We here at Circa have a bad habit during our monthly Lunch & Learns of forgoing the ‘lunch’ part and skipping immediately to ‘learn.’ So when we decided to invite Rachel Briggs to be our guest for September’s talk, we reminded each other to let Rachel enjoy her lunch (Calypso Café) before bombarding her with our extensive list of questions. Rachel is a freelance illustrator and designer whose clients have included Old Crow Medicine Show, Drew Holcomb, Wiseacre Brewing Company, and more. Prior to her freelance career, Rachel worked with one of Circa’s founders, Laura, at American Songwriter Magazine before moving to Chicago, working independently, and then moving back to Nashville to focus on her freelance career.
As we ate lunch the conversation organically turned to questions we’d been waiting to ask about organization, failure, confidence, gender in the workplace, and other topics. Here’s what she had to say.
A characteristic of Rachel’s work that we admire is her ability to combine both design and illustration. Though design and illustration often go together like peanut butter and jelly, they are distinct elements of the creative process that, at times, can be difficult to separate.
So, Rachel, how do you separate design and illustration, and then use them together?
Illustrative elements are becoming more prolific in graphic design due to the resurgence of a handmade aesthetic. Illustration is not design, and design is non-illustrative. However, there is overlap. A formal art education in, say, drawing or painting, teaches you light and dark, color, forty-sixty cross composition—all of which are the basics of designing a good layout. Do that in your art, and it translates into design. It’s fundamental of how you see things.
Do you ever get too caught up in either design or illustration?
Yes. I’ve gotten better at keeping a balance but sometimes it doesn’t always work out. My advice is to practice restraint—you don’t want to become a one trick pony falling back on the same illustrative techniques every time. Have a conversation in your head between the abstract, hand-drawn elements, and the design and layout. Learn to be loose and not constrained to one style—try everything! Moving forward, expand your voice into other realms: digital mediums if you work mostly with print and paper, or vice versa.
Failure—with a capital F. We’ve all been there. How have you dealt with failure in the past?
I think a lot of designers get in trouble with timelines. I definitely have, and my advice for that is don’t ghost! Be honest about your limitations and realistic with the client about how long the project is going to take. Usually you can work something out.
One of my early clients was a band right before they made it big. They asked me to design an entire line of tour merchandise with several iterations of each item. The timeline was only 3-4 weeks…it was way bigger than I could handle. I was able to gracefully bow out after talking to the band and being honest about the fact that I was in over my head. Thankfully there were kill fees (essentially a fee paid to the designer if a project is cancelled, funding cut, client decides to go in another direction, etc),
That experience was a great lesson for me on how to assess the manageability of projects before I accept them, and then how to better manage ongoing projects. I use an upside down t-chart these days to keep myself organized. The left side is new projects I’m currently working on; right side is open/maintenance clients, like Wiseacre; and the bottom is for my personal projects. The goal is to clear the left side and is a good way to prevent overbooking yourself. It’s all about learning the dance, and balancing what you want to do versus paying the bills every month.
Speaking of money…how do you handle pricing for your work?
Pricing can be tough, especially as a young artist just getting started in the industry. It can be difficult determining how much you should charge, how many clients are too many. I typically base pricing off my own years of experience and size of the client. Feel out what the client wants and their tentative budget, and then look at what exactly they’re asking you to do and how long it’s going to take to deliver.
Basically, ask yourself who and what you’re designing for, the reach your work will have, and how you’ll have to report projects on tax forms. Don’t charge just enough to make ends meet, but so you also have extra cash for savings and investment, which is very important if you decide you want to support yourself solely by doing freelance work. Cheap, fast, or good. You can only pick one.
At the end of the day, never undercharge yourself—it cheapens design and is unethical for both the industry and yourself. Be honest to yourself and your art, and never take on more than you can handle.
Circa was founded and is still run by two women. Our office staff is predominantly women. Do you feel like your gender has played a role in how you navigate the design industry?
I feel like a certain look is expected from women—that hand-lettered, pastel, watercolor straight-from-Pinterest aesthetic. There’s nothing wrong with that look, but it’s not the only thing women designers are capable of! Don’t act so surprised that a girl drew that gnarly dragon.
The design industry is still very much a sausage fest, a cult of bros I like to call “Draplin Bros.” I often come across the one token woman in the office, and I feel like I’ve had to work extra hard to push through the dude party. But Nashville is a great place to be a woman business owner, and I see women here challenging the status quo every day. We’re making progress, but there’s always more work to be done.
What is Lunch & Learn?
At Circa, we have a bold understanding that education never just stops after college. This has been the motivation for our new series: Lunch & Learn. Every month we will have lunch with some of the brightest people in the creative field ranging from painters to SEO masters; and poke their brains to get a better understanding of the world and our role as visual communicators.
Rachel Briggs is a designer and illustrator raised in Memphis and based in Nashville. You might recognize her work if you've ever had a can of Tiny Bomb, but her portfolio also includes album art, murals, set design, and posters. If you can't find Rachel, she's probably on a hike.