Shanti Sparrow
Graphic Design & Ilustration

Student Q&A

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Dear students, AMA.

I get a lot of interview requests for school projects and I do my best, time permitting, to answer as many questions as possible. This page is set up as an archive with a range of questions that I have already answered that may help you with your studies. If you have any further questions you can send them to hello@shantisparrow.com (maximum of 5). 

+ Shanti Sparrow Illustration Bio

Shanti Sparrow is a New York based Australian illustrator, graphic designer and dreamer. Sparrow is inspired by the books of her childhood, especially those of Maurice Sendek and Eric Carle. She also draws on her love of nature and animals to create enchanting scenes in her unique style. Having studied design at University of Western Sydney, Sparrow integrates her sound knowledge of design principles and illustrative techniques to create layered, patterned and texture-filled scenes. Sparrow’s art aims to connect with the child in all of us — colourful, playful, and engaging. Sparrow filtered into the more commercial direction of graphic design after finishing her degree. For over a decade she has been based in Australia designing campaigns for nonprofit organisations including Greenpeace, NBCF and UNHCR. Though this work was very fulfilling, Sparrow felt there were other creative opportunities to pursuit. In 2014 Sparrow launched her career as an illustrator by releasing 10 pieces in a series titled ”Hatched” through her website. Since then Sparrow has held a further 6 exhibitions both in Australia and internationally and released over 50 detailed illustrations. In 2015 Hardie Grant published Sparrows first two illustrated Children's books titled Colours and Shapes. These early learning children's books blend beautiful patterns and textures with vibrant colours and bold shapes, Shanti Sparrow has created a magical world for children to immerse themselves in. Enchanting, eye-catching, and distinctive, Shapes and Colours will captivate both children and adults alike.

In 2016 Pomegranate Communication Published two children's activity books, Shanti Sparrow: Colorful Creatures Coloring Book and Shanti Sparrow: Dazzling Drawings Sticker Book. The coloring book includes twenty-two outlines of Sparrow’s detailed characters while the sticker book includes over 200 reusable stickers. Pomegranate further published a range of calendars, memory games and a puzzle. This puzzle entitle Hide and Seek was awarded 2016 Kid’s Product of the Year in the Puzzles category by Creative Child magazine.

+ Shanti Sparrow Design Bio

Shanti Sparrow is an Australian graphic designer, illustrator, lecturer and dreamer. She has been freelancing internationally and working within boutique studios for the last decade. Sparrow specialised as a conceptual designer within the NGO industry focusing on fundraising and awareness campaigns. Sparrow is known as the Queen of Layout and her work is characteristically informed by the grid with refined typography and bold colour choices. Sparrow embraces the simplicity of geometric shapes and lines to create minimal yet visually striking designs. It was these designs that lead to Sparrow being named one of 33 Women Doing Amazing Things in Graphic Design along with design superstars Paula Sher, Jessica Walsh, Debbie Millman, Leta Sobierajski and Jing Zhang. As an illustrator Sparrow has created a unique style involving scanned textures, vector patterns and digital collage. These dreamlike scenes engage the child in us all with their playful and enchanting aesthetic. Sparrow has published four children’s picture books though Hardie Grant and Pomegranate Publishing. Pomegranate further published a range of calendars, memory games and a puzzle. This puzzle entitle Hide and Seek was awarded 2016 Kid’s Product of the Year in the Puzzles category by Creative Child magazine.

+ Shanti Sparrow Elevator Pitch Bio

I am a lecturer of graphic design at Shillington College NYC, founder of Shanti Sparrow Design and an illustrator. Though I work on a lot of branding projects, I have specialised as a conceptual designer in the not-for-profit sector generating direct marketing appeals. As an illustrator I have published 4 children books, greetings card, games and a range of other merchandise.

+ What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?

I graduated at a fairly terrible time, smack bang in the middle of the global financial crisis. It was a tough time for design in general and an even tougher time for a graduate. I had hoped to get a job within a couple months of graduating from uni. Ideally, and rather naively, I envisioned a boutique studio with a nice balance of commercial and creative work. Instead 5 months later there were still no prospects in site. I was applying for more then 20 jobs a week - for anything and everything that came up. It was a good day when I received a response stating ‘thank you for your application, however you do not have the required experience’ but a far more deflating day when I heard nothing at all.

Eventually a call came through. I had unsuccessfully applied for a mid weight position for which I was very obviously under qualified. However a month later they were looking for a junior and there I was, in a pile I didn’t belong, hoping for a chance. I took it and worked as a designer for over two years in a small but fast paced independent printery.

When I look back I am very grateful for these humble beginnings. I learned about the wonderful world of print from the ground up. I fell in love with stocks and finishes and ink. It was here that I first started training and mentoring new team members which was the spark that a decade later lead to lecturing and teaching in NYC.

+ Why did you become a designer?

I believe my love affair with design started with the title/cover pages of my primary school notebooks. I would spend hours creating elaborate titles using glitter and neons. I loved colour coding with highlighters and creating consistency with the same specific blue ink pen that was a shade lighter and more beautiful than the others. I didn’t realise this was the beginnings of a design eye, I just knew I loved creating these layouts. When I discovered there was a career where I could make cover pages and layouts all day I knew I had found my calling.

+ How did you develop your style as an illustrator and what tips would you have for others?

For a very long time I just enjoyed illustrating but had no plans to make money from it, nor did I have a defined style. At the 2013 Semi Permanent Conference I saw a very inspirational talk by illustrator Sandra Dieckmann. She introduced the idea of going through your artworks from childhood to adulthood and observing that similar themes and styles present themselves from a very early age. It was an interesting exercise so I thought I would try it for myself. As soon as I saw them all together I could instantly find definite patterns. It appeared I liked to create segmented characters with detailed embellishments in sections. My colours were always bright and the subjects were always animals. Armed with these observations it took me 6 months to create my first piece in what is now considered my signature style. Since then I have created more then 50 works. It sounds very strange but once I knew what I did it was easier to do. Having my unique style also meant that my work was more recognisable. This, quite unintentionally, lead to children’s book deals, greeting cards and lots of licensing opportunities.

+ Were there any designs or artworks that sparked a passion in you early on?

Warhol for sure. I loved everything pop art and bright. The clean lines and vibrant colours of his designs spoke to me more than art did. I love Eric Carle and his style definitely influenced my illustration, specifically the Hungry Little Caterpillar. Maurice Sendak and his book 'Where the Wild things Are' is also huge influence on my love of illustration.

+ How long have you been in your current position, and what was your career path to get there?

When I graduated I cut my teeth as a designer in a printery. I learned about all things print and the practicalities or digital vs offset. After a few years I moved into a studio and learned about appeal design and the not-for-profit industry. I also started my own freelance business as an illustrator and delved into publishing and licensing. After a few years I was the senior art director at the studio I was working at and decided I wanted a change. This is when I decided to try teaching. Teaching design has been an incredibly inspiring job. I have more time to immerse myself in design and to also work more freely in my freelance role. I’ve been a teacher since 2015 and a designer for almost a decade.

+ Did you always know you wanted to study Graphic Design?

Yes and no. I knew I loved design and origianlly thought I was going to be an architect. After spending a week doing work experience in an archtectural studio I knew it was for me. It didnt have enough felxibility and freedom. I ended up choosing to do a B. Design (Visual Communication) because it offered me exposure to a broad range of design disciplines. These included photography, animation, interactive design, web design, advertising and illustration. In the end I loved everything to do with graphic design and illustration.

+ What academic preparation is necessary to enter this field?

Study of design history and exploration into ethics is a recommended foundation. Ultimately however, the design field is practical. You need to know how to use the key programs and learn techniques within them.

Most Importantly you need experience trying to solve design problems (briefs). To get a job - this needs to be translated into a portfolio. I am not biased as to what qualification you have. I more want to see your work and the way you think. I want to see what kind of designer you are.

+ What skills and abilities are important to be successful in your job?

In general a love of deign and the intricacies that go into creating a balanced and successful design. Primarily though, I believe it comes down to empathy. Standing in your clients or target demographics shoes to find the most appropriate answer for the design problem.

+ What factors differentiate those who succeed from those who fail in this kind of work?

Those who fail are the ones who succeed. Try something and fail – try again. If you don’t venture into the unknown your design can become homogenised and your design skills will not advance. This also leads to your style becoming outdated. Beyond this, get your processes in order and be systematic.

+ What do you look for in graphic designers candidates?

When I was involved in the recruiting process with my studio in Sydney we would look first for a personality match and secondly for potential. A studio will quickly become your family as you work together everyday often for very long hours. We looked for people who shared similar interests and values as those in the studio. Generally the right person with an average folio would out rank an ok person with a brilliant folio.

We also look for thinkers. People who have ideas behind the finished product. How did they get to their outcome? Can they communicate their concept? This thought process is honestly more valuable then the actual final outcome.

As the jobs go up in level (mid weight - seniors), I like to hear about how designers cope with mistakes or difficult clients. How have they managed a situation that could have gone negatively. I like to see what work they really enjoy working on and what projects they are most proud of.

+ What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?

  1. DON’T WORK FOR FREE! There are maybe a couple of exceptions to this – your mum or the occasional piece for your favourite charity. Beyond this, for commercial design, you should never work for free. You’ve worked hard to gain your new skills so place value on them. You can’t pay the bills with exposure and you deserve to make a living from your work just like everyone else. If people don’t understand the value of your work, try educating them on the process of design and negotiate a price or don’t work with them. Your worth more babes.
  2. If you have never worked with a new client before ask for a 50% deposit. It may sound silly but I had to learn this lesson twice – so please learn this from me and not from your own experience.
  3. Take a risk. I love to send clients a ‘wild card’ option. It is a design/concept that has taken a left of centre approach to their brief. Often it pushes the boundaries and the precedent of their brand to explore a new direction. This has a high failure rate. At worst they see that I am exploring new possibilities to evolve the brand. This may be too rapid, but can start a conversation that leads to change. At best, every so often, you get a win and these appeals are often the strongest and most memorable.
  4. Always have a passion project humming along in the background other then your commercial work. It gives you a creatively free outlet to enjoy and helps to keep you sane. My passion projects are often the ones I get the most recognition from. This is possibly because I put more of my heart in to them and this translates across to the audience.
  5. The work you put out in the world is the work you attract. This is an extension of the passion project lesson. By creating dream concept work and releasing it on design platforms you are more likely to attract a client with similar projects.

+ What would you say to young women who want to become designers?

The best designers I have ever worked with have been women. If you think this is something you want to do - go for it. Just remember to always have a voice. I have seen many junior designers, often young women, lose their voice. Understandingly they worry about being wrong, looking silly and talking out of place. Fuck that. Be wrong and speak up, you may be newer to design but your thoughts and opinion are just as valid and often bring a really beneficial perspective.

+ What types of portfolio do you prefer? Is there any preference?

I have noparticular preference – I’m really tactile so I still love printed samples. If you are using a digital device I expect to see some interactions like buttons, indexs and animations.

Everyone should have a website or online folio.

More importantly when showing me your folio I want to know the story behind the work, the concept, the challenges, how you solved problems etc.

+ Who hires people to do in the design industry?

Art directors do most of the hiring in smaller studios. Account Execs, HR, Marketing Manager or Studio Managers may do hiring in agency environments. There are also recruiters like Creative Circle who play match makers between graduates and studios.

+ Any passion projects you would like to share?

I am launching a new magazine called Small Fries dedicated to promoting student design to the industry. After seeing first hand the incredible standard and depth of my students work I’m trying to create new channels to promote them.

Small Fries will work similarly to an illustration directory. It will feature student profiles, their work and have direct contact information. The magazine would be distributed to top studios in Australia/ UK/US. This is to ensure the work gets under the noses of the right people.

The students get published and promoted, studios get fresh inspiration and connection to new talent and the world gets a beautifully curated magazine filled with gorgeous design.

+ How do you keep up with the changes in your field?

Teaching and discussing design continually with students keeps me aware of trends and key technological changes. I also like looking at the following platforms for daily inspiration.

  • It’s Nice That
  • designspiration
  • Pinterest
  • Behance
  • Creative Boom

+ What areas do you feel promise the most growth/opportunities?

UX design is huge and fascinating! Looking into it. It’s about empathy and problem solving. I love that it is trying to improve the experience of design.

+ Are there other fields in which the same skills might be used?

You can use your design skills in almost every single job. ‘Design Thinking’ can be used to solve problems in every industry. Specifically though, illustration, photography, animation, web design, UX design etc

+ How does your early work differ from your current work? Has your style changed over time?

I feel my style reflects the client I am working on at the moment. I think that I have an overall tendency to favour clean san serif type and bright palettes as long as it suits the brief. I love a tight grid, so there is always an invisible system tying the design together. I definitely have phases. I loved neons, I loved pastels, I loved cobalt blue, I loved photo masks, I loved scan warped element. I think all these things come in and out of vogue.

+ Are there several visual influences merging together in your work?

Swiss always. I love the International Style. Grids, minimalism and strong typography. Beyond that I don’t think I subscribe to any philosophy over another. Joseph Mueller Brockmann and Max Bill are great influences. For fun have a look at Swissted, these band posters created in a Swiss style are some of my favourite things!

+ Do you start ideas in notebooks first before working on screen?

Yes, a quick thumbnail always comes before I design. Thumb-nailing also happens when I need to push a layout if I’m feeling stuck. If I am writing the copy or coming up with tag lines I always do this on paper. Word associating and mind mapping help me generate ideas faster then if I am on the computer.

+ I can't draw – will this stop me from being successful at design?

IT DOES NOT MATTER! Seriously! Traditional artistic skills are not the same as design skills. Design is about problem solving. Art is about expression. You’ll be fine!

+ How would you describe graphic design?

Graphic design is the effective visual communication of a message. Thats a bit dry but it is true. Clients present us with a message - it could be an ask, some information or a call to action. We then have to figure out the best way to communicate this message to an audience. This visual communication could be in the form of adverts, branding, signage, apps, website, packaging or much more. We are communicators and problem solvers at heart.

+ How do you Communicate throughout a project?

A face to face is always a good idea to begin with. This does not mean you have to be physically in the same room. I often use Skype for international clients. After this I request all design feedback to be given in writing through email. I try to avoid verbal directions as these are not as thoughout or reliable as written feedback.

+ What positive and negative factors influenced your collaborative design process?

For awhile I was located in NYC while freelance with a studio in Sydney, Bug Communication. They create direct marketing appeals for not-for-profit organisations. I worked within the studio for three years and knew the people, the company and the workflow inside out. When I decided to travel and chase opportunities overseas we experienced a learning curve in terms of working long distance.

Cons: The time difference between the two countries meant I was not able to contact clients quickly for small changes. I was unable to talk face to face in briefings to gauge the clients on a personal level or probe them for leads in the brief. I did not have my team directly around me to brainstorm and bounce ideas with.

Result: These issues led to an understanding that long ongoing projects are not a good fit. Also dealing direct with the clients was not particularly efficient.

Pros: The time difference could also be a pro. If the studio had urgent appeals (maybe a Tsunami Disaster Relief or Bushfire Appeal) they could send them to me at night – which would be my morning – I could work on it during my day and it would be back at them before they arrive the next morning. This is crucial in fundraising as often the first one to get their donation hotline in public view gets the majority funds.

I knew my studio and colleagues in Sydney and I trusted their interpretation and direction of the brief. So if they dealt face to face with the client and communicated the brief to me (phone or email) I felt secure in my process. They also prompted the clients to supply me with helpful resources like mood boards, case studies, likes/dislikes etc This fluid nature of the process came from years of familiarity between the studio, the clients and the type of projects.

Result: We discovered that isolated sections of projects worked best. This lead to me working almost exclusively on the concept stage. They would send me the brief – I would brainstorm, idea generate and create three possible directions for the appeal. I would email these to my director as a presentation with accompany notes and justifications. This was all my director in Sydney needed to pitch to the client. Once the client had picked the direction I would then hand over my files to the studio and they would roll out the concept to the many, many different pieces the appeal would become (posters, envelopes, web banners, cook books, flags, pins, pens, note books etc).

+ Which method do you follow when you start doing a project?

Trust the process! I use a lot of methods including mood boarding, market research, demographic analysis, word association, competitor reviews, thumb-nailing, wire framing, prototyping and user testing.

+ Which aspects do you take into account, when coming to the time of making a design?

What are the goals and objectives of the client? What are the needs and wants of the user? How can we achieve these goals in the simplest and most effective way? How will the content of the website be managed? The general scale in terms of key template pages. Most importantly I study the target demographic – understanding who they are will drive the UX design.

+ What new media and digital technologies have enhanced your design practice?

In terms of technological developments programs like Sketch has drastically changed my Digital design process. Gone are the days of painstakingly producing key pages in Photoshop which is a program that was never meant for layout. Now we have software that is affordable and purpose built for digital applications. Just the ability to export assets at multiple resolutions for the ever increasing variety of devices and screens is a game changer.

In terms of new media – the immediacy of sharing websites like Instagram, Pinterest and Designspiration means that I am exposed to so much inspiration and am able to pick up on trends as they emerge and can avoid things that have been done to death. New media has also bought me a lot of personal exposure which has lead to numerous clients and networks that would not have found me if i hadn't openly shared my designs.

+ How did you integrate usability in your creations?

UX is all about empathy. I put myself in the shoes of the users and see how I can quickly and easily meet their needs. I make sure I put in only the relevant information and options to make sure the user doesn’t get distracted from their or the clients goal. Using pre populated fields, fewer steps, uncomplicated and familiar navigation, a relevant tone of voice and clear objectives all help to improve the user experience.

+ Did working in New York influence your style?

As a designer, I don’t think I have been influenced too much by NYC just yet. As an Illustrator however it was a very inspirational time. I had 6 months of my life free to illustrate at will anything I wanted. This lead to a very productive stage in my life where I created over 30 pieces (quite a lot for me). I have only just moved back to NYC to teach at a college, so I look forward to it’s influence once more.

+ Is there any tips for future graphic designers?

Welcome to the start of a really interesting and challenging industry. It can be difficult to get your foot in the door, but once you are in there are endless possibilities and opportunities. Make sure you become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. At first it is hard to put your ideas and heart into a project and open it up for judgement. But you soon learn that the feedback you receive helps you become a better designer. Be brave and if your studio gives you an opportunity to pitch and idea go for it! Enjoy it, there are not that many industries out there that let you create everyday :)