‘Be a design chameleon’—Going full-time freelance with Michael Penda

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Just a few months ago, brand designer Michael Penda decided to give his side-hustle the full-time treatment. Read on to see how freelance life is going for this self-taught designer, and get a glimpse into the diverse inspiration sources behind his distinct style.

Hello, my name is Michael Penda and I’m a freelance designer and illustrator based in Boston, Massachusetts. I’m self-taught and have spent the last 5-6 years honing my visual style and approach to brand design while creating identities for an ever-growing roster of clients.

That’s my elevator pitch, but in reality, I’m just a music nerd and craft beer junkie with a peanut allergy. I also love visiting the U.S. National Parks, I own an alarming number of checkered shirts, and I’ve been binge-watching The Office nonstop since 2012.

I love what I do and take great pride in my work. While much of my design work serves a functional purpose for my clients, if I can put something out into the world that makes people smile or even just take a second look, then I’d say that’s a job well done.

  1. Cafe Tropical (from Schitt's Creek)

  2. el Tigre

  3. Mouse Moose Hair Care

Tell us about yourself and where you work. How did you get started in design?

I am a full-time freelancer as of two months ago, and it’s been a very rewarding and challenging experience thus far! I’m finding that being self-taught is a large part of the reason why freelance has been so enjoyable; I really get to learn as I go and figure things out along the way.

My background is in media & advertising, and I had worked as a media planner for the past five years at two agencies here in Boston. My work consisted of a lot of market research, target audience profiling, brand strategy, and client management—all of which are incredibly valuable skills to put to use when designing brand identities.

While client work always takes precedence, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of passion projects to my current success.

A few years ago, a close friend of mine finally convinced me to start an Instagram page for my vector doodles, and from there I slowly but surely began to develop my style and navigate the waters of brand design with a few small clients. I made plenty of mistakes and plenty of bad logos, but that was a crucial part of my growth. I learned something every time and applied that knowledge to the next project.

My business grew as I got better and took on more client work. But this year, I had really been burning the candle at both ends trying to stay afloat with design work and my full-time job at a media agency—not to mention things like a social life and my health. I reached a point where I didn’t have enough hours in the day to work on fun projects or elevate my brand to where I wanted it to be, so I finally decided to take the leap and give my side hustle the full-time treatment. There was so much I wanted to explore, both in the design world and with my business, that I figured I owed it to myself to go big and see where I could take it. I don’t have a kid or a mortgage yet, so now’s the time to be a voluntary starving artist.

What projects are you currently working on?

Currently, I’m working on a few wedding branding packages, some apparel designs for a brew bike company in California, and of course my #Brandimals series where I invent a new brand each week based on a different animal.

While client work always takes precedence, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of passion projects to my current success. Making something that’s fun and low-stress is an amazing catalyst for creativity; I try to consistently make time in my schedule to experiment with new styles, colors, and typography without the pressure of a deadline or deliverable.

  1. Brandimals 02 - Bison

  2. Brandimals 01 - Alligator

  3. Brandimals 03 - Cobra

  4. Brandimals 05 - Electric Eel

  5. Brandimals 06 - Frigate Bird

  6. Brandimals 04 - Dachshund

What else are you passionate about outside of design? How does it influence your work?

I love music, craft beer, and the outdoors. There is so much inspiration to be found in nature in particular, since there is such a beautiful blend of organic and geometric forms. Much of my personal/non-client design work has been inspired by this and focuses on reducing animals, plants, and landscapes to their most basic, minimalist shapes.

The music and craft beer scenes as well, while wildly different, each have an abundance of design styles that I gravitate towards and find myself constantly inspired by. From gig posters and album artwork to brewery logos and beer can labels, there is SO much out there to influence my style and encourage me to improve my work. I’m always eager to work with new clients in these spaces since my passions are firmly rooted here.

I also love all things retro and vintage, and you’ll see a lot of this reflected in my work as well. I draw a lot of inspiration from old advertisements, wartime propaganda, comic books, character designs, industrial typography, you name it. I love taking a vintage style or theme and putting a fresh spin on it to make it both modern and nostalgic.

Tell us about a favorite piece of advice you’ve received as a creative. Why does it resonate with you?

“Be a design chameleon.”

Jon Stapp of atomicvibe, who’s become a great mentor to me over the past year or so, once told me that this is one of the most important things I can do as a brand designer.

This doesn’t mean to position myself as a jack-of-all-trades without a niche, but instead to hone and deepen my skill set to be able to adapt my design style and approach to fit different client needs. As you can probably tell from my work, my bread and butter is a very geometric reductionist style, but this doesn’t necessarily fit every client project. By being flexible and eager to evolve my style, I can open so many more doors to new projects and capabilities.

Shout-out: Who is another Dribbble designer you admire?

I’ve been loving Philip Eggleston’s work for a while now. He has such a unique retro illustration and lettering style, it’s eye candy all around.

Any events, speaking gigs, merch, workshops, classes, or products you’d like to shout-out?

I recently participated in a poster show here in Boston that was organized by BSDS (Bay State Design Shop) and Backlash Brewery, with the proceeds benefiting Artists for Humanity. BSDS is an incredible community of designers and I’m proud to be a member. Feel free to check out (and purchase!) all of the posters from 28 local artists who each interpreted the theme “A New England Brew”.

Want to keep up with Michael? Find him on Dribbble and Instagram.

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