Creative Lives — Space, socks and stationery: Inside illustrator Mike Lemanski’s Mirfield-based studio

Posted 02 September 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Ayla Angelos

In the small town of Mirfield – burrowed between Leeds and Huddersfield – is a place of complete serenity. It’s here where you’ll find illustrator Mike Lemanski. As a full-time freelancer, Mike works from home and admits that he may have gotten that work-life balance pretty spot on: “I think part of what works for me is living and working within a space that feels creative and also peaceful,” he says. Now, having worked for clients including TED, New York Times, Monocle, Lacoste, WSJ and Coca-Cola, Mike’s portfolio is filled with branding, graphic design, as well as editorial work. We caught up with the illustrator to find out more about his journey, and why he recently set about drawing each and every sock type imaginable.

Job Title

Freelance Designer and Illustrator


Mirfield (between Leeds and Huddersfield)

Selected Clients

TED, New York Times, Monocle, Lacoste, WSJ, Coca-Cola, Intel, John Lewis

Previous Employment

Junior Designer, Attik Leeds (2008-2009)

Place of Study

BA Graphic Media Communication, Bradford School of Art, (2004-2007)

Social Media

Mike in his studio


How would you describe what you do?
My professional practice involves working within the areas of print publications, branding, illustration and graphic design. I’ve produced editorial illustrations for clients such as Monocle and the New York Times, plus book illustrations for various publishers. I also work for clients on branding projects, as well as for existing global brands on campaigns and creative explorations – this can include illustration and design, or both.

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I work from my own studio at home, and I try to curate a living and working environment that works best for me. I tend to work early rather than late, and try to give late afternoons or evenings time to do other work or things that I’m interested in pursuing. My working time is also dependant on client location, and whether or not they need to chat over the phone. I work with clients in various countries, so I try and keep track of time zones.

How collaborative is your role?
On a day-to-day basis I work alone, and I’ve always found this easier for me in terms of how I like to approach and manage my time. I do collaborate with creative directors and various other people on projects; sometimes these are not always people from a design background, and they may be authors or scientists if the project calls for it. It’s nice to be able to work with a diverse range of people. I’ve also recently been lecturing part-time as a way to engage with young creatives rather than anything monetary.

Some of Mike's print work

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I think I have a pretty good work-life balance, which partly comes from working at home and being quite a relaxed person in general; I don’t tend to let things get stressful. I know when I’m taking too much work on, and I find that I’ve got lots to do when I have quieter periods. I think part of what works for me is living and working within a space that feels creative and also peaceful. If I was to say anything on the least enjoyable aspects, this would probably be similar to most people who work in a similar way to me – that is, maintaining a career in the long-term. I don’t have an agent so I have to find work or gain work through various other means.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’m currently working with the publisher Abrams on a book written by John Jannuzzi – a former fashion editor at GQ called How To Wear Socks. You’d be surprised at how many different types of socks there are! I know now, as I’ve had to illustrate them. Another recent project which was really fun was working for the New York Times on some illustrations for its Moon Landing special edition.

“I started out expecting to be doing graphic design, but as things moved ahead I became more focused on illustration.”

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
The communication of ideas would be number one – as I move through my career, I am getting better at adding clarity to my ideas for clients, allowing things to run smoothly. There are also more direct skills, such as drawing. I started out my freelance career expecting to be doing more graphic design or typography-based projects, but as things moved ahead I became more focused on illustration, so I’m always learning and getting better at illustrating things both directly and abstractly. I am always interested in reading and learning about different theories or ideas within my field – I think it’s this more scholarly interest that led me into lecturing, as it’s something that feeds my work and engages my creative thought process.

What do you like about working in Yorkshire?
I’ve never worked anywhere else, so it would be hard for me to compare. But on a day-to-day basis, the ability to be in open rolling hills or a huge woodland – within five minutes from my house – is so great. I can be really involved in a project internally and I need that space to clear my head. I’ve never found anything better than walking for this!

Mike's work for the New York Times

Mike's illustration work for the New York Times

Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
I’m always working on things aside from my commissioned work, which is usually more experimental. I like to play around with various ideas through print, illustration or art, and an area I’m always interested in is colour.

I have recently been collecting ideas around various colour palettes, and I’ve been trying to understand more about colour – such as what makes certain things work, how artists have used certain combinations and why. I have an ongoing open ‘brief’, which I’ve titled Form and Nature, Space and Time – it’s an investigation into time and the observation around it, but it also includes other things such ideas of basic design.

What tools do you use most for your work?
I use analogue techniques – I am an art supply and stationary nerd, which means I collect a lot (yes, a lot!) of materials and mediums to experiment with, and I use different mediums create my work. This means working with gouache, acrylic inks, permanent crayon, felt tips, drawing ink and charcoal. I use these methods to create texture and pattern in my work, which then gets scanned and built on.

Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are the softwares I mainly use. Although I’m not adversed to this as a method of working, I just find that analogue and digital processes combined bring out the best of both areas.

Mike's work for Lacoste

Mike's poster work

Mike's poster work


How I Got Here

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I think I always just wanted to be an artist, or at least to be someone who could create or draw all day! It sounds weird for a kid, but I used to design things like shopping centres, holiday parks and football kits. I also used to redesign my PlayStation games covers and slip them into the cases. I knew that’s what I enjoyed doing but I had no idea that it was design.

I got a desk for my 7th birthday, and my parents had filled all the drawers with art supplies and colouring books – it was a dream come true. I also remember being picked for arty things at school, I was always that kid who could draw and I ran with that really. I’ve bluffed my way this far and I’m going to try to keep going.

“As a kid I used to design things like shopping centres, holiday parks and football kits.”

Do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I studied at degree level; it’s interesting as I’ve recently been teaching as an associate lecturer in illustration at the University of Huddersfield. I can see how things work from both sides. In my opinion, I would always recommend and push for a formal education within a creative field if thats something you are serious about pursuing, but perhaps not for the reasons people would assume.

It’s actually the research and critical thinking side of formal education that’s so important for development; it opens up your view of things and I think those who skip university miss out on this, but also don’t realise that they’ve missed out on it! It’s also something that I think, as a student, sometimes you’re not aware of – or at least not aware that you’re actually learning it.

Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
I wouldn’t say I have ever experienced a lucky break, although getting a full-time job soon after university was really helpful. When I took the leap to freelance, it was actually more of a step for me as I knew it’s what I wanted to do. Some of my initial commissions helped me to develop a look and feel, which helped me early on in my career. However, I feel like I’ve moved on a lot from the work I was producing when I first started – back then I was just riding along with each job, trying to learn how to do it while doing it.

Mike's poster work for Asteroid Hunters

What would you say are the biggest challenges associated with being freelance, and how do you deal with these?
Maintaining a long-term career is a challenge that all freelance creatives face. I think there are numerous ways to do this, including diversifying the projects you work on, pushing your work into areas you’ve not tried before and a constant invention or reinvention of the work you create. As well as this, keeping interested in things that can feed your creativity will help a lot.

What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I think my biggest learning is to be professional; if you’re being commissioned and getting paid, you need to take that process seriously. Also working with an accountant is invaluable, as it lets you focus on your work rather than worrying or thinking about things such as tax. I haven’t had to work outside of my own practice, but I do recommend this to people starting out. I generally learnt about fees, rates and usages by myself as I went along and became more confident working with clients.

How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
Initially, the use of blogs was really important for me. I feel that things were different say,10 to 12 years ago, when visual social media wasn’t around. There used to be more context around work being shared. I see the benefit of apps today, such as Instagram, and using them as a window into an artist’s processes, but I have to say I’ve never used it in a super proactive way. It’s generally something I’m quite relaxed about, and I don’t let it change or effect the work I produce.

Mike's project with Abrams publishing

Mike's project for International Women's Day

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
I would probably advise someone to do a little bit of research into the area they want to move into, and then to explore their work. Higher education is important but I don’t believe it is essential; whichever path you take you should try and make connections with people in a similar situation to you, maybe collaborate if you can. Working part-time until you can support yourself is essential. Working hard and being professional are the two most important things. Try and see things that others haven’t.

As creatives, we’re generally not as great at the business side of things but it’s really important that you know a little bit about how businesses work, how marketing can help you and how to provide a framework for a career. I also always advise young creatives I meet to be nice to people! Sometimes we are so preoccupied with our own career path that we forget that other creatives we meet are on a path too, and this knowledge can be really useful in gaining work further down the line.

Posted 02 September 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Ayla Angelos
Introduction: Ayla Angelos
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration
Mentions: Mike Lemanski

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