For creative professionals, your work shouts, “this is what I can do!” and, “this is my take on the industry!”. You want as many people as possible to hear you—and believe in what you’re saying. That level of cred helps you be seen as an expert, or rather a social influencer. Not in the Kardashian sense or built on #ads. Instead, it’s about art. And heart. Meet Michael Fugoso, a San Diego-based illustrator who regularly wows his 63K followers on Instagram. We chatted about his journey from doodler to sought-after designer, how he snags clients like IBM and Volvo, and what you can do to build up your own expert status.
Vitamin T: OK, let’s talk Instagram. The term “influencer” gets thrown around a lot, but with over 60K people wanting to hear what you have to say, do you consider yourself one?
Michael Fugoso: No.... Ha! I wouldn’t call myself an influencer. As long as I’m active in the industry, I’d rather have my influence come from that. I try to have an impact with everything I make. I didn’t get into this to be an influencer, I got into this to create work.
How did you get so many followers?
Years ago, a business partner introduced me to Carlyle Sadler. He was an entrepreneurial type, thinking of ways to monetize my work. A lot of people, myself included at that time, believed your portfolio is this secret thing you only reveal when interviewing. Carlyle told me, “Get your work out there, get people excited, get feedback!” So I started sharing logos, things like that. I wasn’t getting a lot of traction. And I wasn’t excited about it, either. So I took a departure and started doing these robots. Everything else at the time was flat, so it stood out a bit. One Instagram account with like 600,000 followers shared my work and I got a bunch of followers overnight.
(Editor’s note: Graphic Design Central has nearly a half million followers on Instagram. They shared one of Michael’s robots on March 5, 2016.)
Do you actively promote yourself?
Ever since that account featured me, I kept targeting those kinds of accounts. The more features I got, the more people were seeing my work. I do a fair amount of outreach too. I don’t think you can sit around and wait for an invitation.
Social media’s a 24/7 gig. Do you find it stressful to keep up?
Social can eat at you pretty badly. We’re conditioned to think, you gotta post X many things per day to be relevant. But I realized that I can post once every three weeks and get the same impact. Without the stress. It really boils down to setting a schedule and treating it as a job.
It’s tricky to balance staying creative with having a life. How do you do it?
I never pull all-nighters anymore. Even if a dream client came to me, if they needed something in 48 hours, I would refuse. It’s like a personal code. I sleep more. Go on walks. Work one-two hours on a screen max at a time. This is why it would be hard for me to have a regular job!
These days, who or what influences your work?
DKNG studios in LA. Aaron Johnson. I love the stuff Brian Edward Miller is doing for REI—outdoorsy, mountains, hikers, boats. There are a lot of great character designers out there, too. And the ones that can represent diversity in a realistic way, not a I’m-making-everyone-purple-or-orange-kind-of-way, I’m so jealous of that.
I like to look at radically different styles. And then I take little pieces from each one and try to form my own thing. I also love to go to conferences and try to meet people in person.
Speaking of conferences, you now speak at them — you’ll be at Pop-Up Crop in November in San Diego. How do you decide what to talk about?
Well, you have to gauge your audience. Sometimes, it’s less about illustration and more about starting your career later in life, for example. At Pop-Up Crop, I won’t talk so much about the technical side of illustration but more solutions to burnout.
Oooh, can you give us a sneak peek?
I’m going to talk about what I call The Flow State. Let’s take pull-ups. Say, your max is 10. You could probably muster all your strength and do it. But then you’d be sore for four days. So my advice is do everything a 7/10 instead. Only do seven pull-ups so you’re not as sore and can start again sooner. Over time, you do more.
People mostly want to hear your thoughts on illustration, but are you dying to talk about other things?
I would love to talk about where to blow all your money in travel. Or how to get things done without destroying yourself. Or how to curate all information that comes to you.
You’ve had some dream clients—Volvo, IBM, NASA, Nike—you’re even getting into children’s books. What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever illustrated?
It wasn’t a paid gig or anything. It was this scene I created after a trip I took to Italy—my dream home!
Of course, you don’t just wake up and draw a rocket for NASA. What’s your advice to creatives just starting out?
I listened to this illustrator speak at my school one time. He said if he wanted to work for Coca-Cola, he wouldn’t email the CEO at the headquarters. He’d find a Coke shipping warehouse near him and see if they needed work. So basically I followed this plan. Find big names locally. For example, through my work with Balboa Park museums, I’ve gotten work with a few aerospace companies, like NASA.
Let’s go back to when you started out. When did you first get into drawing?
Kindergarten. It was video games—Contra, it’s like this 2D scrolling game. I was also into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then I became that C student who would doodle! In 8th grade, I drew my friends as Dragon Ball Z characters. Sometimes I’d make them the ugly ones, and that was my first glimpse at client side work. My friends would be like, “Make me cooler!”
And you’ve been drawing ever since?
No. I went through the phase of thinking high school, college, nice job somewhere. I became a financial advisor. That was what I thought I should be doing. Or my family thought I should be doing. Then my engagement broke up. Since it didn’t look like I’d have a family, I finally had time to focus on myself. I went to design school (Platt College) when I was 29. Of course, my family was like, “You could have done that all along!”
Who would you most like to have a beer with?
Bruce Lee. I’m pretty sure it would be the worst time ever. <laughs> He’s a super intense guy. But I just have so many questions.
What would you ask him?
How did you really die?
Let’s not end on that note. What final thought you want to leave us with?
Find areas of open-mindedness in whatever you do.