Visual Design

Visual Design

Interview with Steph Calvert, Illustrator

What was your background before you entered the graphic design industry? How did you first become involved in design? Was there a point where you knew that was the career path you wanted to take?

I’ve been drawing ever since I could pick up a crayon, so it’s not really surprising that I ended up a professional artist. But I was on another path in high school! At the time, I wanted to be a veterinarian. As senior year got under way, I really thought about how much I disliked blood. And maybe… I could just focus on making art happen.

I was planning on going to go to the nearby California State University in Long Beach. Then one day, a couple of representatives from Savannah College of Art and Design came to talk to my high school art class. By the end of the hour, I decided I was going to Georgia for art college. It was the best decision I could made for myself.

I graduated with a BFA in Computer Art, focusing on hand drawn animation. It was such a fun degree to earn, but at the same time it may not have been the best choice of degrees to pursue. With Flash, 3D animation, and outsourcing to other countries, there’s just not a lot of hand drawn animation happening in the U.S. anymore.

So my career has been a lot of learning as I go. My first job out of college was with an educational children’s internet company. It was great, because I got a more solid handle on Photoshop and Illustrator, and I was able to learn Flash on the job. The internet industry is pretty volatile, though, and I knew I didn’t want to stay there. I started exploring other options, and moved to Wisconsin to work at OshKosh B’Gosh. This gave me my start in designing for apparel, and was one of the most fun jobs ever!

Jobs that I’ve had since then have been the same story – I’ve stayed extremely flexible and open to learning new skills, and it’s given me so many opportunities and contacts in my business network!

All of that really served me well in 2010 when my son Phil was born. I went out on maternity leave, and came back to a new art director who hated the telecommuting setup I had negotiated with the company, no matter how well I did my job. She made things incredibly stressful, and three days after I went back to work I quit.

This was possible for me because by that point I was rocking 10 years of professional art and design experience for major companies in a really broad range of tasks. I had a lot of business contacts – ex-bosses, ex-coworkers, colleagues, etc, that I could call on immediately to start finding freelance work to keep my bills paid.

It was so awful coming back to work to that situation, but it was such a blessing. I get to work at home with my little boy instead of sending him to daycare.

Explain your process of creative design. What are some of your methods? Where do you start? How do you work?

It’s all pretty fluid. Lots of projects start with Pinterest. I love just scrolling through thousands of amazing images that have been pinned – it starts the wheels turning so I can create my own amazingness! It’s also a great way to get a feel for what a client is looking for – send them to a Pinterest board and tell them to pick their three favorite images, and it gives you a pretty solid direction to head in. Character-driven art always starts with lots of sketching, and typography-driven designs start with lots of playing with fonts in Illustrator.


What are some of the aspects of being a designer that someone who doesn’t understand the profession would never think of?

The graphic and web design work I do is super rewarding and creative and fun. But there’s a lot of work involved in making that work come in, and that’s the part that some people don’t fully understand. Think of it like a swing. If you stop pushing, the business stops moving. Work stops coming in.

Talk a little bit about your schooling/training. What was it like? What were classes like at the Savannah College of Art and Design? How did this training prepare you to be in business for yourself?

Going to SCAD was the best thing I could done for my career! While I probably should have earned a degree with a more modern skill set than hand-drawn animation, I still learned more than enough skills to translate my hand drawn animation focus into other jobs. Character design for animation in college has translated into TONS of cute character-driven t-shirt designs over the years!

I liked classes at Savannah College of Art and Design for the broad range of topics covered, and the professional and enthusiastic teachers. No matter what field you’re studying, you have to go through foundation classes in drawing, 2D and 3D design. They want you to have a solid design eye no matter what you’re studying, and I love that. I had to work through college, and the flexible class schedules made it possible for me to attend school full-time two days a week and have the rest of the week off for homework and work.

You can’t ask for a better city to go to school in. It’s beautiful, and super easy to get around if you don’t have a car. I fell in love with the city of Savannah so much that I recently moved my family back!

How much of your learning/training was hands on, once you started your career?

My skill set has been in a constant state of flux since I’ve left school, and I like it that way. You should always be pushing yourself to learn new skills and techniques! My drawing and computer skills were solidified in college, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without constantly taking on new challenges like WordPress web site design. Learning new things keeps your mind and career moving!

It can also help you figure out more efficient ways to do tasks you’re already doing. I learned InDesign a few years ago, and it’s made such a difference in my workflow. If you’re working on anything that utilizes both photos and text, it’s the only way to go! I actually picked up the skills I needed to know for that program quickly with the help of the Classroom in a Book for InDesign.

What are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis? Was it hard at first? Is it still hard? What are some of the “truths” a beginning artist does not want to hear?

I hate to blame reality TV, but I feel shows like American Idol and Project Runway have really encouraged folks to be less than nice about whether they like a design or not. I have some clients that make Nina Garcia look sound like Ghandi! Learning to not take criticism too harshly is really, really important in the art and design field. You have got to let it roll off your back, and you have got to keep to the high road. Customer service is key – if you aren’t good to your customers, why will they stick around?

I’ve also learned to distance myself from client work just a little. You can’t get too attached to any design you’re working on, because honestly the client’s project is not about you. You may be completely in love with an illustration you just inked up, but if the client doesn’t like it, it’s gotta change.

Get used to revisions.

Lots of revisions.

How do you balance the demands of art as a business?

I try to keep my day to day life pretty flexible. I share the office with a 2 year old. We’ve been doing the “Muhmuh works / Phil plays” setup pretty much since day one, so he is super cooperative. While that setup works extremely well most days, sometimes he’s got needs that can’t wait until the office is closed. Those are the days I shift around my projects, go offline early, and get back to work when the little one is in bed for the night.

There’s also times where you get a project that requires long hours all day or all week. Balancing work and family becomes even more important then – I am not a workaholic, but I want my clients needs met! I have a 5pm-7pm window of time that I am always offline for so I can have time with family. Then if it’s a crazy busy work day, I can get back to it after that.

Balancing the art and the business is something I’m always working at, too. I’ve been training myself to not be on social media or email all day long. I check email 3-4 times throughout the day, and then I can focus on work. When I bounce from one thing to another to another all day long, that scattered feeling will show through in my design work.

Also? Lists. Lots of lists. Lists of lists.

What are some of the things people should know before they go into business for themselves? Advice? Where is the hope for someone embarking on a career in art?

I get asked “how did you become self employed?” a lot. Sometimes by other artists and designers, sometimes by stay at home moms that want to figure out their own work at home setup. The truth is I’ve worked my ass off to get to this point, I have a degree in what I do, and I’ve paid my dues with 10 years of corporate art positions before going into business for myself. It is not easy. It doesn’t happen overnight.

If you want it, it’ll happen. You just have to make it that way.

How hard do you need to promote yourself and your designs in order to make a name for yourself?

Every single day I find ways to promote my design business. I designed business cards with an eye-catching easy to read backside that I can leave at local businesses. I check in to my business on Yelp and share that check-in with my social media network. If I’m taking a day off, I find a quick way to post something cute and pinnable on my blog that I quickly share on Pinterest.

our business is only going to be as great as the work you put into it.

How has art impacted your life? How is it a lifestyle for you? What kind of background helps you succeed in art as a career?

Art and design has made me a total font nerd. I’m always looking for cool new fonts to use on projects, and I love doodling sayings with cute hand-drawn fonts as well. With Spoonflower’s new custom wallpaper offerings, I am drooling over the possibilities of all of my own wallpapers in my house. I used to go to the coffee shop on Fridays just to get a mocha to celebrate the week, but now I post doodles I do on my paper coffee cup onto Instagram as a part of Fancy Coffee Friday. Art has infiltrated pretty much every part of my life!

I don’t think there’s any particular background that makes someone potentially more successful than any other creative. Look at Rothko – he became successful painting canvases with solid colors! What makes the difference is the passion and the drive behind your dreams.

Know what you want to do, then get out there and do it. Don’t know how? Get the education you need. Sometimes that education doesn’t need to come from college; you just have to have the drive and the discipline to learn what you want to know. With my solid print design skillset and a little on-the-job training in html and css, I was able to teach myself WordPress web design. That’s been a broad new horizon of really great client work!

What advice would you offer to students pursuing an art career of any form?

Do what you love, but make sure you have marketable skills to back that up. I don’t have any regrets in terms of how my career has gone so far, but I will tell you things would have been infinitely easier if I had backed up my 2D animation degree with a double major in graphic design. Don’t ignore your dreams, but don’t ignore the job market, either. If the goal is to support yourself with art and design, you need to know what skills will get you a job after school.

Push yourself. Don’t ever give up. You can totally do this.



  • Anna Ortiz
    Anna Ortiz

    Mural Hunter, Photographer, & Writer | Anna is a writer and lover of urban street art who attended San Francisco State University. She is self-taught in digital and film photography, and spends most of her free time fueling her photography obsession by researching vintage cameras.