This week we have the pleasure of speaking with Creative Lady Directory member Melissa Cripe. Melissa is a Creative Director, Prop Stylist and Set Designer who seeks to create tangible worlds of colorful chaos that mimic both the light and dark which fill our everyday lives. Her clients include Tumblr, NBC, Disney, Comedy Central, Pocky, and many more. We are loving the vibrant energy in her work and can't wait to see her upcoming projects come to life. Oh and her advice is top notch. Dive on in!
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance Creative Director, Prop Stylist & Set Designer.
I began creatively directing my own shoots when I started a blog in 2015. I’d concept ideas, gather all the props, find the location, hire a friend to photograph, and would usually edit all the images. After a year, I decided to step out of the frame myself and focus more on the directing aspect of the process (which I’ve always been more drawn to anyways). Simultaneously, I was working full time on a team at Tumblr for 2.5 years helping to produce content with artists from around the world. I was sort of living a double life - the 9-5 schedule during the week, and personal creation on the nights & weekends. After I’d built up a small, but steady flow of projects, I began partnering with brands to bring my flare to their products and also started to challenge myself on a larger creative scale. I wrote and directed a short film called ‘The Claw of Life’, set designed for some brands, created a live physical installation for BeautyCon, and am continuing to try on all the hats I can in this new freelance space.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
In the beginning, I treated myself as the client when no one was actually paying me. I’d make schedules, budgets, moodboards, call sheets, and conducted the photoshoots with friends as professionally as I could. I was spending my own money and using all of the resources already around me - i.e. my living room, an old tripod I found in my childhood garage, friends as models, DIY lighting setups, borrowed clothes, you name it. In doing this, I became less scared of “real” clients because I knew I’d treat that process no differently than my personal one.
However, my first few paid clients reached out to me based on the style of work on my Instagram and website that I’d been forming on my own. That was thrilling because it validated all the personal efforts I’d been working on quietly for years without compensation. And then, other clients came from connections I’d garnered over years that knew what I was capable of and gave me a shot to prove it.
Can you tell us about your prop styling/ set design process?
I always try to let the message bring alive the visuals. I start with a concrete, simple thought I can’t get out of my head. Then I sit down and write every word, color, shape, place- anything really that reminds me of the theme in this freestyle form. From there, I categorize all these thoughts and just start mad-libbing what they’d look like together- different color combos with emotions, places with props, people with different costumes, etc. From there, I create a super specific moodboard and off to the thrift stores and spray paint aisle I go! I definitely still have a lot to learn about the process and especially the designing tools, but I’m finding that I’m absorbing so much from forcing myself to be in new positions, which is really exciting (and often a little bit scary!)
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
To be honest, where I’m at with the freelance life, I’m not working everyday. So I feel like on paper I’ve had a lot more “free time”. However, too much empty time on my hands stresses me out. I’m learning to find purpose in all the hours - not just the profitable ones or scheduled hangouts - but the silent midday brainstorming strolls and the late night creative research scrolls.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Without a doubt the greatest struggle has been trusting in the process. Working with the ebbs and flows of insane stress and absolute silence. I constantly am reminding myself that what I gave up in the financial security of a 9-5 job, I gained in the freedom of choosing projects that matter to me on a deeper level.
What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I wish someone had stressed to me how hearing “no” is NO BIG DEAL. Ask upfront for a little more budget than you think you need to prepare for things going wrong (which inevitably in any production, something usually will). If that number isn’t what the client is able to pay, and you hear a “No” THAT’S OK. Always pitch the idea, even if you assume it’ll be followed with a “no”. At least you asked! Get comfortable with it and learn to replace the initial feeling of rejection with the joy of knowing you put yourself out there in a hard way.
Also, even if it feels weird- find people you can ask candidly about how much to charge for your work. Unfortunately, there’s no solid source on industry standards, so it becomes really daunting and confusing when you’re new to the game to know what’s normal with rates. The only way in my experience to be certain you’re getting fairly compensated, is simply to ask other people you trust directly about it and get a data range of those working in your field.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
I think I continue to attract ideal clients because I aim to be super clear in my vision, yet flexible in the process. I know oftentimes there are so many cooks in the kitchen approving each step in the timeline, so I just try to do my part the best I can. That means - being upfront with budget, offering solutions, and responding timely. Also, from time spent at my old job on the producing end, I realized how important it is to simply focus on being a kind person to work with. I think sometimes artists forget to prioritize the humanistic level of working with clients because they’re so certain their talent is the most valuable. While this is absolutely true (and I’m still learning the balance myself) the fact of the matter is that people want to pay people they like. Period. The client isn’t only factoring in your skill, but also how easy you are to work with because selfishly it’ll make their lives more enjoyable too. Sincere advice here is to just remember to keep it pleasant y’all.
Your portfolio is wonderfully cohesive. You are able to adapt your style to many different assignments. Do you have advice about how to choose which projects to take on?
First of all- thank you! That means so much to hear. Especially because nowadays there are so many perfectly curated feeds using the exact same filter for every photo to create cohesive individual branding. For me, I know my visual style has a lot of variability. Sometimes I love using bold primary colors, sometimes I enjoy the dreamy pastel palette and other times, I get excited by dark, low lighting. However, the aspect I like to keep cohesive is my point of view - the ability to bring lightness and fun to anxious fears or silliness to seriousness. I really believe in the necessity and balance of light and dark, and I’m glad to know that others can go along for the ride - even if it’s not as visually consistent as a lot of the other content i’m seeing on the internet daily.
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
I’m always finding new artists and studying older ones that excite me creatively. I’ll scroll Vimeo staff picks or Nowness or even Criterion Collection for references and ideas. However, I’ve realized to truly stay inspired that I need to force myself to take the time to sit silently with my own thoughts and believe in their power - no matter how big or small. If not, I always feel like I’m copying and incapable of creating anything that will have any sort of lasting impression.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
This might sound silly, but I honestly used to think that if I expressed how much I enjoy the organizational part of producing my own work, that it would make me somehow seem less creative. People would be quick to say “oh then maybe you’d enjoy being a producer more!” - as if the two don’t go hand in hand, either you’re the one organizing everything or you’re fully creating. BUT now more than ever being full time freelance, I realize just how valuable it is to spend an equal amount of time on the process of producing as it is the creation. I enjoy projects SO much more in the moment when I feel prepared and take the time to be meticulous, than when I just let the creative energy guide the whole thing. So yes, spreadsheets are my savior. I recommend making yourself a system that is personal to you and sticking to it. Have one place where you keep a breakdown of every cost, date, and timeline. It’s tricky and messy at first, but once you get into a groove you can follow that becomes second nature on the business side, you free up more room to focus on the creative. I also just recently learned the importance of putting specific terms on your invoice to make sure you get paid exactly when you expect to (that’s a big one!)
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
Plenty! & Even more in the works that I’m still finishing! Right now, I’m mainly focused on finishing a photo series I started last year called ‘The Grownup Club’. I’m planning to turn that into a Zine and exhibit it in a gallery setting which I’m really excited about! I’m also going to release a small photo series called ‘Hot & Bothered’ on the physically violating feeling of the male gaze and another series where I’m hoping to explore the medium of collage. So stay tuned for some funky new works :)
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Flexibility, organization, & self motivation.