AI, Inspiration, and Identity: A Q&A with Creative Director Cat Dunn

Creative Director Cat Dunn sits down with Jarrod Tredway, Beyond’s Head of Brand Strategy, to talk about AI as a collaborator, how she searches offline for online inspiration, and the role her queer identity plays as a part of her work.

All photos courtesy of Cat Dunn except where otherwise noted.
June 27, 2024
8 min
8 min
June 27, 2024
All photos courtesy of Cat Dunn except where otherwise noted.

“I've been in this industry for 13 years now…” Cat Dunn says as we start our conversation. “…which is wild!” she laughs, leaning back on her brown leather sofa as her miniature dachshund, Bowie, makes an appearance. Her bright red hair is tied up in a messy bun, and she’s dressed down today — in a plain black t-shirt that still somehow reads as stylish.

Cat is at her home in Santa Fe with a curated backdrop of artwork arranged just so. From photography to web design to the more technical aspects of product and app interfaces, her own creative work has spanned many mediums. Tech companies like Dashlane and Samsung sit on her roster alongside retail heavyweights like J.Crew, Rent The Runway,  and West Elm, as well as a collection of successful startups.

With her hands on the pulse of what’s happening across many intersecting spaces, she’s the perfect person to talk to about the state of the industry, sharing what she makes of AI, how she stays attuned to the world around her, and how she sees herself — and her work — as a part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Jarrod: Cat! It’s so good to see you. It’s been a few years since we got to work with you here at Beyond. Catch me up on your recent work in the digital landscape these days.

Cat: I'm getting to go all over the place! I’m working with both global brands and grassroots businesses, and it’s been really satisfying. I love the balance of working with large companies where there are complex problems that I can dive into and working with smaller businesses that are often looking for more of a collaborator to define their brand identity.

Recently, I've been hyper-focused on how brands can strike that perfect marriage between a user’s journey and the content being served to them. I’m being asked to do a lot of UX/UI design, but there’s so much of the art director mindset embedded in me that I’m naturally also thinking about the content and imagery that will accompany a user on their journey.

Perhaps that’s because I've always been drawn to visuals, and editing down to the most fitting reference is one of my superpowers. I love to challenge myself by asking, “Okay, who does it best? Now, how can I do it better?” Which is probably very Capricorn of me! Selecting images and creating mood boards is something that I always start with for any sort of branding work, but it is increasingly something I do with digital work, too.

Jarrod: I seem to recall you making mood boards for the Samsung work you did with Beyond a few years back. What do you remember about that experience?

Cat: At that time, I was working with Beyond on the app that would eventually become Samsung Food. The idea was that you could organize and customize recipes and use them to build grocery lists and get ingredients — food inspiration, essentially.

I was looking at the app’s design, as well as the content within it, trying to establish its visual vocabulary and what felt right for the concept. We wanted the app to have a unique identity — an engaging interface, an identifiable style of food photography — which I still think is one of the most challenging things to truly do well. The edit becomes so important, both in what references make the cut and in the way digital design is represented.

Photos and images assembled together to create a mood
Cat's inspiration materials for Samsung Food.

Editing is a skill I had to learn, particularly the idea that it’s better to have one incredible reference than ten just okay ones. Now, it’s something I'm hyper-aware of, from the way I am at home to my online professional life. In a world oversaturated with Pinterest boards and homogenous design trends — specifically trends that show up over and over on “the grid” — I'm always thinking about the edit.

I say all of this looking back. I mean, the way we consume content today is so different than it was even just a few years ago — video is at the center of everything, people get recipes from TikTok, and AI can just generate a recipe for you on the fly. It's pretty insane.

Jarrod: That’s a perfect segue, as I’m eager to know your attitude towards AI, particularly in the context of AI and art direction.

Cat: My attitude towards AI as of this moment — acknowledging that it literally changes every day with new enhancements that we're seeing — is that it’s just another tool. I view it as another thing that I need to learn, which is exciting because I enjoy that process. Learning new things and being excited about learning is kind of my internal mantra these days.

Professionally, I see generative AI as a way to speed things up, especially when I'm working with images. Not too long ago, I did a photo shoot in collaboration with a close friend for Muse Fine Wine — a queer-owned business here in Santa Fe — and the crops we got were not what we needed for the site. The ability to just write, “Please extend this backdrop” in Photoshop and be given three, stunningly real options was super helpful — not just because I am not a retoucher extraordinaire, but also because I didn't have the time to spend hours retouching each asset.

Before and after of a photo of wine shot on natural stone with an AI-extended background
L: One of Cat's original shots for Muse Fine Wine. R: The final AI-extended version of the same shot.

In that specific context, it was great to be able to churn out beautiful, perfectly-cropped images based off of what I had shot and help a local business show up as its best digitally-designed self. But, I wasn’t using AI to generate something from absolutely nothing, which I feel a certain way about…

Still, I continue to use it as a tool because there are times when it’s better than starting from zero. Right now, AI outputs are just a draft for me to start with, and it's really helpful for when I’m stuck. I’ve used it in my personal life that way, too.

Jarrod: How so?

Cat: Without saying too much, I recently had to have a hard conversation to do with LGBTQ inclusivity. Instead of just shooting off a text, I went to ChatGPT and was able to have a conversation there, first, about how to thoughtfully address the situation.

It's those hard moments where you don't know where to begin that AI can be great at. But when it comes to the final piece — the last bit of inspiration, the actual delivery — I still feel like a human has to be involved there.

Jarrod: You’re really out here putting AI into the LGBTQIA!

Cat: [laughs]

Jarrod: Seriously though: As a queer person, how does that part of your identity intersect with your work?

Cat: I'm going to take you on a little bit of a journey here…

My first job as a web designer was at a major fashion house in NYC. I’d just begun identifying as queer that year, and as a part of my coming out journey, I shared this with my director and a few close co-workers. I thought, “I work in fashion. What workplace could be safer? This is good.”

A few weeks later, I was reviewing designs for a women's editorial feature with a small group and my director. For the hero module, I used an upside-down triangle in my design, and…

[tearing up]

…it was the first time in my life that my queerness — specifically the word “dyke” — was used to hurt me.

As Cat reaches for a tissue, we sit in silence for a while and reflect on what’s just been said.

An upside down pink triangle was first used as a marker of queerness in Nazi Germany — it served as a concentration camp badge to identify those who had been imprisoned because they were gay or trans.

It has since largely been reclaimed as a positive symbol of self-identity, but is still sometimes weaponized as a part of homophobic rhetoric.

Cat: I so wish I could go back to that 23-year-old and tell her that her identity is something that would one day be celebrated and that there were just ignorant, unjust prejudices against her in that time.

Fast forward, and it is something that usually I reveal to my clients before we even sign a contract. It's on my social profiles that I'm queer. I identify as “queer,” as a “lesbian,” as a “dyke” — our community has reclaimed these words, and I love these words. But it took me a long time to.

As RuPaul says: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an ‘amen’ up in here!?”

Jarrod: Amen!

Cat: I look back, though, and I am so thankful that experience — and others that followed —didn't make me go inward. It made me go further out and be more loud and be more myself. That part of me is so a part of my identity.

Jarrod: And not just your identity, but your brand! Talk to me about your #dykeinthedesert-branded inspiration trips that you take and share online. How did that start?

Cat: Around the time of my Saturn return, there was a lot of change happening in my life. I’d always had this very poetic, romantic idea of going out west in the States, and I just needed time alone during that phase of my life.

So, I decided to do a solo road trip where I would drive every single day so I could see as much of these desert places that I had yet to truly explore. And on that first trip, I learned what solitude felt like for me. I learned what stillness felt like for me. And I learned how to find my inner peace.

As a queer woman, traveling alone is not always safe, but the experience taught me to read energy, listen to my gut, and not be afraid until I need to be afraid. There are some things that are scary because they're good. And I’m always trying to push myself to do the scary good.

A view from the interior of a canyon
Images from Cat's travel archives. #ShotoniPhone

The tag #dykeinthedesert came about mainly just because I wanted to have a way to look back on all the photos I’d shared of the places I’d been and be reminded of all that I’ve learned. I also made a mark to match the tag that I became obsessed with as soon as I sketched it. Years later, an activist friend introduced me to a custom t-shirt site that supports fundraising. I love pocket logos, so I made this minimal tee with the mark as something just for the queer community. All proceeds go to the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico.

I now live here in New Mexico full-time. The amount of peace that I have here on a daily basis is something I’ve learned I just cannot give up.

Jarrod: It sounds like Santa Fe has given you a real sense of place. Has that sense helped to bridge your offline and your online worlds in any way?

Cat: For sure. The juxtaposition with the expansiveness of nature is what I need to balance all the technical work that I do on the web. I need the awe so that I can come home and work on something very specific, unique, technical, small. The things that I design, I'm holding them in my hand, then I get to go back out into expansiveness. It's been really great to have that back-and-forth for my mental health.

Images from Cat's travel archives. #ShotoniPhone

I actually take digital versions of my inspiration trips, too, where I just dive in online and go down the rabbit hole to explore imagery that inspires me and find references. When I come out, I get to work on the edit. AI might one day have a place on my digital road trips, but for all the talk of AI as a copilot, right now I just want an AI passenger.

Jarrod: Speaking of “right now” — let’s recenter on the present. As we wrap up, what are you feeling in this moment?

Cat: I just feel very grateful. To have landed out west. To know how to find my inner peace. To have this ability to create something from nothing — designers have so much to give to the world. And to get to use my skills for others in the queer community? That's the kind of work that really feeds my soul.

When I was still based in New York City, I got involved with the NYC Dyke March committee and quickly realized they didn't have a logo! I collaborated with them on the now-official vector mark based on the physical banner they've used for at least 20 years now, which is such a cool piece of “herstory.”

Images of the NYC Dyke March over the years
L: The banner at the march over the years (via Luis Yanez & A. Katz). R: Cat's mark atop a photo from her first march in 2016.

It's just really cool to be able to gift design in that way. To me, it's like giving love when you share creativity with others. That feels very much like a life purpose for me.

I’m just so thankful that I get to do something that I love and that allows me to give back, because whether they recognize it or not, everybody needs some kind of design. And ideally, it’s going to be good as well as for good.

Cat’s creative services are on offer to LGBTQ+ nonprofits and small businesses free of charge. If you represent an interested organization, you can learn more about Cat’s work and contact her directly here.

Beyond is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion and invites all people to celebrate Pride Month and learn more about its history. You can read more about our commitment to DEI and our various initiatives here.