This article was published on November 23, 2014

How to balance a design career with creating your own art

How to balance a design career with creating your own art
Alexander Huls
Story by

Alexander Huls

Alexander Huls is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Esquire and other publications. This post was originally published on the Shutterstock blog and has been reprinted with permission.

It’s a challenge many designers with full-time careers face: how do you balance your day job with finding time to pursue personal or freelance work on the side?

Nicole Martinez, known for her popular Nerdy Dirty series, is a designer who has succeeded in finding that balance. During the day, she’s an Associate Creative Director for Genuine Interactive, and in her off hours, she pursues an enviable range of design work in patterns, illustrations, infographics, logos and painting.

We sat down with Martinez to talk about how she does it, while also taking the opportunity to talk about her work. Here are the thoughts she shared on how to freelance with a full-time job, pursue your own passions and nurture your relationship with Adobe Illustrator.


Why you should freelance.

Most of the digital design work I do is working with big brands with very specific brand styles, so you can’t necessarily put your own illustration style into a brand that’s already established. I’ll do projects on the side because it’s where I can really have my own style and use different kinds of techniques. I especially get my flat-illustration fix through side projects, because with my day job, I’m mostly in Photoshop, and I love Illustrator. I love illustrating!

When to take on freelance work.

I don’t take on a project that I cannot dedicate a sufficient amount of time to so I can make it good. So, when I get a client request, the first thing I ask myself is, ‘Do I have enough time to make this awesome?’ If I don’t, I always say, ‘No.’ Most of the time, when a client asks you if you have time to take something on, and you’re honest, and you say, ‘Look, I would, but if I did, I would rush it, and it wouldn’t be as good,’ they appreciate your honesty.


Freelancing requires discipline.

In freelancing with a side project, you have to find the time. You just have to be uber-disciplined and say, ‘I’m going to get home, even if it’s 10 at night, and I’m going to dedicate two or three hours to make this happen. I have a deadline and I have to meet it.’

Preserving your work-life balance.

If I took on every freelance project that was offered to me, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. You want to say, ‘Yes’ to everything, because it means a check, and you feel irresponsible saying, ‘No.’ But you also feel like you want to watch TV on Sunday and not do anything. Sometimes you need a weekend.


Getting satisfaction from both sides.

With my agency work, we’re doing videos and things that I wouldn’t be able to produce on my own. And I like being part of a team. So, that’s fulfilling in that I get to talk to people while I’m working. Meanwhile, my freelance projects are my own work, and they’re my illustration style. I can sit in my cave and get them designed on my own. It’s always cool when a client likes something you worked on that’s your personal work.

How to find time for side projects.

It’s tough. There are certain days, like today, when you’re shooting a commercial, and you’re in edit, and you’re working 16-hour days. And you’re done. You get home and you cannot do anymore. But then there are some days when you have an idea and think, ‘Oh, this would be so fun,’ and you can’t wait to do it. So, you wait for that free moment when you can actually make it come to life.


Reasons to love Adobe Illustrator.

I love how clean lines are in Illustrator. You can create a lot of beautiful shapes. The Pathfinder tool is my favorite thing ever, because you can draw so many complex things. I also love the simplicity of the stroke and the fact that vectors can resize so beautifully within other programs like Photoshop.

I also like that type and typography in Illustrator is much easier to handle than it is in Photoshop. Illustrator is great for adjusting a font you love but want to change slightly, and designing type as well. Making custom typography and scripts is really fun to do in Illustrator. I don’t think it’s as easy in Photoshop, and you’re not left with a clean vector.


How to design pattern work.

Usually I’ll come up with a story, because I love patterns that have little illustrations within them and tell a complete story. For example, I have a good friend who’s buying a new house, and I want to get her a housewarming gift. I’m going to make a house pattern that looks like the houses in her neighborhood. Or, one theme I did was coffee. So, I drew all these little coffee illustrations, and after that, organized them into a cluster, which I then created a pattern out of. Once your cluster is a nice design, and you take that and multiply it, then you have this pattern and it tells this whole story. Usually I have an end game for the pattern, but sometimes, because I like making patterns, it’s a little bit random and I’m just playing with a different idea and I figure, ‘Oh, eventually I’ll be able to use this for something.’


The origins of the Nerdy Dirty series.

It was around Valentine’s Day, and my boyfriend (now fiancé) and I joked that we should take something nerdy and call it ‘Nerdy Dirty.’ So I started sketching, thinking, ‘Oh, this would make for a really cute illustration.’ It evolved from there. It was one of those things where it sparked — you’re making it, and then you want to make 10 more. I just kept finding time to create another one. I think when it’s a series like that, it’s much easier to find the time, because you’re so inspired.


Designing Nerdy Dirty.

I did the illustration in Illustrator and then I brought it into Photoshop to add some texture and make it not so flat. I added a little bit of a gradient to diffuse the color, so it gives it a vintage vibe, but not heavy-handed on the vintage. They were inspired by Wes Anderson’s color palette. I think it’s in The Royal Tenenbaums that he has these de-saturated storybook-like colors, and I’ve always been really drawn to that. There’s something about his color schemes. They’re bright and they’re colorful, but not heavy-handed or over-saturated.


Why painting is good for designers.

I’d say my painting is my true expression. My Gravity Studies and Portraits of Women series are sort of my true love. Painting is a good practice. It’s a good thing to use your hands and use tools that are completely different from an arrow, pixels and things that are much more controlled for you by a computer. With a painting, you have to really think about things before you do them. There’s no Control-Z on a canvas.


Aspiring toward simplicity.

I like to make my designs as simple as possible, without losing each personality. I’m definitely not a minimal artist or designer by any means. But I think when you communicate a message simply, happily and colorfully — without getting too overwhelming — that’s when I feel like a piece is successful.

All images © Nicole Martinez. View more of Nicole’s work on her website at

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