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Interviews

Martina Flor: An Introvert’s Approach to Kicking Ass

How one illustrator bounced around jobs (and oceans) before making her own dream career.


When you speak to Martina Flor you’ll immediately notice just how aw-shucks friendly she is. She’ll never boast about her industry-leading lettering ability and is reluctant to go to into the sort of bold proclamations that “iconoclastic” creative minds tend to spout. But the soft-spoken Argentinian-native is the furthest thing from passive. Call it an introvert’s approach to kicking ass.

Her well-established freelance lettering business is thriving and is the result of some super-aggressive career path (and world map) navigation as she bounced from in-house designer to agencies across two continents the same way she bounces around in conversation — quietly but unmistakably confident.

Whether it’s going freelance or launching a fun side project, Flor dives in and hopes for the net to appear. And lately, it always does. In an era of over-the-top self-promotion and social media sniping, is there still space for the friendly woman that believes in the altruism of creative education? We spoke with the Berlin-based letterer on how she built an enviable career, one which mixes fun side projects, notable clients like Vanity Fair and HBO, and gaggle of 12,000 devoted students.

It seems like Instagram and Pinterest are just packed with letterers. Are we at peak lettering?

There’s definitely a lettering boom and I can imagine why letterers might find it hard. Overall I find this opportunity and possibility of sharing things online amazing. I use these networks all the time in my creative work and they’ve influenced my work. I’m not against this “oversharing” era as I think it encourages a lot of people who tend to stay behind the scenes.

I don’t have a judgement on whether any work should be out there or not, everything has the right to be out there. But we as designers, we need to be aware of why we think work is good or bad. We should know how to choose the right lettering, the ones that are good. That’s one of the reasons I talk and lecture. I want to convey tools art directors can use to filter the sea of stuff that’s out there.

martina-work-1

A project for 11 Freunde, a German soccer magazine for their “Das Spiel meines Lebens” (“The Game of My Life”) issue. Here, a quote from former Manchester United forward Teddy Sheringham. Translated: “It was heaven, it was hell.”

It sounds like you believe it’s a meritocracy, that the people with talent will get the work they deserve.

Sort of. There will be an audience that is not educated on design and typography. But there’s another layer of a creative community that should be able to tell good from bad. If you know a little bit and you’re educated, you can filter.

Have you ever seen work that wasn’t up to snuff get a lot of social media attention? How did that affect you and is it discouraging?

I don’t look at my competition that much and in those terms. It’s not a good mindset to work while constantly thinking of other people stealing your clients. I’m grateful that I keep having work coming in and that I’m too busy on my own stuff. But it’s true that this lettering boom has made it a bit over-worn. Again, that’s why those of us who do lettering seriously have a responsibility to educate clients and art directors as to what is good lettering and what is not.

How do you judge your success?

It changes all of the time. I have weeks where I feel like nothing is moving, that I should be doing more side projects or a client project I did wasn’t successful. I have other times when I leave the office where I think “that’s the best thing I’ve ever done!” At the end of the day, what makes me happy is when I look at my body of work and see that I’m moving forward, when I see things I did in the past and think “I can do that much better.” I also try to revel in the little successes. I can change the curve of an “N” and that will make my day.

“I try to revel in the little successes. I can change the curve of an “N” and that will make my day.”

How did you make the leap to freelance?

It started when I worked for Levi’s in Argentina and Uruguay, and I had to learn to speak to different audiences, people that will by the basic line versus the premier line. People who spoke different languages. The communication and strategies are things I apply all the time to my own brand. I was a designer or art director for a long time, and only focused on lettering six years ago.martina-work-3

What spurred the final decision?

After Levi’s, I went to work for an agency as an art director and, on the side, I was doing illustration work for children’s magazines. I was coming home at night and just doing illustrations until midnight, sleeping, and then going to work, every day. I was scared that I wouldn’t have any clients if I went freelance. But in retrospect, most people who go freelance make a mistake hesitating. Just leap. After all, what client wants to work with someone at 12 at night as part of some side work? It’s a pity I didn’t take the chance to go freelance earlier.

Most people who go freelance make a mistake hesitating. Just leap.

How did you get your first clients?

An important part of that was telling the world I was only a lettering artist and only showing work related to that. It really made an impact, people said “Oh she’s a letterer? I should only call her when I need lettering.” The message you give to the world comes back to you in terms of clients and work.

How long did it take for your income to reach full-time levels?

Between one and a half to two years. At the same time, I moved to Berlin which is a city where there is a big typographic community here. You live and breathe typography here. I think this community contributed a lot to motivate and inspire my work. I don’t know if this would have worked anywhere else.

If you were to make a pie chart of your income what would it look like?

I’d say 80 percent comes from commercial client work and 20 percent from teaching. The side projects don’t bring any money, in fact it’s the opposite — I invest money in them. But they do contribute to me getting commercial work and they feed my portfolio. A lot of things I create for my side projects, I include in my portfolio and clients respond to that. If you don’t feed your portfolio somehow then your clients will come after the old work and you’ll start replicating yourself a lot.

The message you give to the world comes back to you in terms of clients and work. I told the world I was a lettering artist and I only show work related to that. 

There’s a lot of people that love to debate whether it’s okay to work for free, but it looks like you advocate doing that as long as it’s for yourself.

I don’t have this “never work for free” attitude. Sometimes I do commissions that don’t pay well, but if you’re interested in the job you can always find a way to make it a win-win for both sides. Maybe it’s licensing or promotion. Money isn’t the only way you can be paid. I don’t like the mindset where people think “I will only take a job if I’m paid very well.” That puts you in the position to only get a certain type of job and you’ll miss a lot of potential good pieces you could do.martina-work-4

I read you work 9 to 6 in the studio? Is that still true?

I always say I’m a freelancer that has a fixed full-time job in a studio. I like to have that space where I know that I can get certain things done. Though, I don’t have such a clear line between my personal and work life. Sometimes I’m playing with my son and I think of a commission, or sometimes I am working and think of my son and go see him. I have a schedule, but I don’t leave my studio and just forget about work. I live with what I do and it doesn’t stress me.

How has becoming a parent in the past few months affected the way you approach your freelance routine? If at all?

With parenting or with career there’s a lot of insecurities that come together. I enjoy being a parent, but I am sometimes afraid of what I’m missing for my job. I had to admit at times I was a little insecure and wondered if I could enjoy my work as I did before now that I had this wonderful child in my life. But things are starting to organize now, I think a lot of that had to do with my mindset. I really wanted to keep my career going. From my colleagues I got these questions like “Oh, so you’re stopping your work for a while, right?” Which is not a question it’s more of a “You know you should stop for a while, right?” I didn’t feel like I should do that. Although I enjoy my baby so much, I had to struggle a bit to do it my way instead of following what I “should have” done. I have to say that ten months in, there’s a structure I had before that has changed into one where I can parent and continue my career. But I had months when I thought, “How am I going to do this?”

Sounds like you love to jump into tough choices.

In my workshops there is often someone who comes with a bunch of plans before tackling something. “Oh I’m going to move this ‘A’ to the right. Or this swish on the ‘S’” And I always just look at them and say “Just draw it!” I think this parallels my life: Draw it first and then see if it works.

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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