An interview with Ella Kookoo
Ella and I met during the early stages of Zoë Pepper, working together to produce a conceptual image for the brand. Based in Berlin, she recently came to London to receive the World Illustration Award in the design category. With lots to share about what freelancers need and want, I was quick to ask her to share her knowledge of the terrain in an interview. Her portfolio includes Airbnb, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and many more.
Alexis (Zoë Pepper): You have a strong background in editorial work. What do you have to consider when taking on a project in a different field, for example, advertising?
Ella Kookoo: Editorials have a [quicker] turnaround but they’re relatively small pieces. I think when you work with an advertising agency you're facing different challenges. The creative process is longer, but there are more people involved, so the feeling is less immediate.
A: Do you have a preference when it comes to how an idea is pitched to you, a literal image as opposed to a concept?
E: Never too enthusiastic to do [something literal]. As an illustrator, you have a chance to really challenge yourself concept wise when you work on an editorial piece. Find your own way to relate to the article or piece.
A: Now, that you can pick and choose what projects you want to do, how often do you say no to people?
E: From conversations I’ve had with other creatives, I think this is one of the hardest things to say. I'm turning down [some] projects. Mostly, when I just can't, physically or time-wise. As crazy as it sounds it took me a long time to realise that!
I once took my work with me on vacation (at the beginning of my career). This is probably the biggest no-no for any creative person but also any professional because you obviously can’t provide the work you're expected to when you don't have the facilities or the frame of mind, and nor should you. Plus, It’s just really crucial to take a break.
A: Do you have a mechanism that keeps you in check?
E: It’s been almost a year that I’ve been working from a studio. I worked from home for several years, this is something that takes its toll on your state of mind and well-being. The studio allows me to interact with other people when I feel like it, but it’s still a workplace. We keep each other motivated and share our everyday experiences. The most important thing is that act of walking to work in the morning. I think it's the most respectful thing I did for myself and my career.
A: You’re talking, in a way, about ensuring you take your own work/life separation more seriously?
E: In a way, yeah. I am very fortunate to live in Berlin. Everything is more affordable. Taking a studio space was certainly an investment, but not as huge a financial risk as it can be in other cities. I can have meetings here with clients. I have much more regulated working hours. And there is a wonderful yoga studio (laughs) just around the corner, that is pretty amazing. When my back starts to hurt, I have a two-hour break, do my yoga and come back. Since my apartment is fairly isolated, having a studio in a lively area with tons of people passing by, you feel engaged in what’s happening.
A: What do you think of a coffee shop routine for those who don't have their own space yet?
E: I’ve had my share. I tried it in Tel Aviv but, I found it extremely expensive. In illustration, you do need working tools, and I personally need my working area. The bigger the table the better! When I started, I had a tiny workplace. It was extremely hot, and there was no AC, I can do that. I can be a combat illustrator when I have to. I’ve worked in cars, I’ve done it all...
A: Wait, you’ve worked out of a car?
E: This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. The first time I visited Israel after moving to Germany, I had a very quick turn around with a client. I had to work while my mom was driving. While doing that, I was promising to myself, I will never ever ever do that again. I’ve stuck to my word so far.
[And] that’s the thing about being able to say no, it's a delicate balance between wanting to keep pushing forward and working extremely hard, and not panicking when you can't take on a new project. Having faith that if you’re saying no, it’s not the last time you will hear from that client. It’s fine, they’ll come back. For me, the biggest thing that has changed was that.
A: How did you get your start?
E: I started working for an Israeli newspaper whilst I was in my third year of art school. It allowed me to experiment with my style since it wasn’t fully formed yet. I wasn’t aware of my limits and had to figure out a way to produce works faster than I was used to, I’m still super grateful that I was able to work with them at such an early stage in my career.
A: It's great that you were able to get experience so early in your field!
E: I was always working from a very young age to provide for myself. As much as it is sort of a la-la land in art school, it was clear to me that I want to be a commercial artist and make a living out of my craft.
We were encouraged to experiment with our style as students but to me, it was always obvious I want to develop a cohesive style I'll be identified by. I think it's very important.
Working as a student on commercial projects did give me confidence. it’s a great feeling to know you can make a living out of something you are still mastering. On the other hand, especially with arts and design, it’s an endless learning curve. None of the works in my current portfolio were created in art school. To me, it just took a little longer [to develop]. Which is fine, as I said, just keep learning, the more I worked, the more it slowly tightened.
A: Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?
E: When you don’t say no when you should - that’s when you stop enjoying your work. Instead of enjoying your work, you blame your work. I love my profession so much, when I start blaming it for my problems, I know it’s my fault. I know it was me not paying attention to myself.
It's very important to have a support circle since not a lot of people can really understand the struggles of freelancing. When you speak to people that are experiencing the same difficulties, you can be there for them and they can be there for you, it provides a lot of comfort… It can be very lonely work but you can’t [allow yourself to] be isolated. Collaborating with other creatives and dealing with topics you're truly passionate about in your own personal work is a great way to get more satisfaction, and very often it's a great career booster too.