Written by Russell Shaw
Posted on February 24, 2017
This is a bit of a departure from normal fashion for my site’s Journal – a post that is less about design and design-industry musings. This is on a more personal note.
Russell Shaw Design (aka, me drawing-and-clicking-and-typing) opened in 2010 as a part-time venture. Late that year, a couple of wise/crazy friends weighed in that they thought I had enough ongoing client work to go full-time freelance. In the spring of 2011, I moved to Atlanta – where the majority of my client work was growing – into the cheapest apartment that I could find, a studio unit in the basement of an old, school gymnasium. I had a couple of boxes of design books, a duffel bag of clothes, an air mattress, and a laptop computer. Truth be told, there was no backup plan, so it was all just a blind leap of faith that things would work out.
Since then, I’ve had one heck of a time building this thing. There have been ups and downs. I eventually bought a real bed. I tried just about every co-working space in the city. I had the opportunity to work on design and illustration projects for dream clients such as Porsche, AMC’s Breaking Bad, AIGA, The Atlanta Braves, Tesla, Target, HarperCollins, Neenah Paper, SweetWater Brewery, and so many others. In the very, very beginning, I took on one-too-many projects at the same time, and had to mail someone a check returning their deposit because I just couldn’t do the work like I thought that I could (this is still one of my most embarrassing failures). This winter, some of my work received Best In Class for lettering and typography in PRINT Magazine. Under an amazing creative team and art director, I worked as the designer and illustrator for a book that made it to the New York Times Best-Seller List, remaining for five consecutive weeks. I got stiffed on a bunch of payments, and learned how to read and write better contracts. I competed in a live, on-stage, head-to-head event where myself and six other designers dueled pixels for days and an audience of two thousand other designers judged our work and voted on us like a reality television show. I went surfing in the Pacific Ocean off of Costa Rica (this is not business-related, but it was awesome, and I’m proud of it). I got engaged to my best friend (also not business-related, but this is probably the most rad thing of all). I met some design industry heroes who, when one asked what I did, I froze and stupidly blurted out, “Oh, I just doodle stuff” (I am still kicking myself over this). I started teaching Visual Design courses and bootcamps at General Assembly in the evenings and on weekends, which reignited my passion for design through seeing wide-eyed students learn its principles for the first time. I worked with an author to illustrate a children’s book about adoption and hope. I forged partnerships and friendships with other creatives that have meant the world to me, to whom I owe everything, because none of this would have happened without them.
Seven years later, it’s time for a change of pace.
I’ve been running up against a bit of a ceiling lately with regard to the level of work I’m able to do on my own. I’m ready to push things further by working closely with others. I want to grow and test limits and do some big stuff. I want to lean into others with differing areas of expertise. I want to learn from a great team, and contribute to something bigger than myself. And I’m also just ready to try a new space, meet some new people, and see some different things. Recently, a company reached out to me with an invitation for just that. This Spring, I am moving to San Francisco to join Slack as Senior Communication Designer working under Kristy Tillman, the Head of Communication Design, in the company’s relatively newly-minted brand design studio. Slack is an amazing product that is growing leaps and bounds, and I want to be a part of that.
It’s all very scary and exciting at the same time. It’s a new leap of faith. One of my favorite publications, The Great Discontent, talks all the time about individuals who make the leap from an established company to their own venture. It feels a little like that, but in reverse. I created my own thing – and got it to a point where it was really, really stable. I learned how to schedule work, estimate timelines accurately, take on the right amount of clients to keep a consistent cash flow, maintain an operating reserve of money just for the studio, print layouts, manufacture objects, start a self-employment retirement account, do expense reports, pay my own taxes, get new accounts, and manage retainer clients. I’m even really proud of the design work that I managed to squeeze in-between all that administrative stuff! Now, oddly enough and contrary to the norm, putting a pin in my own venture has become the “risky” move. But my fiancé and I are both on the same page about this: we want to pursue a life that takes chances and risks, even if they seem less stable, so that complacency does not make us miss out on something that could be really great.
So the risk that I’m taking is a decision to put my own thing on hold, and try something new. Once settled in, I may still take on a project or two on the side, but any new work will be taken on because it’s a fun illustration or something for an awesome company or organization. I’m excited to get back that feeling that I had seven years ago: putting everything on the line in pursuit of creating good work.
Thanks for everything, Atlanta.
“Seven years later, it's time for a change of pace.”