by Isabel Castillo Guijarro

In just over five years, designer and illustrator Isabel Castillo Guijarro went from being a fresh-faced design grad to a full-time art director at a massive media company, steadily working her way up the ladder at women’s platform Refinery29. Her freelance client roster includes the New York Times, Forbes, and Print, and she’s been recognized by the Art Directors Club, the Society of Illustrators, and AIGA. She is 28.

Recently, she was asked to share her career advice with a class of SVA MFA design students (alongside creative director Amanda Havey and illustrator and animator Richard Borge), who sent her their most pressing questions about how to make it as a designer in New York. As an outsider who hustled her way to the top without any outside help, Guijarro was well prepared. A transplant from Madrid via Dubai, where she studied for a few years before enrolling in Parsons, Guijarro says “many of the students… were from overseas. I think the fact that I came here just like they did, without family and without knowing anyone, they could relate.”

What follows is an ultra-condensed version of Guijarro’s personal experience and tips for going from student to pro.

How do you find work you’ll love?
Every year, creative staffing community Working Not Working publishes a list of “Companies Creatives Would Kill to Work For,” and Guijarro has more than a couple of problems with it. Most of the companies that land on this list are mega-brands like Nike, Apple, and Google, but there’s so much more that goes into a job than the shiny logo on your business card.

“You should never kill to work for someone—they should kill for you.”

The questions you should be asking yourself aren’t about whether you like the company’s product, but about whether you like their work environment. Do you really want to work for a huge company (read: do you enjoy cutting through red tape)? When you design something, how many departments will have to sign off on it? Do you want to be part of a big team, or a small team? And maybe most importantly, who are you actually working with day to day? 

To find out what kind of environment suited her best, Guijarro did a ton of internships early on. She discovered which job titles sounded appealing, but in reality were mostly about project management—not ideal for an eager young designer.

She also used all those internships as practice for interviewing for a real job later on, and established some clever communication strategies. “I’m really shy, and I’m aware that I have an accent, so I’m careful about trying to speak slowly. I also got really good at sending follow-up emails after each interview, just in case what I wanted to say didn’t come across.” Smart.

by Isabel Castillo Guijarro

How should you charge for your work?
Per hour? Per project? What rate is right? Is it okay to work for free? There are so many things to consider when deciding on your fee. Guijarro believes firmly in billing a flat rate per project. An hourly rate, she argues, doesn’t factor in all the time you’re thinking about the work outside of “standard working hours,” like in the shower, on your commute, or as you lie in bed. Nor does it take into account all the years it took you to acquire the skills the clients is hiring you for now. Also, depending on when inspiration strikes, it could take her one hour or six hours to get to the same end result.

Unless you’ve established a fee structure you feel confident about, ask the client what their budget is. “I know editorial is always going to be way less money than an ad for a corporation, but asking helps me understand how other companies work, and what the real market rate is.” And then, ask for more. “You should always ask for more. When I started my career, I made the mistake of not asking for more, and that has had huge repercussions over the course of my career here. I started at a much lower rate than I could have. I was young, and I didn’t know better.”

And if a client responds that they have zero dollars? That doesn’t necessarily mean you should turn it down. If the project is exciting and you can afford to take it on top of your paid work, you can feel good about saying yes—but only if you have total control, which you need to get in writing. Guijarro remembers a project she did for free for a client that kept coming back for revisions. “Like, 1,000 revisions,” she says. “I’ll never make that mistake again.”

Lastly, if you’re not sure about whether a free project—even one that grants you total control—is worth it, or you’re not sure a rate you’ve been quoted is really fair, ask around. The more people who feel cagey talking about money, the longer pay equity will continue to be an issue. “A year ago I would never have talked about money publicly, or even privately with another illustrator,” says Guijarro.

“Asking how much someone makes can be tricky, but if we share it ends up being better for all of us. We can’t raise the bar across the whole industry unless we do it together.”

How do I protect myself?
Let’s just restate something for clarity, shall we? Get it in writing, people! Get. It. In. Writing. It should be written in an email, at the very least, though “I always try to have a contract of some sort, especially if it’s a new client. You need to set expectations from the start,” says Guijarro. Those expectations include:

  • A timeline of deliverables.
  • Rounds of revisions.
  • Number of assets you’ll create, including various sizes and file formats.
  • Fee and payment timeline (Half up front? Full payment upon final delivery?).
  • Ownership and copyright terms: “I don’t like doing 100% work-for-hire all the time, because I want to be able to showcase it on my own portfolio at some point. But usually I set an expiration of a year, when the ownership goes back to me.”
by Isabel Castillo Guijarro

How important is style?
Most of the students Guijarro spoke with seem to think it’s better to have a distinct visual style, citing successful designers like Jessica Walsh, who’s built a career around a very specific style of work. “The difference is having a clear voice throughout your work, whether the style is very different across your portfolio or it’s the same.”

“You have to be willing to try something different, to take a creative risk, or else you kind of die, don’t you? Just drawing the same way all the time?”

“If you have one style,” she continues, “you could easily fall into the habit of defaulting to one method of execution, over and over, no matter what the brief is. You need to be versatile and to be able to adapt, or your work may feel dated in a just a few years time.”

by Isabel Castillo Guijarro

How do I become an art director?
“Most students actually weren’t all that interested in how to become an art director,” says Guijarro, “because they thought that ADs don’t do much design work themselves, but just manage other people.” Like any job, the actual responsibilities that go with the title can vary widely from company to company.

“For me at Refinery29, it’s 50% design work and 50% guiding other people and being a resource for them. That part of my job is actually really fun. I’m more in charge of interviewing and talent searching now, and it’s very cool to see someone who I interviewed two years ago for an internship position become a senior designer here. It does take a lot of time from the design process, but I like it. I never had a mentor, and I like being able to pass on what I’ve learned so far to other people. I’m still very much a work in progress, though.”