Mollie Makes meets Mel Smith Designs

Mel Smith Designs

Illustrator Mel tells us how her travels inspire her drawings, and why we should shop small this Christmas…

From llamas in Peru, to Edinburgh’s local landmarks, Illustrator Mel Smith’s drawings are inspired by her travels, and are enough to sate anyone’s wanderlust. Her contemporary take on mid-century designs, as well as her love of vibrant colours, make her products ideal gifts for those with itchy feet.

With Christmas rapidly approaching and Black Friday almost upon us, many people are looking at supporting small businesses by buying handmade and shopping locally. Mel is even more committed to this than most, as part of a team inspiring people to ditch the chain stores and shop from independent makers, with the Just A Card campaign.

We caught up with Mel at her home in Ashford, Kent as she takes a break from drawing her way round the world, to find out where her love of maps comes from, what she plans to sketch next, and more about Just A Card…

Mel Smith Designs Peru illustration

Hi Mel! How did you get involved with the Just A Card campaign?

I’d been in touch with Just A Card’s founder, Sarah Hamilton, for a while and we had discussed working together on something at some point. Just A Card is an initiative to encourage people to buy from independent shops and galleries and designer-makers, promoting the message that all purchases, even if you buy ‘just a card’, keep small businesses afloat. When the opportunity came up to join the campaign it was a no-brainer. Sarah needed a little help, so I’ve become her sidekick!

Just A Card Campaign

Why do you think the campaign is so important?

It not only supports designer-makers who put their heart and soul into their products, but also indie retailers who have a passion to stock this kind of work. These small businesses give us shops with personality and passion. Things have really picked up the last few months. The word is spreading and the team has grown to keep up with the attention the campaign is getting. We had such an incredible response from Just A Card Day in September, and the community is fab. You really start to get to know other designers and their work. We’re about to do an alternative Black Friday – Indie Friday on 24th November, and we’re also selling exclusive Benedict Cumberbatch charity Christmas cards.

Mel Smith Designs tea towels

How will you be doing your Christmas shopping this year?

I’ve made it a personal challenge to not buy high street, and to support designer-makers whenever I am able to. Unfortunately, I’m usually selling at markets this time of year so get limited shopping time! I try to run round at the shows to take in all the amazing creations, and I love getting to chat to the makers. If I can’t buy there and then, I take a card to look them up online. I would absolutely encourage everyone to shop small, at markets or from indie retailers and galleries, even if it’s ‘Just A Card’. My friends always love to see who I’ve bought from so they can look them up and follow their work.

Mel Smith Designs New York coasters

What does your average working day look like?

That’s a tricky one. At this time of year there’s a lot less designing and more focus on promo, prepping for markets and focusing on getting orders out in good time.

Why did you choose maps as the focus for your illustration?

It just kind of happened. I think I added a map to one of my project collections and then realised how much I enjoyed it, so I added another to the next project and it just spiralled. I now have a shelf of illustrated map books, a rather full Pinterest board, and have also joined They Draw & Travel’s Mapmakers For Hire. I love working on illustrated maps, either for my own work or as custom pieces. It’s nice to see where people have been on their trips and make something for them so they can remember their most treasured times. I sometimes even get inspiration for my own adventures!

Mel Smith Designs- London

What are you planning to draw next?

I’m planning on continuing my ‘Walking The Streets Of…’ range, where I’m exploring various parts of London. I’d also like to work on a Lisbon project, as I visited there this year. Then again, the architecture in Strasbourg really grabbed me, so maybe I should do that next – there are too many choices! I’m also starting a travel illustration blog, where I can showcase my work alongside photos and recommendations for the area.

Mel Smith Designs - Doors

What are you sketching at the moment?

I’ve been working on some new door and window ideas. I have a bit of an obsession with nice doorways. I’m sure people think I’m a little bit strange when they see me taking pictures of rotting door frames and dirty steps.

Where do you go to find inspiration?

My travels. There is SO much to look at, and I get to delve deep into a country’s ways and traditions when drawing it. I look at all types of things – architecture, clothing, food, transport, animals, flowers, textiles and crafts. It’s pretty endless really!

What’s been your proudest project?

I’ve got a soft spot for my Peru range. The colours just make me so happy. It was a bit of a turning point for me with illustration and my map style, and it has helped me continue to improve my work ever since. I’ve also got a very exciting collaboration coming up, so watch this space…

Name three things you can’t live without?

  1. Fine liners and marker pens
  2. My wonderful, supportive hubby (plus other family and friends)
  3. Sunshine to motivate me. It instantly puts a smile on my face.

Mel Smith Designs work in progress

What’s been your biggest craft fail?

Anything involving a sewing machine. We’ve never had a good relationship!

Who would your dream collaboration be with?

I would love to illustrate a travel magazine. I regularly buy National Geographic Traveller, Condé Nast Traveller and The Sunday Times Travel Magazine – it would be a dream to be on their pages. I’m also be really interested in working with travel bloggers, and have a few projects lined up already.

Mel Smith Designs Print

Where are you happiest?

I’m happiest when I’m in my studio, with the perfect playlist in the background, totally in the zone and working on a new project. It’s the best feeling when you’re in full flow and it’s coming together naturally.

Mel Smith Designs- Llamas

What are your top three illustration tips?

  1. Draw your passion. If you don’t love what you do your work won’t be as good as it could be. It took me a little while to really find what I loved, but I got there in the end.
  2. Be yourself and don’t copy others. Watch videos of techniques other illustrators use, gather images that inspire you, but play about with what you find and make it your own.
  3. Connect with others. It can quite lonely at times working by yourself, so it’s important to surround yourself with like-minded people who you can bounce ideas off and have a chat to. Talk to others who know about this field and are able to understand what you are going through.

What does making mean to you?

I couldn’t live without illustration and pattern design. I never know quite how to describe it – it’s just something I need to do. I get twitchy when I haven’t done anything even for a day (which makes having a relaxing holiday difficult!). I’m lucky enough to do something I love for a living, so when I’m working late I don’t always realise, as it’s my hobby too. Give me a good project and an amazing playlist and you won’t stop me!

To see more of Mel’s work visit or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

To find out more about Just A Card visit or follow the campaign on Instagram and Twitter.