Stefanie Etow has cultivated her path by infusing art, creativity and empowerment as the vehicles to craft great visual stories for brands. Otherwise known by her Instagram name @inkandpulp (did we mention her account boasts an impressive follower-base of over 50k people?), the San Francisco-based creative knows a thing or two about the importance of community and creating content that speaks to them in a real and relevant way. With an impressive professional track record and her steadfast optimism, we feel honored to have been able to catch the busy content creator in a calm moment between seminars (Stef was in New York to attend the highly acclaimed 3 Percent Conference) to talk more about her digital journey. In this PLANOLEADERS interview we sat down with Stef over coffee where she chatted with us about Instagram, client relationships and her careful approach to planning content.
I'm Stef, a Visual Brand Storyteller based in San Francisco, CA. I live in a colorful 116-year-old apartment with my two boys – one is a human and the other is a pup, but some days it's hard to tell which is which. I'm an advocate of women-led businesses and if you ask me, the future is sure as hell still female. I am passionate about human rights, slow fashion, creative writing, Bob Dylan, quiet nooks in busy cities, and I take my coffee black.
I never imagined digital to play such a central role in my creative work, but moving to San Francisco was the impetus for accelerating my career in that direction. My philosophy is if you're doing it right, you won't end up where you had planned to be. I actually began my career in the museum world – first at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and then at the Whitney in New York. After grad school in Chicago, I went on to revive the visual identity of a renowned architecture firm in LA and single handedly built out their online presence. I then helped to update and reposition the online brand voice of a 15-year old media organization targeting young creative millennials. A notable moment in my career, as well as the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, was co-founding a tech startup centered around connecting women of all generations. I uncovered a passion for supporting and connecting women, which even after we closed the company, has continued to be the centerpiece of my work.
Something I've learned through trial and error is this: Listen to your wisest self. Her voice is more insightful than any article or industry canon. And always be evolving. I started Ink and Pulp as a creative outlet while I was buried in books (remember those) during grad school. It entered the world as a blog – my homage to the minimalist practice of pen and paper – was reincarnated as a Tumblr and then again as an Instagram feed. On Instagram, it further evolved into a personal experiment where I'd test out my content strategies that were getting shut down by my superiors at my 9-to-5 (spoiler alert: it worked and I broke off on my own). We're all so over-stimulated by the noise of the media, so much so that many of us struggle with the fear of missing out. My visual content is meant to gently encourage my community to press pause and appreciate how very magical the mundane can be. I take a similar approach with my clients. Many of them left their creativity largely untapped during their previous careers, so part of what I love about my work is guiding them to rediscover the creative confidence already within them.
My background is in art history and public art, so I've always been involved in visual communication, though never formally trained in photography. There's a visual flatness to my photo style, and this is partly because I first found my influence in modern art, which challenges the notion that art should reflect the natural world and instead celebrates the materials themselves. I'd say it took me about a year and a half to develop my aesthetic, as I gradually turned down the saturation and turned up the white space in order to allow room for imagination. I'm not really sure why I was drawn to pastels, but it eventually made sense as I began incorporating more of the San Francisco cityscape into my content. I carefully curate my feed so that not only is each individual image compelling in its own right, but they all work seamlessly together as a visual composite. In the words of Henri Matisse, "What I dream of is an art of balance... a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."
One of my favorite projects was J.Crew's Accessory Fix Campaign in Spring 2015. I took this as a creative challenge to craft a playful narrative around a pair of shoes, and one of my images actually became J.Crew's third most liked photo in their history of being on Instagram. I also enjoyed art directing Kimpton's Pack Your Pooch video because it was a fun opportunity to showcase a hotel company that has been pet-friendly since their founding thirty years ago. We filmed it at The Goodland in Santa Barbara, which has a laid back, chic design that I wish so badly would magically appear in my own home. As far as best practices go, I always say, "Creating your visual brand story is about taking ownership of how your community perceives you and clearly communicating why your message is valuable." As viewers, we mindlessly consume content, liking this and disliking that, but not fully understanding why. As brand owners, it's our responsibility to pay attention and to fully understand the emotional triggers behind that why.
Since I work for myself and not on a team, one of my daily challenges is holding myself accountable – both in the way I run my day-to-day and in the way I plan for the future. Setting milestones and tracking analytics allows a solopreneur like me to celebrate my progress, assess my strengths and weaknesses, and continue pushing my own creative envelope. A (good) problem I've had lately with my personal brand is I've been so present offline that I've been less active online. I'd love to get back into the swing of things, churning out inspirational content, but it sure feels good to put down my phone, quiet my mind, and give myself a break every once in awhile.
In order for people to understand who you are and what your mission is, you need to first establish these things yourself. The idea is that when a viewer visits your feed, they should be able to immediately pick up on what you're all about. Some diverse brands that I think master this beautifully are @createcultivate, @thebeachpeople, @stellamariabaer, @maewoven, and @priyamglobal.