Based in Portland, Oregon, hand-lettering artist Dina Rodriguez specializes in commercial illustration and branding for creative businesses. We sat down with Dina to find out more about her process, dealing with client feedback, and how her marketing background makes her a great designer.
1. How’d you get started as an artist? Do you have formal training?
I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil. I started creating my own coloring books when I was 5.
My real art education began when I was 16—my parents enrolled me in a 2-month program at Pratt University in Brooklyn, where I got to try out a variety of art concentrations.
After high school I went to the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. A few months short of earning all my credits, I dropped out because I realized animation and 3D wasn’t for me.
Soon after, I stumbled upon Full Sail University, a trade school in Orlando, and enrolled in their Digital Arts and Design Bachelor’s program. Going there was like having a 48-hour-a-week job. We went to class 6 days a week, 8 hours a day. If you missed more than 8 hours of a class, you failed.
“Be patient and never stop trying things—it’s the only way to find your calling.”
I landed an amazing internship at Disney where I worked as the main designer for ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. That launched my career as a graphic designer.
After my internship I spent about 5 years working as a graphic designer bouncing from agency to design boutique to startup, never really feeling accomplished or happy. I was a good designer, but something felt off. So I started drawing again, and that led me to discover hand lettering.
I found myself practicing hours each day, sometimes even during my lunch break or in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I fell in love with it, and over time I got good at it. Once I started to work on client projects for hand lettering, I knew that I finally found my thing.
Finding your passion can be a journey. You might not stumble across that special thing you were meant to do right away. Sometimes it takes time, experimentation, and failure to discover what you’re truly great at. Be patient and never stop trying things—it’s the only way to find your calling.
2. What’s your process, from idea to completed piece?
I have an in-depth, 3-week process that includes discovery and research through sketching, with the final week dedicated to vectorization and testing. All this hard work ensures the client gets the best possible logo design that’ll attract people to their business.
I don’t do revisions nor do I offer multiple concepts, since all of that work is done internally. I believe it’s the designer’s responsibility to provide the client with what they think is the best possible choice for their logo design, not the other way around.
The client is responsible for providing important goals and content for the project, but it’s up to the designer to take all that info and turn it into a brand that’ll help make their business successful.
If you’re interested in how I work and want to know more about this one-concept approach, check out this article from Sean McCabe.
3. What are some of your favorite logos and why?
A lot of my favorite logos are hand lettered, like the Coca Cola logo or the Kiehl’s logo—I can’t stop pinning it to all of my client mood boards. Hand-lettered logos aren’t for every business, but for me they’ve always resonated the most. They show creativity and originality.
There’s something about the handmade that makes us take a second look. Especially in a world where everything seems to be done by computers, it’s the manmade things that still hold our attention. With the wave of simple, clean design overflowing in branding I think people are ready to take a break from perfection—they’re craving more of the imperfect.
“No one cares what you like—all that matters is that other people like what you make.”
4. How has your experience in marketing affected the way you design?
You can’t design for the sake of design. You need to take your own personal preferences and ego and throw them straight out the window. No one cares what you like—all that matters is that other people like what you make. The whole point of design is that it’s made to attract a specific audience, and marketing is all about getting to know that audience.
I had no idea what I was doing when I started freelancing, so I read books on entrepreneurship and articles on business, and I constantly listened to podcasts to help improve my design skills as well as my marketing skills.
Without marketing, design is just a pretty picture. There’s a big difference between design and art.
Learning marketing gave my work the selling power it needed to help my clients get customers and get noticed. I no longer choose typography based on what looked good on myfont that day, but more so reflected the tone of the ad or logo that I was creating. I became more strategic about my designs and used real data and psychology instead of just my imagination.
“Without marketing, design is just a pretty picture.”
It took all my years of art experience and entire novels of research to finally make that marriage between marketing and design that could make a difference in my client’s bottom line.
Once I made this change, bigger and bigger brands started to notice me. If it wasn’t for my marketing know-how, I wouldn’t have been able to make the move from 9 to 5 to full-time freelance.
A hand lettering commission for my friend to give to her boyfriend as a birthday gift. She says: "Since we first met, balance has been a big theme—we keep realizing how important it is in our lives, in our relationship with each other, in small moments and big. I want to give him a piece of art—really the first piece he'll own, and make it a personal reminder of how much we value balance and what it means, and brings, to our relationship."
5. How do you handle harsh client feedback?
Thanks to my one-concept approach, I don’t get a lot of negative feedback. But every once in while, a complaint or issue comes up. As an artist, it always stings when I work hard on a project that the client ends up not clicking with. Whether their reason is warranted, it’s important to handle the issue with professionalism and empathy.
Keep in mind that 99% of the time it’s not that the client doesn’t like my work, it’s that there was a breakdown in communication that allowed me go down a direction that wasn’t appropriate. It happens—congratulations, you made a mistake that proves you’re human. So I try not to beat myself too much about it and just learn my lesson for next time.
So ego aside, I usually read that scary complaint email and just think about it for a while before I respond. The worst thing you can do is respond out of anger or have an annoyed tone in your email when you’re trying to resolve the issue.
I respond thoughtfully and do everything in my power to fix the issue. I take responsibility even if it’s the client’s fault, because I’m the professional no matter the circumstance. Whether I didn’t explain my process or art direction thoroughly enough or I didn’t ask more probing questions during the onboarding process, I think all problems are avoidable with transparency and clear communication.
“All problems are avoidable with transparency and clear communication.”
6. What do you do when you aren’t feeling creative?
A big game changer for me was when I developed a set schedule when I started freelancing. I spent the first 2 hours of my day—no matter what—just drawing. Whether I felt creative, tired, or hungover, I sat and drew. I didn’t do client work—I just drew for me.
It was hard to get used to, but it eventually became a habit I looked forward to. It inspired me and gave me the practice I needed to know that you can create your own inspiration.
Starting a project can really suck if you’re not in the mood. But if you push through the anxiety, the flow of creativity will come and you’ll have all the tools you need to do work you’re proud of.
So if you’re not in the mood to do client work, give yourself permission to start on a personal project to give yourself freedom to do whatever you want. Once the fog in your head clears, you can begin that daunting client project and knock it out of the park.
7. How did you find your style?
Finding your unique style takes time and tons of practice. I feel like I’m still fine-tuning my style, and I’m sure it’ll evolve more over time. The most important thing for me was that I was open to trying new things and learning new techniques, even if they put me outside my comfort zone. Thanks to all those references, over time I had a bigger inspiration pool to draw from when working on something new.
My style basically consists of things I see and other artists’ influence, mixed with my handwriting. As I practiced more and more I started to see patterns in my work that made my portfolio recognizable. For example, I tend to use the same ligatures in my work or similar embellishments just because I like the way they look—especially when I’m designing new posters for my shop.
8. What makes a logo great?
There are a few universal rules that make up a good logo, like balance, readability, and composition. But I feel that the most important of them all is being able to capture a company’s essence. To do the research needed to really hone in on why that companies deserves notoriety.
My favorite thing about my job is I get to discover what truly makes a brand special and that I have the unique privilege of influencing others to see all those same wonderful things that makes that business worth knowing.
“A good logo should capture a company’s essence.”
So I guess the real thing that makes a logo great is how it makes you feel towards that brand. If you’re walking down the street trying to decide where to eat for lunch downtown and it’s a toss up between 2 places right next to each other, which one of those signs are you going to trust the most because of their of branding? Which logo will make you feel like you belong there?
All your favorite brands, clothes, stores, restaurants have branding that was made to attract someone just like you.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty amazing.