In Profile

Published: 29 Aug 2017

Finding the right balance: Ruth Graham Design & Illustration

Life’s never dull for Donegal-based illustrator Ruth Graham. She’s currently juggling not one, not two, but three different businesses.  Her core business Ruth Graham Illustration & Design now sits alongside her wedding stationery business Aye Do and working with live content agency Visual Newsdesk.

Design & Illustration

It wasn’t always that way though. ‘I graduated straight into a recession – with a degree in art! I thought I’d made a huge mistake,’ says Ruth. ‘I managed to get a job at a Visitor Centre where I started doing some promotional designs for them. That led to other small design jobs for more people, getting my name out there. I then did a ‘Start Your Own Business’ course with Donegal Local Enterprise Office and the business was born.’

Ruth’s love is illustration, but starting out she was mostly working on simple graphic design jobs. ‘Over time I gradually slipped in a bit of illustration in some of the design work to see how clients would react and they seemed to really like it. So gradually I’ve become more known for my illustrations and that’s the side of the business where I really want to focus,’ she adds.

Ruth is now in business for just over two years. She produces illustration and design of fun, colourful visual content through drawings, graphics and illustration for advertising purposes, packaging, logos and social media. While mostly working with still images, she had done some light animation for social media such as Snapchat.

Live Drawing

Another side to Ruth’s work is live drawing at events. This is done on paper and aims to capture the outcomes of a conference or workshop in a visual way.  She is part of Visual Newsdesk, a live content agency composed of journalists, illustrators and designers who aim to capture and record events live.  They’ve worked for a number of high-profile clients including AIB and charities such as ISPCC and Concern.

‘Drawing on the day is high pressure. There’s lots of interaction, people are constantly coming up to look at what I’m drawing, commenting on it, giving live feedback. It’s great and I’m interested in pursuing this kind of work further.  It’s a real change of pace from sitting inside the office. Illustration and design can be very solitary, especially when you work for yourself from home, so the interaction at live drawing is great fun,’ according to Ruth.

Aye Do

In the midst of working for her business clients, Ruth started to get commissions from friends for wedding invitations and found it was a nice change of pace. ‘Working with individuals, brides or couples, was a complete change from the quick turnarounds I was used to. I enjoyed taking my time and coming up with the weird and the wonderful. Online you’ll see a lot of the same style of wedding stationery – a lot of lace and flowers, but not everyone wants the traditional, people are definitely starting to look for more options, something a little bit different,’ she says.

So Ruth set up ‘Aye Do’. A lot of their work is custom orders but the company does have a number of ‘off the shelf’ wedding stationery designs that sell online. The Aye Do website went live in early 2017 and Ruth is busy gaining traction, using social media to spread the word.

Finding the right balance

Ruth has found that the two sides of her business – design/illustration services and wedding stationery – call for very different approaches.  ‘When I was getting started, everything I did was through word of mouth and networking. I went to local business events, handed out my business card, got chatting to people. When I did a job for someone they passed my name to others. I didn’t rely so much on social media or my website, which is why I’m still not so good at keeping them updated!’ she says. ‘I also find I get design/illustration clients from my live drawing events.  Attendees at the event see my work and get in touch afterwards.’

‘However, for Aye Do it’s totally different. I can’t just rely on networking to reach all the couples I want to and need to have a strong online presence. They are a different type of customer, so need a different approach.  Marketing a product through an online shop is totally new to me and I’m definitely still learning,’ she adds.

It can be difficult to find the right balance between her illustration commissions and Aye Do.  Illustration work tends to comes in large blocks of work so sometimes promoting Aye Do has to be put on the back burner.  Ruth says, ‘I would love to bring in someone else to help manage the Aye Do side of my business, otherwise I’ll have to look into cloning myself. I’m really keen to expand the range and even commission ‘guest artists’ to design some limited edition invitations. There’s so much more I want to do! ’

The photoshoot

‘Getting good quality images of my work was really important.  ‘A picture’s worth a 1,000 words’ as they say and I sometimes struggle to explain what it is I do. It’s so useful to be able to show the process,’ says Ruth. ‘Previously I took photos of my work on my phone, or did digital mock-ups for my Aye Do products, but they were never quite right. The tactile quality of the paper doesn’t show in a digital mock-up and the quality just isn’t there with a phone. I needed photographs that really showed the quality of the paper, the ‘feel’ of everything.’

So Ruth applied for support for a professional photoshoot from ‘a creative momentum project’ and was among the 21 creative enterprises from the West of Ireland selected.  Her shoot was with Donegal-based photographer Paul McGuckin.

Before the shoot Ruth e-mailed some ideas to Paul. ‘I did a bit of research online for ideas and designs I liked and ways to best show my work. We discussed possible shots and arranged to do two half-day shoots,’ she says. ‘I hadn’t ever hired a photographer before, so I didn’t really know what to set up before he came, we were shooting in my home office. I really learned a lot from the first day, about setting up, what worked and what didn’t. For the second half-day I was a lot more organised and was happy to give Paul more freedom and let him do his own thing. Photography is his art, so I trusted him.’

It was a great learning experience. The way shots of wedding invitations are traditionally set up, didn’t really suit the Aye Do style or product but they found a style that represented the fun ethos of her product.  This is something she’ll keep in mind for how she shoots her work in future.

‘I was delighted with the images. I’ll be using them on my website, which I’m currently updating. The process shots of work in progress are really useful and I’ll use different ones on social media over time. I’ve already sent some to potential clients,’ concludes Ruth. ‘I finally have got some photos I can use time and time again… and most importantly a headshot that isn’t a selfie!’


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