An Interview with Rob Zangrillo

Rob Zangrillo is a designer and illustrator based in New York. I first found out about Rob from seeing his work on Dribbble, and I’ve been a huge fan of his style of illustration ever since. Rob very kindly agreed to an interview – so find out more about how he got started in design, where he gets his inspiration from and what it’s like to work for your dream job.

First, could you give us a bit of a background about yourself?

Sure! I’m a 23 year old New Jersey native. I’ve recently landed a dream position as a designer with the Sesame Workshop in the NYC. I do as much illustration projects as I can at night and on the weekends as I’m trying to build up a stronger, broader illustration based portfolio. Most of my illustration projects right now are self-motivated, or pro-bono for charity-based companies. I’m just trying to make stuff I’m proud of in my spare-time. I know eventually it will all fall into place, as long as I just keep creating.

This probably sounds really cliche, but I think I always knew I wanted to pursue a creative career path. As a kid I sat for hours next to my Dad’s desk, admiring his drawings (He worked full-time as a cartoonist with Disney Studios for 15 years, and then pursued a freelance career path). Watching him create magic with nothing but a brush, some ink and some paper really inspired me. I couldn’t believe it was his job to draw and paint all day, and most of the time I don’t think he could believe it either! My Dad never really pushed me to pursue the arts though; I made that decision on my own. To be honest, I didn’t really have any interest in anything else. I did really well in school, but none of the academic subjects really captivated me the way my art classes did. I guess I just don’t feel satisfied if I’m not making something. I graduated in May 2012 and earned a BFA from Tyler School of Art’s grueling design program.

When did you first realise you wanted to work as a designer?

I decided to take my first design class after my advisors and parents sort of twisted my arm. Prior to that, drawing and painting was my main focus. The world of design was totally uncharted territory for me, and it was really intimidating at first, but I found myself enjoying the challenge. Design provided me with the structure and reason I was missing from my fine arts classes. I loved the “problem-solving” aspect of it, it just seemed so much more logical to me: creativity with a purpose. Everything was rooted in concept and functionality: you couldn’t really fake it. After that class, I declared my major, and the rest is history. I’m still learning new things and discovering new illustrators and designers that I admire everyday. I think in the ever-changing world of design, if you’re not always learning and striving to better yourself, then you’re not really going to get anywhere. There are a lot of “designers” out there: the goal is to set yourself apart from the rest.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

How did you get started on your career path?

My career is really still in its infancy. I sometimes still feel a sense of confusion when people refer to me as a designer or illustrator. “Is this real life?” I graduated less than two years ago, and I’ve been working consistently since then with the exception of a few weeks between jobs. I met my first boss at the BIG portfolio presentation that all the senior design students at Tyler participate in right before graduation. After emailing back and forth for a few weeks after graduation and then coming in for an interview, I landed the job as a junior designer with the company. It was a great learning experience, and one that really set me up to get where I am today. My education at Tyler provided me with ample tools, skills, and connections to get my foot in the door, but nothing really beats on-the-job experience. I got a lot faster and more proficient. Like most design jobs, the projects had tight deadlines that didn’t leave room for dawdling. It forced me to pick up new skills quickly and apply them efficiently to the project I was working on. My art director liked to call it “trial by fire.” Looking back on the experience, it really is the best way to force yourself to grow; the only alternative is failure, which isn’t really an option when you’ve got student loans to pay! After about a year with that company, my time there ended and I suddenly found myself nervously applying to 20-30 design positions a day in an effort to get some money back in my pocket. Just two weeks later I followed up on a job opening at Sesame Workshop that several of my former Tyler professors had found. It seemed like a long-shot, but I sent in a resume and cover letter and waited patiently. I was pleasantly surprised to be scheduled for an impromptu interview, then started on the job two weeks later. I’ve been here for less than half a year, but I already feel like part of the team. I love it.

Your illustrations tend to have a quirky, unusual and creative style to them – did you actively work on a style that you wanted to make your own, or did you just fall naturally into it?

Some people may just sort of fall into a style, but I really had to edit myself. Style is something that I have really struggled with nailing down in the past and in a sense I still feel a little eclectic when it comes to it. I have always been afraid of limiting myself to a set style because I like to create images in so many different ways. When I began preparing my final portfolio during my senior year at Tyler, my professor really encouraged me to create a more cohesive style/visual language for my illustrations. After a lot of thought, trial, and error, I settled into a style that I was happy with. At first, I was really determined to make all my work have a playful, quirky, and sometimes just weird aspect about it, but I soon realized that this was limiting my versatility. As I continue to evolve as a young illustrator and designer, I’m learning that stressing about style is counter-productive to growth. I realize now that a lot of what defines my style is my line-quality and attention to detail, so as long as my illustrations are driven by these two aspects I feel a sense of ownership towards the work. Subject matter, tone, color palettes, mood, specific features: all these things are malleable as long as I feel the viewer can still recognize my hand in the work. And I mean hand in a literal sense, because I really rely on creating most of my work by hand in the early stages of a project. I use the adobe suite as more of secondary tool or a time saver in finalizing my work. It’s always the final step. I never start a project without touching pencil or sharpie or whatever to paper.

Idle Hands do the Devil's Work

You do a lot of work with the Sesame Workshop – what’s it like to work for such a well known and well loved company?

I can honestly say I love my job. I wake up looking forward to the day, and I leave work happy: I don’t think a lot of people can say that. I work with a wonderful, positive group of extremely talented people and I hope to be there for a long, long time. Getting to draw and design with characters that I’ve watched on TV growing up is sort of a surreal experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

What design work inspires you? Where do you get your inspiration from?

I find a LOT of inspiration through social media. I’m pretty addicted to dribbble for now — it’s a haven for some really talented illustrators and designers. I also love searching through archives of old advertising artwork (1830’s all the way thru the 1970’s). The illustration and lettering is all the more impressive to me because it was created without any technological aids whatsoever.

If you have to pick favourites, which of your designs do you like best?

Right now, I’m fixated on designing things that combine hand lettering with illustration. Completing my “Wisdom Begins in Wonder” design for HelpInk.org was really rewarding for me.

Wisdom Begins in Wonder

Lastly, do you have any tips for anyone looking to start a career in design?

Be prepared that you probably won’t be getting a lot of sleep anymore. Ever. But, on a serious note don’t be afraid to experiment and ask questions. Keep folders or pinterest pages of work you admire. Know the difference between being inspired by designers and illustrators you admire, rather than imitating them. Don’t be afraid to reach out to designers you admire: sometimes you’d be surprised at how much people are willing to help you out. And most importantly, don’t burn any bridges, no matter how tempting it may be.

A massive thank you to Rob for agreeing to be interviewed. To find out more about Rob and his work, check out his website at RobZangrillo.com, see his work on Dribbble and follow him on Twitter at @robzangrillo.

Check out our series of designer interviews here and find out more about our favourite artists.

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