Océane Combeau’s creative journey has led her literally around the world. Parisian-born, she graduated from Shillington New York in 2014 and currently works in Amsterdam as a full‑time freelance graphic designer. She runs independent studio Fernand et Firmin and specializes in illustration, brand identity and creative consulting. We caught up with Océane for Shillington Post 02—The America Issue to hear more of her story.
Did you always know you wanted to be creative?
In a way I always wanted to be creative, but I never openly said it. It just seemed too out of reach to ever be able to earn a living with what, as a kid, looked like a hobby. I always had good grades and teachers in France tend to steer you towards what you are capable of doing, not what you actually want to do. It took me a while then, trying and quitting several studies and working in different fields to find and embrace the graphic design path.
What was it like launching your own freelance studio, Fernand et Firmin?
Starting to work as a freelancer is a bit of a strange process. It’s difficult really knowing where to start, where to get the clients and how to eventually make them come to you.
After Shillington, I printed 20 copies of my portfolio and sent them around to different design studios around Europe. I believe people and especially graphic designers always enjoy both printed goods and snail mail, so a lot of them contacted me. It didn’t always turn into a work opportunity, but the meetings I had were always very interesting.
In Amsterdam, which is a small city, the contacts and friendships you make are what’s gonna make you work as a freelancer. I definitely try to always maintain and grow my network.
What’s your favorite thing about working in the creative field?
I have a few corporate clients and love being challenged by data. Most people would drown in the information, but I love giving them back a clear, understandable layout, infographic or icon.
Design is an unskippable step for any business to get their message through. I love witnessing the difference in the customer response after smart design has been applied. It’s then I really feel I’ve brought something to the business.
“Walking around on the street you see posters, banners, menus in restaurants, etc. The minute you start paying attention to it, it all becomes an endless source of inspiration. So definitely take a look around!”
Can you tell us about one of your favorite projects since graduating?
I loved working on the design of the album cover of Just Listen 02, the second release of the in-house label of Native DSD. I created an illustrated pattern and used it on a range of collateral for social media use, posters, etc. I also put together an explanatory booklet with the artist’s biography and pictures.
Before starting any design, I went to the recording session of the album in the studio to observe the musicians and the technical aspect of everything. I then decided to work with illustrations. First I focused on the instruments, but later I decided to add some characters.
The client was really enthusiastic throughout the whole process and as we made some changes together in the color palette, he let me explore as much as I wanted pattern and style-wise. It was a thrill seeing the project slowly develop into something concrete.
Why did you decide to study at Shillington?
Before deciding to go to Shillington, I already made up my mind about graphic design, I wanted to start freelancing and was already working with a couple of clients on really small scale projects. My main issue was—I had zero confidence in my work. And anyone I was working with could feel it.
I was looking for a short course that would boost my confidence, and Shillington seemed to be the perfect match. A big part of freelancing in graphic design is about educating your clients and guiding them towards the right decisions. It’s a collaboration all the way through the working process.
Before Shillington, I was absolutely unable to do that. The course improved my skills in ways I wouldn’t have imagined and gave me confidence to handle all the aspects of freelancing.
Tell us about living and studying in New York City.
I had been to New York before as a tourist I found it too loud, too big, anonymous and impersonal. But actually living there completely changed the way I saw the city. New York City is huge, but for some reason you always end up running into someone you know. Everyone organizes their lives around their neighborhood, and the feeling of belonging to a community really grows in you.
I enjoy hosting dinners, drinks, lunches and movie nights. I like gathering people that don’t necessarily know each other under the same roof. It always creates interesting conversations.
I’ve been doing some on-site freelancing for several agencies for a few months now and I absolutely love it. I usually work from my living room and it can get a little lonely. Working within a team teaches me a lot and is also just really fun. I want to try and develop that aspect of my freelancing to get the right balance between my own projects and some on-site freelance within agencies.
What are your favorite creative resources—blogs, magazines, events, etc.?
I really enjoy reading the blogs of the talented ladies in the West Coast design community: Jessica Comingore, Emma Robertson and Chelsea Fullerton Jones. I am continuously eager to learn from successful freelancers and those ones are always willing to share advice and resources from their toolbox. They’re dynamic, entrepreneurial and independent—everything that I aspire to be!
Any advice for how to stay inspired?
It’s funny how when you work as a graphic designer you realize that everything around you is graphic design. Walking around on the street you see posters, banners, menus in restaurants, etc. The minute you start paying attention to it, it all becomes an endless source of inspiration. So definitely take a look around!
See this interview feature in Shillington Post 02—The America Issue. View online!
Photo of Océane—Jonas Sacks.