My Interview with Tuts+ About My Job as a Creative

Original post from Tuts+

Many thanks for Mary Winkler for the interview!

Mary: This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabrina Smelko, whose work varies from illustration to graphic design to art direction to blog writing. She’s worked with Mozilla, AARP, and a host of other companies. It seems her client list never ends, and as such her insight into the working life of an in-demand designer is enlightening to say the least.

Thanks so much for the interview. Let’s start at the beginning:

What got you into illustration?

Me: It’s my pleasure! Thanks for having me.

I worked at my local library for six years from the age of 14 until about 20, and I remember noticing how some books had “pictures” in them. Then I started noticing illustration everywhere: in the doctor’s office, in my school textbooks, on cereal boxes. I remember experiencing that light bulb moment when I realized “a grown adult human had the job of drawing that thing!” It dawned on me that it could be a career. And when I attended an info session at Sheridan where Joe Morse spoke about the illustration program and what illustration really was, it all came together. I should also credit my parents, who encouraged and fostered creativity in my sisters and me since we were young.

Who or what are your main sources of inspiration? 

Thesis project of Sabrina Smelko
Ms. Smelko’s thesis project at Sheridan College. Full project can be seen here.

While I was in art school, and for the first year or two after, most of my inspiration came from other illustrators and designers. While I still find many inspiring, I’ve recently become more enthused by smart and successful business men and women—preferably nice ones. People who believe in ideas enough that others can’t help but get behind them too. That, to me, is inspiring. Anything’s possible if you want it to be and that’s been driving me lately to think in new ways and explore what I really want out of this short life we have.

Did you study art or are you self taught?

I attended Sheridan’s BAA Illustration degree program from 2008 to 2012. It was at Sheridan that I learned how to think—or rather, how to think in new ways. I went in with the belief that I’d learn about art, but I came out with a much vaster view on the world and, to be honest, overwhelmed with the possibilities that there are if you foster good ideas and explore them endlessly. Since school, I’ve learned a ton on my own about business and the nuances of being self-employed, all the by-the-books stuff, and applying it to my creative career.

What is your creative process like?

Trust No one Lettering

Lately, I’ve done a lot of art directing, in which case my workflow begins with executing concepts and drawing out as many options as I can and then standing back, eliminating and refining. Whereas with illustration or design, my workflow is the complete opposite; I start by thinking, thinking, thinking. For an hour; for a day; before bed; in the morning. If you don’t have a good idea, or can’t conceive of something that looks good, you’ve got nothing. It either has to be aesthetically beautiful or smart, or both. And that has to start in your brain before it exists on paper for me.

What programs and tools do you use in creating your work? Anything you’re especially fond of that you’d like to recommend to readers?

Sabrinas sketchbook

Always a Moleskine sketchbook and a really good mechanical pencil. I never stick with a certain kind, but reflecting on it now, I’m sure I would benefit from investing in a quality lead. I just end up buying whichever .7mm pencil is cheapest. However, I must have my trusty Staedtler eraser and good-quality black ink pen. I’m also fond of smaller, lined notebooks to write and brainstorm in. I probably use my notebook more than my sketchbook to be honest.

Sabrinas sketchbook

No particular brand really; I have about seven—all of them different—and I use them interchangeably. They all fill up equally, and it’ll likely be years before one gets filled completely—if at all. That sounds awfully disorganized, but my taste changes and what I feel like writing in that day with it. And of course, my Bamboo Wacom tablet. I’ve had it for over six years and while it’s the size of three post-its, I still love it and it does the job for me. I’ve become so used to its nuances that it’s become like an extension of my arm.

Sabrinas Workspace

Software-wise, I rely on Adobe Illustrator for design work, Photoshop for illustration, InDesign for editorial or layout work, After Effects for animating, and Lightroom for photos. I frequent Flickr to search for reference photos because I find they are the most candid where you’ll get interesting angles rather than “stock-photo-straight-ons”. And films, of course. They’re also great for color inspiration. Things like dramatic shadows. Kyle Webster’s Photoshop brushes, The BlkSmith Design Co’s texture packs, and my own collection of papers, textures and self-made PS brushes.

How many years have you worked as an illustrator/designer?

Some of Sabrinas work for Mozilla
One of the wallpapers Sabrina designed for Mozilla. You can see the set here.

I’ve been working as a illustrator and designer for three years, but have recently been art directing and blogging at I also work part-time for Mozilla helping design their Firefox Operating System. I have my hand in many pots, but that’s the way I like it and how I stay motivated and inspired. All of my work informs each other. For now, I’m selfishly trying everything out to see what I like best (and what I’m best at). I haven’t yet decided what I want to be when I grow up.

What’s your typical workday like? How about your work space? Can you give us an insight into how and where you work? 

Sabrinas workspace

I work in my home studio in the heart of Milton, the westward neighbor of Toronto. It’s a humble space, but it has everything I need including some things I didn’t even know I’d need or use, such as a garden and outdoor space to work in. I end up working in my backyard as much as I do in my office. And I get a ton of thinking and brain-churning done in the garden out back.

Sabrinas workspace and bookshelves

My actual office, though, is a square room with a tall and skinny beveled window. A few prints hang on the wall—by Nimit Malavia and Adam Garcia—as well as a porcelain bat created for the Garrison Creek Bat Co. by Erin McCutcheon and a plaque illustrating “The History of Dogs”. And a plethora of plants. On my desk at any given time is my laptop, my Dell monitor, my Bamboo tablet and snacks—or their wrappers, depending on when you look.

How did you get your start freelancing?


Purchase prints of Ferns & Foliage

Early on I developed a few contacts whom I’ve worked with regularly ever since. If you know even a small handful of people and they get to know that you’re nice, you deliver on time, you work hard (truly) and deliver a good product, good things will likely happen. The creative community, though large, is also very small: Art Directors are friends with Art Directors. Those few contacts I met in the beginning were just people I met with in person, shook hands with, introduced myself to and chatted with. Sometimes showing up and not being a weirdo is enough. It’s also important to stay friends with your peers and pals in your given field. Don’t be advantageous, but go to events, say hey, be genuine and get involved.

What freelance projects have you worked on in the past?

Illustration for the New York Times

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a wide range of clients from The New York Times to TD Bank to Ogilvy & Mather. On-site, freelance, contract, short-deadline, long-deadline, no deadline. Illustration, branding, animation, editorial design, web development and design. It’s been a wide range and I love it that way. I’ve been pretty blessed.

What’s your work preference: graphic design or illustration? Any particular rewards in either? Any particular challenges in either?

Purchase prints of Morning Dear

Both, and yes and yes. I find illustrating to be very personal; how my piece turns out is something I measure myself by. I’m harder on myself when it comes to illustration. Perhaps it’s because I find it more challenging and more subjective than a lot of design. In any case, design comes easier to me; more naturally. It makes more logical sense to me. While there’s good and bad design even if you follow the basic rules, design loosely follows a mathematical equation. I know what I can do to make a design better, which isn’t always the case for me when illustrating.

Personal illustration of Smelko

Purchase prints of Forever Summer.

Illustration is more heart and design is more head, in my experience. Because of this, I find illustration more rewarding when it turns out very well, but more challenging when it doesn’t go the way I envision. But I enjoy both, and when I can, I do both. I enjoy design more when I’m also working on an illustration, and I enjoy illustrating more when I’m working on a design project as well.

You also started a blog under How did you get involved in blogging? What’s your typical focus with blog posts? 

I started blogging this summer as an outlet for some of my passions, new and old. I was craving a new start and I felt the need to branch out, figure out what I wanted, and express myself. I originally started Hands and Hustle under a different name that was very separate from my profession and the creative world, but I quickly realized the mistake I was making in ignoring a big aspect of my life. I had stripped myself out of the equation and blogged about things I thought I should rather than what I wanted to. So I threw up my hands, cut the crap, streamlined the blog and merged it into this new beast, Hands and Hustle. (

Hands and Hustle is an illustration and design studio where I’ll be selling prints as well as home and lifestyle goods. It’s also a blog where I’ll be sharing weekly playlists, my opinions on home decor and products, sharing resources, ideas and tips as well as musings from my daily life. It’s a sort of celebration of home, garden, culture, design and the everyday. My plan is to eventually produce my own line of apparel, goods and wares, or collaborate with existing home and lifestyle brands. While I don’t have it all figured out just yet, I’m enjoying myself and doing what feels right at this stage in my career.

With your experience in art direction, creating work for large clients, what have been the rewards and challenges in working for a variety of clientele?

Bright Almond Infographics
Bright Almond Infographics. Full project can be seen here.

What’s great about working on a wide range of projects is they inevitably spill into each other and help inform each other. I take the best of something I learned on this project and apply it to that one, and vice versa. There are more targets to hit with the dart, so to speak. If I have an idea for x while working on y, I can go back and forth. They’re like siblings; they help raise and form each other so I don’t always have to, and they play together nicely. The challenge in that is if I haven’t done a branding project in a while because I’ve been illustrating, it takes a bit of time to ease back into that mindset and think objectively. I have to rewind a bit and rewire my brain to get into that zone.

The Joys of Texting for The Globe and Mail
“The Joys of Texting” for The Globe and Mail

It’s also challenging managing your expectations and time. With more pools to swim in, they sometimes splash you all at once and saying no is never fun. You also have to be able to manage and shift your expectations regarding things such as budgets between different clients. If you’ve been working with large agencies on huge projects and are used to spending this much time for this much money, you should spend less time on a project for a smaller job for a daily newspaper, for instance. Don’t expect to be treated the same or expect to spend the same amount of time and get the same amount of money. You have to gear up and down like a car and manage your time and expectations accordingly to keep from burning out and to keep delivering what’s expected of you.

Do you prefer working freelance or in-house?

IBM Watson Portraits Ogilvy Mather
IBM Watson Portraits | Ogilvy & Mather | Mike Rhodin | Senior Vice President, IBM Watson Group

My preference is 80/20, freelance to in-house, and I’m lucky that that’s typical to how it naturally works out. It’s always good to meet with clients if you can, even for a cup of coffee to get to know them before you begin a project. But it really depends on the task at hand. Most illustration jobs are freelance, while most of my design projects follow the 80/20 model.

IBM Watson Portraits Ogilvy Mather
IBM Watson Portraits | Ogilvy & Mather | LeAnne LeBlanc | Product Manager, IBM Watson Solutions

Overall, I prefer to work from home, mostly because I live in Milton and many on‑site jobs I do are in Toronto where the commute takes a big bite out of the day. I also work fairly quickly and sporadically, so being chained to a desk from 9am to 5pm is simply not conducive to generating work, or good work for that matter. I work from when I get up to when I go to bed, but it’s broken up by dozens of small breaks throughout the day—to eat, garden, grocery-shop, see my family—and I find after a break, I’m motivated to get back to it and dive in hard. Have companies not yet caught on that many people would be far more productive if they were given this freedom as well? C’mon!

What’s your ideal design project? Have you had it yet?

Mia Jeans Branding

Gosh, that’s a tough question. I’ve worked on a few projects now that I had once previously dreamed of getting, and yet one dream replaces another. At this point, I’d love to collaborate with an apparel or home design company to design, illustrate and conceive a line of clothes, home decor or product(s) in general.

What words of advice do you have for emerging illustrators who wish to engage in design as you have?

  1. Be honest with yourself. What do you really want to do? Not forever, but in the foreseeable future. Know the answer to that question and write it down. DO things that seem like they’ll help you get there, and ignore or address anyone or anything that will get in the way. Even if it’s not how she did it, or how he did it. If you genuinely listen to what you want to do, where you want to be and who you want to work with, you’ll get there a heck of a lot easier than if you hadn’t.
  2. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Period. Discomfort leads to refinement.
  3. Ask lots of questions. Keep getting uncomfortable and do what you want to do, not what I did or she did or he did.

Many thanks to Sabrina for taking the time out of her schedule to do the interview. If you’d like to see more of Sabrina’s work, check out the links below to follow her around the web:

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