Jessica Zschorn is visual artist based in Hull, UK. Whilst she is perhaps best known for her distinctive illustration style, her vibrant photography and graphic design work, she is also an entrepreneur and one-third of Meek, a quirky, feel-good band who recently headlined at Scunthorpe’s Café INDIE on International Women’s Day. With numerous projects on the go and a CV longer than everybody else’s put together, it would be easy to feel intimidated by Jessica’s success. Thankfully, her sunny demeanour is enough to put anybody at ease.
J.L. Corbett: So, how long have you been a full-time freelancer?
Jessica Zschorn: I’ve been freelancing as an illustrator for about seven or eight years. And then it was photography for six years, and now I do design, so it’s been quite a long process!
Did you go straight into freelance work when you came out of university?
I’ve always been making artwork. I spent quite a lot of time in my room drawing comics and so as I became an adult, people were interested in buying drawings and artwork from me, which is really lucky. Throughout uni I realised that photography was also something that I was interested in, and I managed to have that as a business throughout my education. With being a designer, all these skills kind of merged into one industry.
How relevant do you think that your degree has been to your career?
I personally think I didn’t need the degree to reach the recognition or the jobs that I have had. I think a degree is good. It is important. I wouldn’t have… I don’t regret my degree, because at the end of the day it allowed me to be supported in a different city, and I think that the most vital part of a degree is finding your independence and having that time to explore and know what you love. So, although I might have reached the same point without the degree, I don’t feel I would have had that freedom and beautiful experience. I was able to learn more about the industry.
So, did your degree help you more as a person than as a professional artist?
It definitely helped me as an artist. The benefits to university are that you’re with like-minded people, so you have this culture which is predominantly around your industry, which is really valuable. But the things that they actually teach in university tends to be quite outdated, because industry grows so quickly. By the time you’re out, you’re already on your feet.
But it’s quite important to allow that feedback on your work and to be able to accept it. That ability to adapt is very important, the ability to talk to other people and get their opinion. It makes you grow as an artist. I think if you take that journey alone it can become a very insular one. It can be difficult sometimes to take criticism or develop in the ways that I feel like you should if you are a designer, at least. An artist is a different story, because that’s more subjective.
That’s a good point. I recently had a look at your photography stuff, and I have to say, it’s really eclectic! There were photographs of local bands, club nights, weddings, even a climate change protest in Warsaw. Do you have a favourite type of subject to photograph?
I think my photography (similar to my design and my illustration) is kind of… they’re individual expressions in themselves. Even though I have a job that is, you know, it could be a band that I’m doing for free, or it could be a wedding… I like the process of editing, and that’s all dependent on how I feel about the shots and who is in the shots and what kind of cause they’re for.
Even though photography can be a little more commercial, I still think that there’s a way you can put personality into it. I enjoy… it’s going to make me sound like I’m showing off, but I enjoy places where I can further my technical skill. For example, if the lighting is interesting, or there’s something going on in the background. What I’m shooting is not as relevant.
I think that makes total sense, that it’s more about the creativity than the subject matter.
Yeah, and I will say that in photography, something I haven’t done in a while is more interesting than something repetitive. I am massively at fault for getting bored of things. It’s clear I need to stimulate myself with different things!
There’s one photograph that I need to ask you about. It was a photo of a naked guy holding an enormous inflatable banana. What was that about?
Oh, this was for an art project that I had for uni, it was my final exhibition piece. It was called “Exposing Deviants”. It wasn’t a shot that was used, but the idea was to parody and to approach difficult topics on the subject of sex. The whole thing was fully anonymous – I always respect people’s privacy.
So, it could be people working in the sex industry, or someone with a not well-known sexual health condition, or a story about relationships and consent, or it could be… I can’t remember the concept behind the banana man, but we had another one where there was a guy with some binoculars looking up a skirt. It was a very vibrant and engaging image, but it was a humorous way to portray the subject. The idea was to interview people with the aim of having a non-biased insight into that industry and to maybe alleviate prejudice.
I can show you a few more pictures of this, just so you can kind of get the gist…
The bottom one was about a girl that I knew who had a heavily religious family, she was almost in a cult. They didn’t know that she was a lesbian. So, I captured this image of her and my friend. The top one was regarding slut-shaming.
It was just to allow a platform for a dialogue, it wasn’t supposed to be political. I’ve actually continued this work, but I’ve just been let down by the person who was curating it, so it’s kind of at a standstill at the minute. But the content is still there.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a project about sexuality done like that. It’s a really cool way of presenting it.
Thank you. Hopefully it’s something I’ll continue in the future, but you need a nice green screen studio, and I haven’t found one of those in Hull yet.
I know you’re now moving away from photography and towards graphic design. What drove that decision?
I think that illustration is too much of a part of me to capitalise on. Photography is great, but I felt like I hit a ceiling, especially moving back to Hull. I was fairly well off working in Cardiff, but the demand in Hull is different.
The design work is a way for me to ultimately work from anywhere in the world – that’s the aim. It allows me to use my artistic skills, but to also interpret someone else’s concept, as well as putting my own creativity into it.
It’s very collaborative I think, design. It’s not art, it’s like communication. It’s definitely an industry I really respect, because there’s a lot of power and responsibility behind advertising. Design’s everywhere, whether it’s noticed or not.
I can see that a lot of your various projects have been joint ventures with other people. How much importance do you place on collaboration?
I feel really comfortable leading a project at this point. But I do think that communication is a good point, because working with a start-up business, for example, you can’t just pick up and go with that without really understanding that person. If a brand is the business front for the team behind it, it’s knowing their strengths and who their demographic is, what their natural personality is and what the copy through the social states about them. Does that visual language fit the overall identity?
It’s quite complex, in the sense that you can use a colour in one society which has a completely different connotation in another culture or demographic. Brands are typically designed around these values, so it can get a little bit down the rabbit hole sometimes with the thinking. I think that collaboration should begin with the client: how they imagine themselves to be, their actions behind their business choices, and what decisions they’ll be making down the line. That then forms the brand. It’s tailored to who it’s advertised towards.
Your newest venture is Studio Blue, a design and branding company. I quite liked the quote that you used on the website: “using the method and madness to expand your brand”. How do you do that?
So, I actually received that phrase from my old business partner, Jamie. The idea behind the method and the madness is that I’m typically not a very corporate person, and before I owned my own business, I really struggled to be confident around a lot of clients. It’s really difficult to gain that ability to speak to everyone and still be able to sell yourself.
I think that by using the method and the madness I do come across as quite a kooky, creative person. I’m spaced out, you know. I just wanted to take that part of myself, and even though it’s more of a formal business approach, it’s still a valuable part of me. And that creativity is what is bringing the outside of the box concepts, it’s what brings the narrative.
You could go to a really experienced person in the industry offering a service that they’ve worked on over years, but that’s not how innovation works. It’s about adapting and creating new ideas that make you stand out; it’s not about sticking to what you know.
Have you ever had any negative feedback from clients or other creatives?
I see a lot of conflict when people go from art into business. That’s a huge thing. I, myself, really struggled. Before I was involved in business and finance, I really found it difficult to understand and relate to what my client was going through. I had an idea of what looked good, but I didn’t really understand the complexities of the business. I didn’t really understand that sometimes it’s hand to mouth.
I think another issue is knowing your client and knowing what to charge. It’s a huge issue with people, because a DJ trying to get a logo from his night, where his income is low and his pay-off is low, is different to a corporate business that wants a logo. Then I’m thinking: are you buying the rights to that logo? How many times is that logo going to be seen? What’s it produced on? It’s having that ability to quantify the value of what you’re doing and how that changes for each individual client or collaboration.
That’s a really good point. There’s a recurring joke now where people will hit up designers for logos or whatever it is that they need and say, “Well, I’ll pay you in exposure”. Have you come up against much of that in your career?
I’ve been reasonably lucky with clients, in the sense that people tend to come to me because they know me as a person and want the work that they’ve seen me post. So, it’s all in my control because it’s not someone wanting a logo.
Recently I had someone in a coffee shop ask, “how much?” to a logo and I gave him a really good deal on it. When you calculate the hours I’d put into it, it’d be maybe ten pounds an hour, which isn’t much considering that I’ve got seven years industry experience, but I understood that he was a start-up and I wouldn’t want to… I wanted to be a part of that because I wanted the creative pay-off. But from a business sense, it’s “you need to pay me”.
Exposure’s fine if you want to do the project, but I think the real issue is that they’re not valuing you. A lot of people can’t afford things, but it’s up to you to determine if that’s worth your time. Are you looking for someone to value you? Even after you do that work, they’re probably still not going to value you.
That sounds really tough.
It’s fine, people just don’t have much money! [laughs] I don’t think these people really understand what design is, if they think that a logo is free. A logo’s not just a logo. A brand is personality. It’s the font that you use – and some fonts can be user-friendly, some fonts are high-end. And that’s all pre-constructed by what’s out there and the styles that you subconsciously absorb. Amazon is iconic , you’ve got Nike which is iconic, but it’s not just the images, it’s the colours they use, it’s the tone of voice, the kind of personality that they project through copy, it just gets really crazy.
People think, “Oh, I want a logo and that’s just a drawing”, but it’s really not just about that.
Consumers perhaps don’t realise how much work goes into it. It’s so complex.
Yeah. I mean, some people just want a logo for a Facebook page. And then other people need a fifteen-page brand document outlining how to place a logo, you know, don’t stretch the logo, these colours work with these colours, but these colours don’t work. Use these colours when you’re talking in this tone of voice, use this font when you want to be more serious, this font when you’re trying to sell something and you want to come across a little bit more friendly. You know, avoid being political, use words like this. It’s identity, if anything, and it’s not always visual.
That brand then goes from being a logo to being the visual identity of a website and then their cards, their products, their apps they develop. It all spreads out.
To change the subject slightly: You and I first met at your cocktail bar, The Safehouse. I feel like every friend I’ve ever had has at some point said, “Oh my god, we should open a bar!” How did you decide to go through with the dream and open a bar?
My business partner really wanted to open a bar, and I really wanted to create a concept for a bar. We were already involved in a company we had started, a design agency, and I ended up donating more to this venture. Eventually I was given stakeholder rights.
I started taking up all the jobs and trying to make the thing run, because I really believed in what Jamie [her business partner] was doing. And eventually I just thought, well, I’m doing a lot of things, and I’m quite a fore fronting leader in this business… Everything visual that you saw I created; the media, I managed all of the socials, even the finance, sometimes the stock orders. It was beautiful, it was great.
Stepping inside The Safehouse, everything felt so cohesive, but at the same time it was really kind of quirky. The décor, the menu design… I hadn’t been anywhere like that before, I thought it was awesome. So, in terms of design, was that all you?
Jamie wanted a speakeasy bar. He wanted the gold lighting, he wanted the moodiness, and he wanted the name Safehouse. But everything visual was me, in terms of… oh no, sorry, we did have Harry. He illustrated some of these art deco type drawings that you saw in the bar, so Harry was strengthening that with his work.
But the character design was mine. The concept of the menu was mine. We wrote that together, so that was a place for us to have a little bit of a laugh and write the stories behind the drinks.
I grew up drawing comics in my room, alone, so it was like yes! How do I fit what I’m good at – I’ve drunk a lot of cocktails and I’ve written a lot of stories.
I really did like the whole storytelling aspect of it. It was so unique, the way you had all the different drinks grouped together into these categories, like The Academic and The Debutante. I mean, I can still remember the exact drink that I had. It had a long name, something to do with Orion’s belt…
Oh, The Light from Orion’s Belt.
That was it! I have to say, I was really surprised when The Safehouse shut down. By contrast, your band, Meek, is really active at the moment.
That’s all Sarah [lead vocals and guitar]! Sarah’s the driving force to my burn out! She pushes me because I’m not a performer, I’m a creative. Every year I learn something new from whatever project I’m doing, so she’s been a massive inspiration. And Dazz [drums] is great as well, he’s just like “Yeah, alright, I’ll put a spacesuit on”. [laughs]
I find it interesting that you say you’re not a performer. How did you get involved in the band?
I really needed something happy to get me through the business disintegration, so I was kind of just looking into other creative people that I could… you know, I’m not… I can play guitar and sing, but I was so terrified of being on stage that, if anything, I clung to more talented people. Now I’ve reached a point where I’m more confident, and that’s all thanks to the effort and the passion that Sarah puts into it.
Meek has a really strong image. Is that your influence, as an artist and designer?
Yeah, so the space outfits… Sarah made the yellow one, but those space outfits were just things that I randomly had in my house.
[laughs] Yeah! Honestly, it was a last-minute decision to even bring them. I did the logo for the band and I edited the music video. Sarah’s had a lot of influence from me, with how I create things and the colours I use. A lot of the time it’s me and Sarah, because Dazz is like “Yeah, I need a break”. It’s just us all kind of throwing in our silly personalities. It is professional, but it’s not an ego place, it’s very much about us having fun along the way and still really nailing what we do.
You’re a fun band. Nowadays, a lot of bands take themselves so seriously, but that definitely cannot be said of you guys!
I think that it’s that kind of insular creative syndrome, where you can’t take any criticism. If you can’t take criticism, you’re not developing. If you can’t humour yourself, you’re not really thinking. I mean, it’s alright to be serious about your music, but do you really want the stress of taking yourself so seriously? You can improve and listen to feedback and still go your own way.
Even the music video that you guys made, it came across as professionally done, it was a proper music video, but the concept – that you guys were elderly people who overthrew their old folks’ home – was so bizarre!
Yeah, Sarah had this idea where she wanted to make her house into a house party, and I thought we should definitely make us old, because the song’s “Still Young, Still Fun”. I was worried it would come across as cheesy if we didn’t stuff some kind of stupid concept in there. And the actual idea was that we were going to… there was more to it, but to be honest, we got a little bit tipsy and the filming stopped! [laughs] But I was able to put together a video – literally just about – from the footage we had!
So, was there supposed to be more to the story?
Yeah, we wanted like a panning shot of the elderly home, we wanted to put in passed out older people everywhere, we wanted to film it so the whole party was going backwards. But do you know what? As soon as I got there, I realised everyone was getting drunk really quickly…
So, I’d like to talk about Hull 52, which is a well-known project wherein 52 local artists each design a playing card to form a “pocket-sized gallery”. I didn’t realise that you were involved in the selection process this year. How did you become involved in that?
I met Adam, who is the mastermind behind it. I’ve had a stressful two years, in terms of business and general dealings with people, so I found myself to be kind of isolated. I really wanted to get out there and reconnect with the world again, to meet creatives that really inspire me and to help Adam.
It’s all non-profit and it’s been so difficult, because there’s been so many overwhelming people that were… it wasn’t just technical talent, but it was choosing the people who were clearly dedicated: they had a website, they had socials, their positivity for other creatives was apparent. It was very complex decision-making.
It’s such a popular project, I’d imagine there must be loads of people that apply to be a part of it.
We had over two hundred applicants to choose from. They were all insane on different levels; I can’t say that anyone who applied didn’t have a pretty good amount of skill. It was difficult.
When I went back and looked at last year’s deck, I was surprised that you didn’t have a card. Will you have one this year?
[laughs] I didn’t! Okay, so Jamie, my old business partner, introduced me to Adam. I didn’t have a card last year or in the previous version because I wasn’t living in Hull. I was actually considered to have a card, but I think they gave it to Hayley Hyuga instead – which is fantastic, she’s a really good artist – but it was always a joke with myself and Jamie. I was like, “Well, I didn’t get on the cards this year!”, so he introduced me to Adam and said, “there you go, you can have a card now, you bitch!”
Jamie was part of an agency called Yes Yes, and he was actually a really good mentor. I hope he’s doing well. We’re not on bad terms or anything, it’s just difficult given everything we’ve been through to power on as if everything was normal. But I’ll give him a little nod. He’s set me up with some good things, so that’s nice.
Your art style is so distinctive. When you started out, did you have a conscious idea of how you wanted your art to look, or was it more of an evolution?
I grew up reading, like overwhelmingly stimming my tiny child brain with games, comics, manga, and then I discovered Yaoi. I got obsessed with Yaoi. I think I literally started drawing because I wanted to draw my own little romance stories, where they’re in love and it’s all very effeminate. And then it was manga… Actually, the first character I ever drew was Sonic the Hedgehog.
Yeah, I used to roleplay it. That was the basis, and then I developed onto comics and writing stories, and now I’m really wanting to do stuff that’s a bit more demented, if I’m honest. I just want to be creepy and too much. I’m starting to find love for the odd. Instead of trying to make it look pretty, I just want to do something shiny and weird.
I think people respond best to honest work. I find that when creatives are overly focused on how they want the end result to look, it comes across as forced, whereas if you’re just having fun, that’s when it really works.
I think that’s the case. I mean, regarding the drawings for The Safehouse, I was going through such a hard time that it took me about thirty hours to draw each one. It was just horrible. I was going through a pretty shitty time and I felt like drawing… it was making me so stressed to commit to it. But in a way I had to achieve that, because I wanted to prove that I wasn’t… I wanted to combat this low opinion I had of myself. I wanted to make something, I needed to prove myself. I think the Safehouse drawings (at least the first few I did) were so detailed, but it wasn’t me. It was a response to my life, but the drawings…
I keep saying throughout this interview that I take inspiration from other people. There’s no way I could’ve just done this by myself. Like my recent drawings, I draw with my boyfriend, Will, and he’s taught me to be a bit more laidback about my work. I’m inspired by the artists I’ve met through Hull 52. Dazz [drums, Meek] likes gaming and roleplay and I’m like, “Oh, I remember doing that! Is there something in that, in my history, where I can find a connection to art again?” Because I really find it hard to draw when I’m sad, or if something’s happened.
I think it does make a big difference when there’s other stuff going on. It’s hard to focus when you’ve got other stuff going on in the background.
Yeah, I’m just trying not to get too political at the minute. Because there’s just so much of it going on: extreme left, extreme right, so I’m just really trying to behave.
It’s hard not to be political at the moment.
If I draw something, I shouldn’t really be making a statement, but god I’m motivated to draw it!
I’m not sure how often you experience this, but how do you deal with burn out?
You need a separate space to work, if you’re working from home. You need an area that you can separate, be that a desk or a room. When you’re working from home you feel like a constant piece of shit. Even if you have done enough work that day, because your workdays aren’t always regular if you’re a creative like me (you just have to donate at least eight hours a day to something), you start to feel guilty for having fun, playing games. You start to think, “I haven’t done enough”, and it gets obsessive. That’s the biggest difficulty with working by yourself or as a freelancer.
Is there any part of your career that you’re particularly proud of?
Oh, I don’t know. I know this sounds morbid – because I really am a happy person! – but I don’t think… If I felt I could settle on one thing that I’ve done, I wouldn’t keep trying to do more. I think I have a lack of dopamine when I do achieve something. So, it’s kind of like “What’s next?” I mean, I’m literally ADHD so I don’t always get the pay-off for completing something.
That’s such a shame. You’ve had so many different projects; your career is so varied – you should be proud of all of it.
That’s really kind of you to say. I don’t always see that, I’m too focused on the next thing. It’s been really nice to… I don’t know! To feel appreciated in what I’ve done? I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation this in depth about myself.
I’ve had supportive people along the way, but it’s crazy… when you put it like that, it is awesome. But it’s difficult, because you always feel like you’re trying more and more each time to do something else.
Well I guess it propels you as well, so perhaps it’s a good thing.
Yeah, and also, I get a bit embarrassed. I am good at pitches and sales, but I think compliments are awkward, aren’t they?
I don’t know anyone who’s good at taking compliments. And if they are, they probably don’t deserve the compliment.
[laughs] If we didn’t feel like pieces of shit, would we even try?
You can follow Jessica on Instagram @desumilk.