Creative People

Interview - Tess McCabe

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
2nd of December 2011
Tess McCabe's brand new book, 'Conversations with Creative Women' is out now!  (And you can find it at TDF Open House!). Pic by Michelle Francis.

Shelley Panton speaking at a CWC event earlier this year
Tess kindly included me in a stellar line-up of local interviewees for her book!  Thanks Tess!

Tess McCabe wears many hats.  She's a freelance graphic designer by trade, and has also been known to dabble in a few crafty side projects.... but these days Tess is perhaps best known for her incredible work at the helm of Melbourne's Creative Women's Circle - CWC for short.

Tess took over her role co-ordinating the CWC in late 2008, after attending half a dozen events organised by original CWC founder/organiser, Dearne Herrenberg.  When Dearne became too busy to continue co-ordindating the group, Tess enthusastically picked up the reigns, and has been such an incredible driving force since organising her first meet-up in early 2009.  These days CWC events draw a large and varied attendance, and Tess maintains the brilliant CWC website / blog which is such an excellent resource for local creative women in business!  The expansion of CWC's web presence has been instrumental in the growth and success of the group in recent years - hats off to Tess for her incredible work and dedication!

To cap off an extremely successful year for CWC, this year Tess has another incredible achievement under her belt - she has just released her first book! 'Conversations with Creative Women' is self published, and features interviews with a brilliant cross-section of local creative women (including Lou Pardi of Peppermint magazine, Pip Lincolne from Meet me at Mikes and me!).  It is SUCH an excellent achievement - so thoughtfully curated and beautifully designed of course!   I am seriously impressed with the finished product.

Melbourne readers will be pleased to know we are stocking Conversations with Creative Women at The Design Files Open House! Pop in and check it out!  You can also purchase the book online here.

Massive thanks to Ms McCabe for her time and super generous responses in this interview, and for including me in the book!  DO check out the CWC website for more info about this fantastic local group. CWC events are super friendly and informal, and are held bi-monthly in various locations around Melbourne.

Tess McCabe

Tell us a little about your background – What path led you to what you're doing now with CWC and your own freelance design business?

After finishing university in Brisbane I did the usual graphic-design-graduate thing... worked for studios and a big publishing house earning my junior designer/corporate design work stripes, while doing freelance jobs for friends and bands and such on the side. Then Patrick and I travelled for a year overseas to the US, Canada and Europe, working freelance as needed before returning to Australia and settling in Melbourne.

I guess the self-employed lifestyle was always calling my name as I dislike 'being present' in a workplace between the hours of 9 and 5 five days a week, pretending not to read the internet too much. Plus I'm quite good at saving money for a rainy, non-worky day, which is a good freelancing trait!   I began working for myself full time at the beginning of 2008 and a regular stable of clients came on board quite quickly which was great.

To balance the client work I always have some other creative side projects on the go - in the past this has included Metremade, Teahouse Handmade and the CWC. Each has been a great parallel project to my graphic design work, but in the last 12 months I've enjoyed working on the CWC even more and now dedicate a lot more of my working week to coordinating it.

Tess McCabe's fabulous illustrated manly map, commissioned by me for TDF's MAN WEEK a few months back!

Creative Women's Circle has gone from strength to strength since you picked up the reigns three years ago - can you tell us a little bit about how you became involved with CWC and how it has grown over the past few years

Upon moving to Melbourne I was looking for ways to meet other creatives, because I knew almost no-one in the city.  I'd read about the CWC on the blog and started going to the meetups, which were then held at MARS Gallery in Port Melbourne at their communal-table 'cafe'. It was a small group with a casual vibe and I loved hearing the career stories and seeing the work of other Melbourne locals.

I'd attended about half a dozen CWCs before the founder/organiser, Dearne Herrenberg, announced she was too busy to continue coordinating the meetups. I thought it was a real shame and I wondered out loud to Dearne that perhaps I could take over the organisation of the group. She was very supportive! I had a mental list of local creative women I admired who I might ask to speak to the group, and some ideas as how the format could change a little to attract a larger audience. My first speaker choice was you, Lucy, in early 2009 and thanks to your blog the CWC suddenly had a whole host of new people who knew about it.

Since that time, there has been a steady growth of new members, and this year it has really reached a 'tipping point' in terms of popularity and buzz.

While the CWC events might look a bit different now than they did in the early days, the overall the vision of the group remains the same - creative ladies, gathering, chatting, networking, learning from eachother, and the occasional cup of tea!

Over your years of running CWC you must have come across some very inspiring women and heard some fantastic stories - what have been some of the highlights so far?

I don't have a #1 favourite speaker - truly they have all been great in their own ways!  I did love hearing about the behind-the-scenes of magazine and TV set styling from both yourself and Clair Wayman at your respective events. Michelle Landy gave a really inspiring talk in October last year about running a business as a mother and being creatively fulfilled in your work at the same time. Lara Cameron & Tegan Rose from Ink & Spindle's event was held in their studio in Kensington, and being in their work space really brought a lot to their presentation. And of course the sheer buzz around our most popular event so far - Beci Orpin - was a major highlight this year.

I've met a whole lot of great people and made good friends through the CWC - we help eachother with our businesses, celebrate and comiserate together, and have created a little network/community that stays in touch online but also through the regular meetings. I love it when people tell me that without the group they would have not found a certain opportunity/job/new friend. That's a definite highlight and spurs me on to make the group better and reach more people.

Harvest Textiles at CWC

You've taken the huge and exciting step of self-publishing a book! What is involved in doing this yourself?

There were many stages and accompanying emotions in putting together the book! Perhaps naiively, it didn't seem like such a daunting task when I first conceived of the idea in March - though when I started telling people that it would be ready by the end of the year, there were a few raised eyebrows (and a raised pulse rate!).

Researching and making a wish list of interviewees was a fun part, because who doesn't love browsing the internet in the name of 'work'?!

Approaching interviewees was a little nervewracking... many of them wouldn't have known me from a bar of soap, but that so many of them agreed enthusiastically to be involved was a lovely sense of relief.  While I usually have many questions I could ask anyone about anything off the top of my head, writing the questions for each interview was more time-consuming and challenging than I thought it would be.

Waiting for the interviewee's answers was suspenseful, but receiving them was enlightening and heartening.

Designing and formatting the book myself was probably the quickest & easiest part - after all I've done this dozens of times for clients (and this was probably the main reason I thought producing my own book would be easy!). Having said that, there were moments of self-doubt and second-guessing that came with designing something for myself as the 'client'.

Briefing & receiving artwork from the illustrator/designers was an great learning experience as I was suddenly on the client-side of a brief.

Waiting for the finished book to arrive back from the printers... well, lets just say there were a few sleepless nights there!

Pip Lincolne's interview for Conversations with Creative Women

What advice would you offer to anyone who was considering self-publishing a book?

Have a clear idea of what your book is going to be about, and who & why people would want to buy it. A wide-ranging appeal and an already 'captive' fan base is a good start!

Consider all the costs up front - design/layout and printing will be the big ones (especially if you print only a small number locally, which I did) and there will likely be other things you would need to outsource to get the book to market (stuff you probably wouldn't have to worry about if someone was publishing the book for you). All that upfront $ outlay will directly affect how much you sell the books for, and if you need to pull in $200/book to break even, that's kind of unrealistic. I won't make a traditional 'profit' on the sales of Conversations, I will just be paying myself for the time I spend designing, marketing and distributing the book until every last one is sold. If I had outsourced these things I probably wouldn't take home any money at all.

So my advice would be to use your own skill set for as many of the tasks as possible (and use friends/contra/family connections elsewhere if you can!). If the book serves another purpose - e.g. in this case promoting the CWC to a wider audience - that is a good thing, and ultimately priceless. But if you're self-publishing to make money... maybe try doing something else? :)

Conversations with Creative Women - a spread featuring local jewellery brand Polli

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday I work from home, so the five-second commute means I wake up around 8.30am. After getting dressed for work (I'm not a pajama-freelancer!) I eat my breakfast and read my daily blogs. My computer keyboard is full of toast crumbs.

I start the day by trying to check off as many items on my to-do list as possible before lunch - edits to client work, sending/returning emails about the next CWC event, writing/publishing a blog post. Lunch is usually leftovers & more blog reading, before I need a leg stretch so I will head to my local op shop or library for some cheap retail therapy.

After lunch I settle into doing any creative work on my list until the evening when I head to the gym (not every day of course, I'm not that disciplined!), cook/eat dinner and then TV/craft projects before bed.

On Wednesdays I mix it up and haul my computer over to Frankie & Swiss' southside studio, and do the same as above but interspersed with more baked treats and chats with the girls :)

What are your top 5 creative resources across any media?

Blogs, too many to name, but the usual suspects: TDF, Design Work Life, Oh Joy, Swiss Miss and A Cup of Jo are dailies.

Twitter - so many great links shared, conversations had... a lifeline for those of us who work alone throughout the day.

Books - I have a little library of portfolio-style design books that I'll flip through for a creative boost. I especially like 'information' based books about how other people work or are creative, like How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul and The 4-Hour Work Week. Probably the reason I decided to put out Conversations... is because it would be the kind of book I'd read over and over (and I have!)

Mags - shelter mags make up the majority of my collection. I have always thought that a home is a visual representation of the mind, so a calm, happy, creative work/home space is something I strive for, and when things are looking tidy I feel most creative and clear-headed!

Honestly, doing not-creative things is a creative resource for me. I come up with the best ideas in the shower, lying awake in bed, wandering around a shop, driving etc.

Which Australian designers, artists or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?

I'm generally inspired by people who have professional integrity and are very conscious of the things they create and how they are produced, like Jodie Fried. People with a refreshing sense of humour who don't take themselves or their creative businesses too seriously, like Shannon Lamden. Positive people who like to continually improve themselves and help others do the same, like Pip Lincolne. And those who have faced extreme adversity or personal hurdles and still have a smile on their face and continue to create and contribute positively to the world.

What would be your dream creative project?

Hmm, I don't know about project, but I certainly have some dream CWC speakers on my wish list. Aussies like musician Clare Bowditch, Sarah-Jane Clarke & Heidi Middleton from Sass & Bide, Kate Bezar founder of Dumbo Feather, Abi Crompton of Third Drawer Down, Ita Buttrose, Kristina Karlsson of Kikki.K are just a few!

And if I could pay to fly them out to this country, then Julia Hasting of Phaidon Books, author Sloane Crosley, film maker Faythe Levine, blogger Maggie Mason, designer Jessica Hische... and my dream-lady, Tina Fey.

What are you looking forward to?

I'm looking forward to 2012. It's going to be full of changes and challenges in my life both professionally and personally. I'm due to have my first child in April, so that will mark the beginning of a massive shift in the way I balance my work with life/family over the next 20-something years! In short, my graphic design career will be on hiatus for a bit, as I want to put all my 'work' efforts into continuing the CWC as usual. The CWC is going to be my lifeline to the outside world so I'm determined to make it work... though we'll see how that has all panned out this time next year, once the little one is here! It really is the beginning of a new era and that's pretty exciting/daunting.

Melbourne Questions

Your fave Melbourne neighbourhood & why?

I love so many different neighbourhoods in Melbourne for different reasons, and although I've been here five years there is still so much to discover! I live north side, but I'll definitely 'cross the river' for food, friends, shops etc. Flemington, where I live, has its cute quarter and I like its proximity to North Melbourne, which is really buzzing at the moment. If I could live anywhere it would probably be closeby to Princes/Royal Park or Merri Creek... I love inner-city living it's but nice to have a bit of nature at your doorstep!

Where/what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Oh, so many. Breakfast at Miss Jackson in St Kilda - I wish it was closer to my home as there are many more things on the menu I would love to try! Dinner at Queen Margaret in Clifton Hill. Nice-looking venue, lovely staff, tasty pizzas. Afternoon tea at Auction Rooms (Banana Bread & real peppermint tea!) (can you tell yet I'm partial to an industrial-decor establishment?). And fancy schmancy vegetarian fare at Ezard... gotta support the high-enders who cater to the veg-loving crew.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Well, if it's a CWC event day, then setting up and doing last minute prep before everyone arrives at the venue (this is after a broken night's sleep of stress-dreams that the venue has changed/the speaker has changed/I have forgotten to attend the event etc etc). If it's not a CWC day, after a week at home I'm probably itching for a change of scenery so will be out for breakfast with friends, then errands and shopping, before returning home for some couch-time reading magazines. Patrick calls this my happy place.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Twelve months ago I would have said the CWC! That has changed a bit this year. Maybe just the areas near where I live... I used to have an office in Moonee Ponds and the op-shop scene around there is pretty good. Plus, the best roast almonds in Melbourne are courtesy of Ray's on Hall St. They're a creativity superfood, you know...

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