We recently spoke with 20 of today’s top designers and illustrators to learn more about their career paths, how they approach creative collaboration, and advice for new designers who are just getting started.
Check out these insights from some of the best in the business for a dose of inspiration and motivation:
Maya Ealey — Brand Designer and Illustrator at Asana
Maya Ealey is a multi-hyphenate creative based in sunny Oakland, California. Her love for color, technology, representation and nostalgia is reflected throughout her work. She currently works in the tech industry at work management company Asana as a senior brand designer and illustrator. Outside of her 9 to 5 she is pursuing her entrepreneurial passion through her side business, Just Rewind It, and while working on her first book about anti-Black racism. Her advice for new designers:
“Try a lot of things! Take the time to figure out what it is that you like most about the design process. Do you like faster paced projects? Do you enjoy seeing how data relates to the work you’re doing? Do want to tell brand stories? Do you want to build out brand identities? Are you an idea machine and want to work on campaigns? There are so many different areas of design that you can explore so why not give yourself permission to figure out what you love and what’s your jam!
My other advice would be to make connections, and build your network. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other designers whose careers you’re interested in. I learned a lot from others when I was starting out. Folks who so kindly took the time to answer my questions or chat with me, I appreciated so much!”
Alice Lee — Artist and Muralist
Alice Lee is a muralist and painter born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a first generation Chinese-American artist, Alice draws inspiration from her heritage, as well as the unique landscapes in Northern California. Her work features beautiful colors and a distinct artistic voice. Alice’s advice for new designers:
“It’s hard to give general advice without knowing people’s individual situations. But broadly speaking, I always wish I could bottle up that feeling of excited energy when I’m on the precipice of something new. It comes up at the beginning of new projects or whenever I’m about to explore a new creative hobby, and I felt it all the time when I was starting out. It feels like you’re a pioneer with a vast landscape of mountains in front of you, staring out with fresh beginner’s eyes and excitement. Bottle up that feeling. Savor it. And good luck!”
Jhonny Núñez — Designer and Illustrator
Jhonny Núñez is an award-winning creative illustrator currently based in Russia. His professional career has allowed him to travel around the world, from South America to Europe and Asia. His passion for the discipline of illustration led him to become a full-time illustrator with his own characteristic style, as well as a theoretical practical researcher committed to disseminating and promoting creativity.
Here’s his advice for new designers:
“Don’t forget that creativity is an industry like any other, it is about obtaining the greatest possible benefit in exchange for providing a service, so you must forget about having thousands of followers on social networks and learn to do business first, that is the only way to grow in the right direction.”
Tyler Elise Blinderman — Designer and Illustrator
Tyler Elise Blinderman is a Boston-based designer and illustrator with a strong focus on personal growth, mental health, and the environment. Her advice for new designers:
“My first piece of advice is: Don’t be afraid to suck at something new. Everyone started somewhere, if you saw my old sketchbooks, you would cringe. It’s so easy to want to be immediately incredible at something, but all things take time and practice, and in a few years, you’ll look back at your progress and be amazed with how far you’ve come.
My second piece of advice is: Don’t be afraid to take risks. This one is different for everyone and I want to acknowledge that there are some risks that some folks don’t have the privilege to take, but no matter how big or how small they may be, trust that you can handle whatever is coming your way. Changing my major to design felt like the riskiest thing in the world at the time, but now I see that it was the single best decision I have ever made. So, whatever it is, go for it.
And my third piece of advice is: Take a break! Make time for other hobbies or even just time to relax. As someone who works full-time in design, and does design in their free time for fun, trust me when I say it can very easily become not fun anymore. It’s so important to me to invest time in other things that I love, whether it’s going for a hike, reading a book, spending time with friends and family, etc. in order to feel refreshed and inspired when I get back to what I’m working on. So if you’re starting to feel burnt out and frustrated, put it down, go for a walk, it’ll be there when you get back.”
Robin Hilkey — Brand Designer at GoFundMe
Robin Hilkey is a Brand Designer at GoFundMe in New York. Focusing on social justice and humanitarian causes, she’s making a positive impact through her bold, hand-drawn illustrations and lettering. Her advice for new designers:
“Write everything down. Even if it’s just one sentence in the notes app on your phone. Make lists, even if it’s just random words or bits of ideas — jot it all down. Who knows when it might come in handy down the road.
Follow your passions. This may be easier said than done, but — as much and as best as you can, follow your heart, whatever it is that gets your blood pumping. Of course, there will be grunt work and projects where your heart’s just not in it but when it is, that’s where you’ll strike gold.”
Hank Washington — Designer and Founder of Hank Designs Studio
Cornelius ‘Hank’ Washington is an Art Director, Designer, and Illustrator born and raised in Mississippi, currently creating in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the founder and creator of Hank Designs Studio and helps teams with identity designs, art direction, and illustration. With nearly a decade of experience, he’s worked with notable brands such as Instagram, Adobe, Snapchat, Netflix and more. Hank is also the creator of Fuzzies that can be seen across social media. His advice for new designers:
“Have fun with this! I know it’s hard to realize, but we are in an epic time in our lives where we can make a living creating things that CAN be fun. Our parents and grandparents had to choose careers that they weren’t necessarily passionate about only to survive. Now, we can really wake up in our underwear, draw a cartoon, design our favorite food menu, or even create our next timeless piece and make a living from it. Don’t take it for granted.”
Anna Hurley — Designer and Illustrator
Anna Hurley is a designer and illustrator who spends most of her time drawing things for fun and profit. She has worked on branding systems, packaging design, and many children’s books, as well as illustrated a plethora of printed items. Her advice for new designers:
“Put out into the world what you want to get back. This can be useful in a lot of personal ways as well, but what I mean is that if you want to do work on a specific project, then even if you don’t have projects or clients at the moment, work on something personal in that same field and share it with the world. If you keep doing that, you’ll not only get a ton of useful practice, but you’ll get people seeing your work and wanting to hire you for those very same types of projects.
Also, be sure to take breaks and be kind to yourself. Starting out something new is brave and exciting, and no one knows how to do everything right away, or even ten years down the road! Keep at it, you’re planting the seeds that will help you grow.”
Monica Ahanonu — Artist and Illustrator
Monica Ahanonu is a freelance illustrator working and living in Los Angeles. She is an expert in color theory, vector illustration, and motion design. Over the course of her career, she has worked on a range of exciting projects for clients including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Netflix, Adidas, MTV and more. She is a leader in the digital space for Black artists and her portraits and pop art make learning about people from other cultures, industries, and backgrounds accessible. Some of her advice for new designers:
“1. Send a lot of emails and do informational interviews. Reach out to people you admire, would like to work with, or are interested in learning from. Find mentors for the different areas of your life.
2. Meet everyone and don’t ever refuse a meeting. Pick their brains. You can learn so much from the people you meet even if they aren’t in your industry. Successful people always have something to offer you in some area of your life.
3. Use a planner or calendar and make lists. This allows you to see the gaps in your schedule where you can fit time to work on your side hustle and passions outside of school or a full-time job.
4. Know your industry. Research the industry you want to get into: the steps it takes to get a job in that industry, the specific job(s) you want in that industry. Research what the day-to-day is like for someone doing the job you want and see if that’s a day-to-day lifestyle you would enjoy.
5. Keep yourself motivated by putting up quotes and affirmations around your living space or reminders in your phone that keeps you in a positive mindset throughout your day.
6. Diversify your friends not just by race, but by age. You learn so much from people that have either gone through what you are going through or younger people who may be more knowledgeable about specific new technologies or trends taking off.
7. Be mindful of what you consume visually every day. Follow people and things on social media that inspire you and motivate you. If you feel something isn’t serving you mentally or lifting you up mentally, just hit that unfollow button.
8. Do what makes you excited, do what you are excited about and interested in that very moment and if that interest changes, that’s okay. If you are really passionate about something, you will focus on it and become very good at it faster than something you are forcing yourself to do.”
Spencer Gabor — Designer and Illustrator
Spencer Gabor is a Brooklyn-based designer and illustrator whose unique style has been sought after by brands like NPR and Skullcandy. His advice for new designers:
“Make sure your work keeps YOU excited before worrying about whether others like it.
If you’re not making work you want to make you’ll burn out and lose the spark that got you into the field in the first place.”