Looking to move abroad one day? Then this interview is for you!
Just a year ago Alex Labriola, the founder and creative director of Al Stampa, a design and illustration studio, moved her one-stop-shop for all branding needs and letterpress printing from Brooklyn to Amsterdam.
We are so inspired by this leap and impressed by her willingness to grow with this move. Thank you for sharing your journey Alex!
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance designer.
Ever since I was little, I pictured myself having my own design studio in some capacity. It was important for me, and critical in my opinion, to work for others for a large chunk of time and soak in as much as possible from those experiences. I have always enjoyed working for other people, and learning in a work environment. I got to see how design and illustration can live in large corporate environments, as well as in-house within smaller companies.
I was designing, illustrating and hand letterpress-printing custom wedding invitations as a side business since 2010, and there came a time when I realized that this too was a way of branding, only for an event and not a company. I realized my passion was rooted in telling the story of a company, individual, or couple, and the brand of Al Stampa felt whole.
When my husband and I decided to take a leap and move to Amsterdam a year ago, I felt it was the best time for me to go out on my own completely and give it a go. If not now, when?
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
I had made so many great relationships throughout my 10 year career working as a designer, art director, and creative director in the interiors, and hotel industries. I was able and courageous enough to send a mass email out to everyone to tell friends and old colleagues I was available for work. I luckily have an amazing community of people who wanted me to succeed and refer me whenever possible. I think one of the most important parts to consider before you take the leap into full-time freelance is not to burn any bridges, and always act like what you’re doing is important to you, even if you hate your job at the current moment. Work ethic is work ethic at the end of the day, and it’s better to leave everyone with a great impression of you and how you work because you never know when you’ll work with them again, and in what capacity.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
Get dressed in the morning and make lists! I re-write my lists of to-do’s throughout the day, to clear my head and focus myself. I also try to devote some of the day to other things like drawing around the house, soaking up some Pinterest time, or even taking a walk. It’s important to take time to build what you want, take time to be with your family and cook/eat a good dinner at night. Always look to inspire yourself so you’re not pumping out uninformed work… How you take care of yourself comes through in how you live your life and the type of work you produce! It’s all connected.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
We all have off days. The most important thing to do when this happens is to recognize that you need the bad days in life to revel in the good. Take a break and get inspired in a different way. On days like these I’ll pick another form of creativity like cooking a beautiful dinner, or looking at a different medium of design, for instance old blues vinyl albums. Break out of your process a little, to give your mind a break.
Another hard part I’ve found is making time for self promotion. Luckily, most of my clients have come to me through referrals, or Instagram, but beyond that, it hasn’t been something I can focus on, and I would love to be able to this year!
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
I used to hate mornings, and think “oh I’m just not a morning person” until I started working for myself, and now my favorite time of the entire day is a quiet early morning with coffee, my music, and my work space. While it’s amazing to have my own schedule, and be able to bring my work with me anywhere, I work way more than I ever have because it’s just me, myself and I. Since it’s all for me, and my growth, I never dislike my work days, but the pressure is on!
I also love that I get to see my progress as a designer, illustrator and letterpress printer more clearly because I get to work every day at what I love, and invest all my time in being better each and every day.
How do you continue to attract your ideal clients?
Someone I admire greatly told me – create the work you want to be hired for. This was the best advice and has been my inspiration every day. I started to think less about how to get work, and just reveled in the days I was able to draw/design what I truly wanted to. I started a little gif series on Instagram over the holidays that led to some really interesting work, and now I’ve started the #100dayalstampapatterns challenge where I work on an illustrated pattern a day for 100 days. My dream is to create an illustrated wallpaper collection, and this challenge is meant to get me thinking about pattern on a daily basis, get the “not so good” work out of my system to clear space for the collection I hope to make in 2018. It also allows others to see daily drawings that may inspire future work.
You have taken your creative studio abroad to Amsterdam. Can you tell us more about that journey, the motivation behind it, and how you are finding it to be for your creative studio?
My husband and I had lived in Park Slope for 8 years and were both in a position where we were feeling a bit like time was getting away from us, and we were unsure of what our next move would be. I was unhappy in my current work place, and had longed to go out on my own finally instead of keeping it a side-job, and we decided we needed a year to invest in ourselves. My husband has Dutch citizenship, so we have always dreamed of living in Amsterdam. He applied for a Masters degree, and we crossed our fingers. When he got in we were so happy, but terrified and unsure if it was the right move. We packed up our life, and the three of us (Kitty Lou included), flew over to our new home. Almost a year later, I couldn't imagine what our life would have been like without this move. My business is blossoming every day, and we live exactly how we’ve always dreamed of living. I pinch myself sometimes!
Being here is so inspiring for my business. There is a huge letterpress culture, there are designers everywhere, and it’s the city of self-employment! I found a letterpress studio to work in, and get to bike over, and print amongst the canals whenever I can! My studio is in our apartment, so I have a little nook next to French windows that open up to our quiet street in De Pijp.
All of my clients are still US based, which is great for me time-difference wise. I get to work all morning quietly, without email interruption, and then by 2 pm my time, I start to get feedback and client inquiries, which I work on for the remainder of the day.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I love the program Harvest, where I do all of my invoicing, timesheets, expenses, and client organization. It lets me actually see how many hours it takes me to do certain things, so I am charging a fair rate. It also allows me to see all out-standing payments, and all that’s been collected thus far so that I can better plan my finances, as well as sends automatic invoices to clients with whom I am on retainer. I also keep a separate excel of every project, all costs, vendors, quoted price and profits. It helps for tax season deductions, and also helps me look back to compare vendor pricing, or quickly give a client a ball-park cost to initiate next steps. I always send a highly detailed quote with all information and process for a signature, to have on file just in case (with friends too!) and then I follow up with the invoice. I find this protects the client and myself throughout the process. I feel the more organized you are, the more likely you won’t run into big problems.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
This year in particular has been all about investment of time, money, and confidence into Al Stampa. My work creeps into every moment of my day, but I’m still in the honeymoon phase of building this to the level I want it to be at, so I don’t mind. Luckily my husband has been finishing up his Masters this year, so he’s been in the same ‘nose to the grindstone’ mode. We definitely love to walk around our neighborhood, get a great glass of wine, and we cook amazing dinners to favorite playlists by Michael Antonia (our wedding dj) 5-6 nights a week. That is part of the life we have built and we would never be as happy as we are right now if we didn’t give that time each day to each other. I also really believe that not taking time to do things you love, or see people you enjoy, will impact your work in a negative way. Conversations, outings to the movies or to a new neighborhood, give me inspiration for my work, so it’s important for me to keep that in mind when I want to stay in one night and work work work.
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
I’d say I’ve always been inspired by old movies, hand-lettering styles from the 40s-50s, and my endless collection of illustration and design books. My sister, who is also an artist, has always given me amazing books every year for my birthday, because we are soul sisters; Charley Harper, Illustratus, David Weidman, Oliver Jeffers and the list goes on. I take a lot of inspiration from old illustrators/designers/painters like Alvin Lustig, Saul Steinberg, Toulouse Lautrec’s sketches, vintage movie poster design, letterpress printers and hand painted signage. Travel is huge for me, and signage especially. I take lots of photos of signage from all over the world to inspire design, even though my designs are much more contemporary and clean.
Being in a new city this year has given me so much inspiration, from the signage, to the packaging, to the markets, and even the way people live. I print all my letterpress work at a studio about 10 minutes away from my apartment, owned by a good friend now. Having someone who has been printing for over 30 years, is a huge inspiration to me as well. I learn so much from just talking to him about letterpress and other printers, seeing how he works, and meeting people through him. It’s critical to get out of the house, away from the computer, and to soak in everything around you.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Ambition, Organization, Passion