Featured Graphic Designer

Sofia Pusa

November 2019

Graphic designer, Illustrator, and Art Director Sofia Pusa caught up with us to talk about how running your own business can feel like a rollercoaster, and why it's important to take care of yourself. Sofia told us how she bookends her day with meditation practice, lists some practical places to look for both creative and cashflow advice, and shares how important side projects have been to developing her personal style.

Did you have a plan for graduation and what actually happened?

My path to becoming a designer was anything but straight forward. I’ve always been interested in many things, and before I began to pursue graphic design and illustration full-time, I studied a master’s degree in marketing and economics at Aalto University School of Business here in Helsinki, and worked as a service designer, as well as in branding and communications. I also spent time studying abroad in Mexico City and volunteering in Ecuador, where I embarked on some serious soul-searching. Although I had an interesting job in Helsinki at the time, I felt like I wasn’t living a life that was true to who I really was. Still, the decision to embrace change was not an easy one and it took me a while to discover my passion for design. In the end, I decided to go back to school to study graphic design and illustration, and I received my BA from Lahti Institute of Design in 2017. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. The strange part is that after struggling to find my own path, now doing what I do feels like the most natural thing for me.

Now, looking back, I can see that my background in business was invaluable when starting out, because it taught me to understand my clients’ business challenges and speak the same language as they do. My background also enabled me to land my first job as a designer during my freshman year in uni, so upon graduation from design school, I had already gained so much experience that I had the courage to start my own business right away.

Talk us through a typical working day include for you right now.

As a creative entrepreneur, I’m able to organise my schedule pretty freely, although I’m a big believer in habits and routines. I think that routines are especially important for creatives because by putting tasks on auto-pilot, you can free up a lot of mental space that is essential for being creative and productive. So I start almost every day in the same way. I love breakfast and I never leave the house without eating something. After breakfast, I meditate for 10 minutes and then leave for the studio space that I share with other creatives in Helsinki. My client work ranges from branding and web design projects through to book design, illustration and motion graphics. For example, at the moment I’m working on an illustration triennial branding, designing a web page for an art museum, and making an animation for an international eyewear brand. If my day is not jam-packed with client work, I spend more time learning new stuff or with the administrative side of my business. I really love learning, and one of the reasons I enjoy being an entrepreneur is because I’m able to prioritize my time and invest in learning new skills when I feel like it.

At the end of each day, I’ll go into a short gratitude practice and try to find 3–5 small or big things to be grateful for. I also meditate again for 10 minutes. When you love what you do it’s really easy to get wrapped up in work and forget about taking time for yourself. Still, the most important lesson I’ve learned over this past year is the importance of self-care as an entrepreneur. Paying attention to the habits that help me on a daily basis has been hugely beneficial in my life, as has finding the ones that are counterproductive — such as spending a lot of time on social media. But it’s worth pointing out that as much as I love routine and a predictable schedule, there are definitely days where things come up and I am glued to my laptop until late in the evening with no breaks. Sometimes with overseas clients I also adjust my schedule so that I work later into the night.

What are some of the best and worst parts of your job, day-to-day?

Being an entrepreneur feels often like a roller coaster ride from one extreme to the other. Many days I feel really lucky to call this a job as I get to spend time doing what I love, and I have the freedom to decide my own schedule. Sometimes it’s taxing, though, to be the only one making decisions, although I’m lucky to have two illustration agents who help me with pricing and contracts. Also, the price of freedom is uncertainty that can sometimes be stressful. I guess it’s all part of the entrepreneur experience though, and the good thing is that the lows make me appreciate the highs even more, and vice versa.

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If you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, many people are giving you advice from their own standpoint with their own agenda and list of stories.

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What are your three must-read design books/blogs/podcasts and why?

CreativeLive: 30 Days of Genius: 30 days of Genius is a free CreativeLive video series that has taught me a lot about being a creative. In the class, Chase Jarvis interviews people such as Jared Leto, Stefan Sagmeister and Tina Roth Eisenberg, who share their successes and failures and help you gain insights to recognise your passions and achieve your goals.

Cal Newport — Deep Work: I really love the book Deep Work by Cal Newport and it has had a big impact on how I work and use social media. He talks about how the ability to focus without distraction has become rarer, and how deep work is a skill that you can practice, like playing the guitar. I love the idea of training the mind to tolerate boredom and being intentional about how you spend your time by adding routines to your working life that help you maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

Mike Michalowicz — Profit First: It’s rare to find books on finance and accounting that are as captivating as Profit First and I highly recommend the book for all creative entrepreneurs. The principle behind the book is to change the way business owners think about their cashflow. It basically does this by flipping traditional accounting on its head. The old method of accounting (Revenues – Expenses = Profit) means that profitability becomes too much of an afterthought. However, the profit-first method sets you up to take a pre-determined percentage of each sale as profit first, before leaving what's leftover to operate your business. This reinforces the need to operate your business more efficiently, which is the key to sustainability. The book has completely changed how I look at entrepreneurship and my finances.

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

My illustration style is evolving all the time and I don’t think the process will ever be complete. That said, I think that my own personal side projects have shaped my illustration style a lot as they have enabled me to experiment, push new skills, and give testing grounds for ideas in a way that’s not always possible in client projects. In addition to making time for personal projects, my tip would be instead of copying your role models, you should explore what makes you different as an illustrator and amplify that. One way to start finding your voice is to make a moodboard of things that resonate with you, ranging from old films to music, books, dreams and nature — basically anything that inspires you. The more random your inspirations are, the more likely you’ll develop something unique that doesn’t just jump on any trend.

What's the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Like I said, I love learning new stuff, and I do get a lot of insights and beneficial advice every day from people around me, as well as from the podcasts or the books that I’m reading. However when it comes to big decisions in life, I think you shouldn’t take advice from anyone, but rather tap into your own intuition. If you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life, many people are giving you advice from their own standpoint with their own agenda and list of stories. Your values and goals don’t 100% match with anyone else — deep down you’re the only one who knows the true meaning of your experiences and can make the decision for you.

Website: sofiapusa.com

Instagram: @sofia.pusa

Behance: behance.net/sofiapusa

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