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Is It Better To “Stay Your Lane” or Branch out Creatively?

Marta Cerdá on why some designers are like tourists, removing fear from the creative process, and how to be decisive.

Marta Cerdá has a strong case of what the Germans call “wanderlust.” Her passport will reveal stops in, yes, Germany as well as New York, Los Angeles, and Barcelona. However, it is the 34-year-old graphic designer’s portfolio that does the most traveling.

A glance at her eclectic mix of projects is a map through place and time, transporting you to Mad Men-era America, to a roaring 20s ballroom, and then back to a modern day European experimental hip-hop concert. Range like that gets one noticed, and in 2008, The Art Director’s Club awarded her the prestigious Young Guns Award.

Marta Cerdá

Marta Cerdá

To a young Cerdá, it was the establishment’s approval that she was fit for the open road, and two short months later, she quit her full-time gig to go freelance. Soon, she began netting clients like Random House, Nike, Mazda, and a slew of internationally known magazines. Now seven years in, she’s had moments of doubt and success, but that old restlessness is taking hold again. We spoke with Cerdá about moving back to Europe and why graphic design is a lot like being a tourist.

A look at your portfolio shows a wide range of work. How do you stop your work from falling into the same style?

Every time I read a book or see an exhibition of something I like, I get excited and have to jump into that world. Although, I don’t know if it’s a good thing that I have variety. For me, it’s nice to see artists with strong homogeneity in their work, but mine is more eclectic. But it’s just how my brain works.

It’s most people’s inclination to ride out a style. Why is that not for you?

Creativity is like a journey. There are people that work like tourists that go to Paris to make sure the Eiffel Tower is still there, that want to see what they’ve already seen a million times. There are designers that do the same thing, that repeat the same formula. Like tourists, they don’t get under the skin of things, they begin a projects knowing how it will end, they repeat the same journey. Then there are the tour guides that do the same thing but know every aspect of that thing.

There are designers that are like tourists, they don’t get under the skin of things.

Then there’s more of a nomadic approach. It’s more of a trial and error thing, where you never stay in the same place. I always hoped I’d be more of a nomad and not stay in the same place.

But now that I’ve grown, I don’t think it is bad to stay in the same style, it relates a lot to who you are, how you behave in life, it is different for everyone . I think you can really get deep in the same style, more like a tour guide that knows every single aspect of what he sees every day, and loves it as if he’s seen it for the first time. I think the way we design expresses how we are and I have to say I am very insecure. I feel like I always want to change and I wish I was different, I wish I was more consistent—people recognize you more that way. Sometimes I felt bad about it, but I think it is more about accepting and embracing who you are. I now think my consistency is inconsistency.

A proposed cover for "Breakfast at Tiffany's"

A proposed cover for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

Do you ever feel secure as a freelancer? Is it getting easier?

No! Never! [Laughs] I have different problems than when I began, but they are still problems. A year and a half ago, I was worried I was losing the energy I had in the beginning of my career. The more worried I was, the worse I felt. Then I just said to myself: “I don’t care. My life is bigger than my work.” As soon as I allowed myself not to care, the work got better. Being a graphic designer is a profession, but it reflects whom you are and how you are feeling at the time. Humans change constantly and that reflects how you see the work. I still have moments where I think, “I’m no good anymore!”

Were there times when making the leap to freelance life that you thought you weren’t going to make it?

This winter, actually. I had three entire months without work. But I took that time to learn 3D, and that made me happy. Though I still considered going back to full-time work, and that felt like a failure to me. There are so many good places to work now that I think I’d grow at. So, after thinking about it, now I don’t feel so bad about working for someone else. I think, “Maybe I can go back to structure.”

You’ve mentioned that while you’re in Europe now, you’d like to get back to the U.S.? Why?

In Europe, when we want to do something, we think of the problems and inconveniences first. In America, the people are much more positive and you get all of this energy. Connections are important everywhere, but in the U.S. the door is open anywhere. If you send your portfolio and the other person likes it, he will automatically give you a day to meet him and more things can happen. Here it’s much more difficult to open new doors. In America, if you are really willing to do it, you can do it.

What was the process like making the leap to freelance in 2008?

The first four or five years out of university, I worked for other people and those years were the most crucial of my career. The first people you work with are the first people that shape you. Your first boss is your first real teacher. That’s why, if you work in places where you don’t learn, you need to leave. I see this in my classmates, they stick around in jobs where they aren’t learning and they stagnate. When I didn’t like a job, I changed immediately. There was one agency I only stayed for one month.

The first people you work with are the first people that shape you.

How did you cultivate that decisiveness?

When I was a teenager I worked in a bank. I was from a little town and everyone in that town worked in the bank. Everyone had lives where they worked there for their entire lives. I was so bad at it, I got so depressed and thought that was going to be my life. So I know that feeling when I sense it, the feeling that I am a machine, that I’m not getting better at anything. Whenever that happens, I want to move fast. When I feel that way, I get really scared that my life is going to stay that way. When I was in that agency, I was not me. So I left as fast as possible.

Does this mean that you have no fear of uncertainty?

I’ve been a freelancer for many years. But at any moment it can change. This is not stable and you have to be comfortable with it. You will never have the comfortable feeling of someone paying you. On the other hand, you grow much, much, much more as creative but also as a person, especially if you work alone. You alone have to make the decisions. It needs a perfect balance of being cautious and being completely mad.


Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

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