Episode 2: Laura Bohill
Overtime is Dribbble’s audio companion where we talk to Dribbble members about their background, process, and shots.
In this interview, Dan speaks with freelance illustrator, icon artist, branding specialist, letterer, and all around cool person, Laura Bohill. Laura and Dan chat about freelancing, accents, Ghostly Ferns, working with folks you love, why you don’t have to be good at everything to be successful, and much more.
Dan also asks Laura about a few of her Dribbble shots and process. She shares the story behind “Choose Progress Over Perfection” and “Design Makes Everything Possible,” pictured above. She also gives the inside scoop about the Ghostly Fern mascot, Flo—pictured above with a little zombie flair for Halloween.
Links Mentioned in Overtime
- Laura’s Website
- Laura on Twitter
- Laura on Dribbble
- Ghostly Ferns
- Cotton Bureau
- Design Makes Things Possible T-shirt from Marketplace by InVision
- Erin Nolan
Dan Cederholm: Hey, this is Overtime, Dribbble’s audio companion, and today we’re talking with Laura Bohill, a freelance illustrator, icon artist, branding specialist, letterer, and all around cool person. I’ve been a big fan ofLaura for a long time. She’s been a long-time Dribbble member, and her work’s fantastic and very fun. We’re really thrilled to talk to her today. So without further ado. Welcome, Laura B. It’s so awesome to have you on Overtime. Thanks for joining us.
Laura Bohill: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.
Dan: It’s super good, and I’ve been a big fan of yours for a long time, because you’ve been on Dribbble for a long time. Probably before that, too I’ve just been following your work and been a big fan of watching you grow as a designer. So it’s really good to talk to you in person about that, and to get some more info on you, and how you started, what you do, your process and whatever else we can talk about. First of all, I’ll start with the obvious question. Where are you from, and what’s your background, and how did you get into design?
Laura: I’m from County Durham, which is in the northeast of England. I basically lived in the middle of nowhere for most of my life, surrounded by fields, and hills, and trees. Basically only child, on my own, so I just had all of this beautiful countryside around me. Right in front of my house there was a field full of cows, and for some reason growing up, I convinced myself that I owned these cows, and the farmer just looked after them for me. They were my imaginary pets when I was growing up.
Dan: That’s awesome.
Laura: I have no idea how I convinced myself of this but I did. I always wanted a dog. Never had a dog. Still really do want one. But I did actually have a pet goat, a couple of rabbits, several goldfish, and four pet ducks. I had the most bizarre pets growing up. That’s what it is living in British countryside, I guess.
Yeah, I always, in terms of design and illustration, I always have drawn. I think a lot of us creative people always have. I was never happier than when I got a new set of pens and a new wedge of paper. That was like the best day ever.
Laura: When I was a kid, there’s one particular story that I love; we had this really gross, kind of like a grayish-blue wallpaper that had these flowers on it. It wasn’t until this one day when my mom finally decided to get rid of this really terrible wallpaper that she noticed that there was all of these additional flowers drawn on the wallpaper.
As a kid I’d just been like I’ll just draw on the walls. Why not? I covered this wallpaper in extra flowers, but she never noticed because I clearly did it very well. She was like “Well, why have you done this?” And I was like “Well, it just needs extra flowers,” as if it was no biggie. It was obvious it just needed extra flowers.
I’ve always been creatively inclined as a child growing up. I never really knew how to I didn’t know this was something you could do as a job. My parents both have admin jobs. They work in offices. My granddad was a builder and my grandma was a seamstress in a factory, so I didn’t really have anyone creative around me as a child. And I was an only child as well.
When I was growing up and people would ask you that question what do you want to be when you were older, I would always say I want to be an artist, but I don’t know how that makes money. That’s actually what I said as a kid. For me, the only way to do what I really wanted to do was to paint and make paintings of sunflowers and sell them by the river or something. I had no idea that graphic design or illustration was really a thing that people could do.
Dan: I totally had the same sort of thought when I was a kid. I didn’t know how design happened and how to make a living doing it.
Laura: It’s just something you take for granted. It’s like everywhere but it’s there.
Dan: I love the animal friends thing which I’ll come back to. I kind of see when we start talking about your style and your illustration style it’s making sense to me now. You’re from County Durham, you said, which is north England?
Laura: Yes, that’s the northeast of England, right on the east coast and it’s probably about an hour’s drive from the Scottish border. It’s really far north.
Dan: Really far north.
Laura: I confuse a lot of Americans with what my accent actually is. A lot of people think I’m Australian.
Dan: I hear Scottish a bit in there, but I guess it’s because of the proximity.
Dan: That’s cool. I love all the accents. Such a small area of the world has such distinct accents of the same language. I guess you could say the same for the US but I don’t know. Is it true, as a non-US person, do you notice the accents more than you would in the UK?
Laura: A little bit but not so much. Everyone really just sounds American to me.
However, Jessi Arrington is in the studio I work from, and she has a very southern accent. Hers sounds completely different to everyone else. That’s the only one who sounds distinctly different. A couple of people I pick up certain words that sound different but everyone else generally sounds the same to me.
Dan: That makes sense. I guess southern accents definitely are distinct.
Laura: Very different. My accent’s having an identity crisis right now. I’ve been in the States for three years, and I come home, and everyone says, “Laura, you sound so American.” I’m like what? But the American people think I sound British so I must be some kind of weird hybrid. I have no idea what’s coming out of my mouth. I have no idea what I’m doing.
Dan: I think you’re doing great. That said, you’ve been in the US for three years. You were doing freelance design before that, in the UK. And you’re still doing it now.
Dan: It would be cool to hear does it matter where you are when you’re doing freelance stuff, or did your work change from when you were in the UK versus New York?
Laura: I think personally it doesn’t really matter for me where I am. I think maybe this is the case for a lot of illustrators too. You don’t necessarily need to work onsite with your client, or meet them in person. I would say a lot of my clients I don’t even have calls with. I do everything via email. So I don’t think you need to be in a city like New York. I do think that it’s definitely helped me and opened up doors that wouldn’t have opened if I’d stayed in Durham.
Even when I was in Durham, I still had clients in San Francisco, and Australia, and Canada. I think just being very active in the online community helps get clients from all over the world. It’s really awesome. My clients in San Francisco I actually got through Dribbble, thank you. They’re awesome. Just someone emails you and is like hey, what’s up. Let’s work together, and you’re like okay.
Being in New York definitely has opened up some doors. I’ve met some amazing people there, and very active online and in the real world. I like to go to conferences and as many events as possible. I just want to make friends. Our industry has so many amazing people. I just want to be friends with them all. I like to make those friends and keep them and work with them. Working with friends is the best time.
Dan: Totally. Along those lines, tell us about Ghostly Ferns. I love how you refer to yourself as a “creative family” instead of a company. It would be cool to hear the origins of how you got involved with them and who they are.
Laura: Ghostly Ferns is definitely the single greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, seriously. We’re a family of freelancers who all work out of the same studio space. The space we work out of is called “The Townhouse” in Brooklyn, New York. It’s run by a company called Workshop. The people behind Workshop are Creighton Mershon, Jessi Arrington, and Casson Rosenblatt. They are incredible people. Not only for me, but I’m sure for everyone else who’s come into their studio space. If you work there full time or just pop in for the day, they make Brooklyn so welcome for everyone. They make sure everyone is included, part of this family. They are so nice.
Within this studio space, we have maybe 25 or 30 of us. We’re all designers, illustrators, developers, writers, all creative people, incredibly talented, and everyone is just almost like a big family. Ghostly Ferns, we work out of the attic. We have our own little space. We like to call it the “haunted attic,” because we’re ghosts. We also like to kill plants. Apparently we can’t keep them alive.
Ghostly Ferns, there’s five of us in total. It was started by Meg [Lewis] who is the single greatest person in the world. Work wise she specializes in Web design and branding. Not limited to that, of course she can do all kinds of things. I’m sure you could let her loose on anything and she’d just own it for you. She is the most friendly person. She’s infectiously happy and so loving. It just rubs off on you. You feel instantly more positive for being around Meg for five minutes. It’s really great.
We also have Brad Evans who specializes in product and iOS design. He loves animals more than he loves humans. But he’s very loving, so he also does love humans. He’s like the practical one of our group. He’s super organized. You can see that in his work. He’s such a practical thinker, but he also likes to tidy up the attic after us and make sure everything is where it should be. He keeps us in line.
We also have Jen Mussari who is a lettering artist and illustrator. She is a serious bad ass. She’s one of the coolest people that I’ve ever met. She’s so smart. She knows everything about everything. I think she just has to hear something once and it stays in her brain. She creates beautiful hand-drawn work. I’m in awe of her, all of the time. The drawings that are all over our studio, they’re so inspiring and amazing.
Then last but not least we have Cory Etzkorn who has actually joined us more recently. He specializes in Web design and development. He is hilarious. I think that he’s the joker of our pack. He’s so funny. Just being around him lifts you up. If you ever feel a bit cranky, Cory can just come in and crack a joke, and you’re like oh, everything is fine. He’s so smart too.
I sit right next to him, and he can crank out a blog post in a couple of hours. He’s like yeah, I’m done. Then I’ll look at it and be like “Damn, this has so much in it. It’s so well thought out, and it seems like someone spent a lot longer putting this together.” I don’t know where it comes from because he just seems like a joker on the outside, and yeah, whatever. But he’s so smart. It’s crazy.
These people are my pals, my best friends. I happen to work with them too, and they’re all so smart and intelligent. Like you said, we’re a creative family.
Laura: We’re all individual artists, really. We all mostly work on our own thing. We all have our own websites. We all have our own identities. But we are all underneath the Ghostly Ferns umbrella. Every now and then it might be Meg’s Web design featuring Laura’s icons. Or it might be I have a client who I’ve worked with on illustration for a number of months and then all of a sudden they need some iOS design and I can be like Brad would be really good at that; you should work with him too. It’s like we all pull each other in when it’s needed, but mostly work on our own stuff.
Dan: That’s great. You’re able to specialize and work together when it’s applicable, but not necessarily have to run it as one company.
Dan: Which I think is really cool. The whole vibe of Ghostly Ferns is really very fun and looks like you have a really fun time. I want to hang out there in the haunted attic.
Laura: We really do have the best times. There’s been times we often go to conferences, like Jen and Meg both speak a lot and we always go as a gang together and hang out. When we’re there, we meet up with our friends, and they’re all like “It’s like you all have such a great time, but really, what’s it like? What are the problems?” And I’m like “Guys, I don’t know. This is really cool. We’re having a great time right now.”
The only problem is just communicating what we actually are to people, which is the hard part. And clients especially who don’t really understand the industry as well as you and I do, so yeah, it’s hard to get across to them how we operate.
Dan: Do clients approach you as a whole or mostly individually? If they do approach you as a whole, do they give you an RFP or whatever it is, and you decide who on the team is right for that? Or are they mostly they know Laura does this awesome, so I want to hire her?
Laura: For the most part people approach us individually. But occasionally we do get inquiries that will come. We have a email@example.com email. And they’ll be like we want X, Y, and Z and we decide as a group. We know if something comes in who that project is for because we all specialize. So we just decide amongst ourselves who it’s appropriate for and whether there should be two of us working on it, or just one. We just make it up as we go along.
But what you said before about specializing, I think as a freelancer one of the challenges is sometimes you feel you have to be able to do everything. I definitely thought that earlier on in my career. Before I was doing web design, and lettering, and illustration, and icons, and I’m all right at all of those things and not saying I shouldn’t have done them because I’m glad that I have that knowledge.
I definitely think doing web design before has helped me be an illustrator predominantly for the web. But being part of Ghostly Ferns really gave me the confidence to be like actually, I’m not the best at that. Meg’s much better at that. I’m just going to specialize in doing illustration, and icons, and that kind of thing. I’m going to collaborate with her because then the project is going to be better in the end. That’s kind of how we work.
Dan: That’s fantastic. The idea of a collective is amazing. I wish there were more of those when I was freelancing. I definitely felt like I had to do a lot of different things. Then just being on your own is kind of lonely. It sounds to me like Ghostly Ferns you call it a family, where it sounds like the relationships between you not just the way skills mesh, but the fact that you get along really well as people is just as important.
Laura: These guys are my best friends. I met Meg when I first moved to New York three years ago. I started working in Studiomates, which is a co-working space in Brooklyn. We sat next to each other and started working on a project here and there. She was like “I need some icons, would you want to do them?” I was like “Yeah, sure.” And everyone that we work with is kind of family and best friends. We all have each other’s back. Just that relationship developed and we’ve been best friends since then.
Dan: That’s awesome. Talking about your style, your icon illustration style, which I’ve always been a really big fan of. To me, the stuff that comes out of it is very happy and positive. Even though you’re doing stuff for different clients, I can see a thread throughout them that’s like that. Sometimes a bit of humor too, which I’m a big fan of. Is that something that the clients are seeking you out for or is that something you actually are directing them towards, in terms of style?
Laura: I think that I approach every project with a problem-solving mindset. I am an illustrator really but I kind of have a designer’s mentality. On my website everything is happy and has that funny kind of personality to it. I only actually put work on my website that I want to do again. I always want to create something that’s really meaningful for a brand, and sometimes that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something that’s typically me. I do projects like that all the time.
I just did an icon set a couple of weeks ago, and it wasn’t really me. So I didn’t put that on my website. I don’t know if that’s selfish of me to not put it out there, or whether it’s I understand my strengths. That’s the kind of work I want to get again, what I put on my website.
Dan: I don’t think it would be selfish at all. I’ve always heard put the stuff in your portfolio that you want to do more of. To me that makes a lot of sense.
Laura: I think as well I draw in clients that want the kind of work I produce, and can identify with my personality. That’s why I put things in my portfolio like Ghostly Flo which is our ghost mascot with boobs.
Dan: I’m glad you brought up Flo. I definitely wanted to ask about Flo. You designed Flo, right?
Dan: And Flo is the Ghostly Fern’s logo or mascot?
Laura: She’s our mascot.
Dan: I think it’s awesome. It’s cool because it works you could put it on a shirt and it’s a cool illustration, but it happens to represent you guys too. What I liked about it and I think you walked about it in your portfolio too, you said, “We work best with clients who embrace our happy, fun, and weird personalities. The purpose of Flo is to attract clients who love us for who we are, no matter how weird we get.”
That’s a really interesting tactic. It’s a good way of seeking out the clients that you want, that would “get” you. To me, it looks like a filter or very easy test right up front. You either get it or you don’t. If you get it, then let’s talk and we’re probably going to get along. If you don’t, then maybe it wasn’t meant to be to work with you. Do you feel like that was the goal?
Laura: Definitely, and that’s why put things like an illustration pretty close to the top that’s like butts. I want people to actually want to work with me. I don’t know if it is selfish or not but I don’t think I should be working with clients that don’t really get my sense of humor or personality. I want to be happy because I can’t do the best job for them. I need people I want to embrace that, and I want to do the best job. Which is why that’s the kind of work that I put out there.
I’ve had clients in the past that want something like a bit more serious and I haven’t done the best job for them, and I know I haven’t. It’s been fine, the work that I’ve done, but I just know I’m not quite happy with it. That’s the kind of work that I put out there because that’s the kind of people I want to attract. The people I know I can do the best job for.
People say turning down work is bad; you should be happy you’ve got the work. But if you know you’re not going to do the best job for that client, if you know somebody else is better suited for that job, then fine. You should refer them. I refer a lot of work to different illustrators and designers I know would be a better fit than me.
Dan: I think that’s great. I’m all for turning down things and saying no if it’s not appropriate. I think specializing even in your own discipline is a good thing. It makes you happier.
Laura: It’s hard to say no. I should be grateful I should be doing this or whatever, but I think once you figure out how to do that it opens up so many more doors of projects that you’re much better for.
Dan: I’m curious about the tools you use. I’m always interested in asking other designers what they use. Is there an analog component to what you do, or is it all digital or a combination?
Laura: I mostly use Adobe Illustrator. I love using shapes and the align tool, pathfinder are like my babies. I couldn’t live without them. But I definitely always need to sketch. I know a lot of people can jump straight into Illustrator and that’s awesome, but I do my best thinking on paper. I even find my to-do lists, I can get through them easier if they’re written down. There’s something about getting my thoughts onto paper that really help me clear my mind. To type in to-do lists it’s not the same.
With my illustrations and icons, when I’m working on those, sketching really helps me figure out the backbone of what these icons, illustrations are. You don’t get hung up on the aesthetics of how something looks. I like to compare it to when you’re designing a website and you do the wireframing first. You’re thinking about the user experience.
When I’m sketching my illustrations or icons I like to think I feel like you’re thinking about the user comprehension and whether that illustration is communicating what it should be, effectively, without getting hung up on is this the right color, or right line width. Should there be a gradient on here? You don’t need to think about that at first. You need to think about whether you’re actually communicating what you need to be. Sketching to me is so important because that is such a key part of my process.
Dan: I totally agree. I’d like to pull up a couple Dribbble shots I really like. Maybe we can talk more about them and get a backstory, behind the scenes, VIP story behind the shot kind of stuff. The first one is “Choose Progress Over Perfection,” which is really cool. There’s a couple reasons I want to choose this one. One is the message is awesome. I’m fully behind that, especially when building for the web. You really have to choose progress over perfection or you’ll never have anything done. And you’ll be very unhappy too. It’s a loosely joined mess.
I also love the type. It looks hand drawn, and then it was a t-shirt. I wanted to get your story where the inspiration for that came from and how it turned into something more than just a shot.
Laura: I think back then when I did this I was doing more Web design work, so I wasn’t really drawing as much. A thing that really helped me was to draw constantly, like the side of my screen. To have a little sketch on the goal. So I was actually doing a lot of lettering and that’s really how I came to learn it. I don’t really focus on lettering but I can do it.
I was just doodling on the side, and that phrase, “Choose progress over perfection” really said something to me. It was just something that I drew one day, and I was really proud of it. So I decided to put it on a shirt on Cotton Bureau. Love Cotton Bureau, those guys. Can we talk about how amazing they are?
Dan: They’re amazing, such a good service for everybody.
Laura: I love them. They’re really great. I think the reason I liked that phrase so much was that it was kind of around the time I was thinking about moving to America. There’s no set—when you’re a freelancer or if you work full time, in the design, illustration, art, whatever industry, there’s no clear path in front of you. There’s no you should do this or you should do that. You never know what you’re doing really. You never know if going down that route is going to be better for you or not.
There’s always so many risks to take. You don’t know whether that’s going to fail or not, and a lot of the time it kind of does a bit, but it gets you somewhere that you wouldn’t have got without making that failure.
Dan: Yes. Totally.
Laura: This is something my mom has actually always supported. At one point I didn’t even know if I was going to go to college. She wasn’t one of those parents that were like you have to go to college. She was like “Well, you know what you want to do.” And every decision I’ve ever made, she’s always been like that. You just do what you think is right, and if it all goes wrong, I’ll be here. I really appreciate that she encouraged that mindset of do whatever you think feels right, and if it goes wrong, what’s the worst thing that could happen. You’ll make mistakes along the way but it’s not the end of the world. So that’s something I really like that. So yeah, hand drawn, full of imperfections.
Dan: I love it. Your mom is smart. I had a similar experience with my parents too. They sort of are like “You want to play music? Go ahead. You want to drop out of college? Sure, it’s okay.” Having that kind of unconditional support is amazing. When you get older you realize it’s rare.
I also like that you said you were doing a lot of web design at the time and you were doing lettering too, and sketching on the side. The idea of a side project I think is so important.
Dan: In terms of carving your path to what you want to actually do. You know, Dribbble was a side project initially. You never know how these things are going to turn out. I’m really glad I chose that shot. That was really good advice. The second shot I wanted to talk about was the “Design makes everything possible” and this is a design you did for InVision, right?
Dan: And it ended up on another shirt on their marketplace. This is really cool. I’m a big fan of this too. One of the reasons I’m a big fan of yours is that even your line art style, which is very popular now, has personality and sits apart from a lot of different things. I can feel like a positive, happy vibe going through your icon work and line work. I’d be curious to hear how you approached this, because it’s pretty intricate. Looks pretty involved. How did you get to work with InVision and how did that come about?
Laura: A guy that works there called Zane just emailed me and was like “We’re big fans of your work, and we’ve got this project that we have really cool designers in on, and we want to do this series.” I was like “Oh, my God, this is so cool.” InVision are amazing, and the designers names they were listing off were just incredible people. I would never put myself beside those. So it was very flattering to receive that email.
He was like “We want you to illustrate your take on the phrase “Design makes everything possible.” I was like well, crap. That’s quite the statement. Where do you even begin illustrating something like that?
Dan: Was there any directions?
Dan: Just the words.
Laura: The words have to be included in it. But it can be very small. Do whatever you want. It’s cool but it’s hard because I really struggle to do anything personal, anything really just for me. I’m a problem solver and I like to have a brief from a client. I like to feel like I’m solving a problem. I actually learned this lesson from my friend Erin Nolan. She’s an awesome designer.
She works out of the townhouse space with me, and whenever I ask her we’re really good friends, so I talk to her about work, about life, everything. Whatever I talk to her about she always asks me why, multiple whys, like why did you do that. I’ll tell her why, and then she’ll be like “But why?” And ask me another why. It really gets in somewhere, and taps into this subconscious layer you’re not even aware of.
I’ve started applying that more to my work. When she’s asked me that about any kind of creative work I’ve done, I find more purpose in my work than I realize was there, or I find holes in my work where I can put more purpose. I really asked myself why when I approached this one. Why does design make everything possible?
I figured that it’s because we’re designers and we all believe in the impossible, of course. That’s why we make it possible. So that was kind of my concept behind it, and I started thinking about all of the wacky impossible things there are, and just wanted to build this huge illustration that had all of these tiny components within it.
Dan: That’s why it looks very time consuming, in an impressive way. I love it. Now that you’ve explained it, I’m seeing a lot more into it, like the unicorns, dragons, and everything. There are dragons, aren’t there? Aren’t those real?
Laura: We believe in the impossible, so yes, they are real.
Dan: I’m pro-dragon. I think they’re out there somewhere. That’s cool. And people can buy that, actually, from their shop, which is super cool.
Laura: They can.
Dan: What do you like doing the most in terms of work? You dabble in a lot of different things but is icon work your favorite, or illustration, or does it depend on the project?
Laura: I think it does depend on the project. I think I like having the balance of illustration and icon design. Illustration I get to be probably more creative, and get to inject more personality, and be funny. A lot of time when I’m sketching my illustrations or working on anything in the studio, I’m actually laughing out loud. I’m laughing while I’m sketching. Everyone loves it. Meg always turns around in her chair and she’s like, “What are you doing? I need to see it.” Then we’ll all laugh at it. I’m physically happy.
Dan: That’s what I imagined happening from the work. It kind of shows through in the work. That’s amazing.
Laura: So those are the illustration projects that I love the most, the ones I can put that into. I hope that other people feel that in some way too. But I also love icon design too, because there’s limitations there, and you’re designing a system, and that kind of satisfies the more designy side of me. I studied graphic design so I have more of a designer mentality. I love that.
Dan: It’s interesting. You mentioned you think of yourself as a problem solver. But at the same time you’re creating illustration or icons. I think that’s a good skill to have, a good mesh of skills. Someone that can illustrate and have a problem solving design mind, I think that’s a recipe for success. Congrats.
Laura:: Thank you.
Dan: Thanks for joining us, Laura. This was awesome.
Laura: No problem at all. Thank you.
Dan: Really great talking to you. Again, big fan, keep up the great work. Where can people find you and your work in the inter webs?
Laura: My website is lovelyascanbee.com, but B-E-E like a bumblebee, and then ghostlyferns.com. You should check out all of my Ghostly Ferns work as well because they are so incredibly talented. They’re an amazing group of people to be around. I love them so much.
Dan: They are. You’re a super group over there. Amazing stuff. Thanks again, Laura, and thanks for joining us here. Over time we’ll see you online. We’ll see more of your work which is great. Thanks.
Laura: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.