Illustration by Laura Thompson

Social media has changed the way creators and visual artists think about representing their work. For many, Instagram, Behance, and Twitter have replaced or profoundly augmented how they can showcase their designs, gain a new audience and, ultimately, get more work. 

With Covid-19 bringing most of the world into the online space as a powerful mode of communication and interaction, what does it mean to be on social media from a business perspective? Do designers gain or lose more jobs because of it? What are the pressures of being a highly visible designer online, and what is all this momentum building toward? Two creatives weigh in. 

Meet the practitioners:

Hello, my name is Zipeng Zhu, and I am an artist, designer, illustrator, and animator working in Brooklyn. I also run Studio Dazzle.

Hello, I’m Marina Esmeraldo. I am an artist and an illustrator based in Barcelona. I trained as an architect in my previous life and am originally from Brazil.

Let’s start broad: What role does social media play in your career?  

Zhu: This is an interesting topic for me. Before 2020, I probably got about a third of my work from Instagram. But my gram blew up during the pandemic, so now half of the projects coming to me are coming to me from Instagram. I have many thoughts about this. One is that I started posting because I needed a place to express myself. Sometimes you have ideas you know no client is going to pay for until they see it. So Instagram became a good sketch playground to experiment with different styles and looks. Later on, some of it became more personal, some of it became more political. That led my social to become what it is now. I think it’s interesting that now all the mood boards I get from clients are of my own work. 

“Sometimes you have ideas you know no client is going to pay for until they see it.”

So social media helped you define your style to the world?

Zhu: Because I have over 25,000 unique works I made just for social and nothing else, I became my own reference point. I ripped myself off instead of other people, which is a good problem to have. In one way, I don’t need to worry about accidentally copying anyone. On the other hand, it forces me to keep making new things because otherwise I’ll get boxed into this one genre or this one thing I would never want to be. After posting so much, the interesting thing is that I don’t think about my website anymore. Right now, my website serves as a place to find my email contact—I haven’t updated it in a year-and-a-half. Yet, I have no shortage of work. And almost all of the fun stuff comes from Instagram, anyway. I spend a lot of time working on my social handles to keep up, to maintain it. But what’s beautiful about that is it allows me to try new things without doing a lot of other stuff. 

It’s interesting that during the height of the pandemic, you found even more work. Yet, we’re told to be successful, we must constantly be networking. 

Esmeraldo: I have a love/hate relationship with Instagram and social media. I’m in a good place with it now, but I felt exhausted by it a few years ago. I was doing a 100-day challenge and drawing every day, creating work all the time—and that was wonderful, but part of the challenge was to post your work on Instagram. And then, suddenly, I was using it all the time. It got to a point where I noticed that I was scrolling indefinitely. It was like a black hole of time, and I noticed many negative feelings emerging while I was doing that—a lot of comparisons, when my life was perfectly happy and fulfilling. I noticed these feelings arising and then procrastinating to do my own work. Then I just decided to take a break and do a sabbatical. I kept a journal and wrote an op-ed for the Eye On Design magazine about the experience. It was so illuminating to realize how much of my headspace was taken over by social media. By Instagram, specifically. Because for visual creators, it is the tool that we use.

How did this experience change you? 

Esmeraldo: Since then, I’ve taken on the habit of maybe twice, three times a year, just taking a month off. I’m on a break currently. These breaks usually follow a time when I’m intensively working on a project or have a course. I teach other creators how to make a living from their creativity. Recently, I was promoting my book. It was a crowdfunded project on Kickstarter. I was using that platform a lot throughout to promote the campaign. These things are intensive, they consume a lot of my energy, so I like to take these breaks. However, I identify with Zipeng when he talks about his personal projects and being motivated to do these things and to “populate your feed,” so to speak. Because there are certain things that no client is going to commission from you. And I have gotten a lot of work from my personal projects that I have posted on Instagram. 

Websites aren’t the primary way I get work. I get work just because I have a reputation. But I do have agents. My focus on Instagram is getting the same benefit that I have gained from social media for the illustration and design work, for the fine art stuff. It can very definitely be a very positive influence. As my friend said, I just think that you need to “use the tool, don’t let it use you.” 

“Use the tool, don’t let it use you.” 

Have you found that when you put an idea out in the world, you’ve been able to find and use crowdfunding and social media as a positive tool?

Esmeraldo: I definitely had a positive experience when my project got featured on Kickstarter. I got the benefit of those 30% of new viewers. It was nice to get all these unknown people backing you and believing in your project. And I think it’s similar to the way social media works. But in my case, it was a case of me reaching out to my community, rather than just an influx of, like, unknown people, who came to support. It was very much like, “Okay, I really need to work to get it funded.”

Zhu: I have not done any Kickstarter projects, but I think what’s interesting about social media is the way the whole world is now your audience, not just your clients. I recently made a new Chinese non-binary letter—the third person they/them in Mandarin—and it went nuts on the internet because people had different opinions. I’ve never had a post with more than 300 comments. And to me, it was interesting because the conversation became a cluster of thoughts, opinions, and ideas, which I’m not used to having. I think that’s one of the beautiful and horrifying things about the internet. Together, it is the power of the people. And I felt that a lot during the past year. Given what happened to the Asian community and what we are dealing with right now, I’m very happy and genuinely feel lucky that we have crowdsourcing for so many community projects. There are all these crowdsourced and community charity projects that wouldn’t have been able to happen without crowdfunding. 

Gif of phone scrolling through an Instagram-like interface
Illustration by Laura Thompson

If social media as we know it just disappeared tomorrow, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, the big platforms, how would you reach your audience? 

Zhu: I think about this all the time. I used to post every day. I had a time I would post: 12 PM. But it just turned into this vicious cycle because every day, I would get anxious at 11 if I didn’t have an idea. I would have to force something out of me. Then last year, ever since covid, I sort of…stopped because my mental health and happiness is so much more important than the likes or the comments or the engagement.

I don’t use social media that much except for posting. I log on, post something, then log off. It’s just to spread the word. I also have a newsletter. I think that is the one nice thing for people to have. People always write back to my newsletter. The other half of my practice comes from word of mouth. I was on the board at AIGA of New York, and now I’m on the board of Poster House in New York. It’s from being a part of communities and organizations. I speak at thousands of conferences that I feel are part of my brand of reaching out to people. However, if social media were gone tomorrow, I would go back to my website to start a blog. People are interested in spending time with you to see your growth and your input. Every time I do an Instagram Live, people follow up with my life, which I think is crazy. But it’s a nice feeling that people on the other side of the world care about what you make. And that, for our fragile artistic heart, is very much needed. So, if social media was gone tomorrow, I would find another way to generate ideas and new work. 

Esmeraldo: I agree with everything Zipeng said. A newsletter is a great tool for being part of a community. Engaging with a community, attending events, and being a speaker. That has been important to me. In my case, I have my amazing agents. But having an agent doesn’t solve all problems. We have the notion, as illustrators especially, that having an agent is a prince charming that will solve everything and set you free. It helps, of course, but it’s not the be-all-end-all. 

I always tell my students that business is built on relationships, and we have to cultivate these relationships. It is important to stay connected to the people we know and keep these contacts in the industry to continue to feed those relationships. Social media, Instagram in particular, is very useful because it’s a concentration of everyone’s blogs at the same place at the same time, so we have an easy way of staying in touch. Whenever I do these breaks from Instagram, I realize that I relied on it so much to keep in touch but not even to “keep in touch”—you passively consume what’s going on and don’t even necessarily respond or say something. We’ve become these passive observers, consumers, of this content, and sometimes we just don’t engage so much in the relationships. 

“Business is built on relationships, and we have to cultivate these relationships.”

Both of you are in positions to mentor emerging creators. Do you recommend social media?

Zhu: I gave a talk last year to students on how to deal with the unpredictable change that the future can bring. In the class, the teacher told them to “cold call art directors.” I’m like, “honey, nobody picks up phone calls anymore. That is ridiculous advice.” I discussed the alternative ways to reach out and show your work, especially given such a trying time when many are losing their jobs. But we are in an industry where we make something out of nothing. That is the beauty of being an illustrator or a designer. We don’t require any human to be a part of our practice. What I recommend to emerging artists is 1) make a website. That’s the default. You can’t just be on social. If you put in the work to get a URL that shows you take this seriously. 2) Make a separate account if you want a work-based social network for business only. 3) Instead of cold calling, I slide into the DMs of art directors or agencies. It works! I think people check their DMs so much more than their emails, especially if it’s coming from a student. I just believe when there’s a problem, there’s always a solution. And we’re currently presented with one of the hardest problems humanity has faced in the last 100 years. I think for us, as an industry, especially as a problem-solving industry, that there are alternative creative ways to present yourself beyond the old-school. 

Esmeraldo: I say the same things to my students. “If Instagram disappeared tomorrow, where would your work live?” And I definitely encourage the professional focus on the feed in the beginning. I come from a multidisciplinary background, and at the beginning of my career as an illustrator, I had to have a united front, especially to have a definite style. But now that I’m almost ten years into this, I’m celebrating these different things. I think young people and students should do all of that without placing too much importance on numbers of followers or likes that are arbitrary—that is algorithm controlled. We have no transparency into the algorithm, and it changes all the time. I see young people get frustrated, so it’s important to have education on interacting with social media. Even in school. We’re all learning as we go with this tech as it evolves. So I’m about using all these tools with mindfulness and a grain of salt.