Skillshare student Liza Carey is a freelance graphic designer who lives in rural Catalonia and works with clients across the globe, but her life hasn’t always been so calm. As a twenty-something, she left her burgeoning career as a graphic designer to travel through Japan, raise a family, and open a restaurant. When she returned to creative work ten years later, she found that digital toolkits had so dramatically changed the industry that she was forced to re-learn graphic design “from scratch.” Liza persevered, and within five years was traveling the globe with her son, supporting their years-long journey by freelance designing along the way.
Now she’s settled down and challenging herself in a different way, using Skillshare to drive new creative pursuits like character illustration and surface design. She spoke with us about her adventurous life, her creative work, and the advice she would give anyone who might be considering a leap into a new direction.
You have such an interesting relationship with graphic design. You write that you majored in graphic design but left the industry soon after you graduated and stayed away for ten years. Then, as a 36-year-old, you decided to jump back into a creative career and had to start all over again. Can you talk about what drew you to graphic design — in the first place, and again, after so much time spent away?
In the last few years of high school the art room became my happy place. It was the only subject I felt good at. During the early 80’s, my brother and I would spend long hours after school programming our cool space age plastic Tandy TRS-80 Model 1 with games like ping pong and space invaders on cassette tapes, reading Archie comics and redrawing Garfield. My art teacher encouraged me to pursue art, so graphic design seemed to be a wise career choice. I couldn’t believe my luck, everyday was play day and my fishing box full of Pantone markers, scalpels, technical pens and tubes of gouache were my toys. Sticky Letraset, smelly bromide papers and the red glow of darkrooms were an everyday event.
When I graduated with a Bachelor in Visual Arts I took a detour to Japan to study Japanese, as foreign languages also intrigued me. Tokyo in the 90’s was like stepping into the future. Australia seemed outdated compared to the shiny high tech wizardry of this foreign city. After returning home, while my fellow design graduates had already found work in the graphic design industry, I started a family and opened a Thai restaurant. I’m not sure why my life veered away from graphic design to be honest, but it took me a decade, a divorce, and a move to Melbourne with my son before I changed course and went back to my creative roots.
What did it feel like to decide to re-enter graphic design and then to find the field had totally changed?
Wow, what a wake-up call. I was both shocked and excited. The industry had moved on and I had to learn from scratch the tools of the trade (if only Skillshare was around then to teach me about Photoshop the Adobe suite!). I felt like my designs were stuck in the 80’s. I was blown away with how quickly computer graphic software allowed me to work, but also frustrated because I had to learn a completely new way of visually communicating an idea.
Did you miss anything about working with analog tools?
During art college, using analogue tools was the only option. Now we are glued to a screen the entire day, but back then, we were a lot more animated. We moved around, used our hands, gathered resources and sketched out ideas on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally addicted to working digitally now. My husband once found me caressing my Wacom Cintiq in the quiet early hours of the morning. It’s magical to be able to combine creative technologies but still enjoy the tactile pleasure of pen and paper.
What initially inspired you to go freelance?
I worked full time in a studio for most of my early career, which was invaluable and gave me solid grounding in graphic design; I learned how to follow briefs, manage my time and work on a creative team. I decided to go freelance to expand my design experience and to spend more time with my son. I work entirely as a freelancer now and I love it. It allows me the freedom to explore my own passions during quieter work periods.
You write that a few years ago, you and your son decided to pack up your belongings and wander the world for the next year together. The trip sounds amazing. You kite surfed in Thailand, explored temples in Cambodia, pruned olive branches in Catalonia and looked after Llamas in France. What inspired you to take the trip? What inspired you while you were on it?
I always admired a few of my well-travelled friends and their globetrotting stories, and I wanted to share new cultural experiences with my son. There were many wonderful moments during our vagabonding, but the ones that stood out the most were interactions with people. We made many cherished friendships and that would never have happened had we not taken a chance to try something new. In the end, I ended up moving to the other side of the world!
How did you manage your career at that time? Did you work while you traveled, like a digital nomad might, or did leave your work behind for awhile?
Traveling for an extended period is expensive, so to supplement my savings, I took my home office with me. Having my MacBook air and pen tablet with me meant that I could keep in touch with clients back home, or whip up a logo design in exchange for food and board.
When my son went back to school, I continued journeying into the UK, tracing my heritage and meeting relatives for the first time. Along my travels, I met a local Catalan and we stayed in touch, even after I moved back to Melbourne. Now we are happily married and living in a small medieval village in Catalonia. I am a freelance graphic and web designer working with Australian clients, and even illustrated a children’s book along the way “Nubsy McNoodle Wanted a Poodle.” It’s been great.
You talk a lot about pursuing new passions, which sounds exciting.
Skillshare has been a catalyst in reinvigorating my passion for illustration, in particular character illustration. The classes have really helped me with drawing gesture, body proportions, inking, colour and lighting. There are so many great classes available and it’s really exciting to have them at your fingertips. I’ve particularly enjoyed Nina Rycroft’s illustration classes. Gabrielle Brickey is an awesome portrait artist and her class, ‘Painting with Light and Shadow: The Basics for Portraits and Characters’ is illuminating. I’ve dabbled also in pattern design and would recommend both Bonnie Christine and Oksana Pasishnychenko’s classes, too.
I have a strong desire to explore a more creative career and particularly, drawing. I am learning heaps right now and I am not sure where I’ll end up, but it sure is a lot of fun. I feel good about my life and this new direction.
You’ve been very brave about going with your gut – in work, travel and in love, too! What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out, someone who might feel like they are called toward being creative or to travel but might not be sure how to begin?
Have patience and be kind to yourself. It takes time to build skills and a bit of courage to try something new. At times it feels like being in a dark room trying to find a tiny light switch and all you can do is shuffle along, bumping into furniture, fumbling about until your determination gets you to where you want to go. In Catalan there is a saying “De mica en mica s’omple la pica” meaning “Little by little, the sink fills up”.
I believe that connecting with others, in person or through social media is particularly rewarding. Start an Instagram account, use lots of appropriate hashtags, comment and engage with people, either to offer encouragement or just to reach out. Building a strong community that cheers and supports one another is critical to success–and you never know where it might lead.