Melissa Egan finds design success by diving in, asking questions, and learning by doing

Portraits by Ashley Poskin

When I met Melissa Egan of Pistols in 2016 at a Minted artist paint-and-sip meetup in Chicago, I immediately sensed her creativity, down-to-earth spirit, and ability to laugh off the small stuff. She had recently relocated to the Windy City from Portland, and was settling into a pretty packed life that included a full-time job as an art director, freelance design work, and a burgeoning body of work on Minted.

Fast-forward to now to 2018, and Melissa has recently added another piece to the the brimming pot of life: her first child, Henry, whom she can’t wait to see every night after work. “One smile from him, and I’m dead,” she says, attributing much of the hustle and bustle to the support of her husband, John, her son’s primary caretaker. “I’m trying my hardest to enjoy Henry while he’s so little, and not worry too much if I’m not able to do it all,” she says.

When we dug into how Melissa learned her craft, she described landing on design after dabbling in a few other fields (Maybe business? Why not try enironmentalism?). Her try-and-see career approach also extends to her view of the design discipline. “In my opinion, there really isn’t a ‘right’ way to do design,” she says. “I try to design around an idea, rather than a particular style. My designs are most successful when they come from a concept I’m really excited about.” She loves illustration and most enjoys creating characters with personalities, like “Cakeasaurus Dinosaur” or her award-winning “Party Sloth.”

In this interview, Melissa talks about her experiments in environmental activism, creating Anthropologie store displays, and how cool dads don’t get the credit they deserve.

In 2017, Melissa Egan won a prestigious Louie Award for her “Party Sloth” children’s birthday party invitation. Melissa’s stationery designs are fun, attention-grabbing, often including winks of humor and whimsy.

Melissa Egan on Design & Creative Process

Minted: You switched majors a few times before landing on graphic design at John Brown University in Arkansas. How did your education prepare you for your career?
Melissa Egan: I started as a business major, then switched to marketing, and finally to graphic design the second semester of my junior year. I remember vividly sitting in my business statistics class, looking around and realizing, “Oh! People actually enjoy this! Not everyone’s miserable like I am!” Luckily, my parents didn’t bat an eye when I switched my major for the third time, and encouraged me to pursue a career that was more in line with my natural creativity. I’m thankful for the time spent studying business and marketing, as it has come in handy not only in my day job, but running my side freelance business as well.

I graduated barely knowing how to use any of the Adobe programs, and passed my classes by scanning in drawings and paintings, and laying text over them. Most everything I learned about design, I attribute to friends and coworkers teaching me tricks and tips along the way.

“Bell Jar” wedding invitation by Melissa Egan of Pistols

How did you approach asking for design tips from other people?
People love to share what they’re good at, and for a discipline like design, in my opinion, there really isn’t a “right” way to do something. Everyone I’ve worked with has their own unique process and way of using Illustrator or Photoshop. I attribute my Illustrator knowledge to my friend Levi Nelson, a friend of my husband’s, who is an amazing illustrator and designer. I would watch him work and ask questions as he went along. It takes a very patient person to have someone looking over their shoulder while they work, and I’m thankful to have lots of patient people in my life.

I’ve worked with lots of designers, both junior and senior, who are afraid to ask questions or admit they don’t know how to do something. Ask! It is a rare person who is going to hold your lack of knowledge against you. You waste so much time and energy trying to pretend you know something, when by asking, you can not only learn from someone else, but open up a dialogue where that person feels comfortable to ask for your help as well.

Melissa Egan always draws the “bones” of an illustration first with a pencil and paper and then sketches and builds it out in Photoshop or Illustrator. She also loves to make textures with paints and markers, and scan those as well. “I’m a late adopter and have yet to try out an iPad Pro, though I am curious,” she says.

What was your first job out of college, and how’d you land your second job, building Anthropologie displays?
After college, I wasn’t really interested in a design job, and moved to Denver to pursue a political/environmental career, with Environment Colorado. I was hired to help write legislation and work on environmental policy. But when I arrived, in 2008, they told me my position was cut, and all efforts were being focused on getting Obama elected. I ended up being a grassroots field coordinator, canvassing door-to-door for 12 hours a day. I lasted four days—ha!

For Anthropologie, I actually just went into the store and asked if there was an open position on the display team. They set up a formal interview, and I brought my graphic design portfolio, but I didn’t have to show any visual display background. I was the assistant to the head display coordinator, so I think that helped me get the job.

What was it like to build displays for Anthro?
It was an absolute blast! Every day I got to work with paint, hot glue, all sorts of paper and fabrics, as well as wood and power tools. I don’t know if letting me “wing it” with a jigsaw and some plywood was the smartest idea, but I made it out alive.

Click to watch how Melissa Egan painted this squirrel for Real Simple’s Instagram.

You joined the Minted community in 2011. How did you discover Minted?
In 2009, a coworker told me about Minted, and at the time, I was too nervous and self-conscious to submit anything. In November 2011, I was feeling pretty uninspired by the work I was doing at my day job, and decided to give Minted a try as a way to practice and grow my design and illustration skills, as well as experiment with designs that weren’t client-specific work.

Minted truly changed my life and my career. I was so shy and nervous about my design work that I would never even show my husband what I was working on. Minted helped me find confidence in my design abilities, as well as finding a place in the rich and wonderful community that is Minted. I never in a million years would have thought I’d be the kind of person to have “online friends.” Now these friends—many whom I’ve met in person, and many I still have not—are some of my dearest and most cherished friendships.

“Chicago is home to so many ad agencies, and I’ve found myself in an advertising career I didn’t necessarily plan on, but am happy to have found,” says Melissa, shown here at the office. “The food in Chicago has been pretty life-changing and wasteline-changing. I mean, we live in a city known for its pizza and hotdogs!”

You now work full time as a Digital Art Director for a Chicago ad agency—what’s it like?
I work on everything from e-commerce content to web and app design. One day I will be working on e-commerce Amazon content for Enfamil, and the next I’m working on banner ads for KY! It’s a fast-paced environment filled with people who work hard, are incredibly talented, and most importantly have great senses of humor.

I work a pretty typical 9-to-5 office schedule with some late nights thrown in. Since having my son, I try my hardest to leave close to 5 so I can spend time with him before he goes to bed.

“Cakeasaurus Dinosaur” children’s birthday party invitation by Melissa Egan of Pistols

Where do your ideas come from?
I’m not a sketcher, but I will jot down little phrases or ideas when they pop in my head. There really is no rhyme or reason to where they come from. A lot of times, the more character-driven designs are results of wanting to try and draw a certain animal, like a sloth, or a dinosaur, and I’ll see if I can come up with a concept that works with that particular character.

The level of talent among Minted designers will forever be inspiring! Just when you think everything’s been done before in a category like holiday or wedding, the fabulous community knocks my socks off with fresh and unique designs every time!

“Little Bo Peep” children’s custom art by Melissa Egan of Pistols

What are your ultimate career ambitions?
I’m not fully sure. I used to be 100% sure I’d wind up working for myself once we had kids, but I truly do love my job and am not sure if I’ll ever fully transition to the freelance life. My personal goals for the hopefully not-too-distant future are to write and illustrate a kid’s book, and finally learn and explore surface design.

“Dipped Feathers” wedding invitation by Pistols

Melissa Egan on Family

You’re currently balancing a full-time job plus Minted, occasional freelance work, and raising Henry with your husband. How do you manage all of this?
I could not make any of this work were it not from the support of my husband, John, and my amazing team at work. My husband stays home with Henry, which is just beyond amazing, and I think had that not been the case—if I were stressing over daycare or nannies, etc.—my transition back to work would not have gone as smoothly. He is the most incredible father, and knowing Henry is home with him helps me be able to focus on my work when I’m at work.

My team at work have all been so gracious and supportive. They’ve been so understanding when I’ve had to leave early to watch Henry, and also humor me by letting me show them millions of photos and videos of him.

What’s the most important thing Melissa’s learned about design? “Creative ruts happen—and happen often—but pass!” she says, pictured here at home, with a painting and custom-built bookshelves created by her husband John Henry Egan behind her. “I used to get so scared when I was in a rut, but now I’ve learned to take it as part of the design process and keep plugging away until it lifts!”

How has becoming a parent shaped your life?
Henry has absolutely changed my life in every way possible. Having a baby is truly one of those things you can’t fully prepare for until the child arrives. I had grand plans during my maternity leave of working on tons of Minted holiday designs, nursery art for Henry’s room, and squeezing in storyboards for a children’s book. In reality, I felt like I accomplished something if everyone was fed and I managed to shower that day. Babies are so much work, but so worth every amount of effort. We are truly obsessed with our little munchkin.

Melissa and John Egan moved from Portland, Oregon, to Chicago in 2015. Though they loved PDX, they love Chicago even more. “Portland’s job market is pretty limited, and when we moved, living costs were skyrocketing,” Melissa says. “We knew we wanted to have kids, so finding a city where we could settle down and buy a house was important. We decided on Chicago because of its rich culture, liveability, and job opportunities. We absolutely love it and happily call it home.”

How does your husband help you?
Dads don’t get enough credit, do they? I think there are more stay-at-home dads out there than one realizes, and it’s just a bummer that there aren’t more resources and communities for Dads. Seriously, I would not have made it through the early weeks without John. Those first six weeks were so intense and overwhelming. Had I been flying solo in a traditional sense where the husband has to go back to work after two weeks, I would have drowned.

You have a chillaxed attitude about taking things in stride, which is refreshing in a time when many women feel like they have to do all the things—and do them well.
There have been times, over the years, where I’ve tried to pursue every professional opportunity that came along, volunteer for every cause I believe in, be around friends every night, etc. and it has always left me so burnt out. I’ve learned I do best with a few things on my plate, and I try to remember that when deciding where to focus my efforts and attention.

Melissa Egan’s Favorite Design Resources

  • The dieline blog (“Though I don’t do much packaging design, the combination of typography, illustration, color palettes, that go into package design are endlessly inspiring.”)
  • Dribbble
  • Behance

More about Melissa Egan
Melissa Egan’s Minted Artist Store
Melissa Egan’s Website
Melissa Egan’s Instagram

About the author: Amy Schroeder, Minted’s Sr. Manager of Community Content, founded Venus, the magazine about women in the arts and DIY culture, and has written for Etsy, West Elm, Pitchfork, and NYLON. Connect on Instagram @thevenuslady.

Published July 3, 2018

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