“I learned to not be afraid of risk.” Illustrator, Author, and Art Director Samantha Hahn on Making her Creative Shift

In this podcast interview, I speak to illustrator, author, and art director Samantha Hahn about why — and how — she made a huge creative shift in her career. How, even though she had a thriving career as a full-time illustrator and author, she wanted to expand her work and her creative process.

She shares details about exactly how she redefined her professional identity, got early clients, found collaborators, and infused her daily creative process with energy and inspiration.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below, or in the following places:

Some of what we cover:

  • Why her creative shift was driven by her desire to collaborate more as an artist. How working by yourself can be isolating. After years of this, her work began to feel rote, and she wanted to feel inspired more.
  • She began to realize how many skills she had and services she offered that were unspoken. She wasn’t just an illustrator for her clients, she was helping to manage projects and make a range of other creative decisions. This happened under the radar and she realized she wanted to stretch those muscles more. She would pigeonhole herself, “Well, all I know how to do is illustration,” but now she understands that having done illustration for magazines, ad agencies, and publishing companies, she realizes the incredible breadth of experience she has gained.
  • How she found inspiration from her parents, both of whom worked in creative fields (illustration and music production), but who “shifted everything” when their industries shifted. They started a clothing company together as entrepreneurs and Samantha got to witness that process. “When they made that switch, it was probably at about the same time that I’m doing it [now]. I learned to not be afraid of risk. If there is something you want to do, figure it out and do it. They both had a very can-do attitude. There was nothing that they didn’t think they couldn’t figure out. They didn’t have a background in entrepreneurship or starting a business, they just figured it out as they went. I learned that hubris from them.”
  • How she figured out the very first place to start in a new career as an art director. She asked a friend for advice who told her “there is no money in it,” but everyone starts with photo shoots for editorial, meaning magazines or websites. Even knowing there was no money, Samantha jumped in head first. “It’s a chance to collaborate with a group of creative people whose work you like.” “That was my first light bulb moment. I can figure out how to do a photo shoot. That’s how I started, by assembling people I wanted to work with, and producing images that were compelling. I learned how to create mood boards through that. There was a lot I had to learn, and I was willing to make a lot of mistakes and fall on my face and just do the best I could and figure out things on the fly and problem solve on the fly.”
  • On seeking a creative field with revenue in mind: “Maybe there are some people who can enter a creative field from a place of security and just dabbling. But for me, it was a do or die thing. If I was going to pursue this, I was going to be something that I do to make money.”
  • “When young illustrators reach out to me, there is this phase where you have to make work to show what you are capable of doing. Because no one is going to hire you without seeing what you are capable of. There is that rough moment where you are like ‘how am I going to get work if I don’t have work,’ and you have to just create as much as you can. I knew there was going to be a building phase of this. I knew that there was going to be a phase where I was in hustling mode, which was intimidating, but also exciting. My goal was to do as much work as I could, do good work, work with good people, and learn as much as I could. And that’s exactly what I did.”
  • She digs into how she got her first clients. She didn’t respond to their job listings for seeking work. Instead, she did this: “I reached out to brands who were starting out, or brands who had a really amazing product that I loved, but I could see how to elevate their presentation. That was my initial point of entry: reaching out to brands whose products I thought was good, and whose products I would be excited to showcase in my own portfolio, or elevate in their own marketing materials, and reach out to them and make a pitch about how to do a photo shoot to them.”
  • She pitched people who she was doing illustration for “It looks like you could use a creative director, I could do that for you.” She reached out to old clients, and then people she had never met before. She describes exactly how she did a cold call to get a client, and how she got them.
  • How she reached out to collaborators early on, and how those relationships have grown: “I have this huge roster now of people’s work who I love, and they are now in my community. When I get hired to do a big project, I can bring them in.”
  • How sometimes, working less than market rate, is the everyday reality for people working in creative fields, and when that is appropriate.
  • When I asked if she has gotten pushback from friends or family on the creative shift, she replied, “I think it’s more me. I have this concern that I’m all over the place, like on Instagram, that its really inconsistent.”
  • How sometimes being authentic on social media means not being consistent in what you share, because our lives are multifaceted.
  • The importance of outreach, and why she prioritizes in-person meetings, and then if that isn’t possible, phone. While social media is a part of her life, creative and professional growth are often focused not via digital means. She relies on meetings, phone, email, and relationships. “When you meet with someone, you are a real person to them.”
  • How she sums up what she has been learning in this process: “If you want to make any career move, whether it is starting out from scratch or making a shift, you are going to have to know that’s it’s not going to happen right away. A mix of humility and hubris is important to have, because you are going to have some failures, you are going to have some rejections, and that is really humbling, because you might think you have the talent, the know-how, you know that you are worth it, you are a hard worker, but nobody else knows that about you. You are going to have to put your time in. That is where the hubris comes in to just do whatever it takes to create work that is going to showcase all of those things that you know about yourself.”
  • And that even after all she has done, she says this: “Even now, I think, there is so much further I need to go.”

You can find Samantha in the following places:

You can listen to my first interview with Samantha from a couple years back here: “Nurture the artist inside you – an interview with Samantha Hahn.”

And here are some of her books: