We sat down with Susan Lee on a beautiful Sunday morning in her sun-lit bedroom in Brooklyn. Susan talked to us about her career as an illustrator and graphic designer and gave us tips on where to find inspiration. Most importantly, she gave us advice on how to navigate our careers and ask for what we deserve. Susan Lee is an award-winning illustrator, and her work has been featured in The Society of Illustrators and St. Louis Lambert International Airport, and she currently works at SeatGeek.
Can you tell me about your background, and how you became a designer in New York?
My parents are from Daegu, South Korea, but I grew up in Georgia, which was very difficult for me to navigate as an Asian American woman. There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. In that small bubble, a lot of people made me feel that, because I was different, I was “wrong.” I studied diligently so that I could go out of state for college and experience somewhere new. I received a scholarship to attend Washington University in St. Louis, and I studied communication design with a concentration in illustration. I thought I would return to Atlanta after that, but most of my design alumni connections led me to New York instead. New York is the first place I’ve experienced where I don’t feel like I’m treated differently for the way I look. So in that sense, even though I didn’t plan to end up here, it’s become my home.
Are you enjoying your new job at SeatGeek?
Yes! I started at SeatGeek four months ago. It’s wonderful to be at a company that gives me space to make creative work while respecting work life balance. And I can’t lie, getting discounts on live events has been pretty sick.
I have also been doing freelance ever since I graduated. I’m currently working on a logo for a female-forward project that I’m super excited about, so stay tuned. They also told me I can help with the branding and interior design, which would be so cool.
What’s your work process like, and where do you look for ideas?
I always look at what other people are doing first. There is a great podcast for creative people called “Creative Pep Talk,” by Andy J. Pizza. It is oriented toward illustrators but anyone who’s in a creative field should listen to it. The podcast outlines six steps toward creative success, and the first step is to determine “what is good.” You can’t make something without knowing what “good” looks like.
So how do you define “good”?
That’s something I have been struggling with recently. When I was in school, I made things that I knew would be “trendy” and that got me into the Society of Illustrators, a professional society based in New York City. But the illustration didn’t feel like me. Lately, I find myself focusing too much on whether people will like my work and then I get stressed out. I feel depressed if an illustration doesn’t get as many “likes” as a previous post. So that’s why I have been trying to experiment making work just for myself, which is hard because art is meant to be seen.
There is a famous illustrator named Jeffrey Alan Love who came to talk at our school. He was told he couldn’t draw, and it took him many years to figure out what his style was. But now he is getting paid to make the work that he truly loves. That’s what I want. I don’t care if it takes time. I want to feel like I am making things I enjoy, and I hope others enjoy it too.
You mentioned social media. What do you think of posting art or designs on social media?
I think it is inherently a good thing because it gives artists and illustrators who may not be able to get out there a chance to succeed. But I think it can get unhealthy if you are not vigilant about how you view this platform. It can be tough for a younger illustrator experimenting with their style, since a lot of popularity on Instagram comes from how “well-branded” you are.
Talking about the business side of design, do you have any tips on how to ask and negotiate on rates or salary?
You should always avoid saying a number up-front first. Instead, you should let your client give a number; though, I always have a number in mind in case the client forces me to give a rate. Just recently, I was going to under-sum myself for a logo, and they ended up offering $200 more than what I was going to suggest. I have learned to say something like: “Do you have a budget already outlined for this? If not, we can start having a discussion.” or “Before I commit to this project, I want to make sure we are aligned in our expectations.”
What makes you powerful?
The women in my life make me powerful. I grew up with my older sister, younger sister, my mom, and my grandma. My dad was kind of the lone male in a house full of women. Whenever my sisters and I needed to do physical labor around the house, it never occurred to us that we couldn’t do it because we didn’t have another option. That mentality has carried over to the rest of my life.
So being around women always makes me feel stronger and more powerful — emotionally and creatively. I always consult female creatives around me to see if I am asking for a fair price for my work because I trust them to value my work for what it is, and not necessarily as work from a female artist.
Is there something that gives you power when you need it?
I like flowers! They make me feel calm and loved. If I am having a down day, I get flowers for myself as a special treat.