This interview is an excerpt from an episode of the Design Break Podcast, where I sat down and interviewed my friend Tom Froese, a fantastic illustrator and designer who's clients include: Airbnb, Yahoo, the Wall Street Journal and has been featured multiple times in communication arts magazine.
I first met Tom in May 2019 at the Creative Works Pop-up Con in Seattle, but I'd known about him for years because I'd followed his work and his Skillshare courses. Tom was kind enough to sit down with me back in November of 2019 for this interview, and we ended up chatting for almost two hours. Below you'll find some of the excerpts from our chat that I found to be helpful for myself and others who are trying to break into the illustration world.
Rocky: Hey, Tom. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Tom: I'm an illustrator in Vancouver, British Columbia. I connect people to brands through lively, buoyant illustrations. I'm also a top teacher on Skillshare, where I have a growing selection of illustration-related classes that aim to empower new and really any kind of any illustrator who's interested in growing and peeling back the curtain a little bit more and becoming more pro. I'm also a part-time Youtuber and I aim to bring insights and inspiration to illustrators. On top of all that, I'm a dad of two beautiful, spunky girls. Oh, and lately I'm an elite runner.
Rocky: You went to school to become a computer engineer. What caused you to make the transition from engineering to design and illustration?
Tom: The short story is I ended up in a community college type engineering program. I never really quite felt it was for me, and somehow I felt the need to stay in it the whole way through. In the meantime, I discovered graphic and industrial design, and I pursued that on this side while I finished my degree.
After I graduated, I got a job and a couple of years later I finally developed the courage. I had the sense that it was time to do what I'd been dreaming for the past five years. So I went to art school.
Rocky: So in art school you were focusing more on design, but you ended up finding a love for illustration?
Tom: That's right. I hadn't ever considered illustration as what I wanted to do. It wasn't on my radar, but I loved design. I loved grids and systems and typography. I loved learning about the history of art and design and even industrial design, product design—all that kind of stuff.
I really ate that up. Especially from the user-centered kind of thing and the problem-solving aspect. So that's what I went to school for. But the school I went to is called NSCAD—Nova Scotia College of Art and Design—it's just such a small school and very interdisciplinary.
So a lot of schools will kind of pigeonhole you—get you in advertising or, you know, one of these very specific disciplines. For me, while I was learning typography and stuff like that, I was also learning book arts and painting and printmaking. So there's just that exposure, and I ended up having a type class with some instructors who were actively designers and illustrators. They had a small studio in Halifax, but they were doing work for big companies like Urban Outfitters and they were publishing books. They are doing illustrations for The New York Times and stuff like that.
When I was interning for them, I really just saw both design and illustration as being part of the job. You just did it all. It's where I really only saw illustration as being part of the job of a designer, and so I took that with me into my jobs out of school.
Eventually, I found that I had this longing just to do illustration—it just felt more like me. I enjoyed the pacing of it. I liked how the projects were shorter typically, and the expressiveness, the more personal aspect of it felt more me. So I ended up just gradually discovering that about myself and started looking for clues to how to do it, finding them, and then just doing it.
Rocky: I love how you discovered your passion for illustration. I know that I found when I was doing research and digging up information on you—which I know sounds kind of like being a stalker, so I do apologize—I noticed that in other interviews you had done that you waffled a bit in your career. Switching from freelancing to working full-time to back to freelance.
This is definitely an exciting journey, at least to me. Can you talk a little bit about going from freelancing to working at a day job and back to freelance?
Tom: Yeah, sure. Let me start when I was right out of design school. I was lucky enough to land a job in Vancouver as an art director for a boutique design studio. Working there a fantastic experience. I learned so much, but I told myself early on that no matter what or no matter how good the job was that I wouldn't stay there longer than two years. The reason is I feel that people who get too comfortable become complacent, and they stop being as creative as they could be, and I didn't want that.
I didn't want that for myself. I know that for me, to be motivated, to stay on my feet, and keep a fire in my belly, I need to stay somewhere long enough to learn and grow and contribute, but move on once that cycle is complete.
So, after two years, I quit my first job, and it was such an intensive experience. It was summer when I left the job, so I thought maybe I'll just try freelancing and see how it goes. Unfortunately, it was pretty bad. I just had a few jobs here and there, but I ended up only making $1,000 over the whole summer and knew it just wasn't sustainable.
Rocky: Yeah. Were you freelancing at the same time when you were working at the agency?
Tom: No. I had a couple of jobs, but we had a non-compete at the job that I was at. I was more or less forbidden from taking on any other work because it would be a "conflict of interest," I guess. Some companies just aren't okay with that.
But I did have a couple of editorial assignments that I had done along the way, and I made a lot of contacts, so I felt confident I could maybe make it work. It was a shot in the dark, though. I was lucky to be able to do it and try because my wife had an excellent job, and she was bringing home the bacon for the summer.
So I tried my own thing and then I was like, 'I've got to get back to work." This isn't good, especially since my wife was pregnant at the time too. So I had to get a job. I couldn't play the freelance out anymore.
So my first freelancing stint for that summer ended, and I got a job as a designer at a nearby studio.
Long story short, I wasn't a good fit there. I didn't feel right there, and it brought the worst out of me, so I quit and began doing contract work for Vancouver agencies big and small and just started picking up jobs here and there. It was enough, it was good, and I really enjoyed it. Eventually, I ended up landing a job as a full-time design director at an ad agency, and again after a few months working there, I kept getting into trouble. Not because I was doing anything wrong, but because my vision for my job and what I wanted to do wasn't aligned with my coworkers or my creative director.
It was then that I realized that if I was going to survive in this creative industry, then I needed to do it on my own. Somehow or another, I've got what it takes, and I need to just do it on my own because I have such a strong opinion and vision for how I think.
Things should work. You know, how to interact with clients, what my role is, what their role is, what we are allowed to do within a project.
At that point, I had enough work going that I could make that jump again, and so my second time going fully freelance was after that job, and I started really more as a designer. Over time though, I just kind of biased my portfolio more towards illustration and engineered it until I was actually getting more and more of that illustration work.
Rocky: Do you feel that having that momentum before you made the jump helped push you towards success the second time around?
Tom: 100%. I mean, that was the momentum I needed, and so that time, it didn't feel like a huge leap. I actually talk about the myth of the jump or the big jump into freelance. If you do that—of jumping into freelancing unprepared—my first scenario will happen to you, especially if you don't have a plan, you're more likely not to have momentum and less likely to succeed. You need some kind of safety net, a few projects or clients already and for me, it was like yes, I have a few people who are coming to me steadily on the work side. Those clients were built up while I was doing my contract work and when I worked at that last job on the side.
So that momentum had already started it, and the train had left the station, and when I quit my design director job, I just jumped on that already moving train, and it was going right along.
I really hope people don't do that and expect a lot to come of it because it works for some people—jumping in headfirst without a plan—but I think if you expect that you're going just to be really discouraged and I think it'll hurt more than if you maybe had a plan or a strategic approach. But it's also okay if you take that first time, whether you have a strategy or not and it fails, you're going to learn something from it.
But it's about iteration. It's about everything you do will benefit you if you allow yourself to learn from it and not be discouraged from it. My mentality has always been that no matter what, if I'm trying to do something that I want and need to do, whether I fail or not, I'm going to move forward.
Rocky: Something we hear creatives talk about a lot is titles. I consider myself an illustrator and branding designer; those are the two traits that I work in. I've heard you call yourself in other interviews a "commercial artist"—a buzzword in our industry right now.
Could you explain what a commercial artist is and why you find that title fits you so well?
Tom: I think I really had exposed that term to describe myself in the past, but today I just use "Illustrator" a lot more. But what I like about the term "commercial artist" is that it's the most straightforward and honest description for what I do.
There's no reason for me to make art in any serious capacity except to be paid, and if I were left to my own devices and I could make anything I wanted—time and money weren't an object—I wouldn't make anything.
So my artwork has no purpose, and I'm being a little bit facetious here, whatever, but my artwork has no meaning outside of the commercial context in which they were developed. And so one reason, for instance, why I don't sell a lot of prints is because I can't imagine why someone would want to hang an illustration I made for this particular context in this client, at this moment, in this time on their wall. It's just like unless I designed a thing to be on a wall, like then sure.
I've made a few prints, but to me, commercial artist just really honestly describes what's happening here. I'm making art for paying clients for commercial, commerce, and so on.
Rocky: What's your process for finding fresh ideas for illustrations for both personal or for client work?
Tom: When you're a freelance illustrator or even a designer, you're always being presented with new creative problems, new subjects, new contexts. So ideas kind of come from the problems that I'm trying to solve.
So the first thing is always the external stimulus from the client and then from me to get outside of my paradigms or my unoriginal ideas and stuff to try and find ways of expressing something meaningful in my client work.
I rely on a process that involves a series of steps that sort of just trick me into more significant ideas that I wouldn't have thought right away.
So it's a little boring to describe this, but It's how I come up with my ideas. I have multiple parts of my process like research and discovery and rapid iterative sketching that, over time, kind of becomes refined and solidified, so those two things help me get my head into the topic.
And I look for what interests me about the topic. So the first step is finding out as much as I can about just this other world that I don't know a lot about. I don't have to be an expert. I just have to know a little bit about it, more about it than I did before. But then I have to find out what I'm interested in the subject.
That's very important because suddenly there's a point of view, and then when I get into sketching original ideas, I have that part of the process—rapid sketching or rapid prototyping. You just throw stuff up over and over again then take a break.
You come back to it, you see it with fresh eyes, and then you pick a few that stand out, and you iterate on those some more. You refine them, and you solidify them. So there's no such thing as an idea for me, it's only a process. You make decisions along the way based on what you see and the ideas that emerge, sort of as a secondhand product, if that makes sense.
Rocky: Do you work specifically in your style, and that's it, or do you push the limits and agree to work in a style that isn't yours?
Tom: One of the first things I do when I get a client request—from a new client—is I make sure I know who they think I am and what I do through various questions that I ask. So I'll ask them to please go through my portfolio or to my Instagram and pull examples of work that they were inspired by and what made them come to me.
That immediately gets them to think, in case they didn't think about it before they will now. Chances are though that they have thought about it and do have examples of my work they liked.
I know what I'm doing because the worst thing for me is if they show me someone else's illustrations and say, "We want something like this," I'll say no thank you.
I don't want to work with someone who has any assumptions, or they think they had an idea in their mind of what they wanted that wasn't anything like what I would make or want to make or would want to imitate a style that's not my own.
I used to do that a little bit more—match styles—but I've just gotten to the point where I've worked hard for this, and I don't want to say this as someone who feels entitled. I feel like I've worked very hard to get to a point where I can say this is the work I do, this is my range of style. It's clear that I work in this specific style, and that just helps. The process goes so much more smoothly, and whenever I've tried to break from that, the projects have been very choppy, and I haven't enjoyed it, and the clients weren't pleased by the work as far as I can tell.
Rocky: A lot of creatives find themselves experiencing burnout, or they feel they hit a brick wall while they're working on projects. How do you deal with something like burnout or creative block?
Tom: I agree that getting away from work for a bit helps. For me, I run most days, and that gives me something outside of work to focus on and work towards. So like, I set up a race in the future—this is only recent for me—like I'll set up a race and a goal, and I have a plan to work towards.
Working out and getting your heart rate up and using your body helps you think fresh and getting burn out sometimes is just spending too much time on one kind of thing. So having a multifaceted life helps if you're in the middle of a project, and you're finding yourself burnt out within the project.
I think you just have to be stubborn and work through the frustration as best as you can. If you had to do this over and over again, you would burn out, and then you have to change something.
I have one primary antidote for both creative block and burnout, and that's my rigorous and reliable creative process. The process includes specific steps where I focus on one kind of creative task at a time, right? So I'm not spread too thin in any one moment.
The second thing is I have known conditions in my process that will be conducive to creative problem-solving. So I set up those conditions I live in.
In your episode on burnout, when you sent 50 iterations of a logo to a client and they were like Nope, Nope, Nope, Nope, you get frustrated, and that is basically the recipe of being burnout exactly.
That's what drove me into freelancing and doing things my way because I had an idea of how I could solve that, and the most significant thing is you limit the number of options that you show a client. It's not that you don't make thousands of ideas by yourself. You just don't show those thousands of ideas to a client because you're giving them anxiety by having to choose.
Clients aren't creative people—generally—but you are. You're the one who should be able to steer the ship and recommend what works best. Not saying it's not a box of chocolates where they pick the one flavor they like.
It's like you came to me for my specific recipe for solving problems, and I'm going to solve it. It reminds me of what Paul Rand said to Steve Jobs while he was helping him with the NEXT branding. Jobs is like, "so when can I see some options?" and Rand responds, "Options? No, I'm going to solve the problem, and you're going to pay me."
You know, Paul Rand was a rock star. So I'm not going around saying that to people, but that is my overall approach, and it's both to keep creative projects, their quality, the result, and the process all on track.
You don't have to go insane as a creative person and show a lot of options, you don't have to open that door. Instead, you show a few, just enough to give people a sense of inclusion in the process and decision making. So that's a huge way for me that I've avoided burnout is just controlling the process in a way that sets me up as an empowered guide to the creative process and not giving so much, opening that door for my clients.
Rocky: What are three pieces of advice for creatives who are just starting out and want to break into the world of illustration and design?
Tom: First, if you love it—what you're doing—that's your permission to pursue it. Don't feel like you somehow have to meet some kind of qualifications or criteria to start learning illustration or even call yourself an illustrator or an artist. Do whatever you want.
If you love it, you have permission to pursue it. There are no barriers.
The second thing is if you want to succeed. You must be obsessed enough to study it and put in the effort to learn.
I think a lot of people don't geek out enough. Like they should, first of all, find out who's doing the kind of work they love, where it is, who's making it. Are they writing books? Are they doing interviews? Do they have a YouTube channel? Follow them on Instagram and other social media.
Go deep and not just with the people who are around now but the people from history as well. Like for me, I like learning about Paul Rand, and he's changed my whole perspective. I have a few of his books, and his thoughts on design have really influenced my thoughts on the creative process. And this is just one example.
When I was first got into Illustration and design, I went and bought books. I went to the library to galleries. I'd go just to consume as much as I could, and I needed that.
Then that obsession has to carry over into your work ethic as well, trying things, failing, being vulnerable, taking classes. All of those things. You just have to do it and put in the effort.
My third thing is just don't make excuses. Make your opportunities. Now.
If you'd like to learn more...
If you enjoyed reading through this interview with Tom Froese, you could take a listen to the full episode now on Apple Podcasts. This blog post is only a small portion of the interview I had with Tom, and I'm sure that you'll enjoy listening to the whole thing.
You can find links below to some of the things we talk about in the post and podcast, as well as a couple of links to resources I believe you may enjoy as well.
If you'd also like to get 2 free months of skillshare and check out Tom's courses, you can use this link here.