I studied graphic design at the Estonian Academy of Arts, and so did Robi for some time. One of my very first jobs was creating patterns for knitwear sold at a gift shop in Tallinn. I was still in high school, looking for a summer job, and applied for a salesperson’s position at the shop. As my artistic inclination came up during the interview, I was offered another job instead. It was quite a demanding job, having to turn in original ideas monthly, especially since I continued with it halfway into the school year – but a very valuable experience.
Prior to creating Polaar, Robi and I worked together in a couple of different agencies, which I also find as irreplaceable experience for setting up our own company.
Since there are no distinctive roles in our team, there is a set of typical days: they usually start with checking e-mails and making a to-do list for the day. Often times the same longer list applies to several days, so we’ll pick up where we left off the previous day, unless something more urgent has come up.
The tone for the day is often set by whether we have a meeting or two or not, as preparing for them, plus the travel take a lot of time and attention. For bigger projects, there is often a weekly meeting, which can take up to several hours – on such days it is harder to get focused on conceptualising, layouting etc., so the rest of the day it is easier to do corrections and improvements where needed, or send e-mails. Although I have to say, composing emails can also be hard work, demanding your whole attention. And, for example, putting together a quotation can take two or three (or more) days, since every project is different, and analysing the needs and weighing the options take time.
When we are at the beginning of a new project, we start out by discussing what needs to be done, and agree on some keywords, based on which we can start conceptualising idividually. After some time (can be the same day, but also a couple of days later) we’ll compare ideas, and decide on further steps.
When there’s more sketching, layouting or illustration work to be done, it is better to focus on one thing for a longer time at once.
All in all, although all this might sound rather hectic, and it is not always a piece of cake, switching between roles is actually quite enjoyable and even helpful, as it provides having a fresh look at a task each time we return to it.
Taking from my own past, one of the most important qualities is not being afraid to be “wrong” or ask “stupid questions” (I’m using quotation marks as neither of them really exist.) For me it took quite a while to shake that fear, but now I continuously practice both of those aspects: to suggest ideas that are far off or not ripe yet, because you never know what or when later in the process might click; and ask about anything that seems unclear to me, even at the “risk” of it having been just discussed, but I simply didn’t get it (or happened to zone out for a moment), because I don’t want to come out of a meeting still not being exatly sure what should be done. Otherwise it’s just a waste of time figuring things out or sending a bunch of follow-up questions before we can get to work.
As for skills, one could argue that at the beginning of one’s design career, knowing how to use design programs is not primary, but the reality is that us being a small studio of two, it is difficult to train someone in parallel with everything else on our hands. That being said, even basic skills are enough if the person is able to learn quickly – the more advanced tricks can be taught in the work process. Overall, enthusiasm and consistency are helpful qualities in both those aspects – or in anything, really.
Conceptually, it’s important not to get attached to an idea you have at the beginning of the sketching phase (“sketching” in whatever sense), so that you start fine tuning it too soon. This doesn’t mean the concept is not worthy, but if there’s still time, it’s really helpful to try to go down different paths, to either have the viability of the first idea confirmed, or even come across something more relevant.
Personally (since I also have a separate illustration portfolio), I’m still on the path of figuring it out, but as a team, I have done the sketches on paper, and Robi has brought them to life digitally. It’s been a nice collaboration where both of our strongest skills are combined into one. Illustration as a discipline has a very individualistic ring to it, but based on our experience I’d encourage to try collaborating with someone – the results can be surprising.
I’m a bit on the fence about creating elaborate Pinterest boards or whatnot of other illustrators’ work for inspiration (this also goes for graphic design in general), since sooner or later I’ll copy something unintentionally. However, it can be helpful, as an exercise, to try and copy a style or elements of it that you can further perhaps remix or grow your own style out of.
An active organisation in the community is Estonian Design Centre – on their website you can find a comprehensive list of local studios and companies, both small and bigger ones.