You graduated from Sheridan College in 2012. In the larger sense of things you are a relatively young designer / illustrator but your work has a sense of maturity to it, in both execution and thinking. How did you develop it in such a short time?
Why thank you, that’s very kind. I guess I’ve always been drawn to more real gritty imagery and concepts which is funny because I’m a very happy person in general. I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but my personal maturity might have something to do with being the youngest of three and a few rough patches I experienced when I was a young teenager — which maybe translates into my work.
As for technique, I practiced and experimented over and over and over and still do. It’s something I continue to work at and develop my skills in, challenging myself along with way. In school there was an emphasis on concept, storytelling and thinking; from composition to colour, all aspects of our work played a role and we analyzed these things year after year. This paired with my experience in advertising, where conceptualization and the idea is numero-uno, probably helped as well.
In college you don’t necessarily learn how to practise design, rather how to think about design. Where / how did you really learn the nuances of design from a practical standpoint? Did you have a mentor?
I’ve always been wired for math, it makes sense to me. Call me crazy, but I really enjoyed and was very good at the right-side brain stuff, which I think aspects of design can fall under. So when I was attending Sheridan and we were given the option to take graphic design as an elective, I opted to take them all. Our prof, Jill Dallas, was paramount in developing my passion for design. She really prepared us with all of the essentials to explore design further on our own; from the basic rules of composition, repetition, alignment and position to colour theory to the math behind it all. We were encouraged to play around which kickstarted my love for it.
That said, my design was definitely not the greatest when I first graduated, but at least I had the right set of tools. After graduating I continued to teach myself and assign myself with side projects such as 365 Days of Type. Designing a new and unique custom font for every day of the year forced me to learn something new every day. I know that sounds cliché, but doing is learning.
Colour is a huge component to your work. You seem to play with it. Does colour come naturally to you or did you study masters like Johannes Itten?
Oh man, did I play with colour—probably to the point of overkill when I was in school! Everything was bright, saturated cyans or neon pinks. I’m sure the teachers had to wear sunglasses to mark it sometimes, haha. But hey, I was trying things and playing around a lot which I think is important to do while you’re in school. (You sure as heck can’t experiment as boldly on a real job.) I was really inspired by people like Tomer Hanukawhose pallets are bizarre when seen out of context but so brilliant altogether. I’ve always been drawn to colour, but over time I learned the art of restraint and subtlety. There are times when black and white or muted tones work, but colour to me is like an extra layer of icing; it can be too much but you’d miss it if it wasn’t there—if used in proper amounts, it can compliment the other flavours beautifully.
You’ve worked with some large clients such as Mozilla, The Globe and Mail and The New York Times. Can you walk us through the process of landing a client like the New York Times, since for a lot of people that would be the epitome of success. Did they find you or did you seek them out etc.?
That’s such a hard question to answer because it suggests there’s a right way (or way in general) which there most definitely is not. At least that I know of. All of my clients were acquired so incredibly differently. If I’m being honest, I simply put myself out there on any and every platform that was available to me. I sent mailers, I emailed, I used Behance, Twitter, Dribbble, Instagram, you name it. I did send a few mailers and emails to people at The New York Times but the Art Director who contacted me wasn’t one of them so I can only assume they passed on my work in-house which I’ve come to learn is how a lot of advertising happens; word of mouth, I mean. Art Directors sharing with Art Directors. But you can’t discount the power of social media, which is how The Globe and Mail and I got connected, among other clients. Behance has also been a great platform; I believe that’s how Mozilla found me. I’ve never cold called though, and I haven’t sent mailers since 2012. I personally favour email, word-of-mouth and connecting at industry events and on social media.
Every illustrator has their “Nemesis”, such as drawing hands etc. Do you have one and do you actively avoid it?
Yes! Oh gosh, scenes! Specifically scenes with a lot of depth and perspective. I tend to draw everything with the same level of detail which makes for a busy image and an extremely time consuming one as well. Scenes always results in a bad case of the wrist-blues. So I steer clear of these jobs on purpose: I believe my skills and time would be better spent doing what I am good at and there are better people for that job. While developing your weak areas is good, if it doesn’t come naturally to you, that’ll never be your strongest card to play, so I’d rather focus on my strong areas and take advantage of what comes naturally to me.
Talent is not always enough to make it, so how focused are you on business? You also effectively run two businesses – the illustration and the design/art direction – do you approach them differently?
I approach them nearly the same way because I personally find they have a lot of cross-over. Projects I’m designing for end up needing illustration, illustrations I make end up getting animated later, or if I’m designing a magazine spread, I sometimes end up creating illustrations for the article as well. They’re one in the same to me and help inform each other; they’re best friends! But no matter what project I’m working on, I approach them with professionalism and extreme organization. I’m in the boat that believes this is a business first, which, in turn, is beneficial for more than one reason: when I treat it like a business, I inevitably become more organized and stay on top of my projects better, and I’m sure my clients appreciate it as well.
You run various side projects as extensions to your creative output. What are they and can you detail why you do them?
I’ve always thrived when I’m multi-tasking and working on a variety of things. I get bored easily and have myriad passions, so I’m always changing it up. If I’m neglecting my love for writing, I have to go on a writing spree, for example. So most recently, I’ve started a blog, Hands and Hustle as an outlet for my interests outside of my professional life. It’s where I share design resources such as free stock photos, weekly playlists, the latest in home design, style and fashion, my own musings and daily life and all things lifestyle. At the end of the day, if I took all of my passions seriously, it would feel like work too much, so blogging serves as a fun outlet that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s still lighthearted and casual so it’s more enjoyable than setting out to write a novel, for instance. It’s a nice balance of work and play and is such a great community to be a part of. Bloggers like bloggers and unconditionally support them; it’s kind of nice.
You now offer products to buy in your online store. How significant is this to you both in terms of emotional value / creative output and monetary reward?
Right now my shop is a creative outlet of sorts and testing ground for the things in my brain. I’m doing it for fun and to explore what that world is like—and because I’m a picky shopper, so I’m making things I want to wear and buy. I’m not making any significant profit off of it at the moment, but it’s a new adventure. I’d eventually like to collaborate with established brands on apparel, stationary and home goods or develop my line further, so it’s a good first taste and foot in the door to that industry.
In creating your own products you inevitably kickstart the notion of a “Sabrina Smelko” brand. Are you actively aware of your “brand”? Is it something you try cultivate and navigate in a certain direction?
Yes and no. I’m obviously aware of it but I’m not stringent with it (on purpose.) If I were, I’d likely not have done a lot of the things I have—things that that have led to good things. So I purposely try to keep it light, enjoy it and stay true to myself and my style. However, one decision I did make deliberately was positioning my current shop under the same name as my blog, Hands and Hustle, because it’s not about me and my services and my name. It’s a shop made for the same people who read my blog where I share my taste and style so you know what to expect, what I’m influenced by and where I’m coming from. It just made sense.
Excuse us if we’re wrong here but the one facet of work you haven’t explored too much is digital design – webapps / websites for clients. This is despite running some rather nice and successful personal sites. Is there any reason for this?
Thanks, and you’re right! I’m not sure that I actively avoid it, but I’ve definitely never pursued it. I find web fun and while I love making my own websites, it’s not a priority on the passion scale and I’m not as confident in web as I am elsewhere. I feel like there’s more that can go wrong that’s over my head; I can deal with files crashing or poor print quality, but when something goes wrong with web I throw up my hands if it isn’t a basic fix. That said, I do design websites here and there, I just don’t like advertising it because, as you know, then I’d get hired for it. If you put a horse in your portfolio, you’ll get asked to draw a horse.
As a designer what advice would you give an illustrator? And as an illustrator what advice would you give a designer?
In my world, they exist as one and I can’t imagine having one without the other, so it’s hard for me to separate them. But overall advice don’t be afraid of new media or think of design as a dirty word; it can and will inform and help your illustration. Also don’t be a weirdo and don’t worry in general; things tend to work themselves out as you move on with life. The moment I stopped caring about silly things like establishing a style is the moment it starts figuring itself out over time on its own. Stay curious, do what you’re good at and keep exploring.
What is your proudest piece and why?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. I’d have to say this blanket I made recently for the show Objects Have Stories at MADE Design in Toronto. It was my first foray into textiles and product making and it was both an enjoyable and challenging process. I loved the tactile quality and working with my hands. There’s something about sitting at a sewing machine in your basement at night with pins between your teeth hunched over fabric that I fell in love with. I’m proud of the piece because it was something new to me and I just figured it out as I went along. And I’m thrilled with how it turned out! I’ll definitely be making more.
As absurd as this question is… do you have any idea of your future career path?
Haha, it is a tad absurd; I tend to think of today and tomorrow and next week, but I guess I have a general idea of things I love doing, so anything where I can continue to do them all would be my dream; something that combines illustration, design, making, writing, consulting, collaborating, moving about. I just don’t like to sit still, literally and figuratively, so ideally the future me would continue doing a plethora of different things – Ooo, with a dog at my side.