How I Got My Job: Becoming a Top Graphic Designer and Illustrator for Restaurants

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In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Jessica Rather.

Jessica Rather spent a year fabricating eyebrows and eyelids before she graduated to crafting entire puppets for stop-motion films. She was sufficiently, if not successfully, pursuing a career in animation when in 2012 her friend, chef Ari Taymor, asked her to design a logo and event posters for his new restaurant, Alma. Rather didn’t know this favor would change her life when she accepted, but when Alma quickly started gathering accolades, her graphic design work was on full display.

This exposure led to freelance gigs creating art throughout the food and beverage industry, an in-house design job at Sweetgreen, and, eventually, the opportunity to work in TV. Throughout her professional journey, Rather experienced the harm of overworking and learned when to say no to projects. In the following interview, Rather explains how she went from making models of eyebrows for movies to creating title sequences for Netflix’s Street Food, and how she continues to overcome the loneliness of freelancing.

Eater: What does your job involve and what’s your favorite part?

Jessica Rather: My career path has led me to two design jobs. The first is marketing and branding for the food and beverage industry. I make event posters, design logos, and create overall identities for restaurants and food and beverage products.

The other half of my work is creating the look and feel of graphics in a TV show. I’ll make the show’s title sequence along with any other graphics. Currently, I work on the Netflix series Street Food, as well as a few others that will be released [in 2020]. My favorite part about both of these jobs is how much creative freedom I have.

Did you go to school for graphic design?

My initial love was filmmaking, but I have dyslexia, so I thought I couldn’t get into many schools. I ended up going to Hampshire College, a school with no grades and a unique structure that allowed me to build my own major. In my sophomore year, I built a program so that I could start working and living in LA and pursue my passion. For anyone with a learning disorder who is also motivated, that lack of structure can be incredibly helpful. So, I didn’t have a graphic design education, which made me [feel] insecure at times, but I had a liberal arts education with a lot of hands-on art experience.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

I initially wanted to work in stop-motion animation. I grew up loving Wallace and Gromit and The Nightmare Before Christmas. I loved the idea of physically building an entire world, so when I moved to LA, I looked for jobs in the stop-motion industry.

What was your first job and what did it entail?

My first job was working as a puppet fabricator at Shadow Machine. I began as an intern making eyebrows and eyelids for over a year. That lead to an in-house job making puppets for Robot Chicken at Stoopid Buddy.

How did you get into graphic design for the food industry?

While I was working in animation, my friend Ari Taymor was opening his first restaurant, Alma. It was a real DIY endeavor, and he reached out to me to help him with the logo and marketing materials. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was so much fun. He was a big fan of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse’s old event designs and wanted to create illustrated posters for guest chef events the restaurant put on. This was about seven years ago, so it was a really exciting time in the LA food scene. It was the beginning of the city really becoming a food destination.

Incredibly, about a year into opening, Alma won Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurant in America and Ari was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef. Because of the visibility that came with Alma’s success, I was able to meet some incredible chefs and winemakers, eventually leading me to work full-time as a freelance illustrator.

The poster features an illustration of a white woman with long yellow hair holding up a fork with a Japanese-style catfish on it to her face. Below it reads “Alma Brett Cooper, June 13th, 2014, 252 S. Broadway, Los Angeles.” The style is very 1920s.
A poster design for Alma, created by Jessica Rather.
Jessica Rather [Courtesy image]

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you started working as an illustrator in the food industry?

I was incredibly shy when I started. I’m still shy, but back then it held me back from expanding. I didn’t know how to sell myself and build a proper business. I also wasn’t trained at an art and design college, and because of that, I often felt embarrassed by my skill level (classic imposter syndrome). All I knew was how to put my head down and work hard.

When was the first time you felt successful?

I’ve always been hard on myself to be better and work harder, so I’ve always had a hard time recognizing my own progress. A few years ago, I began working at Sweetgreen as an in-house designer. It was incredibly meaningful to me to be self-taught and hired by such a successful company. That was certainly the first time I realized how far I had come.

Did you have any setbacks?

For several years, I was working full-time as a freelance illustrator, primarily making posters and web ads for the food and wine industry. I lived in a house with my boyfriend and two additional roommates. I spent most days up in my room working from about 7 a.m. until I finished — which sometimes was [around] 4 a.m. (Yikes!). I was afraid of saying no to work, including tight deadlines, and I had little interaction with any humans outside of the ones I lived with. I think I really lost my voice and identity at times.

What was the turning point in your career that led to where you are now?

When I started working at Sweetgreen, I told myself I would carve out time to have a life. I was picky about how much additional freelance work I’d take on [while working full-time], and by stepping back, I was able to actually see my worth. Because of that, I put myself in a much healthier headspace. It also made me more open, so that when a unique opportunity appeared, I was ready for the challenge.

One day, the team from Chef’s Table reached out in need of a designer to do graphics for their new food show called Street Food. I was lucky enough to get the job, and it was the greatest project I had worked on at that point in my career. Working on that show combined my greatest passions: food, art, and film. Since then, I’ve been able to start my own business doing more title sequences and graphics for other TV series, which is definitely my current dream job.

What were the most important skills that got you there?

Working at Sweetgreen, specifically under the art direction of Joanna Hsu, I was able to become a more well-rounded designer. It allowed me to see and touch projects at a large scale from conception to print or post[-production]. Having those skills gave me the confidence to move on and do what I do now, which is working as a freelancer again, but in a much healthier and successful way.

What would surprise people about your job? Why?

It might surprise people how much work I put into what I do and how many hours I spend each week creating and thinking about how I can grow as a designer. I’ve also realized how important it is to carve out time for self-care and friendships — being a freelancer can be really lonely.

How are you making change in your industry?

I think that the more and more people care about design — about how a restaurant logo looks, how food is packaged, or how TV graphics look — the more exciting our industry will become. I know I’m going to continue to find my voice, especially through the unique journey I’ve been on, and use that to try and push the industry forward. I also want to find some mentees and be the mentor I never had for other young aspiring creatives.

What would you have done differently in your career?

I had no idea where I was going to wind up, which was often really scary. I think I put an immense amount of pressure on myself (and still do) to be better. If I could give myself advice, it would be to take more time out of my days to take care of myself. In other words, I’d love to not think I have to work every hour of the day.

What’s the best piece of career advice you were ever given?

When I was first starting out, someone told me to never be satisfied with a first draft. That always stayed with me.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

I think we all want someone else’s career path, but it’s important to try and focus on putting your head down and just do the work to get to the next stage. Everyone’s journey is unique.

Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California.
Photo of Jessica Rather by Brian McGinn.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.