Episode 014


Mary Kate McDevitt – Illustrator & Lettering Artist

How does where you are affect what you make?

Mary Kate McDevitt is a designer, illustrator, and lettering artist from Philadelphia. Her unique and engaging style embraces the hand-made. Her work has been featured in various print and online publications. Clients include Smuckers, Sesame Street, Nike, AT&T, Target, Nintendo, Chronical Books, and way more. She has published multiple books on illustration and lettering and she teaches workshops online and in person. Go check out her work at marykatemcdevitt.com.

Our conversation is all about location. The context in which Mary Kate finds herself, and how living in different cities has impacted her career and work. We explore geographical locations and locations within her neighborhood and even within her studio space.

We discuss remote working, the value of big and small cities, coffee shops, large work tables, tin cars and talking skeletons.

Listen now where ever you get podcasts.

Show Notes Links

Episode Transcription

Mary Kate McDevitt: It's like, if I'm going to make this happen, I need to be somewhere completely different. Otherwise, I'm just going to get back into my old environment with all the safety nets around me. So moving somewhere where you don't have your base, you're kind of forced to do new things. But you're also free to do new things because you don't have ties to your, whatever your background was, where you were living before. So for me, I just, I knew that it wasn't… I just I really wanted to force myself to get into it.

Host: This is Mary Kate McDevitt. She's an illustrator and lettering artists in Philadelphia. She is an absolute master. I'm a huge fan of her work. I’ve followed her work for years now. You've probably seen some of her work. She's worked with brands, including Nike, Panera bread, Chronicle Books, Penguin Books, Nintendo and Sesame Street and Target and way, way, way more. She has three books out that has been published about illustration. She's kind of tough to keep up with.

This week on the podcast we're asking Mary Kate all about the “where” of her work will be hearing how relocating living in different cities has impacted her creative career and how different locations in her current city and even locations within her studio space can serve different periods purposes. But first, I want to talk a little bit about the unique style and how that unique style came to be.

Mary Kate: I went to Tyler School of Art and here in Philly, and I studied graphic design. They put it in me early on that graphic designers should have some sort of illustration background. The illustration program there was pretty small, like there basically was only one or two illustration classes, but I really felt like the design program helped designers be able to use illustration in their design projects.

And I really think that's what kind of led me to do lettering. I liked everything feeling really handmade. I liked using textures. And when I would start using fonts that never really felt right, and I'm, I was really bad at setting type in school anyway. So I figured, if I can just like... my sketches, like for any kind of layout or any kind of logo, my sketches always looked a ton better than what I would present when I started fiddling with fonts and…

Evan MacDonald: getting into the computer...

Mary Kate: Using illustrator, it fell apart, and my professors would be like, let's go back to your sketches. I'm like, Well, I'm trying to be a designer like trying to use the pen tool and so it was really valuable to have that encouragement to not feel like I had to do design in one specific way.

Host: The way in which Mary Kate does design, her illustrative lettering work is unique. And today it's a well-defined style. It's incredibly disarming. It draws you in. She's a master of color and texture and typography, which is always hand drawn. And the details Her work is so detailed, yet it at the same time feels effortless and sometimes whimsical. I don't think it's possible for me to do a good job of describing it. And so I'm going to encourage you to check the show notes. There's a link to view some of her work, click on it. Look at her work. I think it's important to the conversation that we're having that you see some of her work.

Okay, so after Tyler School of Art Mary Kate took a job at a local design studio is a small studio and like most fresh out of school designers, she was stuck doing some of the less fun maybe not quite so creative work, the production work, things like that.

So when she wasn't working, she indulged in personal projects, projects on the side.

Mary Kate: I was making stuff in my free time, screen printed posters and a lot of illustrations and I set up an Etsy shop. The one thing that was kind of one of my most, I guess, best selling products. There were these chalkboards that I was making that was kind of surrounded around this by this idea of having a full time job and not having time to do anything. So the Mini Goals chalkboards were like get these two things done today, and you'll feel accomplished.

Host: so little time passes, and the blogging world starts to pick up on these mini goals, chalkboards, and then one day, Chronicle Books, reaches out and asks if she'd be interested in adapting her mini goals chalkboards into a notebook.

And as you can imagine, this is a pretty big deal for a fresh out of school designer. So she starts working with Chronicle Books on this and on some other projects as well. And so with this new big, exciting client, Mary Kate McDevitt decides to make a move. A moved to freelancing, full time and a move across the country and moved to Portland, Oregon. Here's Mary Kate.

Mary Kate: It's not it's hard to say that I would advise anyone to be like, who's interested in switching to freelance to be like, well move across the country, uh, don't have any real plans. I can only have like one client lined up. It's like, it's hard to say that I advise that but it is, you know, step, a big major step out of your comfort zone, really kind of kicks things into gear.

Host: This moved to Portland, then the subsequent moves in her life career. This is where my question comes in. My question is about “location” and the role that it plays creativity. Think about this with me. Where do you do your work? Where do you do your most productive and your most creative work? productivity and creativity, by the way, are two completely different things. And what about your comfort zone? Is that a good thing or bad?

My name is Evan MacDonald. And you're listening to One Thing Real Quick podcast about design and creativity where each episode I sit down with the creative leader and have a conversation surrounding a single question.

This week, I ask illustrator lettering artist, Mary Kate McDevitt, how does where you are impact what you make?

Stay tuned. We'll be talking about her movement from coast to coast throughout her career, and then we'll assume way it will talk about how to different places in her neighborhood, and even the different kinds of spaces within her studio, how all these locations impact her creative work.

But first a once in a podcast episode deal just for you. I hope you check this out because not only does it help the show but this sponsor is my favorite place to get audio books it's Libro FM. And Libro FM is offering listeners of One Thing Real Quick three audio books for the price of one when you use the offer code “OTRQ” as in the initials for One Thing Real Quick. So OTRQ gets you two free audio books.

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Mary Kate: I mean, I'm definitely a product of my environment. I it's like everything kind of needs to feel like it's in place or lined up with how I'm going to be working. So I wouldn't say like that Portland, the gray skies and the beautiful gardens are like that's what I need to look at. But it's more like at that time I like I needed a change, so whatever that change was, needed to get that's what lined up with what I was dealing with the time and it's like I after I moved away from Portland, I actually moved to New York for a brief time.

And it was sort of like, I was at a time in my career where I think things were like, lining up and I was doing okay. And I knew that I wanted to go back to Philly eventually. And that Portland was sort of temporary. So I was having that like uncomfortable, like, I feel antsy in Portland. And I just needed to make another change.

And I think when I moved to New York, my environment affected me negatively. I guess I moved to New York thinking like, I guess this is the next level in my career, this is what I'm going to have to be doing. I'm going to have to like, go, and meetings, and meet with our directors and network constantly. And I think that stressed me out, and I just wanted to like cut ties with that feeling all together and being like, like, Oh, this isn't me. And that's why we only live there for two years before. Moving back to Philly.

Evan: What did you take away from that experience and, are there lessons that from that, that you apply as you make decisions in what context you put yourself in today?

Mary Kate: You don't… Because I feel like a lot of people say like, you have to live in like the, in a big city to make it an illustration or design. And actually, I, what I found is that that's not really true. I can basically live anywhere, like why not live somewhere that I consider home, and not somewhere where I feel like that makes me feel bad that, Oh, I can't hack it in New York or something. And just feeling like I should be able to work here. I should be able to live in New York and be part of this scene and I just found that I don't have to do that. And I think when I did leave in my work, I just found like a freedom to try new things. I don't have to feel like I'm like no one's really judging.

Host: When Mary Kate moved from her home to Portland, she was looking to get out of her comfort zone. And that worked for her. And then in Brooklyn, she was too far outside her comfort zone.

I think we can all relate to this. We want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. challenges and constraints, as many of us know can be a catalyst for creativity, and being too comfortable can be a sort of warning sign that we've stopped growing creatively. On the other hand, facing irritations in our environment, or things like anxiety, and even depression can really throw us off. Discomfort can really impede our ability to create.

Now this is one of the really exciting things about this moment we're living in when working remotely is exploding. With fewer and fewer exceptions, you can work with anyone from anywhere. And so after New York City, Mary Kate moved to Philadelphia, which is by no means a remote location. It's close to where she grew up. And so it's home. And it's where she is today.

Mary Kate: Let me move somewhere where I don't have that anxiety if, you know, the New York beat.

Evan: So and and, and leaving that environment, that has been good for you. And your work hasn't suffered, like your opportunities?

Mary Kate: Right. I mean, yeah, I've got the same opportunities. Even when I like, a lot of the time people think I still live in Portland. So I don't think any clients are like, Oh, she lives in New York. We, let’s work with her. Right? It's like I still work with New York agencies. Even when I'm in Philly.

Evan: You have these different locations. Are there specific pieces of yours or projects that you've done that you feel really represent that location? something for Portland, something for New York, something for Philadelphia, that you feel like in your mind is inextricably connected to that location or do you feel like your art and your work and your illustration projects are independent of the location that you're in?

Mary Kate: I mean, I would definitely say that my personal projects and any thing outside of my client work definitely was always changed every location I lived in, like in Portland. I mean, I was just making anything to get out there and either sell or just for promotion at all or being part of like group shows and stuff. All my work. So much of my work was about bikes and cycling and coffee, beer and that was just like and Portland

Evan: ...the life blood and bicycle of Portland.

Mary Kate: It was just I threw myself like, I mean, I'm still obsessed with those things. But in Portland, it was just like the, you couldn't. It was just everything. So yeah, I made it really important for me to be a part of the community in that way. Being part of these group shows that are surrounded by weird ideas.

And in New York, it was I was so busy with client work. Like when I go through my Instagram, like if you go scrolling, you can kind of get a good sense of my projects and my process and progress throughout my career. But in New York, it's kind of like I'm like, Whoa, I like dipped off really randomly and like 2013, 2014 when we live there. I was just so busy. So it was kind of like the idea of workaholic really reflected my time in New York. So yeah.

Evan: So catch up. So Portland is this place of like community and screen printing and kind of almost maybe a DIY inspired by the Portland culture and connecting with that culture and community through, through personal projects. And and then New York is really like workaholism and head down, small apartment. What is what is Philadelphia?

Mary Kate: Philly is sort of a combination. Okay, that it turns out. Philly does have a design and illustration community, but we're in like very small pockets. So it's like, I think Portland as being like, like I shared a studio with a letterpress sign painter, ceramicist and someone who made like, mustache oil.

Evan: Like, of course, it's Portland. So they're just like the mustache oil makers.are a dime a dozen?

Mary Kate: Portland? Of course! Yeah, that that's that was that. But what was cool is like, they all came together were in Philly. It's like, those are like you just listed five different niche communities. Yeah, they all have their thing going on. So it's kind of it's not as, um, there's not as much overlap. But it's like, I still feel like there's a DIY kind of attitude. And like, you can do these small projects and you don't have to feel like needs to be this big production. You can just like kind of make it. Like our studio right now. We've done a few shows and few collections. And people love just seeing anyone do stuff. And I think that's like Philly is so it's like, primed and ready to have this community of just like people making and doing things. That there's just like, if… were to happen…

Evan: it's more like a Blake, like a blank canvas like you can make of it what, what you need it to be?

Mary Kate: Totally, totally.

Evan: Well this this actually leads really well into my next question. We've talked about how your location in the country has impacted what you're making but what about your location within whatever world you have, I mean you have home you have a studio you have places within that studio or places with within that home. Are you working at home ever? Are you pretty much just working at your studio,

Mary Kate: If I'm working on a client project that I need, total focus on, I basically have to work at my studio to do that. And there's a lot of like, I have my setup. I like working with my setup, but I do like being out of my comfort zone a little bit just so I don't feel like I can't make anything if I'm not in my zone. So like I have a big Cintique at my studio where I have this. I can work in Photoshop, draw in Photoshop, and I have a big screen to do that on, right.

Yeah, all my tools are right there. And at my home studio, I do have a small setup, I have a small Cintique, and I use the iPad Pro and apps like procreate for, like sketching and stuff. So if I feel like I'm randomly up, I don't know, early one morning. And I kind of don't want to get out of my pajamas. But I do want to get a little bit of work done. I can do some sketches there. But then, every once in a while I like to work at a coffee shop.

I work in coffee shops when I feel like I need to work on sketches that I more like personal project sketches that if I'm in my studio space, I know it's like, oh, I should be here. I'm here. I should be working on this client project. I should just be making progress on that. Whether it's ideation or sketches, or finalizing, that's where all that stuff happens. So I kind of have different zones for different parts of my project. Like when I'm at a coffee shop, I'm just like, doing my sketches that bring me joy. Just personally. When I'm at home, I'm just like, I'm lazing about I have a little bit of time, let me just breeze through some of these ideas that I had.

Evan: So do you think that you segment you really compartmentalize each of these places for each of these types of things? Is that is that what you're doing intentionally or is this just kind of habit that you formed?

Mary Kate: It's probably a little bit of both. It's a habit just like to go to the studio, just any normal day and just be like, this is where I do work. And then sometimes it's intentional. Just be like, well, maybe I won't go to the studio just yet. I have these ideas. So let's just try and sort that out now. Before you get bogged down on whatever it is waiting for you on your computer at the studio.

So it's, for me, it's sort of like, important for me to break some of those habits and change up my routine. Because I find there's a lot of value and working differently in different rooms or areas, or wherever I'm going to be working, I work a little differently. And I know that I work better in those specific places. And it's like, if I don't mix it up, it's that much harder to go back to the studio the next day feeling refreshed and ready to approach whatever it is I need to get working on. So if I do feel like I have that little bit of extra time to go to a coffee shop, where I can just like sit there breath, kind of reflect on my schedule a little bit more like it's a little bit more like

Evan: it's like the meandering path, to get to a finished product rather than the you know, the economy car.

Mary Kate: Yeah. Exactly. So and it's like, I know, I'd need that every once in a while. Switch it up.

Evan: Yeah. Do you feel like there's things that you do to, to design your space so that you can be creative? And do you design different spaces? Or or curate the things that surround these different spaces?

Mary Kate:  Yeah, definitely. Yeah. And this is something I try to utilize. It's one of those things where it's like, I know it's better for me, I have to force myself to do it. But in our studio, we have a big table that's in the like, workshop area, that big table sometimes it's like, just recently, I had to just like power through these refined sketches. And when I do refined sketches, I'm just either working off of sketch that's already pretty tight or tracing over something, I just need, it needs to be clean and needs to tidy. I need to be away from the computer completely.

Evan: Okay. And is that because of the distractions of the internet or is that because of

Mary Kate: Oh, yeah. Okay. The distractions, it's like a little bit, I have a little bit more room to spread out. So I had like a bunch of other sketches that I was also sort of like, half referencing as I was doing the sketches, my refined sketch, a big empty desk is kind of, it's kind of fun to work on a table like that.

Evan: And is that kind of the breathing space that you talked about?

Mary Kate: Yeah. Okay, a little bit. So that's like the real big breathing space, but like in a coffee shop, it's like the breathing where it's just like, I'm free of distractions, just free to do whatever I want to do on the page.

Evan: You’re not, like being pushed by a deadline. You're kind of just

Mary Kate: I'm just working it out. Yeah. I'm just sitting there and I'm just like, I'm giving myself the freedom to put whatever I want on the page without any judgment. But then in my space, I like just the way I designed my space. I like to have different areas for all my stuff I like. I like collecting a bunch of weird things and having them on display things that make me happy

Evan: Things that spark joy.

Mary Kate: Yeah, that's right Maria! Everything I own sparks joy. Don't make me get rid of my stuff like right now. I have like a little collection of like wind up 10 cars that are probably made with like lead paint. And so of course like, I know I'm not licking them I promise.

At my work studio. I have a little teeny skeleton. I have a piece of string attached to her jaw. So every once in a while I pull on the string and just make her talk.

Evan: Is that like creative advice? Is that we you know, like. Does she have a name?

Mary Kate: Skelly.

Evan: Skelly. Ooh, I'm gonna write that down. And next time I have like a really skinny pet. I'm stealing the name.

Mary Kate: Yeah, definitely a little Skelly! Oh my goodness. I love it. I it's like I if I could, honestly if I could work in like, out of like an old gag shop. That would probably be my dream studio space.

Evan: Okay, you need so you need the stuff you need. The random epherma of randomness.

Mary Kate: Yeah. But it's funny my studio made side is very she goes like paper cut illustration. So she has like a ton of paper and stuff but then her shelves are like very minimal and and then minds like exploding with colors. I do like being organized but I do like things on display at all times.

Evan: Yeah, okay. Okay. So you you have this you've talked a little bit about your, workspace. Sounds like a large table that can be completely clear of all objects so that you can focus on your work that seems pretty important.

you talked a little bit about like, the tchotchkes. I don't know if that's a good word to use, but these little objects whether it's, you know, lickable lead paint card, wait, no. Little, like, wind up cars and you've got Skelly. Which, I hope to meet her someday.

How have you always worked this way? Or has it taken you time to kind of develop a taste for your ideal creative workspace?

Mary Kate: I mean, I have always been someone who finds something and like, likes to collect just even as a kid and like when I was growing up, I would be constantly moving my bedroom around. Like,

Evan: Oh, you're one of those people. This is my mother in law as well, she's, the house is different every time we go over

Mary Kate: Oh, I mean, people when they come over to our house, it's like, wait, this is different. This is no, I'm constantly moving things around all the time. I mean, that's just

Evan: Why do you think that is?

Mary Kate: I just like it's like, I never What if it? What if it's changed? I like a new perspective. So it's like when we rearrange the furniture, I'm just like, for you, okay, there's either two things that can happen. It's like, no, who on earth would do this, like, switch it back. Or like, Why on earth wasn't this like this before?

Evan: Well, what's your next rearrangement? coming up? Do you do you have any, anything that you can share with us that… you know, new location, new new change to it? Maybe? I don't know. This is maybe a weird question, but...

Mary Kate: No, I mean, I, I do. Not. I mean, it's like still, it's in the frustrating planning stages? So, I'm interested in a change in studio space. That's the biggest thing. Like one of the other things that we wanted to do was like build on top of our garage and build a studio space there. But now I'm like, I don’t know,cthat's that's that's retreating back to like just staying in your home base, which is not ideal for me.

Evan: You kind of need that, like a distance between your home and your work.

Mary Kate: Yeah. Because otherwise, it's like, I'll just be talking to my cats all day. And well

Evan: I don't know. Right now you're talking to Skelly a lot, which…

Mary Kate: That’s true.

Evan: I don't know if I don't know which one's better.

Mary Kate: That's the good kind of crazy. Okay, okay. That's our good guy. You need both kinds of crazy.

Evan: There's a lot less hair involved with Skelly.

Mary Kate: And then, yeah, like the one I'm the ideas that are coming up, I'm reaching out more air a little bit more collaborative, and that's like, the kind of workshops that I'm doing are more collaborative in terms of like I'm, I'm still the only one hosting these but I'm working with other people and traveling to do more workshop rather than hosting them in my own space.

And so I'm designing a bunch of booklets that I'm going to be using for these workshops. So I'm like saying yes to all these workshops that I get to travel to do, and I'm really excited because that's something like going around talking about process in new environments. That's like, we're all right up my alley.

And even though is just travel and networking, that kind of thing can be kind of stressful for me, it’s I always like one on there. I'm like, Oh my God, my people. I love being around these people. Yeah.

Evan: So if if people listening want to follow along with this with the things that you're doing if they want to learn more about workshops, in case maybe you're coming to their town, how can they get more information?

Mary Kate: Um, you can follow me on Instagram. That's pretty much where I post a lot of my news and updates and stuff. You can find me @MaryKateMcDevitt on Instagram, @MaryKateMcD on Twitter or MaryKateMcDevitt.com is my website and I do have a mailing list. You can sign up for my mailing list for my snail mail mailing list because

Evan: you've got a… you’re  sending postage

Mary Kate: I'm sending real life Instagrams right to your door. Um, it's something I did. Last year, I sent, like 500 of these samplers, and I just did another mailing this past new years, but I would like to do start doing more like just small postcards, sending real life snail mail to my mailing list. Because I love getting mail.

Evan: Oh yeah, that's such a lost art. I'm glad to hear that you're keeping it alive.

Mary Kate: Yeah, I'm, single handedly! Not just kidding. And sometimes social media so fleeting.

Evan: Absolutely. Yeah. So if people want to get more information about your, your mailing list your snail mail list, they can go to your website MaryKateMcDevitt.com?

Mary Kate:  Yeah.

Evan: Alright. Well, we'll put links in the notes so people can just click from their their podcast listening device. Mary Kate, thank you for taking time to share a little bit about your process and about the places that you like to go to, to think and create and make.

Mary Kate: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It's been a blast speaking with you.

Host: Thank you for listening! There are links to find out more about Mary Kate McDevitt in the show notes. Click and/or tap the links!

If you’re a creative person, we’d love to hear about where you make and create. I love when people share photos of their workspaces. So share a photo of your creative space and tag us on instagram or twitter, we’re @OTRQpodcast.

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A now for a bit of show news, which you may have already noticed. We’ve gone from putting out new episodes each week, to publishing fortnightly. That means if you subscribe, there will be a new episode in your podcast feed every two weeks, that’s every other Friday.

We’re always looking for new stories about creativity. And with the move to being an every two weeks podcast, we have more time to be a little more ambitious. So if you have a story that you think is worth telling, something that gives insight about creativity or your creative process or some creative challenge that you have faced in your career, please tell us about it. You can call us at 405-373-OTRQ, that’s 405-373-6877. Or find our email address on our website, onethingrealquick.com. Tweet or message us on Facebook. Reach out. We’ll reach back.

This has been another episode of One Thing Real Quick. My name is Evan MacDonald. I produce this podcast with help from fellow producer John M. Craig. Music for One Thing Real Quick is made by me.

Thank you to Mary Kate McDevitt. And thank you for listening.

Until next time.

Evan: Alright, Mary Kate, one last thing before we let you go. Any good recently read books you can recommend?

Mary Kate: I did read Michelle McNamara's, I'll be gone in the dark, the true crime book about the Golden State killer. That one I actually was an audiobook, and it was crazy. It's like too scary true crime. I love true crime, but I The books because sometimes they scare me too much because I'm usually reading alone. Right before bed...

Thanks for listening! Be sure to share this episode.

Evan MacDonald