Experiencing Ali Macdonald’s art is like stepping inside a child’s dream—camels in sneakers float upward hoisted by balloons, dogs of all varieties cruise down a lazy river in colorful fruit-shaped inner tubes, and a perfect pink moon rises above a pastel city. It’s enchanting and intoxicating; the colors, textures, and motion are all created with acute attention to tiny, memorable details. An alligator surfaces and blinks to reveal a heart-shaped pupil. A chef delicately seasons a dish while a crew of women around her smile as they prepare to pour wine, carry trays of food, and seat patrons.
From animated gifs, comics, and illustrations to clever pattern work, Ali Macdonald’s bright, brilliant world of design knows no bounds. She boldly crafts art for big brands like Kiehl’s, Honda, and Chronicle Books as well as publications like Women’s Health Magazine, Better Homes & Gardens, and the Washington Post. Her style smartly balances aesthetic elegance with humor. When she’s not designing for clients or creating playful gifs and comics for fun, she’s crafting bespoke wedding invitations, walking her dog, or doing laundry (her least-favorite chore). We connected with Ali about her latest projects, everyday inspiration, drive to design, and more.
After earning your B.A. in Studio Art from Williams College and an M.S. degree in Communications Design from Pratt Institute, you got your start in the industry working for Jonathan Alder. What advice or processes have stuck (if anything) from your early years designing?
It's always best to start with a sketch! For a little while, I forgot the importance of this step and I would go straight to the computer without a solid plan for composition. This resulted in a lot of wasted time and some really bad work. So now I always sketch, and let me tell you, my sketches are incredibly ugly. I used to feel this need to present really polished storyboards to clients, but I discovered that crude chicken scratch stick figure drawings work just fine.
You run and operate your own stationery and design studio. What are you favorite parts about running your own business? What challenges have you faced establishing your brand?
One favorite aspect of running my own business is having complete creative control of my projects. But what I love most is being able to make my own schedule. I am grateful every single day to be able to leave my desk whenever I want for however long I want without having to explain myself to anyone but my dog. The biggest challenge in establishing my brand was really in developing my own style. I had spent years designing for brands with very clear style guidelines, so building a new visual identity from scratch did not come easily, as I had never done it before. The second biggest challenge was having to share this very personal process of finding my voice with a public audience. I knew I needed to promote my work on social media to get somewhere, and because I felt an urgency to make it happen quickly, I was often posting work that didn't make me proud. I was in a constant state of feeling vulnerable and embarrassed.
How did your custom invitations and paper goods shop Love Lore come about? What do you like about working within the design parameters of invitations? What’s difficult?
Love Lore came about because I was getting so many requests for custom wedding invitations while I was running my greeting card line. The bespoke invitations I was making had such a different vibe than my bright and irreverent stationery, and so eventually it made sense to create a separate line for custom invitations. The design parameters are exactly what I enjoy about invitations because I don't have them with my freelance work. I'm essentially using the same formula with different graphics every time, and that can be a welcome break from a string of stressful illustration projects that require a lot of concepting and editing. There's something really therapeutic about being able to sit down and paint or draw without having to do too much thinking. But I guess that can also be the difficult aspect of it too; if you're not in the mood for that, it can sometimes feel monotonous.
You’ve shared one of your future goals is to illustrate a children’s book someday. What interests you about designing for a young audience? What were some children’s books that impacted you as a child and how have they informed your design aesthetic?
I actually just finished one! It's called Music Is My Life by Myles Tanzer and it's coming out February 2020. It's available for preorder here. I think I've always wanted to design for a young audience because I have such a fondness for the books that I was introduced to as a child. Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar was a favorite because I loved his use of color. I remember being very curious about the texture of his drawings because it seemed so different from my other books. Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline was a staple and probably influenced me the most in terms of linework. I love his loose but expressive style.
You come from a line of strong, creative women. You’ve shared that your artist grandmother inspired you, how has she influenced your art?
So much of her is present in my work today. An artist herself, she’s always had an effortless sense of color and composition...and the best art supply closet I’ve ever seen. My introduction to acrylics was discovering her basket full of candy-hued paints. When I’m with her, I’m surrounded by bright colors and fun patterns.
You’ve worked with some remarkable clients. What projects stand out in your memory? Any collaborations you’d love to repeat?
I worked on the Kiehl's Loves campaign last year and it stands out as a favorite because I got to learn about so many places I have never been before. Another project that stands out in my memory is the series of animals and ecosystems I created for Munchkin's Wildlove Cups in their collaboration with International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Whale Sanctuary Project. I love that it's for a great cause.
You’ve shared you hate doing laundry, but like making laundry-inspired designs. How does your everyday influence the kind of art you make? What’s a chore you don’t mind doing?
I've always been interested in making comics and there's a lot of inspiration in the bizarre conversations I have with myself and my dog while I'm doing chores that I absolutely hate doing. Strangely, the only chore I don't mind is using a wet vac to remove pet stains from my carpet. There's something deeply satisfying about watching that machine suck up liquid.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming artists?
Take risks, have fun and be yourself! Don't draw for your Instagram audience, draw for yourself. And don't measure your worth and the quality of your work by the number of likes you get. Easier said than done, of course.