An Interview with Graphic Designer and Illustrator Rachel Briggs

If you live in Nashville, then you know of today's bitch. She's friends with your friends, she has a famous neighbor, and her artwork is all around. Rachel and I have shared friends and have been at the same parties for years, but I've always been too intimidated to talk to her. I have no idea why because she is the nicest person in the world.

I "officially" met Rachel last year when I bought the Workin' Nights print at her showing at Julia Martin Gallery. Even though I've gotten to know Rachel in the past year, her answers to this Q&A surprised me. I'm blown away by the level of honesty and realness she brings to her answers. Buckle up fellow creatives, you're going to want to read this one twice. Meet today's bitch, Rachel Briggs!

What do you make and what is the name of your business?

I make visual art, mainly illustration and design (with some animation), and the name of my business is just me, Rachel Briggs. Sounds magical, I know. When I’m not in the studio, I’m teaching illustration at Watkins College of Art, Design and Film. 

When did you first learn about this field of work?

I have been drawing ever since I was young and never really stopped. Graphic design was just some hazy enigma I never considered until I realized what it was, especially when I figured out that I could mix drawing with it. And illustration… Well, illustration is a world that’s still unfolding around me in the most beautiful ways. 

How did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I was always drawn to some amazing illustrators as a child (Ul de Rico, Evaline Ness, among others) and their books motivated me to draw as I grew up. In high school, I had an amazing art teacher who pushed me into new realms of technique and possibility. I went to college with music on the mind and then earned a business degree, totally off the path of what I had been doing my whole life. But like all things meant to be, art just crept back in a sneaky way during college, and as much as I tried other tangents of where I could direct my life, art reigned supreme.

I knew it was what I wanted to do when I realized how naturally and how centered I felt whenever I began creating something visually. 

What was your path that lead you to where you are now?

In college, I became really fascinated with small press and the plight of independent bookstores at the time. I focused the large part of my time in college on entrepreneurial business, shadowing independent publishers like McSweeney’s of which I admired- among many things- their attention to detail in the layout, design and content of their books and quarterlies. I was drawn to graphic design fully after that. Upon graduating college, I wanted to be involved in independent publishing within some capacity. I eventually began working part-time at American Songwriter magazine assisting the then art director with layout design. After some time there, I became art director and stayed on with the magazine for almost seven years. It was the most challenging (and rewarding) job I could’ve dreamt of, right out of college. I learned so many aspects of small business, sharpened my editing eyes, and worked with great coworkers in the realms I loved - music and design. I grew a lot from the tough parts too - from intense deadlines, printing mistakes, long grueling hours and lack of sleep, among many other things. I feel like those years were so invaluable to where I am now.

After American Songwriter, I jumped into the freelance hustle. It was very daunting that first year entering into the unknown and leaving the stability of a full-time job, but I must give myself some credit in that I worked very hard to keep the momentum going. I was designing album artwork, posters and merch for bands, while I worked on a couple of different magazines as a contributing designer. I relocated from Nashville to Chicago for a spell to work as an associate designer and illustrator at Time Out Chicago magazine. It was there that I was afforded more opportunity in illustration within the editorial realm and it gave me quite a time of perspective to really focus on what I wanted to do for myself and my career moving forward.

After Chicago, I moved back to Tennessee and since have established my own studio here at home. I work with a whole of mix of clients doing a whole mix of projects, and it is the most fulfilling and hardest thing. When your work overlaps with what you inherently find purposeful in life (in my case, making art) it is a rare and sweet place to be.

Why did you decide to start your own business?

I kept finding myself working on jobs that were distinctively meant for me or my style. I am self-motivated, I enjoy working at a pace that is my own (sometimes that means 15 hour days of illustration) and I wanted to give myself the challenge of fulfilling a dream of being a self-sufficient artist. I remind myself daily to not take it for granted.

What was the best piece of business advice you’ve been given?

Oh, good question. I think the one that comes to mind is more on the inspirational side of advice than practical, but I really do think of it daily. It’s the old adage, "Be, rather than seem to be". If you are going to be an artist, BE an artist (you can replace “artist” with whatever works). 

This means a few things to me. First, be genuine and honest to yourself and others. Don’t pretend you’re someone you’re not. If you want to be more of an illustrator or designer than you are, then work on the steps that will get you there. Secondly, don’t take any other jobs that will sideline that goal of being an artist. Easier said than done, right? It will be hard to do this, but it’s the quickest way to learn what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s a dose of tough love that you can give yourself to really light a fire when it comes to actually fulfilling your obligations to clients (like finishing a project) and yourself (like paying your bills). 

I’m a firm believer in that if you make good things and are honest with your time, intent and attention you put into the project, you will grow as an artist and a business person. It will all come back to that hard work, and opportunities will always seem to find you, even the dark hours of doubt.

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Time management and budget! Those are still constant issues. I’ve been really focused this year in aiming to work on a routine with regards to time management. I often use a pomodoro timer which helps my productivity throughout the day (built in breaks and deadlines for which to aim). Sometimes larger jobs are daunting to start in, and lists of things due can grow exponentially, so I would say that would be my biggest challenge. Budget comes into play mainly in keeping up with expenses and invoices, ensuring that the flow of what is coming in matches the amount of energy, money and time going out. I manage my own schedule and accounts which takes away from my creative time, but I do it because I like being in control.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing either. I need to allow more time to brainstorm and be creative with a project and sometimes that’s hard when I have to spend a few hours a day checking emails and sending reminder invoices.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

I learn something new every day. I think realizing the very basic thing in that I am my own employee. No one’s going to do the work for me. If I don’t put in the effort, then work will stop coming to me. Simple as that. And to push it one step further, if don’t put in the effort I love, work that I love will stop coming to me. 

Failure you learned from or that helped you improve the way you work?

I have missed a few opportunities by simply being too overbooked or overworked. It’s a soul crushing feeling to have a failure-to-complete come to a project you were initially excited about working on. Being overbooked is unhealthy for your business, even if on the outside it seems like a strange compliment. As a sole employee of my own company, being overbooked leads to being overworked which leads to depletion and exhaustion, on all fronts. Your work suffers, your bank account suffers and it's hard to get out of that mess. I feel like I’ve become much better at knowing my limits and being comfortable with them, and sometimes that means turning down jobs or projects for the sake of the greater good of the freelance momentum.

What would you do with 2 more hours a day?

Sleep. Or be outside. Or better yet, sleep outside.

I just want to aim to have a more well rounded work-life experience. Having this image tacked on the wall by my desk is a little reminder of the importance of time, as it's pretty much not this proportional currently.

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?

In the grand scheme of the world we live in, I haven’t had to make many intense sacrifices, and for that I am grateful. I have had to cut back on certain things in efforts to save and allocate funds for bills or expenses, but I have a healthy perspective on wanting to live my life for fulfillment through work and experience. Money comes second. It’s extra nice when they all align and thrive together, but if money was my main motivation I think I would’ve missed my mark somewhere. I say all of this in the comfort of my tiny, little, old and crowded home studio. I am thankful for the opportunity to even have this space to call my own.

What is your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) related to what you make?

I am very proud of the work I do with my friends who run Wiseacre Brewing Company in Memphis. I have known them for years from growing up there, and worked with them since the brewery was just a far-off dream, and now three years later it is incredibly successful and a big part of Memphis’s beer, art and general culture climate. They are certainly one of the my favorite clients to work with. We are constantly conjuring crazy ideas for cans and bottles and there really isn’t much limitation on the creative process!

I think another thing that was a personal highlight for me was seeing my illustrations in full-arena mode as the tour/stage design for the fine folks of Little Big Town a few years ago. I have worked with the group on a variety of projects, but that one was particularly special to experience. We worked with UV lights and ink to make the illustration of two birds “come alive” during the show, and seeing it hanging from the likes of the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden will forever be a “Dear diary” moment.

Outside of those things, I’m very proud to be teaching on a college level. Sometimes working for myself can feel insular, and its fresh and necessary to be around others in discussion and practice. I love speaking or sharing in the journey with these younger artists. Helping them find their voice and -most importantly - mindfulness is maybe the most magic thing of all.

What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up in the morning?

My Uniqlo alarm is the charming way I wake up each morning ( then, with one eye open, I usually begin scrolling through Instagram.

Where do you go when you need inspiration for your work?

So many places. Forever nature. Hiking or riding my bike or being out on water, in a boat. My favorite places locally to find clarity and inspiration are Beaman Park, Narrows of the Harpeth, and the Red and Duck Rivers. They are all a bit wild and still in close proximity to my front door. I also love the greenway system Nashville has. Riding along the Cumberland River paved path - among all the thistle and butterflies and water fowl - as tugboats push barges upstream - is a little secret (and quickly accessible) endeavor that is quite restorative.

Other places for inspiration would be record stores around town, book stores, and so on. Brain Freeze is an arts and comic store inside The Groove in East Nashville and they stock some great illustration based publications. If I’m traveling, I try to visit museums and galleries wherever I am, and online, my standard go-to’s are just straight up following artists and designers on Instagram, tumblr, thisiscolossal, Pinterest, etc. 

How do you decompress at the end of the work day?

I don’t do this as much as I need to, since I work from home, most of my work days turn into work nights. I’m fine with this in most cases, especially if it’s something I’m really enjoying working on. When I do need a break, however, I get on my bike (love night rides) or I’ll try to find a friend to -some might call it “hang out”- sit and practice the art of conversation with, so I don’t completely lose all social skills by being in my home studio alone all day. 

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

Taking care of myself. Mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. If those are off kilter, everything feels wobbly. It is the greatest challenge. Mental health is a black sheep no one likes to talk about, but if you try to ignore it and not deal with it while trying to run a business, your work will suffer and it will prove to be quite the saboteur. Subconscious self-sabotage is a very real thing. 

Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?

GAME OF THRONES. *inhaler puff*

Edamame is my go-to simple food at home. But the finest treat is some fancy fromage. The kind you can buy when you finally get a paycheck in the bank and can justify treating yourself to some of that cave-aged tomme-style (SHOUT OUT to Sequatchie Cove Creamery’s Cumberland rind, your fruity, yet earthy notes complete me). 

All photos courtesy of Rachel Briggs

P.S. Meet last week's bitch:  Esthetician and Entrepreneur, Khabra Bryant!

P.P.S. Full list of My Bitches here.

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