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Sam Johnstone & Natasha McDiarmid, Night Shift Studio

Sam Johnstone & Natasha McDiarmid, Night Shift Studio

Published by BARONMAG

Who are you : 

We’re Sam Johnstone & Natasha McDiarmid, designers and partners of the studio Night Shift, which we started together last fall. 

Your current job: 

Night Shift is a graphic design studio with a focus on branding and identity design. Natasha leads all of our digital work, which ranges from website design & development to product design. Sam leads the other stuff, but we work collaboratively and are always playing off of each other.

In which city are you located?

We work out of our lovely west-end apartment in Toronto, Ontario with our cat Salem.

A word to define what kind of worker you are :

Sam: A hard worker but not a smart worker. I think we’re both guilty of spending too much time on details and not enough time on getting things out the door quickly. Beyond that, I think we’re both pretty organized people, so that’s kind of a defining characteristic. Natasha: Detail-obsessed. We care a lot about how a project begins and ends and there are a lot of steps in between that. I care a lot about ensuring our client feel that we went above and beyond for them. My emails are definitely long-winded, haha. 

What tools are essential to your life (app, software, etc..): 

Sam: We both use the Adobe Suite for about 90% of our work. I use a Microsoft Surface Book 2 for illustration and use Kyle T Webster’s brush sets for everything. We use Asana and Google Apps to run the office and I use Pocket Casts to keep me sane. The Surface Dial and Pen have been godsends for me when it comes to illustration, and when we have photography projects come the way we both use the Sony a-Series cameras with some Zeiss lenses. Natasha: MacBook Pro, iPhone, Wacom Tablet, Sublime, Transmit, Spotify and Sketch. Sketch I’m forever on the fence about because I see the value, but prefer Illustrator. My MacBook Pro, I honestly never use the new scrollbar. Everyone was right about that – pretty useless. As for Spotify, I will forever wish is was Rdio.

What does your office space look like?

Sam: Right now our office is the main space in our apartment. We get a bunch of natural light from south-facing windows, which is great and the commute is short. We both work side by side face a wall in our apartment that’s been colonized as office space with a mosaic of posters and photos above our desks. Natasha: Covered in cat hair mostly. Just kidding. Not really. As Sam mentioned, we work from home which means our white fluffy cat Salem likes to be a part of our day-to-day. He walks over our keyboards and steals our water.

What kind of music do you listen to when you are working?

Sam: I listen to podcasts whenever I have heads-down work to do instead of music. It keeps my brain busy while my hands are occupied. I’m a big fan of the McElroy brothers podcasts, as well as things like Reply All, The New Yorker Radio Hour, and Adventures in Design. I used to like working with movies or TV shows in the background, but it ended up being too much of distraction. I started listening to podcasts about movies and TV shows instead, so now instead of putting something on a different monitor, I’ll listen to James Bonding, the X Files Files or The Worst Idea of All Time to get my TV/movie fix. Natasha: When I’m working, I need to listen to chill, slow music to keep me relaxed. A few of my go-to’s are: Radiohead, Alt-J, Daughter, Wet, The Weeknd or Lana Del Rey and if it’s Friday, Rihanna.

Do you have a way to organize your day to maximize your work?

Sam: If I’m feeling particularly busy, stressed or out of control I’ll start my day and hour early and go read in a cafe for an hour or so. It helps calm your brain and warms you up to the idea of focusing on one thing at a time which I can usually carry with me for the rest of the day. Natasha: I like to tackle the smaller stuff early on and get that out of the way so I can feel accomplished before moving on to the heavier work.

What tips would you give to improve productivity?

Natasha: Get enough sleep, work out and eat well. Sam: Throw your modem out a window.

You’re better than your colleagues to :

Natasha: Voice our design opinions. It’s not always easy but I think it’s necessary and valuable. We can’t expect our clients to always agree with us, but we hope to meet in the middle if it’s a healthy relationship. Sam: Being a critic of our work. We’re pretty hard on ourselves but it’s easy to turn that into fuel to keep working towards something better.

What is the best advice anyone has given you?

Natasha: Don’t work for an asshole and ‘Google it’. The first one is obvious, and the last one is for younger designers. It may sound a little harsh, but it’s about doing research before you ask questions. It’s about creating a mindset of taking initiative and thinking, ‘I’ll figure it out’, rather than relying on someone else to feed you that information. Not all questions are bad, but some are just lazy. Sam: The single most important thing I ever learned about being a designer and making things is something I learned in my first class at design school. I had an amazing teacher, Nancy Snow who told our class a story of her experience as a junior designer, working on shit projects that the designers working above her had passed on. After a while, the senior designers would complain ‘why does Nancy get to work on all the good projects?’ to which the creative director responded ‘You passed the project off to her because it wasn’t worth your time’. That’s something I’ve carried with me for my entire career: that it’s your job as a designer to make something compelling. With rare exception, the most interesting projects I’ve ever worked on started off as a boring, stale brief that someone else didn’t want to work on.

What is your best tip for saving time?

Natasha: Create templates for things where it makes sense to. For example, we have InDesign templates for contracts, quotes, presentations, and proofs. You shouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel for these items each time they come up. Also, creating a process for areas of your business that you specialize in. For us, I would say that’s branding. Each brand identity project goes through the same phases, so we know what to expect. It keeps your thoughts better organized and you’ll come up with solutions quicker as a result. Sam: I don’t have anything to add to what Natasha said. If anything I’d say try to simplify your workflow as much as possible. I like to think that switching from a MacBook with a Wacom tablet plugged into a Surface with a digitizer in the screen made me a faster illustrator, but I still spend on average 20 hours on an illustration. So just get rid of whatever you can that slows you down, whether that be software, commute distance, how long it takes you to make lunch. It’s the space between things that you have more control over than how quickly you can actually work.

What is your routine start and end of the day?

Natasha: I can’t start my day without a shower. After that, I am typically at my computer by 9 am. I start by opening up my email and ensuring there are no urgent fires. Afterward, routine typically falls out the window as each day is so different depending on the projects we have lined up. Sometimes I’m coding, biking to meetings, illustrating or offering tech support haha. My day ends around 5:30 pm, and Sam and I go to Muay Thai from 6:30-8pm. This gives us both a good reset and forces us to leave our work, something that unfortunately becomes hard to do once you work for yourself. Because I’m pretty fluid during the day, it sometimes means I pick back up again later in the evening. I try to shut down by 10 pm every night. Sam: On a good day, I’ll start with my one-man book club at a cafe and end with an hour or so with the Nintendo Switch, but most days start with reading email in bed and end finishing up a presentation deck well past my bedtime.

Aside from your computer and your phone, what gadget can you not you go without?

Natasha: I am gadget-less! 🙁 Sam: I am definitely a gadget person. For me, it’s either my Kindle or the Nintendo Switch. They are totems of the kind of 21st century I want to live in — fun, low emotional commitment, weird divergences from other types of gadgets. But if computer peripherals count, the Surface Dial is a crucial part of my workflow and I can’t imagine doing my work without it anymore.

Toronto City Guide x Sam Johnstone & Natasha McDiarmid, Night Shift Studio


Sam: Neo Coffee Bar on King & Frederick. It’s beautiful, has the best pastries and the friendliest staff on the planet. Natasha: Safehouse because the music is great, it’s close to our apartment and the owners remember your name. 


Sam: On the high end its definitely Buca, but for more casual meals the bar Wallflower is at the top of the list for me. Natasha: Bar Buca! The location is tucked away from the busy downtown core and space is small so it feels intimate. It’s also the place where Sam and I first talked about Night Shift over brunch. 😉 


Sam: by a wide margin for actual shopping, but I end up buying most of my clothes from Frank and Oak, and a surprising amount of the rest of my things from MEC. Natasha: MEC too, is likely my only Toronto shopping destination. Everything else I do is online. 


Sam: Fiesta Farms is hands down the best grocery store in the city. We have a great little shop across from us called Fresh Fields which is the go-to for us now, but if geography weren’t a boundary it would be Fiest Farms every day. Natasha: I just discovered Cumbrae’s on Queen Street and was in meat heaven, haha. It’s a modern butcher shop with quality meat all sourced from local farms. 


Sam: I’ve been going to the same climbing gym for about 8 years now called Boulderz. If you like rock climbing you should really go here first, it’s been a home to me for as long as I’ve lived in the city. It’s tiny (they have a bigger and more well-stocked second location in Etobicoke though) and can get pretty busy but they have the best setters in the city and a really great community. 

Natasha: Archive on Dundas West. They have a delicious selection of two of my favorite things – beer and cheese.