to draw imaginative ideas from the awfully mundane to the supremely interesting. “You know, I am obsessed with the most obscure design related bullshit as I am the biggest, trendiest things that are popular right now. You know, the ‘it’ shit! To some degree, I was born with these urges, I was fascinated with the printed page, I was fascinated with the way typography spoke to me. Typography is an incredibly emotional thing and most people don’t think of it that way,” Ruba explained to me. “I am obsessed with the way two things come together in a two-dimensional space. I went to art school and learned the craft, because all I ever wanted to be in my life was a graphic designer. I wanted to sit in a room and create beautiful images, beautiful pages, beautiful books and, for me, craft is key.”

Throughout my conversation with Ruba, she would reiterate this notion of craft and the importance of applied study and research, this perpetual desire to continuously learn and lead by example. This was both refreshing and motivating to hear from someone at this level of their career. Her resume can appropriately be described as intimidatingly accomplished.

Ruba began her career in magazine publishing at ELLE Paris after graduating from the Parsons School of Design in the late ‘80s, and was a member of the founding design team at French Glamour. In May of 2017, Ruba returned to (American) ELLE, hired to be the magazine’s creative director and the first female to be anointed this position.

In addition to her impact on the world of publishing, Ruba has been a design and advertising force within the realm of beauty. Prior to returning to ELLE in 2017, Ruba invested nine years at Bobbi Brown Cosmetics (Estee Lauder) and Shiseido, leading creative efforts at both brands.

I went to art school and learned the craft, because all I ever wanted to be in my life was a graphic designer. I wanted to sit in a room and create beautiful images, beautiful pages, beautiful books and, for me, craft is key.

Her foray into the beauty industry was an example of advertorial marvel but, also, of happenstance. Ruba concocted the brand imagery and campaign for Jennifer Lopez’s first fragrance product, GLOW, Ruba recounted this process in a way that exemplifies her instinctive and raw understanding of what makes for authentic marketing. “An ad agency was a little stumped in terms of what to do with her and had asked me to be involved. I was invited into a room where I saw loads of inspiration and tear images, and it was all geared towards hip-hop and street because she was dating Diddy at the time. It was either Lopez or her team that kept rejecting the various rounds of concepts, so I went home and really considered what is most exciting, and what about Jennifer Lopez serves as a muse. And really, it came down to her body. Also, because the fragrance was called GLOW, I felt women most glow when they’re naked. I don’t necessarily credit myself for this, I just looked at the ingredients. Just google the woman, and I mean, what are we talking about here?!”

As Ruba spoke more about truly identifying what makes for a good campaign—understanding the key ingredients and stripping something down to its most central essence—she emphasized the importance of having a visual library that provides her with a constant source of referential material when brainstorming design concepts. “I have a lot of reference books at home, I’ve been collecting books since my art school days and from when I was a teenager. There is one book called Mirror of Venus that I really love, every art director has it on their bookshelf today. It was done by famed photographer Wingate Paine, and Françoise Sagan had written the copy for it. Mirror of Venus was a book of nudes and the first of its kind, although tame—as this book was published in the 1960s—and a sort of passion project for Paine. I pulled Venus off my shelf and knew that within its pages I would find the image that so perfectly illustrated what I had envisioned for Jennifer’s GLOW campaign. I photo-copied that image, taped it up on the wall of that agency room and said to the executive team, “Here it is, this is your campaign.” Subsequently, GLOW was and continues to be one of the most successful celebrity fragrances introduced and sold to date.

It all comes down to taste—it’s about having a certain taste and level of sophistication. That’s what I look for, a specific design palette. I want for my collaborators and I to feed off one another.

Ruba has immense graphic and creative direction tenure with a keen eye for design, but attributes a great deal of her success to the relationships she has been able to cultivate over the years. Her appreciation for collaboration is matched by the talent she seeks and employs. However, Abu-Nimah prefers to utilize creative expertise where a mutual design standard exists. “It all comes down to taste—it’s about having a certain taste and level of sophistication. That’s what I look for, a specific design palette. I want for my collaborators and me to feed off one another. But that also means not molding anyone into something they aren’t or executing something they aren’t personally proud of. A shared work passion is everything to me. I get very excited about shared ideas and rare talent.”

Ruba has worked with iconic industry veterans throughout her career and has established trusted work relationships with seminal fashion and beauty creators, such as famed photographer Mario Sorrenti. “Mario Sorrenti is an extraordinary photographer and we’ve worked together for a very long time. We are doing work together for Revlon and we’ve done some great things during my time at Shiseido. We’ve developed a great deal of trust. The best creative directors know how to hire a great team, and let that team do their thing, it’s important to refrain from micromanaging. To be a creative director is to be a bit of a conductor. You need to envision your objective, and know how to get those results.” She added, “I’ve been encouraged to do these Q&As via Instagram, and constantly field questions around how to enter the design and creative industries. What I always say, is you have to be a designer first. Software will not design for you, it is merely a tool that is used to help with your design. Tools will not make you a designer, and most kids today don’t think that way, which I find really fascinating. This is why I always reiterate the importance of craft; to learn it, to understand it. I don’t think craft is lost, there are still people who are creating beautiful work, we see it, but that takes time and practice.”

I candidly share with Ruba that I am concerned about the future of content creation and how marketing approaches appear less original these days, with companies seemingly pulling from the same ideas pool. I wonder if we’ve reached a period where transient consumer behavior cycles and a fast-trend market have drained the need for thoughtful messaging. Ruba quickly challenged this by saying it is imperative for companies to employ and form strong leadership that will continue to move the needle, and for these leaders to encourage their respective teams to do the same. “I am relatively new to Revlon and I remember my first day and the shock and awe I was met with from our IT department when I demanded that the PC that was provided to me be replaced with a Mac. They were confused as to why I needed a designer’s computer, expecting me, an executive at my level in the company, to just point and grunt at people. I design every single day. Every day I do some quite laborious stuff. I lend my hand at some more high-level conceptual stuff but most importantly, it is my job to mentor people. And I can only mentor by showing them, by demonstrating how it’s done.”

I am just like anyone, a normal person, the same as you, with the same types of insecurities. But I do appreciate and feel proud that what I am doing, to a certain extent, is resonating.

We spoke at length about corporate complexities and the slew of egos one might have to endure throughout a single work day in an office environment, the need to speak with a certain tone of peer politeness. We discussed navigating inter-office politics to gain support for our opinions on the need for advertising content that sparks feelings of discomfort or noteworthy discourse. Ruba said, “For me, I need to get things done and, therefore, can be rather direct. I bruise a lot of egos and I am still learning to navigate after all these years. I am definitely a bit of a human resources nightmare. There are people in companies who are solely there for self-preservation and not to necessarily make something. I want to make something and I want to make a difference. I want to see the company be affected positively through the work that I do, but that’s not necessarily everyone’s goal within the corporate structure. However, where I am currently, with Revlon, there is a real desire for meaningful change which is very gratifying.”

Despite Ruba being a woman that has transcended gender career norms, the subject of workplace gender dynamics seemed unavoidable when examining industry standards. Although Ruba is acutely aware of the disparities between men and women within corporate environments, she doesn’t let those disparities hinder her from achieving work objectives. With assertiveness, she said, “I don’t care who I’m necessarily speaking to, I don’t see the difference. I just want to get to an end result. I can be talking to a Martian for all I care. But I also realize this isn’t going to change anytime soon, because it’s so ingrained into the system. But I am hopeful, because more and more women are entering leadership roles now, more than ever before. Yes, it’s incredibly shocking that Revlon has, for the first time, put in place a female CEO. This applies as well, in terms of Revlon having a female creative director. Women working in big corporations are vying for their place amongst one another. And there are very few women who reach this level and position, there are very few female creative directors in this industry. When I think about it, I can really only identify one off the top of my head and that’s Tony Lakis, who I respect immensely. She is the SVP of Creative for MAC. But I honestly can’t think of many others, on a commercial level, in this industry.” Although a statement that speaks volumes, Ruba utters it with a matter of fact attitude and with certainty, with no semblance of gender resentment.

A well-educated, accomplished, four-language speaking, mother of two with heaps of credibility; gaining confidence is, irrefutably, a rite of passage for Ruba. I explain to her that she is a revered creative influence and wonder if that bestows on her, a feeling of social responsibility. “I am just like anyone, a normal person, the same as you, with the same types of insecurities. But I do appreciate and feel proud that what I am doing, to a certain extent, is resonating. I post personal things, and don’t necessarily cater to anyone, nor do I base my creative decisions on data or what’s considered popular. But it does scare me a bit, the admiration at times, as it creates more insecurity and shyness.” As she tells me this, I sort of laugh sheepishly because Ruba exudes such a natural self-assurance that can easily intimidate, but it’s paired with a great deal of humility. Since Ruba works in an industry that promotes a standard of beauty and products that are intended to create and maintain that standard, I ask her to define what sexy means to her. Ruba, without the slightest hesitation says, “Something that evokes emotion in me, something that makes me aspire to something. Paper is sexy, books, smells, color is sexy, textures. It’s that emotional response to something, sexy is emotion.”

Her response to my question is the type of response that I hope readers will appreciate as much as I do.

We all have personal aesthetic preferences that we prescribe to, what we subjectively consider to be of visual value. But what causes us to feel on a visceral level, that’s what demands acknowledgement and the most celebration.

Speaking with Ruba, I left feeling the way I do when viewing her image selections or her creative output—inspired. She has this transcendent magnetism, inadvertently piquing my creative curiosities just as much in real life as she does in the social media abyss. And as most creatives would agree—leaving a residual mark is the best reward.

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