Between running the blog Hands & Hustle, creating a series of wallpapers and emojis for the Mozilla Firefox redesign, editing for Design*Sponge and her self-initiated 365 Days of Type series, designer and illustrator Sabrina Smelko is one busy woman. It could have all been very different had she not made the last-second decision to study illustration at Sheridan College over pursuing a career as a surgeon — but with her massive success in the design world, it’s safe to say she made the right choice.
Growing up in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Sabrina’s abundance of energy was readily apparent, “I was an extroverted, energetic, impatient and fearless kid who lacked (and still lacks) the ability to be embarrassed. I did karate, had imaginary pets and worked at the local library from age 13 to 19. I was a maniac of a child.” She’s the first to admit that was never more “artsy” than the average kid, but instead retained her sense of curiosity and play — something she believes led her to a love of art as she grew up.
While she is thankful for the wisdom gathered from professionals while at Sheridan, Smelko reckons that given enough drive, someone could learn as much on their own as they could at art school — “and save a pretty penny.” Since becoming a working professional, she feels she has learned more than she ever did in school, though Smelko is quick to note this is not a knock on her former teachers. “Not until you’re out in the “real world” do you learn about the important things: how to manage time, be a good business person, how to navigate the waters of professional politics, how to negotiate, how to manage expectations, how to prioritize, etc.” She also notes the importance of always giving yourself new challenges; “I’m always on the hunt for a challenge and for something to scare the shit out of me.”
I’m always on the hunt for a challenge and for something to scare the shit out of me.
One of her biggest undertakings has been the 365 Days of Type. Smelko told us it was originally conceived as a way to sharpen her skills in an area she wasn’t as well versed; “It would allow me to explore a new aspect of design and keep my butt off the couch!” While the project has been a success, she admits it wasn’t always easy; “I’m glad and proud that I’ve kept it up, but it’s sometimes hard to find the time to create a number — and a unique and well-designed one — every single day.” It wasn’t just a challenge to create new designs. As Smelko’s work gained recognition, offers came pouring in, meaning less time to dedicate to her numbers, “Before, I could allot an hour or more for each number, and now, they’re averaging 10 minutes. Sometimes the pressure keeps them fresh and care-free and sometimes they just are what they are, but I’m still proud of every one.”
Amongst the new opportunities were high profile gigs for Cadbury, Coca-Cola and Kraft, where Smelko had the opportunity work as an art director and a graphic designer, an experience that showed he the value of being well-rounded. “I think it’s important to be specialized, but the ability to do both — and do both well — is underestimated.” In developing a well-rounded skill set, Smelko has been able work independent of bigger agencies. “Having worked for agencies in the past, I’m now happily freelancing full-time. I’m a very independent person, so I believe I would have ended up going it alone anyhow, but it’s interesting that I believe it coincides with the fact that it’s perhaps a smarter choice anyhow.”
No one’s going to hire you to draw dogs in tiaras unless you have a dog in a tiara in your portfolio.
As many creative professionals find, an invaluable part of securing that steady stream of work is maintaining a presence across a variety of social media platforms; “I’ve received at least 25% of my jobs because someone found me on Behance, Dribbble, Twitter or Instagram. I personally think anyone trying to make it as a freelancer should to be present on social media.” In fact, uploading new content into her body of work is a task Smelko is particularly enthusiastic about. “I update my portfolio every time a new piece of work goes live or is published. I’m kind of addicted to coding, so I enjoy and look forward to updating and redesigning my site often.” Using portfolio sites, such as Format.com, in conjunction with other social media platforms has been a hugely successful way for Smelko to not only secure work, but to curate the kind of jobs she’s being offered. By carefully choosing which of her work to share, Smelko uses her portfolio as a way to imagine her dream jobs and find a market for them. “No one’s going to hire you to draw dogs in tiaras unless you have a dog in a tiara in your portfolio. As silly as that sounds, sometimes it’s that simple. It seems to be working for me.”
original interview date: August 19, 2013