Originally published November 17, 2016
In November 2016, I was asked to speak at AIGA Austin's Under the Radar series. Here is more or less, the talk I gave:
When I was first asked to participate in tonight’s Young Gunz Under the Radar, I went through a series of reactions. First, I was very flattered and then mildly terrified. Second, I partook in what can only be described as very polite stalking of the other speakers here tonight. And lastly, I thought “Holy crap. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing. How can I get on stage and talk to a group of people about how I got here? I don’t even know where ‘here’ is”.
Because I am still wandering, I’m following my curiosities and exploring what it means to be a successful freelance designer and illustrator. And you know what I’ve learned? That is ok. It doesn’t hurt to wander around a little bit, try out different roles and experiences and embrace the feeling of being a little bit lost because you never know how a series of seemingly random events can add up to something wonderful… like being asked to stand at a microphone and represent talented people under the age of 30.
When you think of the world of a professional designer or illustrator, you probably imagine a land similar to his one:
A map focused on their realm of expertise. I know when I was younger and I imagined being an adult, this is what I saw. A world comprised solely of my chosen career. But as I’ve reached the ripe old age of 25 I’ve realized my reality is a little more random and expansive, a little more like this:
A world comprised of different disciplines and experiences, a world of a wanderer. And that’s what I want to talk about tonight: my life as a creative nomad and how my seeming lack of direction has culminated into the great, albeit occasionally hectic adventure I call my career thus far.
Like many people, my curiosity and love for drawing started at a young age. Something clicked in me when I drew — I got into the flow and was enamored with the finished product. I drew the things that I was interested in, in this particular case, it was Snow White.
I also had computers all around me when I was growing up. By a stroke of fate, my dad ended up with a free copy of of Photoshop 7.0. He let me install it on our Windows 95 Dell and I was immediately hooked. Now, I wish I could tell you this was when my love of graphic design and visual communication was born, but in reality …. I was just WAY into drawing NeoPets. This was my first one, and I’m very proud of it.
If you don’t know what NeoPets are then you were cooler than I was, google it later and laugh at me. But I embraced my dorky obsession, making countless digital drawings. By the time high school rolled around, I was ready to work in a classroom setting where I was ready to apply my photoshop skills and learn some new programs, including Illustrator, Flash, and a little bit of web design.
Despite obviously loving drawing and the digital exploration of art, when I was contemplating my life’s path and applying to colleges as a senior in high school, the unthinkable happened— In the fall of 2008, the economy took a nosedive and completely scared me away from applying to the world of art schools….
Instead, I figured I’d hedge my bets, and embarked on a career path compromising between creativity and commerce— I began studying at UT Austin’s Advertising program. The focus of UT Advertising and its “Creativity Sequence”, is the art of selling and stresses the “big idea” of a campaign rather than the execution of the pieces. There wasn’t a lot of art or design classes I could take as an underclassman, but before I knew it, I became a designer at the college newspaper (Daily Texan) and humor publication, the Texas Travesty. I quickly had to learn InDesign and would place all the articles and photos, but I also jumped at the chance to pitch every illustration idea possible. Above is an example of such a pitch: a cover for the Texas Travesty.
I also did more silly drawings like this one, a feature for the Travesty called "How to Break Up with Your Dinosaur Boyfriend" allowing me to put my early-learned photoshop skills to good use and to stay sane. Creating illustrations like this was so satisfying, and it helped fill some of the creative vacuums that formed while I focused on creating “big idea campaigns” for my advertising classes. I continued to fill those holes while learning other design disciples and honing the illustration skills I cherished so much. Working all these extra jobs combined with the portfolio I was creating in class landed me an art direction internship at GSD&M. I was thrilled to work there, and in the trenches I learned what I loved the most about advertising was satisfying my constant curiosity—understanding what makes people tick and how to become an expert in every product you are trying to sell. This made my passion for exploring new worlds and disciplines a huge plus. But I also found myself missing working on the idea all the way through completion. I decided that while I loved advertising, it probably wouldn’t make me very happy in the long run.
Facing that (very scary) realization, my internship ended around the same time I graduated college, and then the real adventure of “adulting” began…
And I totally lucked out, my first job was at an emerging tech agency called (Mutual Mobile) I was hired as a junior marketing designer, a “jack of all trades” if you will, and I found my directionless ambition was actually an asset and not a liability. When I first started one of my tasks was illustrating 2-3 images a week for blog about emerging technology. I was given a lot of freedom to explore my illustration style and make mistakes.
My main role was the companies’ go-to-girl for everything from designing the careers page to drawing storyboards for pitching new work. If I was asked to do something I didn’t know how to do, I learned how to do it. I also absorbed the knowledge and talent from UX and UI designers around me, and picked up a few of those skills along the way, expanding my career map even further. I was always on the lookout for ways to inject illustration into my work at the company. Some of my favorite tasks were the random, one-off illustration requests from “the culture club” of the company….Like this type I made for a t-shirt This piece of type was a big departure from the cursive lettering I was accustomed to doing. Giving myself the space to wander and try something new helped me to gain some new skills and learned practices.
Of course, these fun projects were the exception, at mutual mobile almost everything I was designing or illustrated related to “technology” and to be totally honest, I just got really tired of illustrating iPhones and tablets. Fortunately, the business hours didn’t bleed into my nights and weekends, leaving me time to explore creatively.
This Ampersand sculpture was a slow, lingering project that allowed me to take a break from quick turnarounds and let my ideas marinate for one, tangible piece I could touch and hold in my hands. I didn’t create it under the pressure of deadlines or a paying client, it was a simply a passion project, something I felt needed to be in my always expanding world of work. I didn’t make a dime off the piece, but people responded and it went viral.
And then there is always painting. For me, painting is almost a spiritual experience. The tactile quality of mixing oil paint slowly forming the image in your mind is a continual lesson in patience and humility. Painting takes me back to childhood, the comfort in creating reignites my passion when I feel burned out, so I visit the fine art forest portion of my map whenever possible.
Of course, extra money on top of a salary never hurt either, and I started taking on Freelance projects mostly by word of mouth. Huffy was one of the first “legit” freelancing jobs I ever had. The art director was a friend from ad school, and remembered the lettering I had done for my campaigns. I took the gig in the middle of moving and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to create 20 lettering pieces fast enough. But I managed to pull it off using one of the first techniques I ever learned in photoshop: using a regular pencil to recreate a textured chalk technique.
Little by little, I was starting to get more freelance projects based on the work I was doing at Mutual Mobile. Now a quick shout out to Lewis Carnegie for hiring me this illustration projects I’m most proud of. From the beginning, they had a pretty good idea of the illustration style they were going for, and there wasn’t a specific example of that style in my portfolio. [Leaf] But I think they saw my versatility and figured I could hack it, which I really appreciated because it gave me yet another excuse to go wandering once again. My experiences working at different publications in college prepared me for a more collaborative art director-illustrator relationship, and all my years drawing prepared me for the technical challenges of these realistic illustrations. The finished product turned out great— the design team at Lewis Carnegie used an awesome die cut to reveal the first illustration.
This last project is something that I finished a few months ago, right after I set out on my own as a freelancer. Remember how dorky you thought I was earlier for drawing neopets every day? Here it really paid off. These are little stickers for iMessages and the client let me do pretty much whatever I wanted. And what I wanted was unabashedly fun expressions of my Texasness that people could share with each other. I had so much fun with these little “TexMojis”, Drawing all these little stickers put me in the right mindset when I finally started freelancing full time— I knew I would have to draw upon all my previous experiences and love what I was doing in order to make a great product and a happy client.
And I realized I would have to take myself off the self-imposed "illustrator island" and allow my ambitious drive as well as my wanderings inspire my work.
I hope that I’ve shown you my that my path to “Freelance Designer and Illustrator” was anything but direct (if you can call it a path). The charming and incredibly talented Brad Woodard once asked me how I came to be at least a little bit good at a lot of things and the answer is simple: I followed my curiosities. I said “Yes” more than I should have and jumped at opportunities simply because they were scary and exciting. Some people might hear that I am a wanderer and think “scattered or lost”. Screw that. I say I am a wanderer and think “curious and diverse”.
If you’re out there feeling stressed, directionless or just a tiny bit untethered, go ahead and embrace it because if I’ve learned anything it’s that no experience is a wasted one. And who knows? You could actually be on the path to your perfect for career. As for me? I’ll keep you posted and let you know when I get there. Thank you.