Lessons from Icon8

Insights and inspirations from an illustration conference.

by Leah Chew

Illustration by Leah Chew

Sometimes the best advice is the simplest. And it helps if some of the best art directors, illustrators, publishers, and animators are the ones giving it.

In July, I journeyed to the hipster capital of the country, beautiful Portland, to attend ICON8, the Illustration Conference. “Why an illustration conference?” you may ask. “You’re a designer, you don’t draw all day and paint all night.” And to be honest I got a lot of weird reactions when I told people I worked in the advertising industry. “Ohhh … so are you trying to transition into the illustration?” they would say (with the tone of Saturday Night Live’s Church Lady saying, “Well isn’t that special…”).

Well, as the wise Leo Espinosa, an award-winning illustrator and designer, said during the final day of the conference, “Graphic designers and illustrators, there really is no difference. It’s all about solving a problem.” And at that moment I put my hands up in the air, shook my head, and said, “Preach, Leo. Preach.” Or at least I wanted to. Problem solving is what I do everyday. Problem solving is what everyone at KPS3 does everyday. So surely some of the other words of wisdom I heard will ring true to you whether you are a designer, illustrator, or if you can’t even draw a stick figure.

“Make cool stuff, then sell it.”

Especially when you are in the creative industry, people are going to give you advice on what you should do to further your career, share the plan that is most tried and true. But there is no set path. What really matters, what really gets you recognized, are the passion projects. This I learned from Sam Arthur, founding partner and CEO of Nobrow and Flying Eye Books, both publishing companies. The company was not only started during the financial crisis of 2008 but also in the heart of the “Print is Dead” era. But they loved print, books, and comics and realized they just had to make theirs so good that people had to notice. This concept of “Do What You Love” is so simple but also so essential to happiness, and success and was reiterated by almost every presenter at ICON8. Sometimes you have to look away from what is fiscally responsible and where the industry climate is heading and just trust in what you love to do. Because if you love it, you are probably good at it and will work pretty hard at it. If you are lucky, that might just be enough to get you noticed.

“Go the distance.”

It is easy to fall in love with your own work. Too easy. We have all been there when your “perfect” work is getting picked at until it is unrecognizable. You want to quit, give everyone the finger, cry, throw stuff, whatever. But sometimes it is wise to get an attitude check, stick around, and go the distance.

These wise words came from Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram, a member of the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, and the woman who shaped NYC’s The Public Theater identity into a cultural landmark. As this passion project became less desirable as terms changed and budgets were cut, Scher stuck with it. She took having less creative freedom to mean simplifying her designs into something that could be used across the theater board, from contemporary plays to Shakespeare in the Park. Working with her client and being flexible, she created something iconic.

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that truly good design does not happen in one-off jobs and one-round wonders. Good design is a process. It is not just about making things look pretty but also about educating the client and learning about what is at the core of the challenge. A project might not go where you expected it to, but sometimes it evolves into something better, something worth sticking around for.

“Keep your eyes on you own paper (don’t let other artists’ work derail you).”

This is a big one and probably the most important words I heard at ICON8, which were said by illustrator Andy J. Miller. Try being at a conference full of illustrators who are doodling away, making art in minutes that I would buy in seconds, and keep the green-eyed monster at bay.

Better yet, try working next to amazing designers everyday (cue the “awwwww”). When you work collaboratively with other designers, it is hard not to compare yourself to them. We tend to focus on what we lack rather than what sets us apart. But remember: You are an artist. You are a problem solver. Like the wise Liam Neeson says in Taken, you have a “very particular set of skills.” Believe in your work and what you bring to the table.

“Don’t rush! This isn’t Mario 3.”

Another knowledge nugget from Andy J. Miller. Sometimes it is not up to us when something gets done. Whether you are freelancing or working at an agency, time is money and you live with deadlines. But that doesn’t mean you have to churn out your work at top speed. Yes, sometimes it is the client’s deadline that adds to the pressure but other times it is on us designers. We aren’t machines so why do we sometimes treat our work like a factory line, just doing the same design over and over and over? Thoughtful design takes time. Sometimes it takes us stepping back and asking ourselves if there is a better solution. Brand identity is not the law, it is the guideline. We need to continue to challenge ourselves to create better things for the benefit of the client’s brand and our creativity.

“Looking at your computer is almost the same as working on it.”

ICON8’s theme this year was WORK + PLAY. It’s all about balance. At KPS3, sometimes it seems like everything is play. We can go on a spiraling tangent like nobody’s business. But it is that type of environment that inspires work. Giving ourselves fifteen minutes of random Buzzfeed quizzes makes us feel better about staying late to work on that huge RFP. Life is not just about “billable time” and true creativity cannot be limited to a set amount of hours. Every brain needs a break. So don’t feel so guilty when you watch your cat videos and sports fails. Take that Mario Kart break or treat yo’ self to a coffee run. You are getting work done like a champ.

To learn more about ICON, visit theillustrationconference.org

Questions? Thoughts? Tweet me @LeahChew.

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