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Season two. I repeat...season two!!! And why not kick this season off with the work-life-balance-struggle. Yes, the elephant in the room. The full time job and full time side hustle kind of a situation. In this episode we’ll be chatting with Kelly Malka, a full-time graphic designer, side-hustle maven, and oh, did we mention she also runs her own Etsy shop! Let’s just say sleep isn’t really a part of the equation.
So give us the basics. Where are you at and what do you do?
Crazy ad agency life. I work as a graphic designer at Venables Bell & Partner, but freelance along the side whilst maintaining an Etsy shop. Most people don’t know I have full time job, but I wish that what people were seeing on my socials was my full time gig!
Ok, since we’ve transitioned into an audio-only format with this new season, how would you best describe your style to the listeners?
Whimsical, weirdly detailed. I draw people, but then again I don’t feel like they come out looking realistic. I also tend to steer away from applying “proper” color usage where skin tones, objects, or backgrounds are concerned. Dipping into any realm of reality just isn't my vibe. Blue skin, pink skin, sign me up!
Looking back at my art’s evolution, the mediums I was using heavily influenced my style. Going from colored pencils, to pen, then digital, were all contributing factors in reaching my current technique. I won’t say that the traits defining my current work are going to be the same, say, a year from now. I wouldn’t say it’s even that diverse. I know that whatever piece I am working on will come out the way I expect it to, but I am also still just unfolding as an artist.
What really catches my attention is that your characters all seem to be very similar in resemblance and that it’s almost a reflection of yourself in a way?
It’s funny that you say this because, it wasn’t until I posted a picture of myself on instagram that I heard this type of feedback. I definitely dress my characters in clothing that I gravitate towards. I also have naturally curly hair, so I kind of project my dream hairstyles onto my characters too.
Poses and anatomy is something I’ll definitely reference. Sometimes the proportions get a little wack, and I’ll find that I even mimic my own body’s physicality. Though it really comes down to a combination of resources, my own imagination, Pinterest.etc…
I know that for quite a lot of people a quick and easy hack to this is tracing, and then taking that as a basis to creating their own thing. What’s your opinion on this?
Not judging. There’s so many avenues through which we can go through and explore our own journey in being an artist. If I am commissioned to draw someone, and this can even be someone of historical prominence, or of a certain social stature, I'll have to go in and trace them to get all those nuances right. I don’t think it takes away from your capacity as an artist.
It’s a complete learning experience when we’re dealing with copyright. When those lines blur between purely sourcing and utilizing material for inspiration and reference, to downright ripping off someone else’s work is a difficult subject to broach when you’re being the one taken advantage of too. I usually reach out to the person and try to start a dialogue in which I let that party know that that’s my work they’re capitalizing on, but it’s definitely something I struggle with.
So what kickstarted your Instagram?
I started my account in college, but was very laissez-faire about it. Not until I graduated in 2015 did I start to see it more as a tool. Moving to San Francisco and starting out in the workforce really opened my eyes to its potential in getting my work seen. Now that I wasn’t in school anymore, constantly hunkered over my books studying, I saw it as prime time to start Etsy as well. Yeah, work was crazy, but it’s now or never.
Within the last year, I’d even credit my artwork as an escape. It’s become much more personal, and a diary of sorts. Don’t get me wrong, I love my work, but that doesn’t take away from how stressful and taxing it is.
I mean I am literally putting my feelings out there via my artwork, and it’s at hand for anyone to see, anyone to follow along, and bear witness to. And on the other side of the spectrum, it’s hard to balance out the pros of social media to the cons. I still need to remind myself that I am enough, and that looking at someone else’s highlight reel, in no way, takes away from where I am personally at in my own life, in my profession, or whatever you find your comparisons to be.
Let's do a day in the life. Full time job, side hustle, social media, Etsy orders, the whole shebang. Walk me through it!?
It’s just a really unpredictable schedule, like I’ll be put on a plane to go pitch something last minute. Typically, I’ll get home from the office at around 6-7PM and work freelance gigs / side hustle until around midnight. Usually working weekends, but I’ll make sure to schedule in some time out of the two days for family/friends. And you know, exhaustion hits when you least expect it so crashes happen here and there.
I don’t plan ahead either, because I just can’t commit. Trying to create a cohesive schedule with a day job that’s always fluctuating in its demands just doesn’t allow for it.
So how do you know what to prioritize?
Obviously my day job is priority. Every-day demands are widely diverse in that not one design brief is the same. Within my own personal work, my art is very uniform, but in the office my work needs to look like Reebok or Chipotle. So if I am going to break it down, I’d say the day job first, then some time in which I am drawing without consequence, then freelance work and Etsy. I am creatively catering towards other people all day, so getting to work on my own art is something I really need in order to keep that equilibrium going.
And I do just want to state that I’ll never take on a freelance project unless my time allows for it. So that’s something I am super conscious of too; making sure that when I do side-hustle, my client’s brief is being executed to its fullest potential.
When you do need to turn projects down, do you have a list of artists to whom you can refer them through to?
I do, because there are so many artists who don’t necessarily have a large following but are entirely capable in their skill set. I’ve also made a rule to not accept design jobs anymore because I already do that all day, so I always refer those. I only take on illustration, but when I do find myself not being able to do a project justice, I’ll maybe hook them up with a few friends of mine or someone I know on instagram who’s style is of a similar nature.
Aside from the day job, in what ways is the side hustle bringing in revenue?
I literally just finished doing my taxes today, and I think we can all agree when I say I wish to never see another tax form in my life!
When it comes to my Etsy shop, I’ll aim for 20-30% above breaking-even, but it’s not something I want to rely on to bring in the big bucks. My shop’s really a labor of love; personalizing orders, and packaging things in cute little envelopes.
Then there’s obviously my freelance gigs which brings in a bit of money, but that’s also something I just enjoy doing. Because my day job is so demanding, I am very much intentional about where I allocate my free time.
I am also going to admit that my day job is somewhat of a safety blanket. Sometimes I’ll receive feedback on an artwork requesting it to be made available in print, but then it doesn’t sell. That disconnect is something I contend with when contemplating doing freelance full time, and I am not quite ready yet to take that leap.
Have you ever given any thought to educational resources, digital commodities, or even working with sponsors?
That’s something I’d really like to delve into further on down the line; for now I feel like I still need to build upon my knowledge. Figuring out how to teach what I do is a whole thing within itself. I am sitting there, on my laptop, podcast blaring, editing.
I have been approached by a couple of sponsors in the past, but they’d really have to align with my beliefs, and whether I’d, say, use their product or not.
I do custom graphics, but I am a little paranoid when it comes to offering my artwork in that way. Making my work available as a downloadable asset makes it that much more easier for copyright infringement.
So, now that we’ve taken these rather “unstimulating” factors into account, how do you stay motivated!?
I am crazy work-driven. It’s a control mechanism, but I need the work to keep the sanity. I’ve talked to freelancers who really struggle with the loneliness that comes with the job; whereas I am constantly around people in my day job. Being within that community-type setting is a propelling factor in being able to turn to my illustration as a needs to decompress, which then further feeds into this drive to work these freelance gigs because I am seeing all these other rad artists just doing their thing. It’s a domino effect where they all balance each other out.
Do you feel that the accomplishment-high also contributes to this?
Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong, I am stoked to see a project come to fruition and it be put out into the world, but it’s short-lasting. I’ll start to see things that I would have done differently, and it’s almost like I need to redeem myself. So I am already onto the next thing!
There’s also that fear of the “blank page”. Where do you stand on this?
I am really going to chalk that down to what field you’re in. I work with a lot of writers within my agency and they’re just churning out words all day. Damn, there are only so many words out there! Sure, there are times I blank, but I go ahead and put pen to paper anyway because I need to do that for myself, and we’ll see how that turns out.
Advice time! What’s your advice on getting the most done, within a short amount of time?
Self-motivation. Since I’ve got a day-job, everything outside of that is my own choice, I do it for me. And again, since I am so pressed on time, everything that I do make space for within my own life has been done so with intention, and is truly a labor of love.
So what’s the future got in store? Are you thinking of sticking to advertising long-term, or could freelance also be an option?
I definitely want to be more independent in the future. One thing I will credit my job with though is that I am constantly surrounded by such a diverse group of people. Writers, directors, account managers, lawyers. I want to give this current phase of my life the time I need to fully tap into all these resources!
Something we haven’t touched on yet is failure. Your biggest failure, give it to me!?
I was head of design at a committee in college geared towards hosting on-campus concerts, and I’d designed the whole campaign surrounding this event, but it got pulled two days before. And I’d gone all out. I am talking spray paint, stencils, you name it! And this was my job you know? So I just took that as major rejection. I was still just finding my groove. That was definitely a milestone. You better believe I nailed the following campaign!
If we’re talking present-day, it happens at work all the time. From the more low-key projects to all my major clients; there are a thousand mistakes made in-between. It just comes with the territory.
I remember interning at Warner Brothers Records in their art department, and I’ll always recall hearing, “graphic design and art is heartbreak”. Not everyone’s going to love your work as a creative, but you just need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and move on.
And the pitching process in my day job really puts you through the wringer. Hours upon hours of work, and when you don’t close the deal; that’s brutal.
What’s your biggest success story?
I had this women’s campaign with Reebok where we pitched it as a lettering campaign and I’d done the initial sketches for the typography design; though we were entirely planning on bringing on a professional typographer if we got the gig. Turns out they liked my aesthetic and I was asked to front that aspect of the campaign. From shooting all these power-ladies with one of my favorite female photographers, elevating each other like that, and then seeing the culmination of all our efforts come together in the final product, was a surreal moment for me.
I also feel that this speaks so much to that feeling of “failure”. Never have I felt like I was doing so much wrong than during this project, and it’s one of my proudest moments to date.