Today I'm interviewing Sara Blake aka ZSO – an illustrator, fine artist, and designer based in New York. Sara is one of those artists whose work and passions I followed with constant admiration since the very beginning. Sara has worked with Nike, Ford, IBM, TEDx Labs, and other acclaimed clients. We talked about information explosion, creative struggles, and the art of not giving up.
Your preferred medium is a mix of digital and analog hand-drawn illustration, which, I suppose, gives you more artistic freedom than traditional manual drawing. How did you come up with this technique?
I suppose so. It's definitely handy now for client work when you need to make edits to things you never could with a painting. I went to school for fine art originally, but it was more of a general liberal arts education, less focused specifically on technique or tools. I ended up teaching myself Photoshop on the job at my first internship working for a friend’s small creative agency and I just continued playing around a lot on my own, teaching myself how to use Flash to make little animations of small drawings etc. By the time I graduated I had found a job as an interactive designer at boutique shop that mainly catered to publishing. I was really lucky to get a job right out of school, but on a personal level I still felt like I wasn’t making any personal work that was all mine. I had started as a fine artist in school, so nights and weekends I began just mixing the digital tools I was using at work with my drawings. It was kind of a natural process of experimentation – just mashing up all the techniques I was using. I was also following many digital artists online. I remember following James Jean’s Process Recess and keeping up with Yuko Shimizu. I also was a huge huge fan of Kozy & Dan and their big panoramics. I followed a lot of digital or hybrid artist and that was a huge inspiration.
As an artist, what have you discovered about yourself throughout your experience? How has your work evolved over the years?
I think the biggest discovery for me is that doing creative work is actually very painful when you are doing it, and very satisfying only when you are finished. I always thought it would feel better as you got older and more experienced, but I think this is just the deal. In order to make it through that process every day, it’s important to remember why you do it – and for me it's all about love and passion, and waking up having a need to make things, which is totally beyond your control. It's easy to forget when you are beating yourself up over something. The other biggest practical thing I've learned is work, life, personal art balance, and managing my expectations for what I want to get out of each.
As far as my work evolving over the years, the technique I use is actually exactly the same. I'm a little better at my tools, but the biggest things to shift have been my color palette and control. I think these days I prefer more pattern and structure and less floral lines.
There's an old yet very sharp Chinese saying: “The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed.” What were the biggest challenges you've encountered in the industry? Was there ever a time you were almost ready to give up?
Every day. This is a daily or weekly internal monologue. I think every creative person has these conversations with themselves. But for me one of my biggest challenges is burnout. Working in NYC is really fast paced and it can wear on people, especially when trying to balance personal work, professional work, a personal life, and then add in a family too? I don't know how people do it! This year has been an amazing lesson in not giving up. Building big things is often an exercise in patience and tolerating discomfort. Recently I took on a big role as design director with an amazing startup, but it's been a really tough year with a lot of growing pains, as well as amazing small victories. I think discomfort with yourself or your situation in a moment can sometimes blind you to the bigger picture and potential, and that can be really hard to learn to see. That can be true for a job, or for a relationship, or just a piece of paper on the drafting table that isn't really working yet and is driving you fucking crazy.
You're a principal and founder of multidisciplinary design space, Minetta Design Co. How did this company come about?
Minetta Design Co. started simply as a collection of all of my advertising and design work. Out of college I initially got my start as an interactive designer, so most of my paying projects and jobs after school were not related to my personal illustration style whatsoever. The art I was making under ZSO seemed visually disconnected from my client work, so I created a separate home for each. It wasn't until three years ago that I was able to buy a studio space on Minetta Lane. Minetta Design Co. is named for the street, and mostly I work on design and art direction and consulting projects. There is an inevitable overlap with my illustration style on some projects, but that's always an open conversation with clients. My job is really to help direct and create a style that is best for the project and that's not always my personal art style or aesthetic. It's on the menu, but you don't have to order it.
It seems like you enjoy working with textures and patterns. Are you interested in collaborating with fashion designers/brands, or in clothing design as a part of your career? Have you thought about designing clothes?
Absolutely, I love textile design and even started a small line of silk scarves a few years ago, but never fully launched because it was a bit of a self funded pet project. I have done several collaborations so far working on prints and would love to go more in this direction. To get into fashion-fashion is daunting. I don't know anything about designing clothes, so I think I'd want to stick to the pattern side of things and partner with someone who knows what they are doing. Stay tuned for some plans in 2016 for more about some textile projects – there are actually some things in the works!
Today everyone's hands are glued to cell phones – sometimes it's almost impossible to have a conversation the old-fashioned way, which might get extremely annoying. I have this thing where I send personal, handwritten letters to my closest friends (with them, I only use messengers in case of emergency). I think it’s so hard to feel something real and honest when we are constantly being bombarded with tons of unfiltered information. I find writing and reading physical handwritten letters therapeutic and meditative. The same applies to doing anything in a non-digital way, to be honest. What do you do to give yourself a break from the information explosion? How do you like to unwind?
This is a great question and a great point. My mom still sends me handwritten postcards even though she is completely email and text message literate. I love it. Like everyone else, I'm attached to my phone for work emails, so the best way I've figured out how to deal with this problem is in small routines adjustments that feel like a calculated interlude. I have the weekend New York Times delivered to my apartment and I take it to the coffee shop on Saturdays and Sundays. I could get the same articles in half the time by reading them on my phone, but I prefer to carry the physical paper and to choose to tune out any digital interruptions. I like the feel of the paper and the ability to clip things out and collage. I also try to not eat in front of the computer or look at my phone. This year was kind of bad, but I'm getting back into the habit. The same goes for exercise. My daily runs are the single most creative time of day for me, hands down. If I'm stuck on a creative problem, I bet you I can solve if you put an hour worth of pavement in front of me and take away my iPhone.
If you could use one adjective to describe your past, present and future self, what would they be and why?
Past: Impulsive (young, rebellious, hormonal, in art school); Present: Reflective (30 something adult female); Future: Sanguine (survived being discouraged by the man, appreciative of the universe).