“Make stuff you like, that you care about and don’t worry about if other people are going to like it or if it’s trendy.”
Erika Nissen is a 22 year old graphic designer based in Toronto. Using music as her biggest inspiration, she found her niche in the summer of 2020 and began building her portfolio on mock merchandise designs, tour posters, and stickers inspired by her favorite artists. Currently an intern for Equal Vision Records, Erika has created merchandise for Sporting, Highwind, Flight Club and Open Your Ears Records.
As For The Punks’ February Creator of the Month, Erika talks the Taylor Swift fan forum that started her passion, going against design industry rules and valuing your work as a freelance artist.
Where did your passion for design/illustration start? Do you remember the first piece of art you created?
This is a very funny story. When I was 12 years old in 2012, I was on a — I’ve always been a big fan of Taylor Swift and I was on a Taylor Swift fan forum. It was basically like Myspace for Swifties and you could have —you had a profile picture and people would put graphics in their signatures when they would post, like [at] the little footer at the bottom of their post. There was this section on this site that was all for fan made graphics and people had “graphic shops” where they would do graphics for free, because we were all 12. Someone would come on there and be like, “I want this picture of Taylor and this lyric and this color scheme” for my signature. I made a graphic shop and I was making all these Taylor Swift graphics with a torrent version of photoshop. That is genuinely how this started. I wouldn’t be here without all those graphics because that’s how I started using photoshop — was making free art for Swifties.
The next few years after that were a blur but then I was taking art classes throughout high school. I did yearbook so I did work on InDesign and then stuff took off more during the pandemic. It was quite recent but it definitely started in 2012 with Taylor Swift graphics.
How did you discover your niche?
I was a total complete pop head growing up like Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, the closest I strayed away from pop was 5SOS. Late 2019, I started getting into a few bands like more in the pop punk scene. The first bands I started listening to were Bearings and Grayscale at the end of 2019. Then [at] the beginning of 2020 I really started getting into more bands, that’s when I found my favorite band Young Culture and a bunch of other bands in the scene. That’s also when I found the community on twitter and online and started making friends in the scene. Really finding the pop punk world is what kind of changed everything for me. That’s when I met one of my best friends now, Mads, who runs a publication, Legends of Tomorrow. She asked me to do their print issue — their first print issue back at the end of 2020.
Summer of 2020 is when everything kind of started and when I would say I found my niche. That’s when I first — I literally remember the exact day when I was going to my cottage in the Summer of 2020 and it’s a 3 hour car ride. For some reason, I had the idea to design mock merch for the first time and I had never done anything like that, like never designed a piece of merch. I was like, “I’m just going to try it” so I was googling free mock ups and downloading them and then I spent the whole car ride making mock merch. Then I just never stopped. I started making a ton of mock merch and I think finding — it was really the inspiration from these bands and also the fact that they would see the work and be like this is dope. I just started making mock merch and fake tour posters. I started actually getting people reaching out to me and want to work with me.
How do you handle artist block? What inspires you to keep creating?
That’s definitely something that I really struggle with. Creative blocks and also imposter syndrome are like the two biggest things I struggle with. What I find helps me the best is — I’ll use last night as an example. I was having a really bad creative block working on a client project so I was like I’m going to take a step away from this and design something for fun. I made a Harry Styles poster. I just need something to get this out of the way. That’s usually my go to, design a random poster or do something like that or look at art, look through accounts I really like, people’s [work] that I admire and try to get some inspiration. Music is definitely 100% my biggest inspiration. So much of my art — pretty much all of my art revolves around music. So much of my art that isn’t client based is still based on a song or an album or fake tour posters. That’s really where I find my inspiration, my favorite artists.
What is your favorite part of being a graphic designer?
Seeing it come to life physically is probably the most rewarding part. Getting to wear stuff I designed or seeing people posting pictures and I’m like “I made that hoodie.” It’s so weird. In the summer of 2020 when stuff started picking up, I made a red bubble shop where I sold stickers inspired by my favorite bands and that was really cool too. People would send me pictures of my stickers on their laptops or I have one of it on someone’s skateboard. It’s just very cool to see those physical things. Also, I haven’t been to see it in person but I’ve seen pictures of my merch at merch tables at shows. That has been my biggest dream since I was like 12. The day I actually get to see it in person at a show I go to will blow my mind. That’s definitely my favorite part because it’s so cool.
What about your least favorite part?
My least favorite part would have to be comparison. I have to remind myself a lot to make stuff I like and not worry about if I think it’s not as good as this person’s work. Doing my own thing and also trying not to listen to rules in the industry like it someone’s like “this font is ugly” or “this trend is old, overused” [but] if I think it’s cool then who cares?
How do you start an illustration? How do you know when it’s finished?
That’s hard. If I’m just doing something for fun, I usually start with — say I’m doing a poster, I either start with an image that’s the focal point of it or text that’s the focal point. Honestly, my process is very much trial and error in a sense. Obviously I go in with some sort of vision but then I also keep building upon it and I’m like “what would it look like if I totally changed the colors or added these textures or these shapes?” Just seeing what looks the best and again keep building on it. When I know it’s finished is also a hard question. I struggle with that — wanting to keep going and I have to tell myself ‘okay, you can stop, it’s good.”
A lot of the times I need to sit on a design and look at it the next day. If I still like it then we’re good, we’re in the clear but sometimes when you’re staring at something for so long you get disconnected from it and seeing it with fresh eyes you’re like “that font would look better if it was bigger or another type of font.” You notice something you didn’t notice yesterday when you were making it.
You create a lot of designs for bands that you like. Are there any bands you’d want to work with in the future?
I definitely, they know this, I want to work with Young Culture, like I want to make merch for them so badly. They’re my favorite band and also some of my best friends. Probably like 80% of my portfolio is based on their music. Whenever I need inspiration I make something based on one of their songs or a photo. I did at one point, I made this promotional poster for these Twitch streams they do — that they started during the pandemic and they paid me for it and used it. So that was really cool but I would love to make merch for them someday or a tour poster. I would love to work with Seaway. I love them so much. I have made a bunch of art inspired by them and they are local as well. Another local one, bearings. I would love to work with them. Grayscale, I don’t know, it’s a hard question. There’s so many.
Are there any artists you look up to?
Definitely. My favorite designer of all time is Kel Lauren. I found them when I first started my career. They are just incredible. They make design related youtube videos but they work in the music industry mainly and do merch designs. They inspire me a lot especially with breaking rules. They always say this phrase “kill the cop inside your head.” Going outside of boundaries, and these rules the industry has forced onto us. Also, Julia Fletcher. She is an incredible photographer and graphic designer in the music world. She’s working for UMG right now, I think. I love her a lot. Also, a lot of photographers even though it’s not my work, they still inspire me a lot. Sarah Rodriguez, Kay Dargs, love her work. I’m always making stuff with Danny DeRusso’s photos — Young Culture’s photographer. Love him to death.
If you could give any design advice or tips to past you, what would you say?
Make stuff you like, that you are confident in and don’t worry as much about other people liking it. People can tell when something is fake or manufactured to fit the whole — fit inside the rules that have been made for graphic designers. I feel like people can tell when it’s not genuine. That’s what I would say. Make stuff you like, that you care about and don’t worry about if other people are going to like it or if it’s trendy.
Also, value your work because when I started freelancing I was charging $25 for a t-shirt design. It was very bad. We have learned. It’s hard when you’re starting out in the industry because one, you don’t know what the expectation is and two, you’re desperate in a sense to build your portfolio, find work and so you — this small band hits you up and you’re like “yeah I can design a for you for $25 and spend hours on it.” I feel like a lot of young freelancers get taken advantage of but we all learn.
One last message for our readers would be…
Credit your designers and photographers.