Posted 19 May 2022
Interview by Lyla Johnston
Mention Sarah Madden

Illustrator Sarah Madden on vulnerability, balancing three jobs and doodling for Google

If you Googled something on the 10th October 2021, then you’ve almost certainly seen Sarah Madden’s work. While Sarah’s Google Doodle of broadcasting pioneer Una Marson helped to educate many on Black British history, her creative practice is made up of a plethora of other pursuits. Balancing work as a designer at design and branding agency, Thompson Brand Partners, and freelance illustrator while also dedicating herself to her passion project, hello Sola, Sarah channels her real-life experiences and vulnerability into her often floral imagery, with The New Yorker and Penguin Random House also taking note of her work. Here, we speak to Sarah about time management, Maya Angelou and being “a snake, not a butterfly”.

Sarah Madden

Sarah Madden

Job Title

Senior Designer, Thompson Brand Partners (2022-present)
Designer, Thompson Brand Partners (2021–2022)
Freelance Illustrator (2019–present)



Selected Clients

Facebook, Google, The New Yorker, Penguin Random House UK, Sephora

Previous Employment

IMA Home Agency

Place of Study

MA Advertising and Design, University of Leeds (2014–2015)
BA Fine Art, Leeds Metropolitan University (2011–2014)


Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do?
I guess I have three jobs. This split is between my design work at Thompson Brand Partners, my freelance illustration work and my passion project, hello Sola, which can be found on Instagram.

While my graphic design role involves discovering insights and strategically designing brands, my passion project hello Sola aims to resonate with and empower individuals, focusing on themes of personal wellbeing. Through hello Sola, I have been able to build a freelance illustration career. I’ll be talking more about this in the rest of the interview!

I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of different clients on various projects in advertising, editorial and packaging. Thankfully they all align with things I am interested in.

Most of my illustration work is done digitally on an iPad. By using an iPad I find I can create digital work that has the fluid element of analog that I like to see in my work.

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Some of Sarah‘s “Solas”

Sarah madden illustration creativelivesinprogress 07

Some of Sarah‘s “Solas”

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Some of Sarah‘s “Solas”

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I started illustrating four years ago after experiencing a difficult time that really challenged my mental health. I saw some of my friends also struggling with their mental health and found that we felt better when we supported each other through sharing our experiences and learnings. Doing this inspired me to take my negative experiences and turn them into something positive. This was hello Sola.

“The main influences for my work are my own experiences as I journey through self development – there’s a lot of self reflection.”

My main influences for my work are my own experiences as I journey through self development. My work has a lot of self reflection, so there is an element of vulnerability and humility in everything I do. I am also further inspired by hearing stories of other women who have overcome their own challenges and displayed courage, resilience and dignity in the face of adversity.

You’ll see a lot of flowers surrounding my subjects. I use flowers in my work to represent beauty, inherent strength, constant growth and optimism. I like to call my subjects Solas; they all feel like an extension of me, or maybe more of an alter ego living in an illustration! In all cases, all of my illustrations contain aspects of character that I hope to cultivate in myself.

What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
[Above] I was approached last year by art director Angelica McKinley to do a Google Doodle of Una Marson.

As a woman of Jamaican heritage I felt a lot of pride when doing this piece and I was honoured to play a part in shining a light on Una Marson and her achievements. The Google Doodle has given her some well deserved wider recognition.

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Maybe not training, but a lot of practice. Study the subject you love to draw a lot. This will help you grow your technical skills and also help you notice the parts of the process you’re enjoying, which is super-important for developing your individual approach and style.

If you could sum up your job in a meme, what would it be and why?
[Below] It makes me giggle every time I see it, because it reminds me of me, and how I feel about my work a lot of the time – constantly reaching for perfection in every piece.

I think I can laugh about it now because I’ve learned to use that need for perfection as motivation to do a great job, but not to stop me from ever finishing a piece of work. If I waited for perfection in every piece of work I did, nothing would leave my iPad and sketchbook.

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I feel like I'm still starting out in many ways. I started exploring illustration as an art form almost four years ago.

At the beginning of hello Sola, my illustrations were very simple. I treated them as just a vessel for the messaging I wanted to communicate, but after a while, I wanted the illustrations to have just as much refinement and craft as the message did. So, I started to revisit the skills I loved and learned in my years studying fine art, such as composition, colour and tone.

When I started to focus on refining my illustrations more, I started to get approached by potential clients to do freelance illustration work.

Some of Sarah‘s “Solas”
Some of Sarah‘s “Solas”

If you could pick something that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Maya Angelou. I remember reading her poem, Still I Rise, a few years ago and feeling very touched by each line I read. I heard this poem before but there was something about that time that really made me listen. It gave me a whole new perspective and taught me that with resilience, passion and some graft I can rise above any challenge that might come my way. I think this attitude sets you up quite nicely for a creative career.

“Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ taught me that with resilience, passion and graft I can rise above any challenge. I think this attitude sets you up nicely for a creative career.”

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Time management! Taking on freelance work and working on passion projects alongside my full-time design work is a balancing act (one that I am still working on). I have had to learn to say no and remind myself that (sadly) I can’t do it all, all of the time.

I’m really careful to not compromise my work commitments or my wellbeing. I take on freelance projects that I get excited about and that I feel confident I can commit the deserved time and energy to.

How did you land your first commissions?
I worked on my first commissions years ago – just before starting my undergraduate degree to earn a little extra money for uni. I chose to focus on pencil portraits because I felt comfortable in that subject and media. I started a Facebook page and asked friends and family to share it. Within a month or so I had a few commissions scheduled.

I didn’t do this for very long though; I wasn’t enjoying working on these because they were time consuming and I really just wanted to focus on my practice at the time which heavily featured figurative paintings.

Ryan Chetiyawardana for Punch Drink (2021)
Nigella Lawson for The New Yorker (2021)
Mariah Carey for The New Yorker (2020)

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? Do you have any advice or learnings to share?
Most of my freelance illustration work has come through my social media, so I would say it has been very important. That being said, I’m not the best at posting regularly or consistently, so I don’t think you need to be a social media guru or a hashtag queen for it to benefit your career.

“I would encourage everyone to not put pressure on yourself to master the social media game if you don’t enjoy it.”

I would encourage everyone to not put pressure on yourself to master the social media game if it doesn’t come naturally to you or you don’t enjoy it. I saw a post by illustration agency Handsome Frank not too long ago. It read; ’We work with artists, not influencers’. It was a nice reminder that the aim is not to have the most followers in this line of work, but to curate your social media in a way that displays work you’re proud of and what you’d like to do more of.

As a lot of my commissions come through hello Sola, I often get approached for work that follows the themes on my Instagram such as wellbeing, female empowerment and portraits. This is great, because this is what I have a particular passion for right now!

Sarah‘s influential women for International Women‘s Day 2020

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
“Be a snake, not a butterfly”. I know, sounds weird, but bear with me. This was advice from a good friend of mine. While I was a little grossed out by his comparison of me to a snake, he went on to explain that a butterfly is used a lot when we think of growth and change. But, a butterfly actually spends the majority of its life as a caterpillar and then almost half of its life in a cocoon until the big reveal, then it quickly dies.

My friend told me to think of myself as a snake, regularly shedding its skin to allow for constant growth. Always be open to growing and moving forward in your career, or you might end up holding yourself back.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
There are three things that spring to mind:

Pay attention to what interests you. Explore how you can bring your interests and passions into your creative work. This will help you develop a unique approach and style.

It isn’t all about client work when you start out. Self-initiated work is just as important – if not more important – in shaping your career and eventually connecting with the right clients.

Always be a student: There will always be more to learn. Being a creative means being a lifelong learner, and that requires you to always be a student.

Interview by Lyla Johnston
Mention Sarah Madden