We’re excited to be returning to Australia this week to chat with Creative Lady Directory member Nat Carroll. Nat is an independent art director, graphic designer, and illustrator who creates warm, playful and expressive communication for creative, entrepreneurial, purpose-driven types, including herself! Dive on in for an empowering and inspiring read and look out for Nat’s advice regarding business investment and saying no to projects sooner.
Tell us about your path to becoming a freelance art director, graphic designer, and illustrator.
I accidentally fell into freelancing. It was 2008, I was into my second design role, working for a music and event company and had started dating the man of my life. We'd been together for six months when he suddenly got a call to move to The Netherlands for his career. I decided to take a big leap of faith, packed up my life in Sydney and joined him for the adventure. I didn't speak dutch and so I somewhat naively thought it'd be easier to start a remote studio than find a job. I'd grown up in an entrepreneurial household and had moonlighted in my early twenties helping friends with albums, posters and logos, so I think having that exposure early on gave me the confidence to give it a go. It's ended up being the greatest, most rewarding risk of my life so far.
Like a lot of creatives I’d gladly spend hours in my room as a kid, drawing and painting in my own little world and I knew I wanted to be an artist when I grew up – there was a very short period when I wanted to be a receptionist, but my mum pushed me to 'dream bigger, honey!'... When the time came, I floated the idea of studying fine art, but my parents, worried I’d end up a starving artist, guided me towards design. I'm so grateful they did. I studied visual communication in Sydney at the Billy Blue School of Graphic Arts, which also exposed me to commercial illustration and working with my hands, and so as opportunities arose over the years, I found myself gravitating towards projects and clients where I could explore and combine my multi-disciplinary curiosities.
You do a wonderful job sharing about yourself on your website. Have you found your transparency and open personality to be helpful with regards to attracting the right clients?
This is a fairly recent thing I've been trying to put into practice, but yes, so far, so good! I think to stand out in business you have to be willing to look inwards instead of presenting a version of yourself that you think you *should* be to clients and customers. Instead, I feel it's more powerful to look at your values, voice, personality, and style and unearth what's different, even if you think it's a bit strange or vulnerable. Be willing to spend time digging into what makes you unique and work on your brand, beyond a logo and basic guidelines.
I'm glad you picked up on this! I was intentionally wanting to craft a brand with my personality and style infused in there. Personally, I'm more likely to buy from a business that I feel really connected to, so I think it's helpful to draw inspiration from those brands you feel that instant alignment to online – they're the ones that do a great job in expressing their personality. I think as creatives, we tend to forget to do this for ourselves. We need to break down the digital barriers, especially those of us who work remotely, let go of trying to appeal to everyone, and instead get used to expressing ourselves in that medium to find people on our wavelength. It was a very drawn out process, playing the client, but I am finding it's starting to pay off in terms of attracting projects and people I want to work with.
We also noticed this statement on your website:
"I acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and the traditional custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work."
Can you tell us about your motivation to include this statement?
It's about respect. In Australia, there's a long way to go in our journey towards reconciliation and recognising our colonial past. It's a way in which non-indigenous people can offer a small gesture of awareness and respect to Aboriginal culture and the ongoing relationship the traditional custodians have with the land. I draw inspiration from nature and particularly of where I live, which is a very spiritual place for the local Yuin people, so it also comes from a place of gratitude and shared love for this place I get to call home.
What is one thing you can’t live without while working on a project?
My hands! My aesthetic is really illustrative so I'm always happy when there's an opportunity to use them in a project. Another big one for me is feeling aligned to my personal values. When I'm working with clients who are collaborative, trusting in the creative process and value my thinking and aesthetics, I feel engaged and energised. Without these I feel de-valued, a bit like a mac-monkey-bot, and not at all my best self.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
My most productive days are when I'm feeling grounded. This mostly means looking after myself physically and emotionally. Most days I try to meditate, take the dog for a walk, take a shower if I get stuck on an idea, eat real, unprocessed food, and go to bed at a reasonable hour – kinda easy to do when you live in a small coastal town! I swear everyone's in bed by 9:30pm.
I've also become a big planner over the years. I don't just set goals anymore and watch them fade into oblivion. I've found that breaking goals down into monthly, weekly and daily tasks helps me stay on track. Planning is key to me feeling like I'm in control of my business, not it in control of me. Of course, things tend to derail when I get busy, but I always have a plan to get back to, instead of just reacting to everything that comes along.
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
In the last couple of years I've been paying the price for not placing my health and wellbeing above all else. I've had some amazing opportunities, but with these came a lot of long days in the studio, heightened stress levels and it felt like everyone and everything else in my life was on hold. I'm in my mid-thirties now and gravely underestimated what my body needs to feel at ease. I naively thought I could handle 14-16 hour days at my desk, 6 days a week for an extended period of time and I'd come out unscathed. Everyone else works like this, right?! It's what we need to do to succeed or be seen as a success? I ended up experiencing a whole range of repercussions, from a massive strain on my relationship, to burnout, adrenal fatigue and allergy/gut issues. Now I've found a better balance in my life, thank goodness! It forced me to slow down a bit and re-define what 'success' means to me, be more aware of my basic needs, and it's helped to establish boundaries and set better expectations in my business. Ultimately I've found I've become more productive because of this whole curveball. Ah, the hindsight!
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Don't be afraid to invest in your business – it's taken me a long time to get over the DIY approach I started out with, but I've realised along the way that there's just some things that I'm hopeless at, some mistakes that ended up costing me more than what hiring a professional would have, and some that take me more time and energy than they should. If there's something you dread doing, save up and hire someone. Stop looking at it as an impossible expense, and instead, as an investment in levelling up and focusing on what you're good at.
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
Lots! There's many more commercial projects I’d love to explore – more books, festivals and I dream of doing an illustrative identity for a museum or botanical garden. I'd also like to carve out some time to follow my curiosities – writing and publishing an illustrated book, offering clients retreats of some kind, creating painted ceramics, building a product-based brand from scratch. I also daydream of opening up a little retail shop attached to my studio in Bermagui. That should keep me busy for the next 100 years, right?!
What is one thing you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I wish I'd known that it was ok to say no, sooner. I know it's super scary to say no to projects, especially if you don't have regular income coming in, but I feel ultimately, having a scarcity mindset, of feeling afraid that there's nothing else out there, really cost me opportunities to grow further, sooner. You have to ask yourself, if I say yes, what will this mean? Is this short-term project aligned with my long-term plans? What am I closing the door on here? Is saying no, really saying yes to something else, something better? After doing this for a while I've come to believe that things will always just work out, somehow. The universe has always got our backs — even in the moment when it doesn't necessarily feel like it.
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I love how artist/illustrator Lisa Congdon frames this – do whatever it takes to stay engaged. It's made me consciously think about what I can do each day to keep showing up. For me, that's working on personal projects, swimming, staring at the sea, walking my dog, exploring new hobbies, devouring podcasts, books and music and also making sure I get myself out of my introverted habits, making time for friends and family. I'm also hugely inspired when I travel to new surroundings, soaking up all the food, culture and just creating the space for observation and reflection.
Any music, podcast, book recommendations, or something you're currently obsessed with that you'd like to share?
Hmmm of late, it's the Creative Pep Talk podcast – Andy's episodes always leave me feeling inspired and equipped with some new insights. I'm a fan of Steven Pressfield's books on creativity, and can't stop watching his recent interview with the amazing Marie Forleo. And pretty much any true crime podcast I can get my hands on.