Natalia Baker is a #shillony graduate currently living and working in the Big Apple. It’s only been two months since her graduate exhibition, and she’s already hit the ground running as an in-demand freelance designer. In this feature, Natalia discusses her creative journey (from working in HR of a company to heading their rebrand!), the vibrancy of New York City, and how Shillington is like “summer camp with Photoshop”.
New York is a design mecca. How is it living in such a vibrant and creative city? How does it affect your work?
This city just blows my mind daily. Moving here from London, you can say the two places share a lot of the same iconic draws—theatres, museums, galleries, etc—but New York buzzes at a higher frequency. Everything’s so densely packed, particularly in Manhattan, and you tend to walk more places. The result is you’re constantly drenched in opportunities to look at, photograph, consume, join in with and generally marvel at stuff.
All of that feeds into my work though I worry about falling victim to the trends you see everywhere and replicating thoughtless design. The great thing is it’s so easy to go see a comedy show or a live performance with 10 people in the audience, or an awesome unheard-of movie, and be instantly inspired to reach further.
New Yorkers are fiercely ambitious and supportive—you’re encouraged to express all sides of yourself—whether that be writing, performing, crafting, whatever. I’ve also found a readiness to discuss the commercial side of a creative career which is helpful. I’m trying to resist the pressure to move as fast as everyone else but eventually you just get used to being busy all the time.
Why Shillington? What made our design course stand out from the rest?
I’m in my early thirties with 10 years work in the HR industry and four years wedding photography behind me. I felt I’d waited far too long to start gaining income from the creative career I wanted. Financially it wasn’t possible to take significant time out for anything like a diploma or degree—in any case I wanted something very practical. I loved that Shillington based their teaching on real-life briefs, in a timeframe that was workable for my husband and me. We’d looked around but there was no other course achieving the same transformation in three months.
Looking back, I’d say Shillington is like summer camp with Photoshop. The intensity of the experience leads to fast and firm friendships. The student body is really diverse and our group knitted together really well as a whole. As for the teachers, they each bring so much to the course and are incredibly supportive mentors; time and again they made us feel that Shillington is more than just a job to them.
What have you been up to since graduation? How has your life changed after Shillington?
Ask my husband—he’ll say I’m a way happier person! Since graduating, I’ve jumped straight into the freelance world and so far it’s wonderful. Armed with a fresh set of design skills and best practice, I can approach a client project with confidence and ownership. I deeply miss working alongside other people but gradually finding remedies for that; another thing New York provides is plenty of co-working spots.
What motivates me is seeing a real value in anything I make.
Working directly with businesses, you get a sense of how design fits into a broader marketing picture. It’s good for me to be able to offer related services like photography and video, and thanks to Shillington, a newfound interest in website and user experience design. Nowadays I think it’s more possible than ever to weave different skills together into a flexible offering.
What do you love about being a designer?
For me it’s the chance to spark a reaction, help a business or cause, make something beautiful and engage the play side of yourself while doing it. It’s the same way I feel about taking photos or making videos. They’re hard because they’re unpredictable and out of your comfort zone but really satisfying when you’ve done the job ok.
It’s also thrilling to realise how many tools you have at your disposal as a designer.
For many of us, Shillington unlocked a whole handmade side to our work. It’s like you’re preparing a dish and someone hands you a load of herbs and spices. Suddenly you can take it in any number of directions so things get exciting.
If I’m honest, though, being a control freak means I gravitate towards things I can take ownership of. Design work, particularly freelance gigs, really lends itself to being in charge from beginning to end. I clearly don’t make a good team player!
We’re especially in love with your creative handmade project with nail polish. Could you walk us through that brief, process, and end result?
It was our final project at Shillington. We were tasked with creating promotional materials for a sound art festival. The event details were up to us, so the brief was wide open – we’d reached the point where we had to start pulling together everything we’d learned so far.
I had zero vision of the final design at the start, but a clear sense of who would be viewing it. A festival for artists and design-minded folk is going to have a different feel to one aimed at families, so the treatment had some direction already.
The idea of something organic with movement came from researching sound art online and playing with keywords. That led me to moodboarding on Pinterest and discovering a marbling nail art technique. I figured if it didn’t work I could always try something else, but following the tutorial gave me these cool patterns. Once scanned onto the iMac, I played with some warping tools and gave each circle a color wash so they could sit alongside each other as a poster series.
The project ended up being one of my favourites. In 11 weeks we’d gained the knowhow to create something original using both digital and handmade methods. It kind of opened things up for me.
Could you tell us about a recent professional project?
I’ve just taken on the rebrand of the company I used to work for as an HR account manager. It’s been the best feeling—working again with old colleagues and friends but this time as a proud designer. I was doing bits of design work for them before Shillington and the difference in what I can bring now is kind of embarrassing. They were very forgiving!
Now I get to help a business reboot itself with a new brand, website and materials—that’s a huge amount of creative impact. Hopefully an indirect financial impact too, as the company is doing incredible work in the ethical industry and I’d love my work to contribute to its success.
Where do you see yourself in 12 months’ time?
If I continue with freelancing, I’d like to reach a level of client demand where it makes sense to work with another designer. Someone with their own skills and strengths to bring to the mix. I’m also keen to learn more about running a business so that my processes are as efficient as possible.
The critical thing now is to build on the foundation we’ve been given. Having an online portfolio I can add to allows me to focus on blitzing design projects. Before Shillington, I had no idea how to create a body of work, let alone how to present it.
What would you say to someone who is sceptical about the Shillington course?
It took me two years to take the plunge and enroll at Shillington. Here’s what might have made me do it sooner:
Big thanks to Natalia for taking the time to speak with us!