Kelly Thompson, illustrator, The Design Conference

It’s going to be interesting to delve into what drives me and how the drivers have changed over the years ...

Turning a hobby into a career path is one of the most difficult tasks that face anyone with a creative talent. Not only does it take time and patience to hone one’s craft to a high standard, one must also figure out a way to monetise something that they do for joy. Kelly Thompson is one such artist that has managed to navigate her way through the murky waters of the illustration industry by diversifying and pursuing a myriad of avenues to success. Now, Kelly is not only an in-demand illustrator in her own right, but also heads an agency of talented artists as Maker’s Mgmt. Kelly will be speaking at The Design Conference – taking place at the Brisbane Powerhouse from May 24-27 – but before she does we asked her to give us some insight on what it takes to transform a passion into a successful career.

We are very curious about how people discover their love for their field of work! We understand you started in fashion photography – what initially drew you down that career path?
I grew up in a small town in New Zealand and there wasn’t exactly any direction as far as career advisors go. To be honest, when I was deciding on what to major in at University my logic was this – I was really good at art and science and did a photography paper in my final year of high school, but wasn’t very good at photography. So 18 year-old Kelly thought it would be a good idea to choose photography as my major because then I could learn everything I needed to be good at it. What a smart way to spend $30k, huh? I regularly think of that moment and face-palm a little bit. This is why everyone should travel for a year before committing to such a huge investment.

Subsequently, what spurred your shift away from fashion photography towards illustration?
I always loved drawing when I was a child and it was always a hobby of mine, although I never considered it a job option. I graduated with a Bachelor of Design with full intentions of becoming a fashion photographer, which I did, and loved for about five years after graduating. After leaving university I was damn poor. As I tried to grow as a photographer – being too poor to party and going against my rampaging young adult instincts – it came down to drinking or eating, so I mainly chose to eat. With more spare time on my hands I started to draw. This resulted in a casual first exhibition in 2007 where I sold 30 prints and I thought that maybe there was something in it. From there I split my time building an illustration portfolio, exhibiting regularly and shooting. I eventually picked up an illustration agent and started to get more commercial work, along with work through people I had met as a photographer and from various fashion related contacts. After a while I was doing around 50 percent illustration and 50 percent photography – often with my photography work inspiring the illustrations I created.

At that point was illustration a career path you had ever seriously considered?
Not really! I always wanted to be a fashion photographer and had a huge studio and shot all day long – I was pretty obsessed with it. I guess growing up in a small town I never really knew that illustration could be an option – people were fine artists in my head, but I never really knew about graphic designers or illustrators and even as I started to work as an illustrator I never really thought about it actually being my job. It was just something I was doing for money, but didn’t necessarily consider to be my career.

How long did it take you to find your footing in the illustration industry?
It took a while – I’d say about five years before I could actually survive off it and even then, if a few clients paid their bills late I was screwed!

What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced forging this new path?
I think money is the main killer for everyone working freelance and trying to build themselves up as an illustrator. There is always the big question of do I keep pushing forward, or am I being indulgent and foolish and should I just get a day job? It’s also hard to cross this creativity with running a business. There are always a lot of questions about how to expand outside of yourself and how you go about funding the creation of merchandise and everything else you want to do to grow. You have to figure out the ‘less time, more money’ strategy which is always a hurdle at the start. A lot of the time – actually nearly all the time – clients pay their invoices late, which is really stressful when you’re working alone and not necessarily getting a weekly pay cheque. I’ve also had a huge amount of trouble with people using my work without permission – usually on fashion product – and have had many instances where I’ve had to chase up copyright infringements, which is a huge drainer!

We love the sound of your agency Maker’s Mgmt – where did the idea for a consultancy and illustration agency come from?
I moved to Australia in 2010 and got a job working as a producer for illustrators. At this time I really started to realise that I wasn’t ever going to be a one trick pony and I felt a little unsure about my direction. I ended up leaving that job after a couple of years. I wanted more opportunities to grow and progress in the company and unfortunately that wasn’t on offer. I would possibly still be there if they had realised my drive and put it to use! So I left and decided I may as well focus on illustration again, which I did solidly for a few years. The whole time I was feeling like I wanted to do something else, but I wasn’t sure of what. I think I was hoping someone would offer me a job and save me from the decision making!

In around 2015 the connections I had built were starting to pull together in different ways – I wasn’t just an illustrator anymore. I was getting requests to work as a public speaker, creative consultant and to work on social media campaigns – both advising others on concepts and who to work with, and also as a content creator myself. I started to feel a little jaded by the demands of working as an illustrator full-time and really felt the need to push and utilise some of my other skills. I enjoy working with others, coming up with ideas and being involved with people in different ways, but still really wanted to keep my toes dipped in creative industry or fashion industry and if possible do things to help support others.

I decided to launch Maker’s Mgmt – an artist agency representing a talented edit of illustrators, typographers, animators and CGI artists from around the world. I find myself naturally linking people with people and suggesting ideas anyway, so I decided to pull everything together and launch an agency with focus on building relationships with clients and also helping people feel just as excited about the possibilities when using an artist’s work as I am. Alongside this, I also do a lot of creative consulting for brands and agencies – so I guess I’m just putting all my ingredients into one pot to cook something bigger and better than just myself.

Is there a particular quality you look for in artists that you represent?
There are a few things that appeal and are important to me. I like to think that my family of artists are very contemporary illustrators – their work has confidence, it works well commercially, is eye-catching and each has a distinct visual personality. It is important to me that they don’t compete on the roster as they are individuals in the group. I don’t want artists who look like artists I have seen before, so they must be unique with a solid, well-edited folio. I am also drawn (no pun intended!) to their personalities. People like Paul Blow, Martina Paukova and Pàte have so much humour in their work and are also funny people to work with! My artists are entertaining on social media, are fun to email and talk to, and are all people I genuinely admire, respect and, quite frankly, I am jealous of their skills. I feel very grateful to have them! I really respect what they do and they all make me want to do well by them which is an important feeling to have when you are looking after people. 

You’ll be in town for The Design Conference this month – what can we expect from your feature talk on the 26th?
Well, that’s a good question! I haven’t started writing it yet, but the question I have been asked is, “What gets me up in the morning?” I think this is a good question because most of the events I speak at want to know how I started and to hear about my process – so it’s going to be interesting to delve into what drives me and how the drivers have changed over the years.

Additionally, you’ll be running a workshop about turning a creative hobby into a job. Without giving the whole workshop away, what is one piece of advice you’d give to illustrators or anyone with a creative interest looking to turn it into a viable career path?
My main piece of advice would be to get a good accountant and get your business processes down from the start. I know way too many artists who have had to step backwards to fix processes and tax bills after not having the foundations down at the start.

What are you currently finding inspiring and motivating in the world around you?
Because I am only starting out with my business, I am really inspired by people who have managed to scale up their creative businesses. I am growing this business entirely off my own back without any investments so far, so navigating growth and figuring out how to get there is a struggle. Seeing people who have done it really motivated me to push through the hard days!

The Design Conference is taking place at the Brisbane Powerhouse from May 24–27. Head to The Design Conference website to register your pass.


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