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Say Hello to ZSO: Artist/Designer Sara Blake on Projects, Process + Portfolios

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05.25.15 | By
Say Hello to ZSO: Artist/Designer Sara Blake on Projects, Process + Portfolios
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NYC-based Sara Blake is the artist and designer behind Minetta Design Company and ZSO, two brands she created to showcase her varied talents. Sara began her career after graduating from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, working in a small design studio as an interactive designer. As she began growing her art and illustration portfolio, she went out on her own, offering art, illustration and design services to clients. She has been fortunate enough to work with brand such as Nike, Ford, Hurley, IBM, Wired Magazine, VICE Media, Warner Bros Entertainment, Marvel Entertainment, Scotch & Soda, and TEDx Labs.

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I love her mix of digital and hand-drawn illustration and her tattoo-inspired, detailed animal artwork. After discovering she also uses Squarespace for her online portfolio, I wanted to talk to her more about her portfolio, her process… and of course, inspiration:

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How did you come up with the names Minetta and ZSO?

I came up with ZSO eight years ago after I graduated college. I was working as an interactive designer in a small design studio and was learning a lot about design on the job. In school I thought I would somehow be a fine artist, but looking for a job as a graphic designer was the more practical route. While there was a lot that was satisfying about learning to solve design problems, it didn’t have the freedom for me art and drawing did, so I’d come home at night and work more on illustration projects. Even into my early 20s I still didn’t really have a style, and ZSO was the name I just used to house all my illustration experiments that were gradually starting to come together. ZSO represented a few things for me. I liked it was abstract, short, and the shape the letters made. The Z and S form an upside down heart, a little secret that reminds me to keep after my passions when things get murky. Minetta Design Co. only happened a few years ago, kind of accidentally. I’ve always supported myself with design and illustration has been more of the passion and part time gig. I went freelance with both five years ago, and the challenge has always been figuring out how to work from home in tiny NYC apartments. Anyone who does this will tell you how great and awful it is at the same time. Anyway, two years ago I got a studio on Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village, and the space just felt magical and creative to me so Minetta Design Co. was named for the space. The dream was always to eventually turn it from live-work into just a design studio, which finally happened last month.

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How do you balance your design and art/illustration clients?

Design projects generally last at least a few weeks at a time minimum and in the past I’ve permalanced with agencies and clients over long periods of time. Illustration projects tend to be spikes of a few days to a week or two, so it’s just a matter of figuring out your calendar and being ok with long work days where things overlap and also being ok with lulls in between jobs. I always have a long list of side projects I want to do, explorations I want to try, projects with friends, etc. so off-days don’t really exist. I’m finding more and more opportunity to bring illustration into my design work these days, so the two are sort of starting to blend together.

Do you work on a particular schedule and how do you find time for personal projects?

I’m a creature of habit. I get pretty depressed if I don’t have a routine. Right now I do design work pretty much 10AM to 9 or 10PM and then try and squeeze in a run, rinse and repeat. When I was younger I felt creative much later into the night and I was crazy hungry. Not that I’m still not, I just think I’m observing that I have a limited amount of focused and productive creativity per day, and it’s not really useful to force it into the night when I’m exhausted. So these days I postpone my personal projects to the weekend or in between jobs. Lately with Minetta Design Co. I feel more ownership over my design work since working with really closely with some awesome new startup brands, so I feel less starved for personal projects. Every project feels personal, and I try to do every project as if it were my own brand.

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What are some of the tools you for organization and efficiency? In other words, how to you make sure you have more time to be creative?

This might sound counterintuitive but sometimes the best move for me is to take a break. I tend to work myself into a self-deprecating tizzy when I can’t solve something. Often if I’m willing to just chill for a minute and go for a run, it frees up my mind and the answer will arrive when I’m doing something unrelated. It feels like magic. Also quiet time is essential for me. I recharge with silence and stillness. Background noise/conversations or any extra stimulation in general is a creativity killer, so work space is really important. Also: sleep and exercise.

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A designer yourself, why did you choose to design your website using Squarespace?

I’ve been with Squarespace for something like 5 or 6 years now. It was immediately attractive to me from a design perspective. The UI was clean, easy to use, easy to build, and had blogging capabilities, and the templates were very portfolio-friendly. It blended everything I needed, and I could get my website up in a day and manage everything myself. The customer service was also incredible and that’s kept me there over the years.

You sell products on your ZSO website as well – tell me a little bit about balancing product sales and designing? How do you think it benefits you as a designer to be able to sell your own products?

I’ve always had fantasies of having a quiet little shop with an art studio in the back, so e-commerce with Squarespace Commerce has been a nice mini and virtual version. It was also a great learning experience. When you sell products you are essentially selling things as your own brand. You have to factor in the time it takes to package, ship, and serve as customer service. It adds up, even for a shop/artist as small as me. That can be a lot to take care of on top of a full load of design work, so I’ve learned to take advantage of some great 3rd party services like INPRNT who help with made to order prints, and then I handle things like silks scarves and original drawings. I follow so many illustrators and artists and it’s always a nice plus when they have a shop.

What advice do you have for designers looking to create an online portfolio of their work?

I think portfolios should be simple and clean and make sure it works on mobile. More work with less clicks. Also put your energy into the quality of work you are showcasing and worry less about the actual website. There are services like Squarespace with great, easy-to-use templates which are ready to go and completely to customizable to the point you’d have no idea it’s a template. Having a blog directly attached to your site is a great way to get people regularly coming back to your site.

How important is your portfolio and online presence?

Unless you plan on doing all your business word of mouth, it’s crucial. Even if you live in a city and still show your portfolio via in-person meetings, creative directors and clients are going to want to know what to expect with your work before you sit down. It’s also important not to bury your work too deep in your own site. I’m personally always attracted to portfolios that have both a commercial work section and personal work sections, and again, blogs. I dig people with passion who chronicle their own process and experiments. It’s also important to find a way to keep up with your site, keep adding and building, and I always find a management system really helpful for that.

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You do a lot of portraits and animal artwork – where does your inspiration come from? Are you influenced by tattoo culture?

Probably subconsciously just because I came from that world. I was getting tattooed a lot around the time I was starting my career. The artist I respect the most is probably my tattooer Steve Boltz. Except for larger pieces that require long hours of drawing and planning like my sleeves and back piece, for the most part Steve can draw everything day of my appointment while I run out and pick up food. It’s incredible and a testament to his creativity and design problem solving talents. “Here’s a canvas shape (body part). You have this much space. You have this much time. I want a flower somewhere. I want the color blue. Go!” As far as my own portrait and animal work, maybe that’s part of it, but I gravitated to drawing that sort of stuff long before I was ever getting tattooed. My oldest kid drawings are all animals from my dad’s National Geographics. I think I just like the idea of creating these little characters, fictional or real, and giving life to something.

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What is your favorite medium to work with?

Pencil.

When approaching a design project for a client, what is your process?

Communication is often the hardest and most crucial part, so it’s really, really important to filter when and what you show your client to get your idea across. Don’t ask your client to imagine what’s in your head, (and I’ve certainly done this before). It never goes well. If it means you’ll be a little late, spend the extra time to make a better presentation that illustrates your vision. I’ve learned this the hard way many a time, it’s been one of the most valuable things I’ve learned. Start with art boards and reference, have a detailed, collaborative discussion. The final product shouldn’t really be a surprise, it should be a product and culmination of rounds of discussions and sketches. I will also add a disclaimer here* With art and illustration work… sometimes a client or project tells me “Do whatever you, want” A) I love that B) It will be indeed be a surprise. Haha!

What project was your favorite and why?

Always the last one I worked on or the next one that is yet to be made. I’m always learned and growing, and every project is a continuation of the styles and skills from the previous.

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What’s on your playlist?

Tycho, Radiohead, Helios, Ours, Wild Beasts, Andrew Bird, Four Tet, Rosetta, Flying Lotus, Hammock, Interpol, Jose Gonzalez, The Sight Below, Swans.

Thanks, Sara!

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Jaime Derringer, Founder + Executive Editor of Design Milk, is a Jersey girl living in SoCal. She dreams about funky, artistic jewelry + having enough free time to enjoy some of her favorite things—running, reading, making music, and drawing.