McKean Studio

We chat with colourful Sydneysider, and one half of McKean Studio, Megan McKean, about everything from money woes to Christmas holidays! She shares her typical day-to-day, the behind the scenes of her new ‘Hello, Melbourne!’ book, plus how she's learning to avoid ‘blank sketchbook anxiety’.

Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?

I moved from the Hunter Valley in NSW to Sydney, to study Visual Communication design at UTS. I was freelancing along the way, working on my own passion projects, and worked retail as well. While studying, I also art directed and designed the monthly university magazine and took on a couple of internships that focussed on print design and high end bespoke stationery.

The jobs that didn’t pay were very valuable, for both good and bad. I felt quite taken advantage of at the first role I took, with my illustration work ultimately being used in a product range without credit. My second internship was a much nicer experience, and the business owners were very honest and open about how a small business runs, and transparent about a lot of processes that I wouldn’t have been given insight into otherwise.

I also did a ‘skills trade’ with my wedding photographer while I was studying, and rolled out some illustration and branding for him in exchange for taking our wedding shots.

Working a retail position, although not directly related to my studies was one of the best experiences I could have hoped for, and I stuck around for almost 7 years because of it! An inbuilt community of creatives (almost everyone working at the store had a side project they were working away on!) and an encouraging environment to try things out was invaluable.

What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?

I didn’t have a grand plan for graduation, and in hindsight I wish I had been a little more calculating. I worked hard, but definitely could have employed a little more strategy!

I kept working at my retail job so I’d have more freedom to work on my personal projects, and was very fortunate to have encouraging results early on. Some of the first pieces I made were our Silk Souvenir Scarves, and they had a great response from their initial release. Our pieces started to get picked up and featured in some amazing publications, which gave us enough of a platform to build our business (sustainably) and open us up to further opportunities. I wanted to work on my projects for flexibility, so that if my husband and I were able to move internationally we’d be able to go. A move overseas didn’t pan out like we had initially planned, but it did afford us the flexibility to travel quite a lot regardless. As my workload with McKean Studio grew I gradually cut back on retail work, to focus more on my new projects. It was great to have a buffer for work, as not being solely dependent on my design work for income afforded me the ability to take on jobs I was interested in, rather than to just pay the bills.

Design work by McKean Studio The Design Kids interviews McKean Studio work-2

What does a typical working day include for you right now?

The day to day at work for me varies with projects that are happening and freelance jobs I’ve taken on. Coming to the end of the year is lots of preparation for the events we’re involved with, and early plans for next year getting started.

A couple of pitches for some big projects are in the works (always the scariest part when you’ve got to prove to someone else that you’re worth taking a chance on!) updating and maintaining the website, taking product photos and planning social media content, and lots of contact with my publisher and publicist as my new book ‘Hello, Melbourne!’ has just been published! Re-ordering stock, sending off files for print, packing website orders and finishing client work is all happening at the moment. I love a routine, and having such varied work means I don’t HAVE to have a structured work day, but I perform better when I do. I start work quite early, usually heading to the studio by 8am and working til around 4.30pm, before taking all the orders from the day to the post office.

How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others?

My honours project at UTS involved a lot of illustration but not so much in the style that I’ve developed it into today. It wasn’t until I started going back to more ink and pen line work after a trip to the USA in 2012 that I started to get more comfortable with working on highly detailed, layered pieces with ‘Easter eggs’ hidden in the illustrations. Experimenting with all sorts of mediums is a great process to find what you’re good at, and what you want to do more of. Having worked with watercolour, gauche and acrylic paint, coloured inks, pencils, pastels, digital… it gave me room to try (and fail) in a lot of areas to find the space that I’m most comfortable in.

I’m still learning things about my work process and style now, so I guess it’s a constantly evolving process.

My tips for others would be that you’ve got to just start! I get huge ‘blank sketchbook anxiety’, worrying that I’ll wreck my nice new sketchbook so often work on scraps of computer paper so I can physically cut out the elements that work, and bin the parts that don’t. I’m trying to get better at sketching more thoroughly and drawing for the sake of it, but so much of what I do is with a specific product or intention already in mind that I can limit myself from trying out other options. I try to remind myself to ‘play’ a little more and that if it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter; it’s just as good to learn what doesn’t work as what does.

Design work by McKean Studio The Design Kids interviews McKean Studio work-4
Design work by McKean Studio The Design Kids interviews McKean Studio work-4

Take on as much personal work for yourself as you’re able to, to find your creative voice and to keep the creative wheels ticking along'

What advice would you give students starting out?

Take on as much personal work for yourself as you’re able to, to find your creative voice and to keep the creative wheels ticking along. The more work you can do on your own projects for your portfolio, the more content you’ll have for businesses to see what you’re doing and commission you to make more of it! The best briefs I’ve had with big brands have been because of the work that I’ve made previously — in the style I’m comfortable working in, and areas I’m passionate about.

Don’t put things in your portfolio that you’re not proud of, or don’t want to do more of. I once made the mistake of sharing a wedding suite I had created for a friend with brush lettering, and was promptly contacted by brides-to-be who wanted me to create something similar for them. Bridal design isn’t really where I wanted to focus, nor was traditional graphic design, and those jobs ultimately took time that I could have spent honing my illustration skills to be working on more of the projects I really truly wanted to do!

Whats on the cards professionally and personally in the next 12 months?

I feel really lucky that my personal and professional ambitions line up quite well; I love working on projects based around different cities, so this justifies some personal travel! ;)

McKean Studio has a lot of events coming up to the end of the year (Sydney Big Design Market, Melbourne Big Design Market, Sydney Finders Keepers…) and then we’re nicking off to Europe for a Christmas holiday!

We’ve got a lot of travel planned in the next 12 months which always brings inspiration for illustration and new product designs. Travel to Berlin, Prague, Venice, Rome, New York, California and Tokyo is all locked in for the next 12 months so I’m sure there’ll be lots of new creations coming from those trips! We’ve been working on a new product range for the past 8 months or more, and hope to release that soon, inspired by different cities and also created entirely in Sydney with a local manufacturer.

There are always so many ideas swirling around, it’s finding the time to fulfil them all that is the hard part!

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