Unsure about where his graphic design career was headed after a couple years into his first job out of college, Adam Vicarel decided it was time to move on. He headed out on a backpacking adventure across Asia and it was during that trip he taught himself the art and skill of hand lettering.
Adam’s experiences in Asia laid the foundation he needed to intentionally bypass the rat race and create the art, work and life he desired in Denver, Colorado.
With a “designer’s eye,” an artistic hand and a tireless work ethic, Adam has been able to take the artistry of his hand-lettering design work to another level and is now working with a stable of clients who truly value his work as an artist.
In our conversation, Adam shares:
- How to use creativity to stand out and get potential clients’ attention
- How dedicated practice and experience develop confidence
- Why showcasing the work you want to be doing is important
You graduated with a BFA in visual communication and design in 2011 and you’ve had a pretty non-traditional path since. Can you tell us more about what you did after graduating?
It’s definitely been a very winding and weaving path. I think most artists’ paths really are.
After graduation I worked as an in-house designer in Ohio for a promotional merchandising group. I did everything from branding, to web design, to apparel design. Got my feet wet in a bunch of different aspects of graphic design.
At the time I felt very confused, I felt like I had no idea what I actually wanted to do with my career. But in hindsight I realize that was the best first job I could have had because I got to try everything.
After about 2 ½ years doing that I started to feel stagnant and realized there was no upward mobility within the company, so I decided to move on. And instead of going right to a second job I decided to travel.
I spent a few months in Ohio then I took off for Asia where I spent 5 months backpacking through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
I didn’t have a computer with me but I wanted to do something creative and that trip is when I started hand lettering. I was really bad at it. It did not come naturally by any means but I was doing it the whole trip because it was a great way to kill time on nine-hour train rides.
When I initially went into college I was planning on studying painting but ultimately chose design for various reasons. And from my perception hand lettering was the perfect coalescence of art and design because it had that fine-art touch — you’re doing it with your hands — but you’re doing it with a designer’s eye.
So you were fully self-taught with hand lettering?
Yeah, fully self-taught.
Since you were on the road, how exactly did you teach yourself?
On the trip in Asia I had a pencil, some pens and a sketchbook. Nothing special. I’m not really an advocate for any specific tools.
I think my design brain understood what I needed to do in terms of composition, layout, symmetry, balance. I was way less focused on what I was writing or drawing as I was on just the art of practicing it. I was really interested in the process and just understanding, learning from every individual piece.
Of course there was stuff online I could try or reference for inspiration but a lot of it was just experimentation and being inspired by the stuff I was seeing in Asia, infusing that into my work, whether that’d be type styles or compositions.
My travels inspired what I was writing so I would write things like “coffee and cigarettes” because there was a morning I had that for breakfast. Or maybe I would just write a city I’d been to like “Luang Prabang, Laos.”
After traveling around, what did you do next?
At the very end of that trip I was volunteering in the Philippines for a month and my experience there was really profound. I was helping rebuild homes that had been destroyed by a typhoon in 2014 and these people were the most impoverished people that I’ve ever really interacted with. But they were so happy. They seemed so fulfilled on the day-to-day.
As cliché as it sounds I specifically remember every night I would go and lay in my tent and be thinking through, These people are so happy — why? Because in the States many people are anxious, sad, depressed, overwhelmed, and I think it’s because a lot of people are working jobs they don’t like to buy stuff they don’t need.
It’s this weird cyclical thing that society kind of pushes people into. And I remember having this moment where I was like, Okay, when I get back I don’t know what I’m going to do but I know I don’t want to do that — I don’t want to fall back into that routine that everybody is in.
That was about 5 ½ years ago. I spent some time traveling around the States, kind of road tripping, then I ended up moving out here [to Denver] kind of on a whim, the classic “no job, no money, no home” thing.
I was freelancing at an agency for a bit, making a little bit of money. But I was practicing hand lettering 30, 40 hours a week with the intention of somehow infusing that into whatever my career ended up becoming.
I did that for about 1 ½ years but burned myself out because I was working 70- to 90-hour weeks, getting paid for only 20 of those hours. So then I spent 2 ½ months in Europe.
So did you quit that part-time job?
Yeah, I wasn’t officially under contract with them. I was a freelancer working 20 hours a week and I was way undercharging for my work —25 or 30 bucks an hour or something ridiculous.
In Europe I backpacked through about nine countries moving a lot. That was kind of a reboot, trying to recalibrate and decide what I really wanted to do.
When I came back to Denver that agency had gone under so that safety net was now gone, which was a very scary feeling.
I had about two thousand dollars left and I had that moment of, Okay, I have enough money to last for about two months. Do I spend this time finding a full-time job or do I go all-in and give it one last effort to make the freelance thing work?
I made a self-promotional piece that I sent out to 40 agencies around Denver and Boulder and that got my foot in the door with three or four shops that I ended up doing some freelance work with, which paid me enough to get me going again.
I also got some big projects that I could show in my portfolio and that started the snowball that is continuing to roll now.
What did your promo look like and how did you send it out?
Here’s a very tattered version of it.
My intent was to create something that was different, something that felt creative. I’d heard of people sending out self-promo pieces that were postcards or letters or emails that just said, Hey, here’s a link to my website. But I’m like, Come on, there’s zero creativity involved. I’ve talked to creative directors at big shops and they say they get 20 or 30 of those emails a day sometimes and don’t really look at them since they have real work to do.
I don’t know why I landed on a newspaper, but it was basically something that was intended to convey my personality and my skillset. I wanted the agency to see the value of bringing someone in that yes, had a skillset they need, but I’m a very personable person, I’m fun to work with. I wanted to bring that through in this newspaper. So the copywriting in it was very intentionally fun and playful, like, I swear in it. There were a couple of photos of me in the first spreads, then there were two spreads of work and the back was a “Contact Me” kind of thing.
98% of that work was personal illustrative lettering work. Very little of it was client work. It was really an effort to show what I wanted to be doing.
It was really simple, really straightforward, but I wanted it to be something that the creative director would receive and be like, This is cool. And because it’s a newspaper and well-designed, they would feel guilty throwing it away so it would either go on a bookshelf or get passed around the design department to be like, Hey guys, sure wish you did this stuff. And it proved to do just that from the creative directors I talked to.
Were those shops contacting you after receiving the promo or were you following up with them?
It was a little bit of both.
Some people followed up quite quickly while others who didn’t respond I followed up with I think two weeks later. And almost everybody who didn’t follow up was like, I really love the piece, super awesome. But a lot of it was either, We don’t hire contractors or we don’t have something right for you at this time.
But I made a lot of connections through doing that so it’s something I hope to continue doing moving forward whenever I find that time.
So more promos in the future?
Yeah, just forcing the work I want to be doing in front of the people I want it to be in front of. Being very intentional about that.
For instance, I would love to work with Patagonia or REI. I can’t just sit here and wait for them to find me. It could happen but I would rather send them something and be like, Hey, this is what I do, let’s do some stuff together.
After you landed those initial few clients, how did you continue to get more business?
It was a little bit of everything.
For years when I first started hand lettering I was posting very consistently almost everything I did design-wise and had built up my Instagram. I think it was a combination of building up that following and some clients starting to find me there.
With some of the work I was doing at agencies, it enabled me to have a legitimate commercial lettering and illustration portfolio so if people organically found me they’d see that too.
It was also referrals as well.
What’s your approach to Instagram now?
I’m kind of re-figuring it out.
For a while I realized that what people really responded to were these bird’s-eye view shots, top down, where it’s kind of a work in progress. You can see my hands drawing something. They’re really fun to stage and set up. It does take a couple of hours, realistically, from start to finish, to set one of those shots up and get it and post it.
But then I realized that, through doing that, I’m not posting a lot of the brand design work that I do, the more vector, graphic, computer stuff, which I love equally. And I’m not posting the interactive murals that I paint. If I don’t post that stuff, too, people aren’t going to know that I can do that and hire me for it.
Currently I’m reassessing and I don’t really care what I post in the sense that if it’s something that I don’t think is going to get high engagement I’ll still post it anyways. I’m more interested now in the idea of putting out into the world what I want to receive.
Mural for Alterra Mountain Company (AKA: IKON Pass). The marketing director had a strong affinity for the Hatch Show Print in Nashville which is characterized by bold typography and wood block-carved illustrations. This mural was directly inspired by that style and was created in a way that almost felt as if it could have been pristinely stamped on this wall. —Adam Vicarel
Do you have any kind of schedule or is it just whenever you feel like posting?
The only thing I’m specific about is I don’t really post on the weekends because I have low engagement. I have a business account so I can see when my audience is interactive or engaged.
I generally try to post between 8 and 10 a.m. because that’s when my audience is most active. Other than that there’s very little thought.
I do try to use between 20 and 30 hashtags for every post. I used to just copy and paste from a notes app where it was like, This is a lettering post, so here are my lettering hashtags.
Now I come up with random ones or experiment. I don’t do a lot of research or anything, I kind of just start writing stuff, looking at what has a lot of hashtags and using some of those.
We’ve talked about murals and illustration and lettering work you do with agencies and commercial clients, and you also do workshops, speaking and have an online store. Are there any other ways you earn money at this point?
I have an online course with a company called Bluprint, formally known as Craftsy. With them I have a hand lettering course and that’s kind of a passive. They paid me upfront and now I get a percentage of every student that signs up.
How does your income break down percentage-wise from each area?
Looking at last year, I would say murals probably made up about 25% of it. Commercial client work 50%. Then 15% of it was probably workshops and 10% was print sales and the passive income from online courses.
Do you feel that’s a pretty good mix for you?
I would love for there to be more passive income. I’d love to do less and make more.
I enjoy selling one-off prints, where they’ll come to my online store, I pack a print and send it to them. But it just feels like a waste of my time, honestly, when I’m sending one $25 print even if it only takes me five minutes to do that. It’s that diversion of attention. I’d way rather allocate that five minutes towards putting together a proposal for a big project for Patagonia.
I actually just hired someone part time and part of my goal for them this year is to find more wholesale and consignment accounts because I have two accounts now and make a few thousand dollars a year with them and it’s zero effort. Once or twice a year I send a box of prints to them and that’s it. It’s so easy.
If I could have somebody get 10, 15, 20 of those accounts, all of a sudden that’s 10 to 20 grand in passive income. And to have that would be really, really nice.
Is that mainly prints you’re selling?
Essentially just prints. I used to do shirts, mugs, coasters, a little bit of everything, but prints have the lowest investment for the highest return. By far I can make the most money on print sales.
When it comes to your commercial clients, how many are repeat versus new?
Looking back over five years of doing this, for the first four-ish years, whether unfortunate or not, most of my clients were one-offs, where I did one project with them and we were kind of done. Frequently they had design teams that took over whatever I created and then moved forward with it.
I think now things are changing a bit and clients are coming back more. I’ve been working a lot with Native Roots, a local cannabis company. I’ve done four or five big projects with them over the last two years.
I’ve done lots of little one-off projects over the last two or three years with So Delicious, a dairy-free company.
So it’s more and more becoming repeat clients. I think that’s also because I’m transitioning away from smaller mom-and-pop shops, which I’m interested in working with but just the time, attention and care I put into their work is the exact same that I put into these big clients and the big clients pay me five times as much. Obviously it’s not all about money but I want to work less and make more, so it kind of is.
Can you share more about your pricing and how it’s evolved?
Yeah, it’s been an interesting learning process for sure. I think every solo artist and designer has struggled with it.
The first couple of years it was chaos. I had no idea what I was doing. But I did myself a huge favor by constantly reaching out to designers and artists I looked up to and asking them questions. Sometimes I sent an Instagram direct message, sometimes an email.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand and do my due diligence to know what the industry was charging. More than anything I think it just gave me confidence in what the base was so whether I went above or below, I at least knew what some other people were doing.
So that was super helpful. And reading general blog posts and articles from other people, listening to podcasts.
My rates have changed a lot over the last couple of years. I used to do a lot of work hourly. Now I really try to avoid hourly work and focus on project rates.
My rates will change depending on the client and project. If I’m working hourly I try to be between $75 and $150, obviously trying to be on the higher side.
In some ways there is a little bit of value-based pricing that I’m kind of thinking through. When I’m doing my project rates it’s based off of how many perceived hours will be invested into the project, and then I pad it a bit based off of how much I assume the client is going to be a pain in the ass.
Then murals I price based off square footage. And that’s a pretty set rate of basically $40 to $50 per square foot.
Do you have contracts with your clients?
Yes, I have a contract that I send over to everybody. Actually I have two different contracts, one for mural work and one for design work. The potential for accidents on a mural is a lot higher. And frequently the bigger clients will have a contract of theirs that I sign as well.
I think my contracts mostly cover me, but there could be things that cancel each other out, I don’t really know, so I’m meeting with a lawyer in the next couple of weeks to review the two contracts. It’s going to be expensive —about $2,000 — but the potential repercussions for having a bad contract are way worse. It could be hundreds of thousands of dollars that I’m out. So I feel like at this point in my career it’s time and I’m willing to make that investment.
And do you have any other outside help, like from an accountant?
I have a CPA, which is huge. That is one of the best decisions I ever made, was not dealing with the taxes and the money side of things. Letting somebody who understands that through and through do that for me.
I hired him probably after the first year or year and a half. I was doing everything via Excel and that is just a nightmare. It was so bad.
I think ultimately it’s around $1,000 a year that I pay him and he does my payroll, he checks my bank accounts versus my QuickBooks to be sure everything is set, clean and good. It’s just so much time and stress relieved. So he was a no-brainer.
I’ve been hiring contractors really only for about a year and a half now. That decision was a huge leap — going from “this is just me” to using other people. Part of it was a weird ego thing that I think everybody has as a creative where it’s like, I built up this “successful business” and people are coming to me because they want me and the work that I create. Which in some ways is true. But more than anything I think it’s the way I present it, the way I deliver it, who I am as a person. They’re still interacting with me even if my subcontractors are working on it.
I think I’ve been able to remove myself from that a bit and accept that having people help me is enabling me to grow my business faster and larger. Getting outside help was a game changer in terms of how much work I was able to take on.
Besides helping with wholesaling, what kind of work do you have your contractors do?
It varies project by project, but a lot of it is I’ll do a really rough sketch and get it approved by the client and then I’ll have my subcontractors refine that sketch, you know, bring it home. So that would be maybe 3 hours of sketching for me and 8 to 15 hours of refinement. It’s a lot of time bought back for me.
That was how it all started. At this point, it may be design concepting like exploring logo ideas for a particular client or sometimes it’s helping design murals.
The part-timer I recently hired, I’m still figuring out exactly how to implement her. I didn’t sit down and think through the entire process, I just knew I needed help. I was like, If I’m paying her that’s going to be enough incentive to start figuring out how to implement her so we’ll see how that goes.
You use a variety of mediums and have described your work as both very rough and raw and super clean and refined. Since those aesthetics vary widely, what does your creative process look like and how do you choose which direction you go in?
I think that’s my point of difference, in terms of what my business does, is that I think like a designer but I execute like an artist. So it’s this hybridity that enables me to kind of have this scale that ranges based off of who the client is and what they want.
As a designer I approach every project strategically and intentionally trying to understand, What is this business? What are their services or products? What is their unique selling proposition? Who is their target demographic? Why are we working together? What are they trying to achieve through what we’re creating together?
I think all of that through almost every project and then depending on the client and the answers to those questions, I execute accordingly.
For instance, a photographer whose brand I designed, his work is very sexy, very high-end, a lot of fashion editorial work. A rough and raw aesthetic does not seem right for him so the brand I designed was very clean, very tight, it felt very premium.
Whereas the work I’ve done for Zeal Optics or Mountain Standard, they’re outdoor companies and it did make sense to have this kind of rough and raw feel because they’re all about being in the mountains and it’s okay if there’s dirt in your whiskey and bugs in your coffee.
So how I decide is truly based off of that design mind.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?
Growing for sure. The process of growing and understanding, How do you implement a new person into something that I’ve grown by myself?
So many of my processes at this point are very autonomous and I’m going at it without necessarily needing to really think about them. Fortunately the processes are mostly structured and aren’t weird or only make sense to me so I will be able to hand it off to somebody and be like, This is how I organize files, this is how I do X, Y and Z. But doing that is still difficult so that’s definitely a struggle.
Continuing to figure out how to talk about money with clients is still difficult. I don’t know if it will ever be easy. At least the people I look up to say it never gets easy.
For instance, I was talking with my dad about some project for Sherwin Williams and he basically said something to the effect of, If you did a mural for them and you charged $5,000 they wouldn’t really value your work as an artist, they would think that you’re inexperienced and not worth that investment. Whereas if you charged $25,000 for doing the exact same project they would be like, Okay, this guy is legit.
Understanding how to navigate that. Learning how to read and understand a client. I think one of my struggles is figuring out how to really understand what a client intends to invest in a project, and I think that’s through understanding value-based pricing on a deeper level that I haven’t really taken the time yet to do. That’s something I really want to dive into more.
A lot of artists deal with isolation and loneliness when they work by themselves. Did you deal with that before you had this studio space that you now share with a few other people?
Before I came in here, yes.
For the first couple of years I was working at home. I had a little studio space up in my attic. It worked great at that time and was perfect because it wasn’t an additional cost.
But after about two years it wasn’t an inspiring space. I don’t think I took into account how important it is to walk into an area and be inspired, whether it’s by what’s on the walls or who you’re talking to. It was too hot in the summer, it was really cold in the winter.
It was just a bad space and I started to resent working in it and I didn’t really realize it. I was becoming less productive and not doing work that I was proud of.
Then this studio space came together and being around people that I can bounce ideas off of, ask questions about pricing and feed each other work has been a game changer.
So yeah, I think it’s so important to get out of your own space and your own mind and interact with people just to kind of make you feel like a human again.
How much do you pay for your space here?
It’s like 280 bucks a month per person so it’s really reasonable. Most places in Denver are substantially more. We Work is $500 or something for a floating desk. You don’t even get the same space every day.
This is the best deal that I could have imagined and the location [in RiNo] is incredible. Great walkability to everything. I mean, the gym I climb at is directly across the street. So it’s perfect.
What’s something you wish you knew when starting out?
I wish people talked to me earlier on about the concept of not undervaluing your own work.
There’s a lot of projects that I’ve worked on over the years that I felt like I wanted to charge X but I charged 50% of X for no reason other than a lack of confidence. I think having a better understanding of what the rest of the industry was charging would have prevented that a little bit.
A lot of times I looked at it with a scarcity mindset of, If I charge too much I’m not going to get the project. Which, in reality, is not always the case. So I charged less with the hopes of them saying, Oh, this is manageable.
I wish I just had a better understanding of that and I wish somebody would’ve put the idea into my head sooner that if your business is going well, reaching out for help from other people — contractors or assistants, whatever that may be — is not a bad thing. It’s not compromising your work if you do it correctly. More than anything, it’s a sign of success and growth and it should be looked at as this achievement that you’ve reached.
I don’t know why I was so reluctant to do so. I think it was this ego thing. I know that so many people are so much better at what I do than I am, you can just go on Instagram and see that very easily, but I bring more to the table than just the work itself.
I think understanding that it is a good thing to have people helping you and accepting and doing that earlier on would have helped me get a little bit further down the road than I am currently.
Can you tell us more about how you got out of that scarcity mindset and raised your rates?
Yeah, so even for my first T-shirt design project I reached out to a bunch of people asking them questions about how they priced or licensed or whatever.
Two, three years ago, I could not charge the rates I’m charging now because I just didn’t have as refined of a design mind and a lettering hand. I think I just needed to build up my confidence over time.
I think now I’m comfortable charging as much as whoever charges the most. Not because I think I’m as good as them but because I understand the value of my own work and I know that things I create can help a brand make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And if someone is going to pay me 10, 20, 30 grand for that, that is an amazing win on their end.
I’ve seen my work do that for businesses and I know its potential so I don’t feel ashamed turning down someone who has $5,000 for a branding project when I want to charge $12,000.
Switching gears, I read that you’ve been able to take anywhere from one to three months off a year to go travel, is that right?
Yeah, that’s about how much time I’ve taken off every year for the past five years. Sometimes it’s in big chunks, other times it’s in incremented long weekends and weeks that add up to that amount of time.
How do you make that work with cash flow and client jobs?
If I know I’m gonna go somewhere I’ll work a lot right before the trip and generally work a lot right after.
I think I’m able to make it happen because I grind super hard when I know a vacation is right around the corner and then when I get back I involuntarily overwork but happily, because I feel very creatively inspired. And that’s a lot of the reason I take these trips. I’m so excited to make stuff when I get back.
Do you do anything creative or business-wise while you’re traveling?
I don’t really do client work when I’m traveling but I do plenty of personal stuff, whether it’s hand lettering or photography. Or I might ideate on business ideas or something like that, but nothing structured.
An issue of Colorado Business Magazine that highlights the top 50 companies to watch. I decided to illustrate this magazine cover in a Victorian style, the era in which the Colorado Gold rush fell, when Denver was founded. —Adam Vicarel
Why do you do what you do? What drives you?
Going back to that Philippines experience I shared earlier, I wanted to pursue my own path regardless of what other people are doing. I wanted to be doing something that felt fulfilling on a day-to-day basis. Something I was proud of and felt right for me.
If you concisely say what it is that I do, I draw letters for a living. And if you told me that I was going to be able to do that five years ago, let alone buy a house in Denver, I’d be like, Okay, that’s bullshit, not a freaking chance. But it’s working out.
I think one of the main reasons it’s been working out is I really focus on building relationships. I love people and I love interacting with people.
I think the law of reciprocity comes into play in the sharing of ideas and just having conversations. Maybe I’m talking with somebody and we’re like, Oh, you were backpacking in Hallstatt in Austria, me too, I threw up in the lake because I was very sick at the time. Or maybe I’m sharing my story about how miserable it was to start a business early on — like it was really, really hard and then it became this successful thing.
In that talking about those steps I took and sharing that value to somebody, they have that inclination to return that favor and share value back. With things like that you’re able to build this amazing connection with people and then maybe they’ll refer you to other clients or connect you to opportunities.
I do this because I like the idea of building relationships, building something I’m happy with and doing so on my own terms.
One of the things I’ve always said to myself and others is that my main goal is to be able to build a business that is able to support my future family. I envision and hope my wife works, too, but I want this business to be successful enough where she’s not like, Adam, please go get a real job, we need you to contribute a little bit more.
What I’m doing is becoming what I envision and that is very fulfilling and satisfying to know that I’m passionate about something that is able to actually sustain the lifestyle that I want to live as well.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Artist’s work (images, audio and/or video) courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted. All other photographs by Kim Olson.