Owner of Wee Taps and Full-Time Indie Illustrator & Designer: A Top Designer Interview With Paddy Donnelly

Adam Rush

Indie Designer, Paddy Donnelly

Welcome to another installment of our Top App Dev Interview series!

This time there’s a slight twist: we’re actually interviewing a designer. I guess that makes this a Top App Designer Interview. :]

Each interview in this series focuses on a successful mobile app, developer or designer and the path they took to get where they are today. Today’s special guest is Paddy Donnelly.

Paddy Donnelly is an Irish illustrator who now lives in Belgium. With over 14 years experience as an illustrator and designer, Paddy now gets to make living drawing dinosaurs, and his 5-year-old self is very happy about this.

Paddy is comfortable working in a number of different illustration styles depending on the type of project. He has been creating kids apps for iOS under the brand Wee Taps and wishes that Pluto was still a planet. He also redesigned the raywenderlich.com website a few years back!

Love For Pixels

I understand you were previously a designer, and now focus more on illustration. What made you decide to make the switch, and were there any challenges making this career switch?

I’ve been working as a designer for about 14 years. I got my start in web design and have moved through desktop apps, mobile apps, print design, games and the last few years have been all about illustration. Now I’m focusing a lot more on illustrating children’s picture books, which is a totally different experience.

I’ve had a love for illustration since I was a kid, but it’s only after working in the design industry for so many years that I felt I could really dive into it as a career.

About 10 years ago, each website was something unique. A totally different design, based on what the website was about. Web designers were really creative, however, I feel that web design ‘found its groove’ a few years ago and we’ve gone through a period of all websites having this same basic structure and look and feel. Mobile apps also went the same way and I didn’t really enjoy the ‘flat design’ era. I do appreciate good, minimal design, however creatively I longed for something a bit different.

I wanted every project to be something new and challenging and didn’t want to start from a template. That’s maybe why illustration appeals to me. No two projects are alike and you can really express yourself in the piece.

There are of course challenges to working as an illustrator vs a designer. There is a lot of competition and it’s really difficult to break into the children’s publishing market, however, I’m enjoying trying something new.

Paddy now focuses on illustrations.

Imagine someone commissions you to create an illustration. What is your general process, how long does it usually take you and what tools do you use?

This depends on a lot of different factors. The first step is to discuss the concept with the client, their goals for the piece etc. Then I’d move on to rough sketching and often I’d use mood boards to show what I’m thinking in terms of style. Then it’s on to the digital illustration. Timing depends on the size, style, complexity etc.

I use a Wacom Tablet with Photoshop and Illustrator. I use a lot of Kyle Webster’s brushes in my illustration pieces.

What illustration are you most proud of, and why?

This is a tough one. Well, one of the most amazing opportunities I’ve had was to create the unlockable stickers for Foursquare’s Swarm app. That has been so much fun coming up with crazy sticker ideas, and also knowing that something you created is used by millions of people is pretty mind-blowing.

Sticker pack designed by Paddy for Foursquare’s app.

Recently I’ve created a couple of kids illustration pieces, one symbolising the struggle with dyslexia and one about Little Red Riding Hood that I’m pretty proud of.

Being a designer is such a creative outlet for me. It’s great to be able to imagine a creative solution in your mind and then work hard to realise that solution. Seeing a finished product is always satisfying, and hearing good feedback from users. Getting to be creative every day is perhaps the best thing.

What recommendations do you have for app developers looking to hire designers or illustrators? For example: where should they look to hire someone, and do you have any tips for working well with a designer/illustrator?

I’d say get involved in the project as soon as possible in the process so that both you and the designer know what’s expected and are both thinking about solutions. I always try to involve the developer even at the idea stage, as I think it’s far too late to hand a completed design to a developer and say ‘build this’.

If you get involved early in the process, developers can give you ideas on what new technologies are available, tricks you can use to speed up the workflow and give you an idea of what’s possible within the budget/timescale.

In terms of finding a designer, most clients contact me after visiting my portfolio site or through sites like Dribbble. I’ve also now just recently signed with an agent, The Bright Agency so now I get a lot of illustration projects through them. Instagram is also a good way to get your work out there. So any one of these avenues is a great starting point to finding a super designer..

If one of our readers wants to become “an awesome illustrator just like Paddy”, and has 4 years to do so, how would you recommend they spend their time?

  1. Work hard.
  2. Be nice to people.

These two rules are essential. There are no shortcuts. You just need to do more and more work to get better.

If your job is your passion, then all the better. Then you can constantly be adding to your portfolio, just for fun. And definitely, make connections with people. I’ve gotten so many great projects through other designers and developers I have worked with, met at conferences, interacted with online.

Be nice to people because it’s a small world and an even smaller industry.

Indie Life

How did you transition from a “normal job” to being a freelancer? And what are the challenges working on your own?

Start. Just make the leap. There’s something that has been rattling around in the back of your head for a while now. An idea. Something you’ve always wanted to do. It might not work. It’s scary. Everyone is scared. Just start it.

Essentially I just took more and more freelance work on in the evenings and weekends until I was sure that there was enough work out there for me, then I made the leap.

I quite like working on my own, from home. It doesn’t bother me, in fact, I really enjoy the peace and quiet. Forcing myself to keep active and get out of the house can sometimes be a challenge, but I’m getting better at that.

Paddy’s simple, yet beautifully creative workspace.

Paddy, can you tell me what an average day looks like for you? (i.e. 8:00 wake up…)

My current routine looks something similar to this;

  • 8am: Wake up
  • 8:15am: Coffee
  • 9am-10am: Breakfast and emails
  • 10am-12pm: Illustration work
  • 12pm-2pm: Usually do something active, head into town, go for a walk or coffee
  • 2pm-6pm: More illustration work
  • 6pm-7pm: Dinner
  • 7pm-11pm: Either do more work, usually creating pieces for my portfolio, writing, Netflix.

Many of our readers have had a challenging time making a successful business out of selling apps on the App Store. Out of the apps you’ve worked on, have any been a success financially?

We’ve had a bit of luck with a few of our kids apps however it’s all been dependent on Apple choosing to feature us or not. That’s the only thing that’s really worked I’ve found.

A few times our apps got picked up in a feature list, or sometimes in a banner in the App Store and we get a spike. We couldn’t give our freelance lives up just yet based on the revenue, however, it’s a nice extra passive income each month. It is very tough though making a living in the App Store. There is so much competition now.

I guess create something unique and look at what technologies Apple is focusing on and create something in that space to be in with a chance of featuring.

Focus

Developers really struggle with procrastination. What kind of distractions do you get and how do you handle them?

Paddy is at his best in the morning!

I do get distracted a lot, however, I also keep pretty flexible working hours. Working for myself from home means I can get a burst of creativity in the morning, take a break to do something else and then continue on in the afternoon or in the evening.

In the last few months I’ve really switched up my schedule and I am working when I’m feeling it, rather than sticking to a 9-5. I’ve found that’s really helped with being creative. Just keep the deadlines in mind, and disable the “autoplay” on YouTube.

For me, my noise-cancelling headphones and Spotify are the number one things that keep me focused. When I can close off the rest of the world and get in the zone, I can be creative.

How do you manage the wearing of multiple hats, for example managing clients and then doing the design?

Over the years I’ve figured out the kind of design work I really like to do and I stick to those areas.

Keeping focused on what I like to do and being honest with clients about not doing other types of design work has been important to me and my workflow. I haven’t had much trouble with the invoicing and contracts side of things. I have a pretty standard workflow now after working for so many years.

I’ve found what works for me and I think good communication with your clients is vital.

Paddy has really found what he loves to do!

Can you tell me more about your business process? For example; What do you use to create invoices? How do you make sure payments are received on time?

I’m a huge fan of Freeagent it’s a lifesaver. So easy to keep all your client contacts, invoices, time sheets together. I always work with contracts and require deposits before I start on a project. That’s really important.

Good communication with a client and settings expectations is also important. Make sure in your contract that it says you don’t deliver the final work or source files before your final invoice is paid is my ultimate advice.

Where To Go From Here?

And that concludes our Top Designer Interview with Paddy Donnelly. Huge thanks to Paddy for sharing his journey with the community :]

Having a clear direction on your career seems to be key to Paddy’s success. Paddy knows exactly where to get his clients, understands his workflow and has perfected his skills on the illustration side of the business.

I hope you can pick out the key’s to Paddy’s success and put in to practice in your work-flow.

If you are an app developer with a hit app or game in the top 100 in the App store, we’d love to hear from you. Please drop us a line anytime. If you have a request for any particular developer you’d like to hear from, please join the discussion in the forum below!

Adam Rush

Adam Rush is a passionate iOS developer with over 6 years commercial experience, contracting all over the UK & Europe. He's a tech addict and #Swift enthusiast.

When he's not writing code, he enjoys watching sports and spending time with his family. You can reach him by email or on Twitter.

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