We chat to Illustrator, Designer and Shillington Lecturer (and all-round amazing lady), Shanti Sparrow about everything from the global financial crisis to publishing children’s books. She tells us about her struggle getting into the industry, and how receiving a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ email was considered a good day. We talk about how looking back over her childhood artwork helped define her style, and her totally awesome new mag dedicated to promoting student work called Small Fries (cute!).
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened? I graduated at a fairly terrible time, smack bang in the middle of the global financial crisis. It was a tough time for design in general and an even tougher time for a graduate. I had hoped to get a job within a couple months of graduating from uni. Ideally, and rather naively, I envisioned a boutique studio with a nice balance of commercial and creative work. Instead 5 months later there were still no prospects in site. I was applying for more then 20 jobs a week – for anything and everything that came up. It was a good day when I received a response stating ‘thank you for your application, however you do not have the required experience’ but a far more deflating day when I heard nothing at all.
Eventually a call came through. I had unsuccessfully applied for a mid weight position for which I was very obviously under qualified. However a month later they were looking for a junior and there I was, in a pile I didn’t belong, hoping for a chance. I took it and worked as a designer for over two years in a small but fast paced independent printery. When I look back I am very grateful for these humble beginnings. I learned about the wonderful world of print from the ground up. I fell in love with stocks and finishes and ink. It was here that I first started training and mentoring new team members which was the spark that a decade later lead to lecturing and teaching in NYC.
Give us the elevator pitch on what you do. I am a lecturer of graphic design at Shillington College NYC, founder of Shanti Sparrow Design and an illustrator. Though I work on a lot of branding projects, I have specialised as a conceptual designer in the not-for-profit sector generating direct marketing appeals. As an illustrator I have published 4 children books, greetings card, games and a range of other merchandise.
What qualities and skills do you look for in a graduate?
When I was involved in the recruiting process with my studio in Sydney we would look first for a personality match and secondly for potential. A studio will quickly become your family as you work together everyday often for very long hours. We looked for people who shared similar interests and values as those in the studio. Generally the right person with an average folio would out rank an ok person with a brilliant folio. We also look for thinkers. People who have ideas behind the finished product. How did they get to their outcome? Can they communicate their concept? This thought process is honestly more valuable then the actual final outcome.
How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others? For a very long time I just enjoyed illustrating but had no plans to make money from it, nor did I have a defined style. At the 2013 Semi Permanent Conference I saw a very inspirational talk by illustrator Sandra Dieckmann. She introduced the idea of going through your artworks from childhood to adulthood and observing that similar themes and styles present themselves from a very early age. It was an interesting exercise so I thought I would try it for myself. As soon as I saw them all together I could instantly find definite patterns. It appeared I liked to create segmented characters with detailed embellishments in sections. My colours were always bright and the subjects were always animals.
Armed with these observations it took me 6 months to create my first piece in what is now considered my signature style. Since then I have created more then 50 works. It sounds very strange but once I knew what I did it was easier to do. Having my unique style also meant that my work was more recognisable. This, quite unintentionally, lead to children’s book deals, greeting cards and lots of licensing opportunities.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? Ok here are mix of practical lessons as well as a few life lessons. 1. DON’T WORK FOR FREE! There are maybe a couple exception to this – your mum or the occasional piece for your favourite charity. Beyond this, for commercial design, you should never work for free. You’ve worked hard to gain your new skills so place value on them. You can’t pay the bills with exposure and you deserve to make a living from your work just like everyone else. If people don’t understand the value of your work, try educating them on the process of design and negotiate a price or don’t work with them. Your worth more babes.
2. If you have never worked with a new client before ask for a 50% deposit. It may sound silly but I had to learn this lesson twice – so please learn this from me and not from your own experience.
3. Take a risk. I love to send clients a ‘wild card’ option. It is a design/concept that has taken a left of centre approach to their brief. Often it pushes the boundaries and the precedent of their brand to explore a new direction. This has a high failure rate. At worst they see that I am exploring new possibilities to evolve the brand. This may be too rapid, but can start a conversation that leads to change. At best, every so often, you get a win and these appeals are often the strongest and most memorable.
4. Always have a passion project humming along in the background other then your commercial work. It gives you a creatively free outlet to enjoy and helps to keep you sane. My passion projects are often the ones I get the most recognition from. This is possibly because I put more of my heart in to them and this translates across to the audience.
5. The work you put out in the world is the work you attract. This is an extension of the passion project lesson. By creating dream concept work and releasing it on design platforms you are more likely to attract a client with similar projects.
Any passion projects you would like to share? I am launching a new magazine called Small Fries dedicated to promoting student design to the industry. After seeing first hand the incredible standard and depth of my students work I’m trying to create new channels to promote them.
Small Fries will work similarly to an illustration directory. It will feature student profiles, their work and have direct contact information. The magazine would be distributed to top studios in Australia/ UK/US. This is to ensure the work gets under the noses of the right people. The students get published and promoted, studios get fresh inspiration and connection to new talent and the world gets a beautifully curated magazine filled with gorgeous design.