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Ways We Work

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Sabrina Smelko

Illustrator, Designer & Editor for Design*Sponge

Sabrina Smelko is a freelance illustrator and designer, an editor for Design*Sponge and a multi-disciplinary jack of all trades. When I caught up with her for this interview she had just finished a semester teaching illustration at Sheridan College and a full kitchen renovation which she documented through blogs and video journals. A friend shared her work with me on Twitter, and I immediately admired not only her ability to manage so many roles and projects at once, but the way that she has been able to make her career work congruous with her lifestyle.

Tell me a bit more about your various roles and what you’re working on now?

I am such a serial dabbler, but I would say the two main things that are always ongoing are my illustration/design work and my role as an Editor at Design*Sponge. has changed over the years and what I offer has gone from just pure illustration to more varied work including design, Art Direction and writing. I’ve hit a point where I can feel valid and comfortable calling myself all of those things. This year I did everything from working on book covers to designing x-rated apps, to creating over 1,000 Emojis for Firefox OS, and creating images and graphics for social media. Whereas before, even a year or two ago, it was mostly editorial and the traditional illustration stuff. That's where my work is heading in terms of being creative just trying to take advantage of the fact that people are now becoming more open to using illustration and images for content and other things that they wouldn't have considered using before.

About a year and a half ago, I started working as an Editor for the Sneak Peek column on Design*Sponge. My role was just finding people and sourcing the internet for really cool homes to feature and people to profile. Since then, I've now taken over the Life and Business column as well as the City Guide column, and I just started my own column called Comfort Zone, which blends business and life and interiors, talking about all the more real, raw aspects of life as opposed to a perfectly poised Instagram photo. I just found in this last year that my job is so much about spending time on social media and I feel like I've seen so much of the same things. It's very repetitive.

My goal right now with Design*Sponge is to break past that and talk to the real person. Rather than just featuring their home, I want to find out what makes it so personal and comforting to them. Featuring all of the people who most blogs otherwise just glance over because they don't have a beautiful feed. I want to dig into the realness.

“I feel like while I am inspired in the morning and feeling good, I like to take advantage of that inspiration.”

How do you divide your time amongst those two roles during a typical day or week?

I work really well when I do a two-hour on-off work day.

I wake up, and I do about two hours of work for Design*Sponge. In the morning I like to do emails, source people, and do a lot of correspondence. Then I probably take a good two or three-hour lunch break, and then go back to work for two or three hours in the afternoon and evening where I focus on my design and illustration work.

I’ll take another two-hour break and if I have more work to do I'll work for another two hours. I feel like any given day adds up to anywhere from four to eight hours a day, with two-hour on-off cycles. I just work a lot better when I break up my day. Instead of working a nine to five, I like to work from the minute I get up until the minute I go to bed, but it's so scattered throughout the day that it doesn’t feel like work. That just works for me and my lifestyle, especially with a dog. I have to work that way.

Typically, Design*Sponge is my focus in the morning and then illustration and design-related work, I do in the evenings. At night I'm a little bit more creative. I used to try and do the whole nine to five thing or just delineate Mondays as DS days, or Tuesdays as just illustration days, but I find that doesn't work for me.

What I do with Design*Sponge and the people I meet in the morning might dictate maybe something that will inspire me later in the day. I feel like while I am inspired in the morning and feeling good, I like to take advantage of that inspiration. If I wait a whole day and say “no, that's for tomorrow”, I can't wake up the next day and get that same feeling again. I have to act on inspiration. When I'm feeling jazzed about something I need to act on it right away.

How did you end up get started in design and illustration and now writing?

I feel like I was never meant to just be an illustrator. The program I took at Sheridan was a four-year illustration program that focused on pure illustration. In the final year, while I was working on my thesis, I realized that I wasn't meant to just be an illustrator.

For my thesis I ended up writing a science fiction novel and illustrating and designing it. In the process, it made me realize that I like big ideas. I like combining a concept with images, good design and using them as storytelling techniques. I liked how all of those things came together. It was the first time I had really tried combining everything, and experimenting with all of those things and how they worked together really made me realize that that's what I was meant to do. So when I graduated I took a job as an art director at an ad agency.

At the time it really made sense because I thought, “I like coming up with ideas and I like crafting a story and a concept.” Writing and producing a book, to me, sounded like it could translate into an ad campaign. I had to come up with the idea, execute it, and sell it, all while fostering a larger story. It turned out that that role simply wasn't for me. I didn’t enjoy it, or who I had to be to enjoy it, so I quit about a year later.

“I want to start thinking more about what will happen in the next couple decades that I want to achieve... What will my body of work look like when I'm 70?”

What would you say are some of the main challenges that you face in your work now?

It's been an interesting year in that I experimented a lot in blogging and sharing my personal voice through blogging. I learned that I enjoyed some aspects, and not others, but in general, in tandem with also being an Editor for a huge blog, where I'm forced to be in such an online now, now, now world, next year I want to think more about the long game and the long term. I want to start thinking more about what will happen in the next couple decades that I want to achieve... What will my body of work look like when I'm 70?

Another aspect of all of this is that it’s easy to get stunted by looking at other people's work. Everyone shares now. I feel like because I am forced in my own job as an Editor to see the work of so many other people, it's easy to pick up patterns and see the repetitiveness of the creative industry. That's always going to happen, there's nothing new under the sun, but because I see it so much it stunts me sometimes to not create at all. Sometimes I end up not creating at all because I fear I'm just going to be redundant. That's been a challenge lately of just forgetting about it and creating for the sake of creating again and not having to think that everything I make has to be perfect and shareable and the best piece ever. Stop thinking about how it's going to be presented or what people think and just create and enjoy that process rather than judging it so early on that you end up not doing anything at all. That's been a challenge lately.

When was the last time you had to do something that made you uncomfortable and took you out of your comfort zone? What was that and how did you deal with that?

In the world of blogging, it’s hard finding that balance between work and personal life. Blogging can be whatever you want it to be, and I’m not sure where I want to see that line in the sand yet. Thinking about it as a job and how to tackle that is sometimes uncomfortable.

Recently, I did an editorial/blog collaboration for my kitchen renovation that was a month-long. I had to do video diaries and updates and bring the camera into my home and show my family and all of the good, bad and ugly of the renovation. If something went wrong, I had to share it. If I didn’t feel like blogging that week, I still had to. No matter what, I had to film a vlog diary every single week and that’s where I realized that as much as the content can be personal, it feels like work. But yet it appears differently on the outside...

I think that was a little bit uncomfortable for me. I feel like I'm now more comfortable just sharing the stupid dumb stuff. Throughout the process, I can tell looking back on some of the videos I did that I totally treated much more “jobby, and in others, I was way less professional, for lack of a better word. In turn, it made me uncomfortable because I didn’t always know how to balance it.

“I definitely believe in forgetting what you're bad at. I'm bad at doing just one thing, forever.”

That was a good learning experience and it's actually what lead to me adopt my blog, Hands and Hustle, into my personal site. It used to be on it’s own URL, and I feel like it became more of a resource for other people in a way -- which is nice and I still want to continue to offer tips and advice for other people -- but in doing so, I felt like I stripped myself out of it. I didn't feel like I could share my own struggles with an illustration I was working on, or a simple work in progress shot of a design, or my thoughts on teaching and what that felt like. It seems silly, but it felt like a branded name. Hands and Hustle just felt like a company to me. That was one of the biggest things that made me uncomfortable is realizing that I created a blog that I felt like I couldn't participate in myself.

What would you say are the five tools that you're using on a regular basis?

My phone - Especially because for Design*Sponge the amount of emails I have to get every day and respond to is huge. A lot of it is actually screenshotting on my phone too. At night when I'm watching TV, I'll go through Instagram or certain tags and explore feeds to try and find people to profile. Sourcing people is a huge part of what I do every day. I just screenshot at night, and then in my morning two-hour email session I'll just go through my screenshots and contact those people.

Music - When I’m working and just grinding it out and hustling, I really need music or podcasts. I would say that's another big one because I can't really work in silence.

Bamboo Wacom - That's how I create. Most of my illustration is digital. It always starts with a pencil sketch but by the end it's 90% digitally recreated. I just have a tiny little Wacom tablet, and I still use it to this day.

Printer/Photocopier - I have a really good photo printer that does wide format and it not only lets me sell prints and reproduce them nicely but I end up creating a lot of textures that way by scanning and reprinting and then reprinting and rescanning until it becomes null. I think that's a big hallmark of a lot of my illustration work is I like to add a lot of textures, self-made things.

Photoshop/Illustrator/Lightroom - On a regular daily basis I work with Photoshop, Illustrator and Lightroom a lot. I get into a lot of photo editing with Design*Sponge and people will sometimes send me raw files, Lightroom is definitely the best resource for editing photos.

How do you manage email and communications amongst other work that needs to be done?

I feel like before I used to always save emails and respond to them later. I’d say to myself, “no, it's 10:00 p.m., I'm not going to answer, I should just wait until my morning email session.” Then they would pile up. Being able to give myself permission to reply to emails with my phone was key. I know that sounds silly but I used to not like replying on my phone because I like to write a nice long email that's very considerate and has enough cool, nice, quirky things. I would end up not getting to them because I made it so much more of a job replying to emails, once again making more work for myself.

So giving myself permission to just shoot back, “hey, I got this, I'll let you know when it's posting or I'll let you know the publishing date.” I think the biggest and best tool for that was putting a signature on my mobile device that says: “Sent from my phone, excuse brevity.” It gave me permission to relax and that's been the best tool.

Also, I do a lot of email writing at night and I don't want to email someone at midnight so I end up using Boomerang on the regular to schedule an email to send at a later time.

“I am definitely a sum of my parts. I think as a whole, I'm able to be successful and be able to do this as a full-time gig not because of one individual thing but because of the greater picture of who I am.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it meaningful to you?

I think I enjoy what I do because I don't do it for a long time [laughs]. I cycle a lot and, like I said before, I'm very impatient and I like dabbling. I think I'm able to still enjoy what I do and stay motivated and not get burnt out because I change it up so often. I'll get obsessed for three months with interior design and just draw pictures of couches and arrange my living room and come up with moodboards and style other people's houses or rooms. Then after that three month mark when I lose my wind of passion for that, I'll pick up something else or do a lot of writing. I think that's what keeps me going and that's what I really find refreshing is just doing different things.

I am definitely a sum of my parts. I think as a whole, I'm able to be successful and be able to do this as a full-time gig not because of one individual thing but because of the greater picture of who I am.

If I was just purely an illustrator… There's a million other illustrators who are better than me, there's a million other designers better than me, there's a million other writers better than me. I'm jack-of-all-trading it, I think that's my unfair advantage is that I can do many things. Rather than trying to be perfect in one field, my strength comes from being able to do a lot of things well enough.

Everything that I do helps inform the other things that I do. Every illustration I make speaks to my design work, and a piece of writing might inspire an illustration. I've realized that's a very natural way of working for me. I have to take advantage of it and accept it and foster it.

I definitely believe in forgetting what you're bad at. I'm bad at doing just one thing, forever.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

One of the people that comes to mind, just because he was so interesting to work with, is Jeremy Bailey, he’s the Art Director at FreshBooks and was such a pleasure to work with and such a fascinating person.