Today we talk to Heather Hardison, a letterer and illustrator based in San Francisco. She tells us how a personal project got transformed into a published book, why people shouldn’t worry about their style and why it’s important to just ‘be nice’ to people. Wise words Heather!
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. I’m an illustrator and letterer that specializes in food illustration and sign painting. On any given day, I might be painting signs for a small business, painting a mural for a tech company, illustrating food for a book, or designing packaging for artisanal food producers.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?
I graduated from North Carolina State in 2009, my degree is in Art+Design which is focused on fine art solutions to design problems. When I was a senior in college, I realized that I didn’t have a plan for post graduation. I just took it for granted that I would find an awesome job, and everything would be hunky dory. I finished school in the midst of the financial crisis and it definitely wasn’t smooth sailing. My Art+Design degree was great, but my senior portfolio was such an unfocused mix of paintings, illustration, sculpture, and handmade books, that I didn’t have much hope to land a dream design job in a bad economy. I moved to California because I loved it, and I thought I would have more opportunities than in North Carolina. I got a job in a restaurant, and just made a go of it. I knew I needed to learn more, and specialize to kickstart my career, so I sought out an apprenticeship at New Bohemia Signs to learn about lettering and sign painting. Simultaneously, I started developing an illustration portfolio and teaching myself about the industry by listening to podcasts and reading books. I slowly grew my sign painting and illustration skills in tandem. I started an illustrated food blog to give myself a project, and slowly but surely that started bringing in work. In 2013, I wrote a book proposal to turn the blog into a book, which was bought by ABRAMS. My book was published in 2015. These days I keep busy with my illustration and sign painting jobs. But I’m always looking for ways to bring those skills together. So far, murals, and food packaging have been two of my favorite ways to accomplish that.
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? I don’t think people should worry about their style, I think they should work on developing their voice. Style is subject to trend, and trends are passing. When a particular style gets popular, often people will work to copy that or find some way to rip it off to try and make their work marketable. When work is all about style, it’s not that interesting. It also becomes dated and oversaturated very quickly. Style is sort of like an instagram filter that can be applied to the work; it’s very surface level. If an illustrator or designer works on finding their voice, they will develop a way to communicate that is different from everyone else. Then, you can bring a unique perspective to your work. This will serve you throughout your entire career, not just over the course of a trend. I think you find your voice over time by iterating and searching out what is interesting to you, and doing personal projects.
What role does digital design play in your studio in 2015, and how to you apply traditional graphic design skills in a digital age?
My work is a hybrid of digital and analog. Almost everything that I do starts as a pencil sketch. From there, the final output depends on the purpose. For hand painted signs, the entire process is analog. For designs that utilize hand painted letters, but have final output that is print or digital, I scan in the lettering to manipulate in Photoshop. Other times, when something needs to be scaleable, my sketch is vectorized in Illustrator. I think that it’s important for all designers to be good at drawing, even if their work is completely digital. Drawing is such an immediate way to jot down ideas and iterate. It’s much more fluid than working ideas out digitally.
What advice would you give students starting out?
I would tell students to remember that their careers are long, don’t feel like you have to have it all figured out immediately after school. Take some time to do interesting things, that will in turn make your work (and you) more interesting. Also don’t think that just because you’re done with school, you’re done learning. Actively seek out new things to learn, directly and indirectly related to your field.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you should make opportunities for yourself. If you’re not getting the kind jobs you want, do personal projects. If you need work, reach out to people you want to work for. If you want something you made to exist out in the world, put it out there yourself or pitch it to people who can help you do that. You have to be proactive with your career. Also, cultivate interests outside of design. Designers who only think about design are kind of boring, and the work suffers. Go to art and design events, conferences, book parties, and other cultural events. Be nice, make friends, and talk with everyone (not just the people who you think can help you). This is networking in its purest, un-sleaziest form, and it’s important. Also, relax, don’t get so worked up. Go outside and play with your friends.