Step 7: Stay Nimble

Change is nature, it’s inevitable. When it comes your way, do you resist or adapt? In our final chapter, we explore technology’s effects on illustration, art education, and creative careers.

How to Draw a Startup - Step 7.png

Show notes

Today’s guests:

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Transcript

Whitney Sherman

You know, I can remember my first portfolio was a thing that was color reproductions, and I had a comb binding on it, and it was square, and, you know, it was not a black portfolio that you would go buy it at Dick Blick or whatever. And then that moved to slides, and then 35mm slides were too small, so I did 4x5s with a nice black matte around it and shipping all of these things out. At one point, I had five different couriers in five different cities holding on to hardcopy portfolios. I had a list of agencies or publishers or magazines that I wanted them to send these things to and they would just cycle them through.

Mark

That’s the voice of Whitney Sherman.

Whitney

Hi, my name is Whitney Sherman. I'm an illustrator. I run a business called Whitney Sherman Illustration and Pbody Dsign. I’m also the founding program director of the MFA in Illustration Practice at MICA, I’m the co-director of Dolphin Press and Print, and for ten years prior had been the undergraduate chair of illustration.

The  Breast Cancer Research Stamp , a  semi-postal  illustrated by  Whitney Sherman  in 1998. Image via  mica.edu

The Breast Cancer Research Stamp, a semi-postal illustrated by Whitney Sherman in 1998. Image via mica.edu

Mark

I first knew Whitney in that last role. Back when I was an illustration student at MICA, she was department chair and, in my final semester, my thesis professor. The extensive resume she just rattled off only scratches the surface of a long and accomplished career, including, notably, illustrating the Breast Cancer Research Stamp in 1998. As of 2018, over one billion stamps have been sold, raising more than $80 million for research.

Over the years, Whitney has witnessed the profession of illustration evolve, reacting to changes in culture and business and technology. It was technology, of course, that rendered those hardcopy portfolios obsolete.

Whitney

People wanted to see a website, so now I had all these portfolios that I didn't need anymore, because I didn't need a courier to take it around. I would just set up a website and then I could send out a card and let people know I've got a website. But then websites changed as well, and people started doing blogs and people started getting into social media—Facebook initially, and now it's expanded to many other things. And we don't know, really, what other kind of platform is going to come out and how people will really interact with it. You know, who could have predicted Snapchat as an activity, as a thing that people engage in? And yet, this is how people get to know each other.

So even the people that, five years ago, were kind of on top of digital stuff… you know, unless they choose to keep moving forward, they're a little bit in the dust. And you have to do that, you have to keep moving forward with things as they change and kind of understand how can I use this. That idea of worrying about “Am I going to stay current?” It’s: just you stay current, or you don’t. You choose between those two things.

Mark

Change is nature, it’s inevitable. The important question, always, is: How do you react to it? Do you resist or adapt?”

Over the last six episodes, we’ve explored how design and illustration changed the tech industry. Today, we ask the opposite. How did tech change illustration? And not just the way it’s produced and delivered, but also the second and third-order effects. After all, technology has altered culture itself. How have these changes affected art education? What are the skills and qualities necessary for a successful career?

I’m Mark Grambau, and this is the final episode of How to Draw a Startup: A step-by-step guide to illustration in tech.

 

[Theme music]

 

Mark

Step 7: Stay nimble

Before Whitney was a MICA professor, she was a MICA student.

Whitney

I have a degree in photography. I had started in undergraduate wanting to do graphic design, but I found myself in an academic environment that wasn't supportive of that. I knew that I wasn't a painter or sculptor, and at this time, these roles were very clearly defined. I felt like photography really did it for me, because it was a practice where you're composing and where you're using light and really strongly compositional pieces. And that's kind of where I come at my illustration from, is how the elements interact with each other.

Mark

But upon graduating in ’71, Whitney knew she wouldn’t pursue photography professionally. Her education had been centered around fine art photography—creating beautiful prints and selling them at galleries—but that didn’t interest her. Meanwhile, that fine art training had left her without the technical skills she’d need to succeed in commercial fields like fashion and wedding photography.

Whitney

I just started looking for work, and that's what drove a lot of my entry into many of these different areas of advertising and publication design, product design, and getting into doing illustration as well. It wasn't something that I even knew that I was going to be doing when I was an undergraduate.

Mark

Entering the field around the same time as Whitney was Allan Comport, who we met briefly back in Step 5. With Whitney now leading MICA’s illustration MFA program, Allan is the chair of MICA’s undergraduate illustration department.

Allan has decades of experience in the industry, including a number of years as an artists rep at Shannon Associates. And yet, Allan didn’t study art or illustration as a young man. So how did he end up in the industry? Well, I am delighted to say: it’s a love story.

Allan Comport

When I was a teacher right out of college, I met and fell in love with a young artist whose name was, at that point, Sally Wern, and now Sally Wern Comport. And Sally was majoring in illustration at Columbus College of Art Design. We couldn’t wait to get married and did so young.

And so I became super interested in communication arts in the visual arts, just from being married to an art school brat. And also, her father owned the biggest ad agency in Canton, Ohio. So I started in the summers and on weekends to see what was going on there, and pretty soon, when you’re in a family that owns an ad agency, you begin getting sucked in. And I was working in the silk screen shop back there, and I was helping Sally do some concept work on ads she was doing for the father's agency and stuff. And so I kept just developing more and more of an interest.

Mark

Soon, the couple found themselves in Denver, Colorado. Sally at a design firm, and Allan working as a psychotherapist.

Allan

We both got an itch to do something different, something that we controlled, and so she left her job first, opened up a very small, humble art studio. And it wasn't very long thereafter that I left my job and we opened up a small company called Wern Comport Art and Illustration.

And the idea was that I was going to be the outside sales guy and get the work and do all the promotion and marketing, and Sally was going to produce the work. This kept her doing what she liked and kept me doing what I liked, and we would see if it worked.

Mark

It did. Sally’s work for local clients caught the eye of the Boston Globe, which led to a weekly piece in their focus section, which led to the New York Times, the MIT Technology Review, and more. As their momentum continued to grow, the Comports considered moving to the center of the action.

Allan

In the 70s, and certainly in the 60s, the whole industry, especially of illustration, was New York centric. You know, at the time, the way you did it was you would graduate from art school and move to New York. And if you didn't have the nerve to move to New York, walk the streets of New York with your giant portfolio and bang on doors to show your work, you just weren't going to make it—and you didn't care anyway, because you weren't willing to do what you needed to do. And that was it! I mean, you needed to go and, you know, worship at the altar of the door slamming in your face.

Mark

It sounds harsh, but if you had the emotional stamina, it was worth it. Take it from Whitney:

Whitney

I was a real firm believer in doing all of that, because I knew anytime I could sit down with an art director and show them my work, I got a job. And it had to do with that personal connection. There's lots of talent out in the world. Beyond that, art directors are very busy people and they want to be working with people that they know are not going to be a pain in their neck. They're going to deliver good work, and they're going to be good people to have their exchanges with.

Mark

Allan and Sally decided to move east, but New York seemed just a bit too intimidating. Instead, they landed in Tampa, Florida, and grew Sally’s illustration practice into a larger business called WC Studio, employing a calligrapher, three photographers, and five illustrators. It wasn’t New York, sure, but with enough hustle, there was plenty of work to be found, including the Florida Lottery and the supermarket chain, Publix.

Allan

What I would do is I would get up every day, put the portfolio together, put in any new work I could, and I literally would drive from ad agency to ad agency to design firms to marketing companies. And I would go in, and it was almost like something out of the 50s, where you'd walk into the office and they’d go, “Hi Allan,” and I go, “Hi Dorothy! How you doing? Is, you know, is Andy in?” And she’d go, “Yeah, just go on back.” And you could just walk back into the art director’s office and go, ”Hey Andy, it’s Allan, how you doing today?” “Oh Allan, come in! I really wanted to show you something. I'm glad you got here.” You know, and then, you would just get work that way. And it it was crazy!

And, and so I would go out all day and call on all these clients—almost like doing a route—and I’d come home at night and then Sally and I would have a meeting in the evening, usually. And I’d say, “Okay, I got, you know, from Benito Advertising I've got this Publix job. And we're going to do storyboards for a Publix commercial on their bakery, and here's, you know, it's going to open on this.” And I would explain the whole thing to her, and then she’d, “Okay, I think I have it.” And then she could go to work on it. And we would do that for magazine jobs, for advertising jobs, design jobs.

Mark

But thanks to technology, WC Studio’s business wasn’t limited to Central Florida. And when I say technology, I’m not talking Photoshop or the World Wide Web.

A Quip machine, a forerunner to the fax. Image via  Eymer

A Quip machine, a forerunner to the fax. Image via Eymer

Allan

So we were on the cusp of this newer kind of way of doing it, is living where you want and trying to use emerging—and I mean emerging— technology such as a forerunner of faxes called “Quips” where you could actually send work over the telephone, and the advent of Federal Express, for example, as a way to move images overnight so that you could actually finish something at 6:30 in the evening in your studio in Florida... I mean, I've actually walked down onto the tarmac toward the jet with a piece that was due the next day. And it would get to your client the next morning, and they could call you up on the phone and say, “Hey, I got it, it looks good, here we go!” How it was done before was you actually had to hand–deliver everything.

And the cost there, however, was the relationship—face to face—with art directors. Slowly, the need to have the personal relationship began to become less and less and less. And so there was almost, like, a crisis point in the late 80s where everything was kind of just becoming so impersonal that the need for art itself as an original conceptual thing began to come into question. And that's when things like stock illustration and stock photography really took off, because they would say, “Well, why do I even need to talk to that person? I can go to this book or this website and just buy something off of there. And I don't have to hassle with, you know, talking the artists through it or telling the photographer, you know, what I need. And I can just find it, I can show it to the client, they can approve it. This is going to be so much easier.”

Well, what suffered was the conceptual brilliance of what artists, designers, photographers, writers could bring to that particular project. And so there was a swing away from the kind of personal service and now it's really swung back, because we figured out how to use all of the new media and technology and still not at the sacrifice of good, strong, conceptual ideas.

I mean, ideas are what drive everything. A really great idea, well done, is still the goal. It was the goal in the 40s and 50s. It's the goal in 2018 as well. It's, it’s… if you can really communicate something simply, smartly, and concisely—one idea, really well done—you're hitting the nail on the head.

So the industry really has had to, over and over in the last 30, 40 years, adjust to emerging technology and decide how we were going to use it and leverage it to do better work. And it took us a while as an industry—and I'm talking about illustration now—to decide that technology wasn't the enemy. It was just another tool for us to do what we did. But at first, it really did feel like the enemy. We’re goin’ like, “This is gonna kill illustration, illustration’s over. That's it! It's done!” And it’s not.

Mark

The march of technological progress hasn’t just changed illustration. It’s reshaped almost every corner of society, and whatever affects culture will inherently affect the arts. As we discussed in the previous episode, the smartphone revolution has resulted in a new generation that’s more design literate than any generation prior.

Allan

The students that are coming in now come to us on National Portfolio Day, when they’re still in high school, with really sophisticated work. These ridiculous portfolios with, like, great photography, great design, an animation, you know, a sound piece, costume design, a game that they've developed and, actually, you can play. You know, and it… because they've had—a lot of them, not all—but a lot of them have had opportunities to start to specialize much earlier. They've been taking drawing classes outside of high school. They have been taking illustration classes at the local community college. They've been studying with this person.

And, and so when you look at a portfolio now of a high school student, you can say, “Yeah, okay, this is looking really awesome! You know, what I'd like to see you do is do more observational drawings of this specific thing and get that into your portfolio.” And, and so the kind of feedback we're giving high school students who are going to apply to MICA is the kind of feedback that, when I first started teaching at MICA, you would be giving to seniors.

Mark (in interview)

Well, I want to challenge you on that a little bit, because MICA and private colleges in general are more expensive than ever. And is a rising tide of better access to, you know, the internet, to design software and tools, and all this stuff… Is it so damn pervasive that you're, in fact, lifting all boats? Or is this exacerbating an issue of young students of privilege—who have the access to this stuff and have access to the outside tutors and the outside classes—shoot so far ahead now that you're actually then losing a whole other crop of folks who just can't afford it? You know what I mean?

Allan

I do know what you mean, and as an institution, we have prioritized programs of opportunity for underserved communities to engage with MICA earlier. So, for example, a student—just let’s say from Baltimore—that knows they’re an artists, they want to be an artist, they’re a sophomore in high school. And we have outreach programs to try to identify and expose these students to MICA, to where they can start taking, you know, art classes while they’re in high school—and they would count for their high school education—and it fast tracks them into MICA. And in the meantime, they're getting tuition breaks as they take these classes. You know, the more they take and the more they accomplish, it starts to count against their tuition. And so, you know, we're trying to find opportunities to keep MICA within reach of anybody. Sammy Hoi, the president, is really committed to not leaving people behind because they can't afford a MICA education. And so he wants to literally transform not just MICA but Baltimore through MICA. And boy, that's ambitious, but it's also super inspiring.

Mark

Social media has also changed the dynamic. Today’s students are especially savvy, they grew up with it. They’re posting their work on Instagram and Twitter, where they’re being discovered by art directors.

Allan

And so they're being contacted. Nobody knows that they're a sophomore in an art school, they just see this person who does this kind of work, and “Boy, I could use that. Will you do this for me?” And so as a result, they're working professionally in their sophomore years. Probably a majority in their junior years have done professional work. And by the time they're seniors, they're getting, you know, job offers and big freelance gig offers and putting out work and they have Etsy shops and… and so, like, this whole professional piece is happening earlier and earlier, which is causing us to redefine professional development as an institution and start to offer pieces of it earlier.

Mark

Most classes at MICA meet once a week, and are generally split into two types: studio classes, which are 6 hours long, and academic, which are under 3.

When I was at MICA, Allan taught Senior Seminar, an academic class on the business of illustration. He advised us on how to prepare a contract, how to promote our work. It was a great resource, but limited in scope: a short lecture class tacked on to the main event, Senior Thesis, a studio class for working on and critiquing our thesis projects. The time and attention needed to really absorb those business lessons just wasn’t there.

Allan

So now Thesis is its own thing and Professional Development is its own studio class, which allows me to, when I talk about portfolio development and website development, I just don't say “Do it and show it to me, done.” The students are going to have time within that class to put together a professional package of business cards and letterhead and promotion pieces. And the time is built into the class itself, and, and I can be there with them going, like “That type doesn't work at all,” or, you know, whatever. And the same thing with the website: “It's too clunky, it needs to be smoother. Let's think about, you know, Squarespace and how you can use that rather than this.”

And then, the other idea was to open up Professional Development to juniors so that at the beginning of their junior year, when we start to talk about market-based work, they can take Professional Development and be thinking about their professional package, and what does copyright mean, and how to read a contract, and how to write a contract, and how to negotiate pricing. So we're trying to make it more and more available to them when they're ready, and they can jump in.

So some students still want to wait ’til their senior year because they're just not ready to think about pricing and money and contracts, they don't want to think about that. But there's a lot of students that in their junior year were, you know, sending me emails going, “I was just sent this thing called an NDA. I don't even know what this is and they want me to sign it.” You know? And so we're trying to get it to them earlier, and when they're ready, they can jump it.

Mark

Of course, it’s not just the individual departments taking on professional training.

Marsha Hammond

I'm Marsha Hammond and I am the assistant director of career development at MICA. I work specifically with the design and media-based majors and programs, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. So that spans everything from graphic design, architectural design, product design, to illustration, animation, video, interactive arts, user experience.

Mark

Like Whitney, Marsha began her MICA career as a student, earning a BFA in sculpture and a Masters in art education. Shortly after graduating, she joined the office of admissions, and over the next decade, worked her way up from counselor to director of admissions. It’s an interesting counterpoint to her current role in career development.

Marsha

Philosophically, you know, when I was in admission, I was kind of shepherding everyone to the same point. Whereas now I get to shepherd each individual out to their own, kind of, you know, really challenge them to go after whatever it is that makes them tick. And I really love that.

First and foremost, we're about teaching students how to build a sustainable career. So, you know, we want to teach you how to be effective networkers, how to communicate your value, how to put that into your professional package, and go out there and be successful. Really understanding that it's not just about the work that you're creating, but how do you market that work? How do you talk about yourself? What are the soft skills that you need to be able to not just get your foot in the door, but actually get hired and impress during an interview?

You know, when you look at, statistically, how people get jobs and opportunities, so much of it comes back to whether you want to call it networking or just, you know, talking to people. And I do see with the rise of such, you know, such a digital culture, such a social media culture, that the students that I meet with now are actually really… sometimes they really struggle with that face-to-face networking. They're, just the thought of going out and talking to people. “Like, I can't just send this out and click a button and then it's done?” Even writing emails, I do a lot of helping students custom-craft their correspondence in a way that is both genuine and professional, and, and… but also taking into account what the other person's needs are.

Mark

And networking is just the start. Marsha’s department is about more than helping students land that first job or freelance gig. They’re looking at the skills MICA alumni will need to succeed throughout their careers.

Marsha

Our office has been in conversation with our provost about: how do we better incorporate entrepreneurial skills into the curriculum from day one, knowing that artists—whatever kind of creative you are—there is usually a place in your life where you're going to have to do something entrepreneurial. The statistics are something like 80, 90% of our alumni have something entrepreneurial that they've done, whether that's selling a painting or, you know, truly being their whole income is freelance. So there's a huge push towards that, and it's something that's also been driven by the surveys that we've gotten back from alumni saying, “I wish I had learned more about this, because I need that now.”

Mark

All this said, the ultimate purpose of art education isn’t “how to get a job” any more than it is “how to paint.” The college does its best to arm its students with technical and business skills, sure, but perhaps the most valuable lesson is how to think. How to approach problems and address them in a visual manner. A graduate could take those skills to a gaming or animation studio, but Allan knows MICA grads can do so much more.

Allan

Students come into illustration, come into MICA, thinking they know what they want to be and what they want to do. And I want to acknowledge and nurture that idea, but at the same time, expose them to a greater breadth of what they could be, so that they feel like when they graduate, they have options.

You know, I always tell this story, like, students come in and say, like, you know, “All I want to do is work at gaming company, and I just want to design and draw weapons, and I want to do that ’til I retire.” Well, dude, that… you're not going to do that. [laughter] And so I want to get across to them, like, what's out there.

I think I really feel challenged to make the MICA four year experience worth the investment in terms of turning out students who have an idea of how they can leverage this visual communication education they got. Not just, perhaps, in just being an illustrator or a designer or even an artist necessarily, but maybe being a great lawyer, a great baker, or whatever they want to do. I think the education at MICA in terms of visual communication and visual language and visualizing ideas and visualizing information, and making that accessible to everyone is applicable beyond just a career in the arts. And so I want them to be able to grasp that and see that, and so that the options out there become a lot more broad.

Mark

A great way to prepare for anything is to learn a little bit of everything. It’s like language: you can’t be fluent in every tongue, but learning basic conversational skills in a bunch of languages will enable you to travel more confidently to new and unexpected places. It’ll get you in the door.

Allan

I’m gonna introduce a new term—and I have to credit this to a conversation I had with the chair of graphic design at MICA, Brockett Horne—we decided that we were training “designustrators.” The skill sets now are more permeable between animation, graphic design, illustration, even interactive arts and fibers and sound and all of that. And so our students need to learn how to expose themselves to a lot of different things, because the difference between emerging when Sally and I did, and then emerging when you did, Mark, and then emerging in 2019, is going to be: when Sally and I emerged, we really could get ten editorial jobs a week. You could really sustain yourself with just editorial. Well that is long, long gone.

Now I think that the students graduating really have to be skilled in a bunch of different areas. And what I tell a lot of incoming students when they say, like, “I don't know what I want to do,” and I say, “Well, here's a little pattern of how you can think about training: Yeah, you're going to need drawing chops, you need to draw the figure, you need to draw in perspective, you need to understand color and light. So that's all the classic illustration stuff, but that's not enough anymore. You also now, as an illustrator, need to have some design chops. You need to know how to use type, you need to know how to not just compose a picture, but you need to know how to compose a page. And that's still not enough. And now you also need some of this interactive or animation skills so at the very least, you can animate a GIF and put all these skills together in a package that would allow you to be more nimble entering the marketplace.

Mark

Of course, this can induce a bit of anxiety. “Am I learning the right things? Have I learned so much that I’ve watered down my core strengths?”

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to lose sight of yourself. Most college students are already grappling with “finding themselves” on a personal, emotional level. That struggle for self-discovery can also manifest as a search for one’s personal style.

“Is my work consistent and distinct? Should it be? Maybe if I have a bunch of different styles, I could be hired for different kinds of work. Or maybe art directors will avoid me because they’ll see me as a risk—you never know what you’re gonna get. If I have one distinct style, maybe art directors who know what they want will flock to me. But what if I pigeonhole myself and nobody wants what I’m selling?”

You can spin around and around, circling around that core fear of “Am I good enough? Does anybody love me?”

Allan

One of the things, you know, that I talk to students a lot, especially seniors as they're preparing to go into the workplace. And they're freaked out because they haven't perfected their style. You know, style… in a way, people make too much of it, because your style is, is so nuanced. It's so embedded in the way you draw and the quality of line and the kind of tones that you use—it's just there. And people say, “I don't have a style,” and then they show me their work. And I go, like, “Of course you have a style! It's so apparent. There's a thread through this body of work that only you could have done. You have a style, stop it!”

But at the same point, there was a point when Sally became known for a specific style of these businessmen with big wide shoulders and stove leg pants that were climbing ladders and balancing on tight ropes and, and all this stuff. And honestly, we could have rode that poor horse until it absolutely collapsed. But there was a point when she just said, “I’m done. I'm not doing that anymore. Call them back and say, ‘Sally's not doing that guy anymore, she’s doing a new guy or a new woman.’ “ And people, like, didn't hire us because they wanted that guy, and that's fine! You just find new work and you move on. You need to be willing to try new things.

I repped an artist once when I was at Shannon, and he wanted to do just what I’m talking about, ‘cause he was tired of his gorgeous, beautiful paintings that he was making. But he wanted to do something really loose and free and almost cartoonish and stuff. And so he decided to create an entirely new persona, and he worked under a pseudonym. And in our advertising, there was the page with, like, his work on it, and then there was this page with this other guy’s work on it, who had a new name and a new style and everything.

And he actually put two lines in in his studio, and he used two different voices. And when you’d would call the one, he’d go, “Hi, this is Mike, how are you? Yeah, I can do that.” And then when they’d call the other one, he’d go “G’day, this is Glenn, how can I help ya?” [laughter]

So that's a fight we all still fight with. But I think to try new things and to push the boundaries of what you do and how you do it, and to really let go of this style thing and just trust that it's there and it's working for you, I think that's really one of the keys for longevity.

Mark

Speaking of long and fruitful careers, the day before Allan and I spoke in the summer of 2018, the world lost a remarkable artist.

Allan

Aretha Franklin died yesterday and you think of her career and you see her singing gospel music and then soul music, and then later in her career, she actually, like, sang Nessun Dorma because Luciano Pavarotti couldn’t make this one gig, and she literally stepped in and sang opera on, like, an hour’s notice—and it was exquisite! It’s still Aretha Franklin, you know what I mean? But it’s all these different genres within music—it's still music! And, you know, that's courage, and that’s, like, being a real artist.

Mark

Ready or not, that long career has to start somewhere. Before you know it, you’ve graduated, trying to find your place in the professional world.

Marsha

Probably the hardest time for our alumni is the first year out because they're trying to establish themselves, they're trying to not look like they’re students—even though they just were—getting that first real job.

Allan

You need to begin to identify, do you need a job or can you freelance? The way I like to put it to students is: you have to, kind of, have a meeting with yourself and take this, like, personal inventory and, and say, like, “Who am I as an artist? What are my skills? What are my possibilities? And, and truly, how do I work and how does that fit into the big whole scene?”

Mark

The question of “Can I freelance” could also be phrased as “Can I run a business?” Here’s Whitney Sherman:

Whitney

Well, a “free lance” was a mercenary, somebody that would go and fight for anybody anywhere. And even that has some negative connotations that I think are bad, because that basically says, “I don’t care who I work for, I will do it.”

When people decide that they're going to be what has always been called freelance, they're actually setting up a business, and they're having to do all of the parts that any small business person would have to do. They have to be aware of things like “How’s my health insurance going to work? And who's going to do my taxes? And should I learn how to do them before I hire an accountant? And are these all the markets that I want to be in?”

So I think it’s really important that we, as illustrators, think of ourselves as “independent creative business people” rather than “freelancers,” because that, that takes a little of the substance out of what we actually do, when we think of ourselves as somebody that’s just like, “Got a coat, got a sword, I’ll be there!” [laughter]

Mark

There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of in-house vs independent. It’s a personal choice, and one that will likely change over time. You don’t need to stay on one track forever. Take it from Meg Robichaud, illustration lead at Lyft, who, prior to her first in-house job in tech, spent seven years as an independent illustrator and designer.

Meg Robichaud

They've all been very different and the exact right thing for me at the time.

Freelance, I love the idea of just: I wake up every day and I get to draw a new thing. And the fast pace of it, and setting the fast pace of it, but feeling really accomplished. Like, I find if you have a fast pace when you're in-house, it's really draining because you are here for the long haul. It makes you nervous. Like, you know that you can't do this for a long time. But when you have the fast paced freelancing, like, you know that you're in control. That might be my favorite part of it, ‘cause I love working until, like, four in the morning sometimes, because I'm in control of that. I miss that sometimes about working in-house because it's just—I work with people, and it's not realistic. If I work until four, I'm still going to feel guilty about not coming in the next day. So, like, you are still confined to the timelines of nine-to-five, even though everyone says that you're not.

The social part of it is interesting, too, to compare freelancing and in-house. I found when I was freelancing, I was really craving, like, being in an office and being around people every day. But now that I'm here—I mean, I do really enjoy being around people all day—but I go home and I'm exhausted. And, like, when I was freelancing, all of my “not work time” I was, like, full energy, because I had not talked to anyone all day. And actually having that energy to go for an actual really big hike or, like, do something real at the end of the day, instead of, like, going home and you're kind of tired—like, maybe you can grab dinner one night a week or something. The energy levels, I think, and where you put them, are something I didn't really expect to be a big difference between the two.

Mark

Once you have been doing something for a long time, it’s easy to mush together “how you work” with “who you are.”

Meg

I was, like, embarrassed almost when I finally decided to join Shopify, just because I had this identity wrapped up in being a freelancer and I had talked about being a freelancer for so long. And it was like I was giving in or something. I didn't want to tell the, like, twenty people who talk to me on the internet. And I did it, and everyone was only happy for me. Like, this thing that was a huge piece of my identity, it turns out, was not. And it was totally fine. And now I was an in-house person.

And I find that is a lesson I learn over and over. I think even when I was ready to move on from Shopify, it was a very similar feeling of, like, “Oh, no! This is my identity. Like, I've built this new thing on Shopify and I'm proud of this work. And, like, now it's like I just gave up on them and people are going to be mad at me again!” And obviously not. Everybody is just really happy for me. And it turns out these identities I have wrapped around myself are foolish.

Mark

There’s another common identity trap creatives find themselves falling into: In such a cross-disciplinary world, what do you call yourself? How do you want to be perceived by potential clients or employers. Some folks are comfortable living in the world of hyphens and slashes. Ben O’Brien, on the other hand, chose the opposite approach.

Ben the Illustrator (O’Brien)

Hi, my name is Ben the Illustrator. Obviously, I work in illustration. Been doing so for almost twenty years now.

Mark

That’s right. “Ben the Illustrator.” That’s the name he’s gone by professionally for over a decade. Forget hyphens, forget running in circles, asking “Am I a designer or an illustrator or a graphic artist or a this or that?” When you hire “Ben the Illustrator,” you know what you’re getting.

Despite that title, Ben actually began his career as an animator. He went independent straight out of school.

Ben

The animation sort of industry in London is studio based, and everyone else was looking to which studio they wanted to go to. But I think I always wanted to do something independent. Both my parents were self-employed their entire working lives, and it was very inspiring. And it sort of showed me what can be done with your own sort of gut and determination, I think.

Mark

He and a few friends soon formed a small, independent studio, and as the business grew, so did the variety of work that they were taking on. Ben started doing bits of illustration here and there, learning the ropes as he went, and ended up developing a real passion for it. Within a few years, the studio had run its course and disbanded, and Ben decided to go all-in on illustration.

Ben

Within a studio, I had a lot of different jobs and I'd have to deal with a lot of different things. And that takes up a lot of time that often takes you away from the creative work. I only really wanted to be doing creative work. So instead of having all these other management roles, I just wanted to be an illustrator, and that's kind of where that name came from. It was kind of branding myself to say, “Look, this is it. I'm not a project manager. I'm not an animation producer. I'm not kind of managing freelancers or anything. I just want to be doing the creative work and I just want to be an illustrator.”

Mark

Of course, working independently can leave one feeling disconnected. A couple years ago, Ben realized he was in a bit of a bubble. He wondered what life was like for illustrators in other geographies and industries.

Ben

I sort of realized that, as much as I feel kind of part of an industry or part of a community, I only really know that people that are in my little bubble, sort of thing. The people I've met over the years. And of course there's, you know, thousands of illustration communities, if you like. Because there's pockets within cities, there's pockets working in certain industries, or there’s pockets working in certain styles.

Mark

He put together a survey and sent it out at the end of 2017.

Ben

I was kind of interested as to where we were as an industry, how everyone was kind of getting along. And so I thought it would be a chance to bring together communities. The children's book publishing communities could be brought together with the hard news editorial communities and the fashion communities, maybe.

Mark

He asked illustrators to reflect upon their year and share how things were going. Had their workload increased, decreased, or stayed the same year over year? He asked about their clients, if they worked at home, how they self-promote, if they worked with an agent, and much, much more.

Ben acknowledges that he’s not a professional researcher or statistician; the survey isn’t exactly scientific. Its results were limited by language, timing, and the reach of Ben’s social network. Still, with 1,261 respondents, it offers far broader insight than a few scattered anecdotes. It’s a pulse check for the industry.

For example, that first question, how’s business? About 25% said business was down, another 25% said it was about the same, and the remaining half said that things had improved.

Ben

I had a fairly quiet year last year compared to the couple of years before it. So I think the thing from that is to know even if you're not, you know, having a great year, other people are, so there is work out there. And it's good to know that kind of thing.

Mark

Ben was surprised to see that, despite a perceived increase in illustration’s prominence in tech, gaming, advertising, the majority of respondents still work independently, with only 8% in an in-house role.

Ben

Most of the people I know are freelance, and they're working from home or they share a studio. But I never thought it was going to be quite that many that aren't working in house, sort of thing. I think that's going to go up because I've seen a lot of people, a lot of illustrators over the past ten years or so have become studios. They've started on their own, made their name, and then they might have occasionally used a freelancer themselves to help them out, and then they basically built into studios. And in the same way graphic design studios are, you know, perfectly commonplace and there's some in every town in the world, it seems, right? I think illustration studios might start to grow to that point as well.

Mark

The survey also reflected what Allan and Whitney said about the power of social media. 21% of respondents identified social media as their number one source of work.

Ben

When we were sending out postcards out—you know, I've done all that myself—there's a barrier between you and them. You don't know if they get it, you know, there's not always a two way communication. But in social media, you know, you follow an art director, they follow you back, then you're instantly having a conversation. You're showing an interest in them, they're showing an interest in you, and there’s far more conversations can come out of that.

Mark

But the survey wasn’t all sunshine. Nearly 70% said they don’t earn enough from illustration to live sustainably. About half of respondents work another full-time job, with illustration as a side gig. It’s disheartening, if not entirely surprising, given the potentially feast and famine nature of a freelance business.

But the truth of the matter is a bit more subtle. A number of respondents were students or just getting started in their careers. In addition, the mostly multiple choice survey ended with room for comments, and when Ben reviewed these responses, he found echoes of what Meg Robichaud said about the nature of independent work.

Ben

I think there's a bit of a stigma that you're not a proper illustrator if you're not full-time. But at the same time, illustrators are quite often, you're working from home, perhaps alone if you haven't got a partner or anyone else also working from home. And so for a lot of people, the a part time job is actually beneficial, because they know that maybe two, three days a week, they're out of the house, they're meeting people, they're interacting, you know. You're kind of doing what humans are supposed to be doing. And then, you know, they're excited about the two days a week that they get to do their illustration work. I know there's some people who might not trade that part-time job, because it adds a lot to their life as a whole.

I mean, it's a shame for anyone who is struggling and needs that other job when they don't want it, if they want to be a full-time Illustrator. And I can only hope those people are kind of finding a way to balance it or move ahead in a way that they will become a full time illustrator.

Mark

I was more alarmed by Ben’s finding that nearly four out of five illustrators feel that self-confidence issues have adversely affected their careers.

My mind is drawn to the pervasive cultural narrative of the “starving artist.” On a personal, emotional level, it can be hard to overcome that bogeyman.

Jennifer Hom, illustration lead at Airbnb and former Google Doodler, grappled with it too, even with plenty of role models in her own family.

Jennifer Hom

I come from a family of some artists. Some were amateur and some were professional. My father, he was a commercial artist doing storyboards in New York City, and he actually had me as free child labor. I used to color some of his storyboards for him. Unbeknownst to me, I was not paid, and I should have been paid.

But yeah, so, I just drew a lot when I was a child. And I kind of saw it as the only skill that I had that was monetizable. Everything else that I did was just, like, not going to be a viable career path. So I just kept going with it.

Mark (in interview)

You saw your ability to draw, as you said, as your, like, one marketable professional skill. So often, culturally, a lot of us have to get over the term “starving artist” and the notion of like, “Sure, I can draw, but you know, people can be on Broadway, too, but they're going to wait tables and maybe get their part twenty years in.” Like, we have this cultural internalized notion that it's a neat skill, but you're never going to make a living, right? Go be an engineer, be a doctor, what have you.

And I'm curious about how—as you mentioned, you have artists in your family, your father was a professional commercial artist—how much seeing that professional example helped color your understanding that these skills that you had actually could be something.

Jennifer

So my, my relationship with the idea of becoming an artist was actually… I went through that arc of thinking that I was going to be a starving artist when I was ten years old. When I was then, I don't know what happened to me, but I was like, “I can't make any money doing this! I'm going to stop drawing.” So I literally stopped drawing for three years.

Mark (in interview)

Oh, God.

Jennifer

And it was, [laughter] it was, it was literally fan art that got me to start drawing again when I was thirteen.

But ironically—so I'm from a Chinese American family. My mother, who should have been the one to say that “You should go into the sciences, you should be an engineer, you should be a doctor,” whatever. She's the one who encouraged me—like, unwaveringly—to pursue the arts. Even through my ten year old career crisis moment, she's the one who said “Keep going.” Because, for better for worse, she was the one who was witnessing my father’s success. And he was, he was very successful as an artist during what’s considered, like, the second “golden age” of illustration, which was in the 80s.

So she had this, like, very skewed, very optimistic slice of understanding about the art world and its commercial viability. She had no idea that when I was going to school, art was not doing that well as a career. She was just stuck in the 80s. And I'm like, “Thank god you were, because, like, if you had, like, the real pulse in your purview, then, like, you wouldn't have let me do this.” But she was eternally optimistic and she’s the one who encouraged me to go to art school. And I just happened, by luck, to hit, like, the next wave of illustration, “golden age,” which is for tech.

Mark

Allan Comport recalls how his family perceived the career he and Sally had chosen.

Allan

We’d been working in Tampa, and finally had billed over $100,000 for the year. And we were so excited. And I… at the end of the year, it was December, it was Christmastime, we were over—and my mom's the typical Italian little old lady—and I said, “Mamma, mamma, I got great news for you! We did all of our accounting for the year, and look how much money we made, mom!”

And I showed her the bottom line—I forget what it was—and she looked at me and she goes, “Oh, honey, that's so great. Now you can get a real job!” [laughter]

Mark (in interview)

Yeah! Yeah yeah yeah.

Allan

No... no, mamma! [laughter] This is…

Mark (in interview)

No, this is the real job! This is me proving that this is the real job!

Allan

Exactly! So there's just, there's the self-perception and then there’s the perception of the world that because you've chosen to be an artist, what you're trying to do is you're trying to make a living off your hobby. And that isn't the case. And that's, I think, an uphill swim for anyone—whether you're photographer, graphic designer, illustrator, painter, you know, fibers person, whatever you do in the arts—everyone thinks that on some level they’re an artist. That they could do that, they just choose not to, and that you do it for fun.

Milton Glaser, who’s my hero, put out a book not long ago. And the title of the book is “Art is Work,” and never so true was a statement made! [laughter]

Mark

While we’re on the topic of self-confidence, identity, and professional viability, I want to address two more major factors:

First, I’m a firm believer that you need to be your own strongest critic. Objective self-critique is a powerful motivator to improve your craft, a valuable weapon against complacency. But far too often, that spirit manifests as impostor syndrome, the insidious notion that everyone else is a pro who totally knows what they’re doing, and you’re just faking it, a fraud.

Second, a lot of respondents to Ben’s survey indicated that they’re not confident pricing their work. Money is so often a taboo subject, and that leaves illustrators in the dark.

And when lack of financial transparency meets nagging self doubt, you can start to devalue yourself and your work.

Illustrator and designer Hannah Swann knows this struggle all too well.

Hannah Swann

I have undercharged for my work so many times over the years. And it's been really hard, it's actually, like, a very emotional process. And I think something that's been really helpful to me is talking to people who I know are, like, billing a lot more than me, and finding those people who are kind enough to, like, just be straightforward and, like, have an open discussion about rates. And pretty much every single time I've talked to those people, they're like, “Charge more. Charge more.” And I'm like, “I have less experience!” And they're like, “Yeah, don't charge my rate, but charge more than you're charging now. Like, it's just, like, not enough.” And it's been really hard, and every time I pitched a higher rate, like, it just… like, my stomach turned. But ultimately, like, it's been really, really important.

If I could go back and tell myself something, having this mindset, like, earlier on would have really helped me. Just to, like, build in all of those costs that you absolutely have. You know? Like all of your software and, like, all of your student loan debt. Everything that you're paying for. Like, all of that has to go into your rate. And as, like, a young freelancer, I think people are just like, “Well, what can I get, like, ramen on this week?” It's like a horrible mindset.

I think there's so many different facets. Like, looking at the cost of your life, as well as just, like, understanding that your time is genuinely valuable. I mean it was certainly hard for me to realize that. I mean, I guess that's just, like, really imposter syndrome.

Something that's been so cool about, like, the time that I came into tech is coming in at the time where people are really starting to value illustration, so I don't have to do as much of that from the ground justification. I think it's been, like, a big load off my back. And I wonder, like, if I had come in at a different time, I think my career trajectory would be pretty different.

Mark

The tech industry’s embrace of illustration and design is what this series is all about, but that’s not to say it’s a land of milk and honey, a cure for all illustrative ills. For one thing, some have raised a skeptical eyebrow at the industry’s approach to a pillar of traditional illustration: credit.

In Step 5, Khoi Vinh praised Apple for its use of editorial illustration in the App Store. But he also noted that there are no signatures to be seen. No bylines for illustrators.

Khoi Vinh

My one criticism is that I wish the illustrators got credit. And I actually didn't mention that in the article and several people pointed it out to me. And I think it's maybe the most glaring oversight of the App Store. It’s that the illustration is important to the overall experience, and I feel like these illustrators should be recognized.

Actually, I mean, there's some argument as to why the illustrators shouldn't be credited, because the writing is not credited. And Apple is really trying to focus people on the apps themselves, and they're probably not interested in creating a “star stable,” so to speak, of writers and illustrators. I think that would be a distraction for them.

But I would also say, like, I would imagine that the writers are on-staff—I don't know that for sure, but that would be my guess—whereas the illustrators are freelancers and the illustration industry as a whole sort of relies on the credits, the recognition of their work, because they need to build momentum. And it's so hard to make a career as an illustrator to begin with, and this would be such a big boost for the industry.

Mark

Ryan Putnam has a different perspective. As we learned in Step 1, Ryan’s work at Dropbox helped establish illustration’s place in tech. He sees the industry as a massive opportunity for illustrators, even though it comes with a different set of rules, risks, and rewards than traditional sectors like publishing and editorial.

Ryan Putnam

There's so many amazing, amazing illustrators that work in editorial or some of these other industries where they're making just, like, nothing. And I want to be like, “Hey, come over here, try it!” You know, like, there's a lot to be had here.

I think there's trepidation in this tech industry itself because the same kind of structures aren't the same. Like, you know, an illustrator agent might come here and be like, “Okay, well, how much royalty do I get from this?” Or, you know, like, all these things that, like, just kind of don't apply to our industry. They're still thinking of it as, like, tech’s taking advantage of illustrators because they're not putting their name on a header image.

And there just needs to be a broader conversation of, like, what type of compensation we expect as illustrators from these companies. You know, I've gotten very well compensated for equity within these companies. Like, I don't have royalties to this image, but the equity I have in this company is worth way more than any of the royalties that I would have gotten from those companies.

There's a lot of opportunity in tech illustration and, like, there's a lot of awesome illustrators that should be getting paid a whole lot more, and they should come [laughter] come work for some of these companies, I think.

Mark

Bringing illustrators to the tech industry is about more than individual economic gain. An influx of illustrators with diverse personal backgrounds, professional experiences, and creative approaches could help combat the industry’s visual monoculture and lead to more illustrators in positions of leadership.

Whitney Sherman has seen this dynamic play out before. The kind of work that’s considered acceptable, that’s published and celebrated, is a reflection of the culture and the people involved—the creative talent and the people buying and hiring.

Whitney

When I entered the world of being an independent creative person, print was king. Realism was paramount. People who were illustrators who were seen as the top dogs were painters. Those people were older than me and really hearkened back, they looked back, they revered the “golden age.” There were very few people that were renegades, that were really doing anything outside of that. If they were, it was playful and a bit cartoony, which worked well with advertising and whatnot. You know, and it was predominantly a male field. There were very few females that were, at least, on the tip of anybody’s tongue. It was highly a boys’ club.

It took a little bit until things started coming out of California that were considered ugly. These things were really coming out of that moment when the group of artists in Northern California called “Beautiful Losers” were working. And even though they weren’t working as illustrators, that work, which referenced street art and graffiti, really had a strong influence on illustrators. People that were feeling like they weren't really fitting into this beautiful, oil painting, “golden age” kind of thing.

It created this possibility for people to say, “You know what? I like that. I'm going to go that way.” All you need in that instance is a handful of art directors that are looking at that going, “Yeah,” and a handful of illustrators that want to do that, too, to really bring that to the forefront, because there's nothing like that validation that that's okay by seeing something published.

Over time, just the way that things have looked and the way that people interpret subject matter has broadened, which is great. This is the equivalent of, like, anything goes with fashion instead of everybody's dressing exactly the same way.

Mark

Illustrators already working in tech are key to making this happen. For those of us who scaled the wall and made it in, it’s our job to break down the wall, to advocate for illustration and illustrators, to create more professional opportunities.

Take it from Jennifer Hom, who has spent the last few years as an illustration manager.

Jennifer

I've only been able to shepherd illustrators into full time jobs over the last two years, and it has been an experience that I never would have anticipated, because in art school it’s easy to become very absorbed in your own growth, your own abilities. I know that my classmates and I were all very competitive with each other, because it's kind of like a lone wolf industry by nature. And I, I didn't really know what it was going to be like to manage illustrators, but I wanted to give it a shot because I saw it as a path for career growth in general.

And I found that being able to hire people and bring them into stable, full-time careers and guide them along the way of how to conduct themselves in a corporate environment has been so much more fulfilling than I would have expected. It's way more fulfilling than me just, like, drawing a cool whale. Like, whatever, that doesn't really mean anything to me anymore. It's more about enabling other people to grow, and enabling other people to live creatively fulfilling and financially stable lives that they can be proud of, and have a seat at the table, where they deserve to be.

Because honestly, like, illustrators, I'd like to think, are pretty sensitive. They're pretty aware of other people's feelings. And tech is very heavy on the technical side—for lack of better phrasing—but it's not very well-equipped for connecting with users. And it's important that people that are more creative and more empathetic and more understanding of how human beings think, to come into these companies to both reassure our users that we're looking out for them, and to also kind of steer the conversation internally. And it's been great to give opportunities to people who think about other people. Yeah, I've, I’ve loved it!

Mark

The industry needs more illustrators, even if not every company knows it yet. Meg Robichaud argues that it’s still early days, which means opportunities may be hiding in plain sight.

Meg

Like, I showed up and I just made up my job. And I think a lot of the illustrators who are in-house right now, that's how we all got here. We just kind of said it was a thing now. But I don't think that window has closed yet.

I think if someone said, “I’m a content strategist who writes and illustrates,” like, you just invented a job that we all need. And you just find the space that you fit into. You can be a researcher who also illustrates, or whatever it is that is most interesting to you. That's going to be the thing that you're going to the best at, because you're more interested than anyone else.

Mark

To find your way in, you need to keep your eyes and mind open. You can’t always know which opportunity will lead to success or happiness.

Jennifer

When I was interviewing on Doodles, I didn't know what I was getting into, I'll be honest. I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that I wanted to be able to feed myself and I didn't want my mother to worry.

RISD has this thing every year called “portfolio review day” where a bunch of companies just come to the school and they look at portfolios so that students can get critique from people who are professional art directors, illustrators, designers.

So I was a senior and Google happened to have showed up at this review day. And at the time, I didn't know—no one around me knew—that Google Doodles was a full-time job. We just saw it as something that happened once in a while on the homepage. So I signed up to talk to them because I was just curious. I was like, “What are you guys doing here? Brown University is up the hill, you might be at the wrong school.”

Mark (in interview)

Right, right.

Jen

And yeah, [laughter] and I was like ”They have engineers or something up there, I think.” And they're like, “Oh, no no no. We're actually recruiting for the Doodle team.” And I was like, “Oh! Okay, well, like, I don't know what that portfolio is supposed to look like, but here is my gaming concept art portfolio.”

Mark

The Doodle team was impressed by Jennifer and one of her classmates. Once the review day was over, the students gathered in a classroom to discuss their experiences.

Jennifer

The one other person that Doodles was interested in said, “Oh yeah, Doodles was interested in me, but I don't think I want to draw a logo for the rest of my life.” And I sat there and I thought to myself, “I’m not above that!” [laughter] And I just kept going with it.

And I had no idea what I was getting into, and I'm like, I felt a little bit of shame because I knew that that wasn't deterring me. And even though someone else thought it was beneath them, it wasn't beneath me. So…

Mark (in interview)

So what does that say about me?

Jennifer

Yeah, what does that say about my taste? [laughter] But it led me here! And, and I'm fine! Like, I'm happy with what I do. I find what I do satisfying.

So the lesson that I took away from my experience was: don't close any doors without knowing what you're closing your door on.

Mark

It’s reminiscent of “yes, and…“, that core principle of improv comedy. The “yes” means you accept what you’re given by your comedic partner—or in this case, the professional world. You don’t pre-judge the idea, you don’t shut it down. The “and” in “yes, and…” means you add something of your own. You contribute back, which continues and builds the creative energy.

I began this podcast series with an anecdote of 21-year-old me trying to figure out how to turn my illustration degree into a job. Despite plenty of messaging to the contrary from Whitney, Allan, and all my extraordinary teachers at MICA, I had internalized a pretty narrow and distorted definition of what it meant to be a, quote, “real illustrator.” “Real illustrators” were freelancers. They worked in editorial or comics or children’s books.

But I had had that conversation with myself that Allan recommended, and knew that I needed a full time job. Maybe I could find work in gaming or animation, but I didn’t want to learn 3D modeling. Unlike Jennifer, I shut down entire paths before I even took a step.

Instead, I mostly put aside illustration and focused on design and technology, secondary skills that I figured were the clearest path to a steady job. I landed a gig designing and coding marketing emails. I contracted at a children’s media company, designing interfaces for online games. That led to a UX/UI firm, which lead to a healthcare startup, which led to a crypto finance startup, where I am today.

Along the way, I’d find ways to use my illustrative skills, but it often felt like a party trick. Surprise! I can draw! For years, I didn’t feel confident in my professional identity. Was I Mark the Illustrator? Mark the Designer? It felt like it had been ages since my illustration education, and while most of my work was design, serious impostor syndrome kept me from feeling like a capital D “designer.”

When Whitney and I spoke, we spent the first few minutes catching up. I told her about my career, and nervously admitted to my old professor that sense of conflict and unease I had grappled with along the way.

Whitney

Yeah, I think there's a mistake that people make sometimes in thinking that these different parts or these different pathways are a kind of a “crazy quilt” or a “mishmash,” as you were calling it. That's really illustrating how well you are being flexible in determining where you want to be in a creative life. There are a lot of parts to that.

One of the benefits of there not being a lot of jobs out there—nine-to-five jobs—for illustrators is that they do have to put these things together if they’re on top of this. They're able to respond relatively quickly to changes. And we know that the economy has a great effect on art in general, you know, whether it's taking art classes out of grade schools or high schools because the budget isn't there, or whether it's cutting back on the number of illustrations that might be in a magazine or on a cover. Those kinds of things are really inherent in the life of an artist. And being able to have that flexibility, that ability to move yourself from one place to another, is a benefit. It's really an asset to be able to do that.

So rather than thinking about it—and I have to say, I, I myself thought about it that way when I first started. That I'm doing a little bit of this, I'm doing a little bit of that, and someday I'm going to be that professional illustrator. I was the professional illustrator. I was responding to the way the world was, the way the economy was, the way business was, and what it was offering out for me to be able to engage in.

And so if you've got a one track in your mind, you're not gonna to go there. If you're open to ideas, you're going to be responsive, and you're going to be able to engage.

Allan

A career is a marathon. It's not a hundred yard dash, it's a marathon. And the arc of a successful career is full of change. It's full of challenge. And whether or not you feel like you have the gift, or whether or not you feel like you've learned the skills doesn't matter. What matters is your commitment to that gift or those skills.

The people who make a career are those whose commitment runs to the very depth of their soul. And you just have to get up every day and work. And you just have to keep working and be enthusiastic and be a pleasure to work with. Respect the deadline, respect your craft, respect your client.

And so that's really what it takes. It's some personality stuff that goes along with the gift or the skills that you've learned. And you have to put those things all together. And you have to be committed to be the last man or woman standing. I mean, you just say, like, “This is who I am. I'm an illustrator, I'm an artist, I'm a designer, and I'm not going to give up on this.”

Mark

A few years ago, I finally internalized the lessons Whitney and Allan had taught me years earlier. I let go of that myopic definition and finally embraced my own creative identity. I am an illustrator and a designer. I can be a technologist and a storyteller.

Illustration isn’t about freelance or in-house. It transcends medium and industry and subject matter.

Whitney

Yeah, I think an illustrator is just a way of being. I think people that identify that way, as illustrators, know that. They know that they're illustrators. And there's an identity there that, I think these days, a lot of people don't see it as defining just one kind of thing. It defines way of thinking and way of seeing the design of the world, how the world is made, and how we talk about the world. You know, we're illuminators, we're storytellers. We want to engage with the public, we want to have a dialogue.

There are a lot of ways to express yourself. There are a lot of ways to maintain your personal integrity as an artist and fit into the business world and make a living at it. And we do hope that by exposing people to these possibilities and giving them the confidence to enter those areas that they're going to be entering places that perhaps an illustrator hasn't been before, and perhaps they are then creating a new frontier for our practice.

Mark

In a sense, today’s tech industry is one of those new frontiers. For generations, technology made its mark on illustration, and for the last several years, we’ve been returning the favor.

We demonstrated that illustration can forge an emotional connection with users. By establishing processes and standards, we delivered brand systems that have lasted and adapted. We made technology products and brands more inclusive and representative. We broadened the industry’s palette with editorial techniques and approaches. We infused illustration into everyday technology and communication, and helped create a more design literate world. And time and time again, we changed. We adapted, finding new ways to engage and express. And with countless opportunities yet to be found, we’re just getting started.

That’s how you draw a startup.

 

[Theme music]

 

How to Draw a Startup is written, produced, edited, and scored by me, Mark Grambau.

You can find the show in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever fine podcasts are found. And while you’re there, please leave a rating or a review. The show’s also on Twitter and Instagram at @drawastartup. For episode transcripts and guest profiles, go to howtodrawastartup.show.

Neither my guests nor I speak on behalf of our respective employers.

As always, I’ve got a couple links for you to check out:

First, Ben the Illustrator’s survey is now an annual event! The results of his 2018 edition came out while I was working on this episode. Check it out at bentheillustrator.com/illustrators-survey.

Also, when Marsha Hammond isn’t teaching college students how to become entrepreneurs, she’s being one herself. Back in 2014, at just 38 years old, she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. Faced with a terrifying and uncertain road ahead, she was determined to focus not on fear, but on hope. She designed and printed decals for her chemo infusion IV bags, covering the scary, clinical caution labels with beautiful, apothecary-inspired designs, with words like “Miracles” and “Vitality.”

Today, Marsha’s in remission, thankfully, and with her company, Mind the Current, she’s dedicated to transforming the cancer experience for others. Those homemade stickers became Dhremo Therapy IV Decals, her flagship product. To learn more, go to dhremo.com. That’s D H R E M O dot com. Of course, a portion of all profits goes to cancer research and support organizations.

All right, as this is my last episode of the show, it’s time for a whole lot of thank yous:

First, there’d be no show without my sixteen extraordinary guests: Allan Comport, Angela Guzman, Marsha Lynn Hammond, Jennifer Hom, Gedeon Maheux, Guillermo Mont, Ben the Illustrator O’Brien, Ryan Putnam, Meg Robichaud, Stewart Scott-Curran, Whitney Sherman, Kristen Spilman, Hannah Swann, Quentin Vijoux, Khoi Vinh, and Kevin Walker.

Thank you all for generously sharing your time, your experience, your insight, your humor. It was a unique honor to speak with each and every one of you and to weave your stories together.

I’d also like to thank you, the listeners, especially those of you who reached out, asked questions, made suggestions, and shared the podcast with your friends and colleagues. I’m so glad the show resonated.

Lastly, if it wasn’t abundantly clear, this whole podcast is a personal project and has been a pretty massive undertaking. It’s been nearly a year of nights and weekends spent interviewing, writing, recording, and editing. This would have been entirely impossible without the patience, love, and encouragement of my wife, Melissa Chao. Thank you, dear, from the bottom of my heart.

All right, podcast over! Thanks for listening, and I’ll seeya around.