I’d like to imagine that every artist has a moment where everything sort of clicks; that moment when your introverted hobby becomes an extroverted career. For Travis Pietsch, an illustrative designer living in Fairfax but plying his trade in the district, that moment came in high school. “I was always into drawing when I was young,” Travis recalls, “but in high school I started to mess around with printing airbrush stencils onto t-shirts. People started to ask me if I sold what I made, so I started to charge $15 a shirt.”
Since his airbrushing days, Travis has slowly established himself as one of the more distinct illustrative designers in the city; a city where artistic opportunities are more scarce than in the artistic hotbeds of a New York City or even Philadelphia.
Travis’ professional career began shortly after he graduated from the American Institute of Design and his work caught the eye of Steve Karp, Director of Animation at Interface Media Group; soon after Travis began working with Steve on a series of over 100 credit beds currently airing on PBS Kids. And while that jump from school to work may seem par for the course for other industries, in the world of D.C. illustrative design that quick transition is entirely uncommon. “I know a lot of very talented designers who are struggling to find work opportunities,” Travis explains, “a lot of my friends have moved to other cities where there job market is more friendly.”
As his professional career continues to grow—at the time of this interview Travis was about to transition to a better paying job—Travis’ freelance business is also booming. The role of social media—mainly Instagram and Behance—has played a key role in introducing Travis’ unique woodcut design style to a vibrant community of local artists propping each other up. “Once I put my work on Instagram and Behance, I began to discover a community of designers willing to offer me constructive feedback on my work,” Travis says, “now when young designers reach out to me, I try to help them in the same way.”
Without a burgeoning boutique design industry in the city, Travis’ growing reputation as a freelancer only serves to reinforce one of his observations about where the local industry is heading: “Businesses are realizing that consumers are attracted to thoughtful designs with personality and character instead of simple stock designs that come off as a bit cold.” Speaking with Travis, I got the sense that while the illustrative design industry in D.C. is moving in the right direction, it’s still held back by the government-focused local economy; opportunities for talented designers are there but when your art is a passion and the means to a paycheck, waiting for better days makes little financial sense. “If I found the right opportunity and it offered compensation to relocate, I’d jump on that,” Travis admits, “but as of now the most creative work I do is through my freelancing.”
Brightest Young Things: When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in design?
Travis Pietsch: I was always drawing when I was younger but in high school I started designing airbrush stencils on my computer and then printing them on t-shirts. People at school started to ask me if I had any to sell, and that’s when I realized that people liked my work enough to pay for it. That’s really the moment when I started to get into illustrative design. I ended up attending the Art Institute of Washington in Dulles, VA for graphic design, and then after school worked as a freelancer for Interface Media Group in D.C. My first illustration job was actually for a PBS kids show, and it’s around that time that I began to develop my woodcut design style.
BYT: How has your style evolved over time? Are there other inspirations that you’ve incorporated into your work?
T.P.: I looked a lot at woodcut styles and etchings from the 1800s. The color palette is usually singular. I developed that style on my own, and then started to put it out on social media. People started to reach out to me requesting work in that specific style; all of my freelance clients want the woodcut style.
BYT: You mentioned your self-promotion at the beginning of your freelance career. Are there any lessons you learned that you wish you knew then?
T.P.: When I was first starting out as a freelancer, I made it a point to practice two hours before and after work. I knew that my skill level wasn’t where it had to be immediately following graduation, and that I wasn’t able to attract the type of clients that I wanted to work with. As I focused on building my skills, I also started to create projects that specifically targeted the sort of clients I wanted; creating work from a perspective of “what do they want?”
Once I felt comfortable sharing my work, I would start putting it out on platforms like Instagram just to see what sort of feedback I’d get. I also started to befriend individuals in the [illustration and design] community online through my online presence. Now it’s gotten to the point where younger artists are started to reach out to me for advice and guidance. Just trying to pay it forward.
BYT: What professional difficulties do illustrative designers face in D.C.?
T.P.: There aren’t too many creative jobs in D.C. for designers in my opinion. The scene is a little more corporate, and while there are some smaller design agencies in the city, I don’t think there are enough at the moment to provide jobs to the growing design community. I think that time will come though. I think also in terms of pay, a lot of the companies in D.C. are still underpaying their designers because the people in charge of hiring have a bit of “dated” taste and don’t fully appreciate new design perspectives.
Check out Travis Pietsch’s work at www.travispietsch.com and follow him on Instagram at @travispietsch.