On a Mission: Andrea Pippins talks about Creating the Work You Want to See

Looking at Andrea Pippins’ work, you can’t help but smile. It’s not just her colorful style that seems to speak directly to you, but it’s also the mission behind what she creates. From her books I Love My Hair and Becoming Me to posters for the BlackStar Film Festival, from Hallmark Cards to promo spots on TV Land, from brand identities for universities to illustrations for the National Museum of African American History and Culture—it elicits powerful emotions. We talked with Andrea more about what it was like making her books, finding work/life balance, and the importance of telling those untold stories.

Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you got into the work you’re doing now.

Andrea Pippins: I learned a little about graphic design when I saw Halle Berry playing the role of Angela in the film Boomerang. Angela was an art director and artist, and it was my first time seeing a woman of color doing that kind of work. It blew me away, even if it was fiction. But it wasn’t until I started applying for schools that I really learned about careers in graphic design, or what was called commercial art or graphic art at that time. I attended Temple University Tyler School of Art. After graduating with a BFA I worked for several years as a designer at Hallmark Cards, then TV Land/Nick@Nite before going back to school to get my MFA in graphic design. With that degree I taught design courses at several universities over a period of five years. During that time, I was also doing a lot of freelance work and selling artwork. It got to be a challenge managing two full-time workloads so I decided to take a leap and work for myself full-time.

How did you make the leap from full-time professor to freelance writer and freelance designer and illustrator? What have been the biggest challenges, and how have you overcome them?

Andrea Pippins: After some time of reflection (about 4 months) I made the decision. No money saved. No project prospects. I don’t recommend this route, but I needed to do it that way. I believe that once I made the commitment to focus on work that fueled my creative spirit that decision opened up many doors for me.

Once the decision was made I created an ideal plan of how I wanted my transition into full-time freelance to unfold. I keep an idea book, where I journal ideas and dream projects, and in that book I plotted out exactly how much money I needed to make to sustain the lifestyle I wanted for the next 6 months to a year. Then I listed how I could make that money, with a focus on the kind of projects I wanted to work on keeping in mind the intention behind my work. This was my guideline for how to move forward. It helped give me structure, but I approached it with the understanding that things don’t always go as planned. I also reached out to friends and my industry contacts to let them know about my new direction. In the meantime I was creating personal work, forcing myself to draw every day even if it was only for a few minutes.

What I didn’t expect is that no opportunities came from those contacts and nothing in my plan was happening. But it wasn’t in vain, because I didn’t wait around, I was actively doing stuff (like selling work at art markets, attending artists talks, reading entrepreneur blogs). I strongly believe that taking consistent action towards my goal of working for myself actually brought unexpected, bigger than I could ever imagine opportunities.

Having a blog and social media platforms with an established audience also helped. These are and have been extensions of my portfolio for years. I would post process photos, inspiration, advice and tips, and creative prompts to engage others who followed what I had to share. This helped promote my work, my style, and interests. Because of this, people have a pretty clear idea of what they’re going to get when they work me. And because my work was out there people could find me.

One of the biggest challenges has been managing the administrative work while still making time to create. I’m slowly addressing this by building a team of people who can handle some of these tasks and learning to delegate.

What is the best piece of advice you have for other freelancers or designer entrepreneurs?

Andrea Pippins: I have two things. First for the ladies, when thinking about compensation ask for what you feel your skills are worth, and learn how to negotiate. Far too often we take whatever we’re offered because we don’t want to be confrontational or we feel we “should just be grateful for the opportunity.” You can be grateful and get paid. Do your research and be smart about the value of your work.

For everyone, know why you are doing the work. Write a mission statement. List three things your work will always do, it can be for yourself, your audience, or both. This becomes a great guideline for what work you will and won’t accept, and will help you be clear about your goals. Start by considering, “how can I create what I want to see?”

If possible, avoid including “making money” because this is obvious if you’re running a business and it’s more productive if making money is seen as a byproduct of doing great work versus simply doing something for the money. I’ve learned doing something just for the money isn’t fulfilling for me and actually pushes money away versus calling in more.

What was the process of creating artwork for your first book? How did you manage to get the book deal and get it published?

Andrea Pippins: I Love My Hair really happened from me being in the right place at the right time. I met an art director at Random House when I was invited to be a guest contributor to the book Ladies Drawing Night. As we were drawing she had asked us, casually, if we had any ideas for children's books. A few months later I sent her some book ideas, none of which had anything to do with hair. But after looking at my artwork, the editor responded asking if I’d be interested in doing a coloring book about hair, and I said, “OMG of course.” It seems like such an obvious direction but I hadn't even considered it. I didn’t really know what I wanted to include in I Love My Hair, I just knew that I wanted it to be fun and that I wanted to show a wide range of hairstyles and ideas of hair. There were 84 pages to fill (in 60 days), so it was a great creative challenge to figure out what would be interesting and what would work in terms of filling it with color. Because “hair” is so specific, and because I didn’t want it to be just about hairstyles, I had to be creative in my interpretations. So I explored abstract representations, lettering, accessories, and tools related to hair.

Some background, “I Love My Hair” started as a social campaign for a design thesis project while I was in graduate school. Our topic was social awareness, which inspired me to focus on the revived natural hair movement that was just starting to take off. During that time I was really intrigued by the black beauty industry and how much money black women, all over the world, spend on hair care products. At the time I had been natural for seven years and was loving it, and wondered how the industry would change if more women of color embraced their coils and went natural as well. So that project allowed me to explore that idea visually. Soon after, those graphics became art prints and tees, and now the I Love My Hair coloring book. The book continues to celebrate my love for black hair while exploring other elements of my artistic interests.

What did you learn from the first one, I Love My Hair, that you put into action for your second book, Becoming Me?

Andrea Pippins: When working on I Love My Hair I really love that it became more than just a coloring book. My intention was to create more of what I wanted see—at that point I hadn’t seen coloring books celebrating hair, let alone featuring women and girls of color. I also wanted to create a tool for self-love, and a place where people could just create. Through that experience I learned I wanted to do more of that kind of work. So this then became the blueprint for Becoming Me, which focuses on nurturing creativity but with the layer of me wanting people to spend more time on self-reflection.

You do a wide variety of work. How do you balance life as an artist, illustrator, and author?

Andrea Pippins: I am still figuring out the balance thing! Thankfully, the book opportunities have been coming in pretty regularly and back to back (I’m working on two books as we speak) which doesn’t leave me too much time to do illustration work let alone personal work. So I try to only accept projects that I am super excited about because of the limited time. One day I hope to be in a place where I can work on big projects and freelance illustration for several months out of the year and create my personal work for the rest of the year.

You’re based in DC but are currently residing in Stockholm. How do you feel exposure to different cultures affects your work? I’m officially living in Stockholm full-time now, which is exciting.

Andrea Pippins: I’m very drawn to culture, and curious about cultures outside of my own. Because I love pattern and textiles I’m always looking at surface designs from different cultures for inspiration, while being sensitive to their meanings and usage. You can see this impacts my work on a visual level by how my illustrations can work as patterns or how I might incorporate patterns into my designs.

Having a mother from Brazil who always had me around her friends from all over the world, I’ve always been exposed to different cultures. But also growing up in the suburbs I was exposed to suburban culture which was very different from hanging out in D.C. (urban) as a teen and then going to university in Philly. And going to Temple University, but the Tyler School of Art (which was on a separate campus), I had the best of both worlds, a very college culture combined with art school culture—which were so different. Being a person of color, a third culture kid (TCK), and an artist I was always navigating different groups. And always felt comfortable. I think this impacted my work by me always believing I belonged and feeling ok in new situations with people different from me. This gave me the tools to navigate unfamiliar environments, and left me flexible to taking risks and exploring new opportunities.

Women—and even more so women of color—face many day-to-day challenges that other more privileged people don’t deal with. How do your personal experiences play a part in the work that you create?

Andrea Pippins: As a young person and even today I don’t see enough of myself reflected a lot in art and design. My career path has unfolded as it needed to, but it might have been a little easier if I saw earlier others who looked like me being successful in these realms. So now I try to be what I wish I had, and I always look to create more of what I want to see. So teaching and mentoring is important to me, and working on projects that reflect people and stories that are often untold is major factor in my work.

Your books and your work celebrate diversity. What can designers do with their work and in their process to embrace it as well?

Andrea Pippins: This is always a hard question to answer because being inclusive is so natural to me. I also find myself asking, “does my work celebrate diversity?” I ask this because my work simply reflects my community, my curiosities, and the stories I want to see. So for me, it’s just my world, my life. But perhaps for others looking in it feels diverse because these are images they aren’t used to seeing?

With that, a great way for designers who want to be more inclusive is to not make assumptions about any person, group, or culture. Learn more. Explore something different beyond a surface level. Look beyond your world. Don’t try to solve problems for people without knowing where the problems really began. And you can’t know that without some history lessons, and not without fully engaging others as fellow human beings.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

Andrea Pippins: The library. Which I miss so much because I can’t go to the library in Sweden, I need to learn Swedish. When I had my studio space my personal library was always a first stop. I do explore Pinterest and a few blogs, but I really try to get out and go to a museum or gallery show. It’s always inspiring to see what other artists are inspired by. Markets always get my creative juices flowing. It also depends on the project, that helps dictate where I go for inspiration for the work.