Ally Jaye Reeves // Airtable
Ally’s story is a remarkable and inspiring one that reminds us that one project can kickstart your career. This is what can happen when you’re talented, hard working, and you are generating clever visual content when that content isn’t necessarily coming to you.
When did you first begin doing work for Airtable and how did this collaboration come about?
I started working with Airtable in December of 2017. By that time I was just coming up on two years out of school. My first few months of work with them was in a freelance basis, but by March of 2018 I was a full-time member of their design team. I think it's important to mention that before this job, I was working part-time at an art store most days of the week, drawing on my days off and getting by with the odd editorial job. I wasn't even sure what I wanted my illustrations to look like, or what I wanted to do with them. I just made a lot of work and shared as much as I could.
Were you contacted directly by Airtable and their own internal design team, or were they working with an agency on their branding and marketing?
I was contacted by their design team, which at that time was just one product designer. They found my work on Dribbble while researching the possibility of including illustration on their homepage. I realize how insane that sounds. I had just finished doing a self-directed series on "collaboration" featuring illustrations of people working together to create things. That's the project they saw, and it just happens to be that the core thesis of Airtable is collaboration and creativity.
At the time that you got involved, how small was Airtable? Was it just a small startup or were they already fairly established?
Airtable started in 2013 but they really focused on building out a great product for the first three years. At the time I joined I believe there were around 60 employees. This last year was a huge year of growth for us though, and we're well over the 100 employee mark and over 50,000 active users.
Your illustrations are so integrated into the Airtable brand. When looking at the Airtable site, beyond the logo, your illustrations are arguably the leading visual voice of the brand. Was this always the goal from when you started working with Airtable or did it evolve more organically into the current setup?
When Howie Liu, (Airtable's CEO) first chatted with me about how he envisioned illustration being used, he had a pretty grand idea for how integrated into the brand it would become. He knew, more than I even knew that illustration can bring a strong human touch to a product and he wanted someone who could draw what Airtable feltlike to users, rather than what it looked like. I'll admit I was actually skeptical of this vision and I had a hard time imagining how much I'd actually be able to contribute to the brand. When I joined Airtable, it was a company that was already loved by customers but it hadn't yet made the leap into establishing a strong visual voice. Howie knew really strongly that he wanted that voice to include illustration. At first it was just the website, then it expanded into a billboard campaign and now there's isn't a new webpage being built that doesn't include illustration in some form. It's been over a year now and I have never run out of things to do.
We have an amazing brand design team of just 3 people right now, but we're doing a lot of work this year shaping our brand into something that goes beyond illustration. Don't get me wrong, I love the job security of being the main visual voice of the brand, but I'd love to see it expand beyond illustration. I think 2019 is going to be a very exciting year for our design team and I'm really looking forward to showing off some of our most exciting projects yet.
As a young illustrator, your work is still evolving and changing, as demonstrated in the fun experiments section of your website. You mentioned that you were first approached by Airtable because of a personal project that you developed. Now you’ve removed all the work you had done before Airtable and replaced your official portfolio with only the work that you’ve done for this project. Do you find it difficult or even necessary to separate your personal work from the Airtable brand?
This is something I think about a lot now. When I first graduated I was completely obsessed with what my "style" should look like that I ended up making work I didn't enjoy making for a long time because I was too afraid to change it. When I started working for Airtable I had just started the process of experimenting with a more simplistic style of illustration which happened to work for their brand. I was worried that this would force me to settle into a style for the duration of my time with Airtable, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of freedom I have. Because we do such a variety of work on the design team (web, product, marketing, swag, etc.) there's lots of room to try new things. I would say my style has evolved the most in this past year all while working for one brand.
I think the time that this is will really become something I have to contemplate will be when I eventually leave Airtable and go back to pursuing my own projects. I've accepted the fact that I will likely have to leave one style of work behind and transition into a new style. That used to totally freak me out, but now I'm pretty excited about it.
The move to scrap a lot of old work on my portfolio was purely based in the pride I was feeling over the new work I've been making. I'd love for it to include some non Airtable work when I have the time, but for now I'm happy to show off the work I'm most proud of and the work I'd like to make more of.
This seems like a very immersive and rewarding project. Do you still have time, energy, or interest in doing freelance work, or are you dedicating all your efforts to this project for the time being?
I currently consider myself a full-time in-house illustrator for Airtable. Although they're located in San Francisco and I'm still working out of my Toronto apartment, I'm very much a part of their team. Any free time I have these days is dedicated to making personal projects just for my own enjoyment and less for sharing/monetizing.
Thank you so much for talking to us about this, Ally. It’s such an incredible and unique opportunity. Do you have any closing thoughts or any advice that you would like to share with our current students, alumni, or anyone else reading this?
Thank you so much! It's such a pleasure getting to share what I've been up to. Hopefully this opens someone's eyes to some of the many opportunities that exist for illustrators.
As far as advice, I'll just say what I needed to hear while I was in school: you're not going to be at the peak of your career on the day of your graduation. You're just getting started. Be kind to yourself, and let yourself make mistakes. That's the only way you get to grow.
Ally is a 2016 graduate of the program. You can view more of her work at allyjaye.com. All images provided by Ally Jaye Reeves.