Close Up with Artist & Designer Molly Z.

I met Molly in 2006 at the Surtex Art Licensing Show in New York. I am very glad that we still keep in touch for all this years and I’d like to thank Facebook, Skype and Internet for this. Although we are so far apart in different part of the world and we feel so close to one another.

Molly Z. spends most of her time striving to create imagery that captures people’s vision, engages their minds, ignites their hearts and inspires action. Her illustrative characters are iconic and fun, existing in playful environments of quirky shapes and bright colors. She is known for her ability to graphically stylize people, animals and objects, giving them unique visual personalities. She uses color in fresh new combinations to create vibrant illustrations that are festive, modern, and lively. You can see her art used in licensing, advertising, publishing, branding, retail, exhibit and community spaces.

Spring Mural Project

Molly Z. is continuously seeking out new illustration projects and creating archives of art to license. She is also involved in several international volunteer organizations and is grateful for the privilege to work with clients and be creative in life….And in case you were wondering, the Z. stands for Zakrajsek.

Tell us a little about you self and what you do.

My name is Molly Zakrajsek, but I am known as Molly Z. My last name is definitely difficult for most people and it seems to be more memorable to go by Molly Z. I am a professional digital illustrator and pattern designer. I create art for advertising and licensing which has been used on billboards packaging, school supplies, stationery products, gift wrap, scrap booking products, and party supplies.

I also develop characters, icons, patterns and illustrations that are used to create a brand experience in specific environments for retail and community spaces, museum exhibits and schools.

Animal Shedd

Who (or what) inspires you to do what you love in your own creative business?

love to look at the world and recreate my own version of it through art. I enjoy looking at nature, people and life, searching for the uniqueness and then working it out through a creative exploration. Being entrepreneurial and strategizing ways to earn money through my art is also energizing for me, it creates an on going pursuit of learning and problem solving. From a business standpoint, I am inspired by several writers…Marcus Buckingham, who’s written several books on discovering and applying your strengths, Jim Collins, who wrote Good to Great, and Holy Discontent by Bill Hybels.

Where do you get your inspiration from when you design/paint?

Creatively, art books, museums, nature, city life and traveling internationally are big sources of inspiration for me. I also enjoy learning about art history, and the different artists of different era’s. I love the fine artists and commercial artists from the 50’s and 60’s. Those in the Modern era did amazing things with shape, line, typography, symbols, and simplicity. Other artists that I enjoy now, who inspire me personally are Illustrators Chris Sickels, Cathie Bleck, Paul Howalt, Lori Siebert, Von Glitschka, Seymour Chwast, and Tim Biskup. The Charles Anderson Design firm has always influenced my style and work process.

Toy Lab -Store Sign

I believe what I do as an artist, is visually interpret creation. I see the original with my eyes (like a tree or a sun or a squirrel) I look for the shapes and lines that are the most predominate to me and then begin a process of realistically interpreting the original in a linear gesture. After I have it the way I want it, I then consider distorting certain characteristics in order to stylize the image to meet the criteria of the client, such as making a character look wacky or serious, in action or static, or just to emphasis a certain characteristic to make the image unique and attention getting. Line, shape, pattern and color are the main ingredients in my illustration style.

What are the five words that people who know you would use to describe you?

Energetic, creative, reflective, silly, encouraging

Tell us about your very first job and what path have you taken since then?

When I was in college, the only design firm I wanted to work for was Charles Anderson Design in Minneapolis, MN. At the time, they were doing all the design and branding for French Paper Co. and working on a book called “The Archive,” a collection of advertising art from the 20’s through the 60’s. I went to see Charles Anderson speak and applied for a position on the Archive project. I became one of several who helped organize and recreate these images from his personal collection. Most of my days were spent using rapidiograph pens and white out, enlarging images, cleaning them up and then reducing them back down to create pages of icons of similar themes. This was illustration boot camp for me, day after day, drawing and organizing.

After I left CSA, I was able to develop my own imagery using this experience as a base to my own work process and creative style. Icons, shapes and symbols are still the starting point to every piece of art work I create. I also spend time now paying close attention to color trends and applying color in new and different ways to my work. I have always loved simple, bold, graphic symbols or characters. Starting at CSA definitely taught me how to get to the essence of an image and work diligently as an artist.

Book Cover

Describe a typical day in your studio space?

I normally get up, make a really strong french press coffee, read a bit of my bible or a book, get dressed and then head into my studio space. Usually one day a week I spend a few hours at a nearby coffee shop, working on my business…strategic planning, marketing, researching etc. But most days are spent starting out responding to emails, following up with clients, sending out estimates etc. I find that there’s only a small window of my day where I’m actually creating. I used to spend more time at this, but it seems like in the last year, the amount of hours I spend on marketing and getting my business set-up on social media, portfolio sites etc, has taken me away from drawing. When I do have project work for clients, I try to move as quickly as possible to stay in step with the ever-demanding deadlines. At lunch I usually break for an episode of something on Hulu and then I make another cup of coffee and head back into the studio to complete more artistic and administrative tasks.

Tell me more about “The Murals and Aquariums” project

Over the last few years, I’ve been moving away from the advertising industry to product licensing and now to illustrative experiential branding. Last year I was commissioned by the Shedd Aquarium here in Chicago to create all the characters and branding for their first ever permanent kids exhibit, The Polar Play Zone, which opened with the new rehabbed Oceanarium. The project lasted over 6 months and I worked with the design team and exhibit team to give the Polar Play Zone it’s own distinct, playful, yet accurate brand.

I created 4 signature animal characters representative of the live animals in the exhibit, 2 murals based on a penguin habitat and 70 foot digital mural of a tide pool which wraps around a huge activity room filled with over 30 different signs that use my illustrations to help teach kids about the creatures that exist in this specific environment. I also created patterns and symbols and different character poses that are used throughout the whole exhibit so that it is visually cohesive and creates a playful, memorable experience for children ages 4-7. The Shedd knew that children at this age respond to simplicity, boldness, color and playfulness and they believed my illustration style was a perfect fit to engage, inspire and educate their guests in this age group.

Spring Mural
Dophin-Deep Ocean
I love being involved in projects where I can use my illustration style to create experiences for others. I’ve also done thebranding, murals, signage, and packaging for a toy store called Toy Lab. I’ve created murals, signage, and banners forelementary areas in churches and more recently, I am seeking out community mural projects with groups of students.

In January of this year, I was the Artist-in-Residence at School, where I worked with a group of 15 eighth graders. I taught them the differences between a fine artist and an illustrator, and then worked with them on developing their own symbols and patterns. I then designed a mural with my own icons (based on an environmental theme) and they filled in my black icons with their symbols and patterns in color. The mural was amazing…the students did a great job. I believe I found a unique way to create professional looking murals that combine my style and love of icons with the work of developing artists. This combination of using my work as the main theme and working with the artists in a particular organization is extremely powerful visually and rewarding for me personally. These murals have the ability to turn a space that is unnoticed, into a space that’s alive and the process creates self-esteem and confidence in young people. The fact that illustration can be used in this way is really exciting!

Shallow Ocean

As a Artist, what is your biggest frustration?

Having to generate and maintain PR and marketing. I sometimes feel like this is tedious and time consuming. I also sometimes feel like I can’t get business ideas moving quick enough, because I’m only one person and only have so much time and energy in my days. I’m trying to learn how to lean on others in order to maximize ideas.

Tell us about how you prioritize your studio work.

My clients always come first, their deadlines are the most important, after that I try to do all my marketing and business “chores” and then I try and squeeze in time for research and art exploration.
School Supplies

Since you are working at home, can you please tell us about how do you connect with other artists, and your customers (i.e. how do you network)?

I’ve recently been going to an “entrepreneurs group” here in Chicago. I’m interested in how to move from a freelancer mentality to a sustainable business model. Being around entrepreneurs with different types of businesses and different strengths has been helpful for me. I have also taken art classes, financial classes and I’m very involved in social justice causes and my church, which has connected me to new and interesting people. Online I’m part of 1241, a group of digital illustrators and Artists-In-Action, both groups are about artists wanting to explore how art can be used for social justice causes.

I live and work in Chicago, I try to attend art events regularly and get to know people in my community. I’m a regular at a couple of coffee shops and restaurants and this is connected me to all kinds of creative types. In terms of connecting with customers, I used to be able to do this best through postcard promotions and directory advertising, but now I’m moving towards a social media model, so I’m learning how to set develop strategies to connect to a wider audience of people specifically interested in buying my work.

Target GiftCard

What advice can you offer other creative people who are just starting out and following their passions?

I think it’s important to be comfortable with change and learning new things and to keep this in mind throughout your career. As a business owner, entrepreneur, or self-employed artist…expect to be constantly updating and adapting. You have to keep researching, exploring, testing, reassessing and implementing different ways to make art and money. I also think it’s really important to be connected and seek out people who have skills and view points different than yourself. It’s ok to have pals that have similar interests, but if you really want to grow and sustain yourself as an artist, you have to be around people who excel in areas where you are weak.

What dreams do you still want to achieve or fulfil in your life?

After working on the aquarium project, I would like more opportunities to experience the under-water world and create more art for aquariums specifically, it’s fascinating! I would love to learn to scuba dive…especially at the great barrier reef. I think it would be cool to have a large public mural commission here in Chicago and collaborate with a big team to carry out the work. A big gallery exhibit in London or Paris one day would be dreamy too! And more personally, I would like to part of a generation that puts an end to hunger and human trafficking.

Penguin Slide

What is your proudest moment so far?

From a creative/career standpoint: completing the Shedd Aquarium project last year was a big moment! Also, finishing the 45 foot mural at the Springer school in Cincinnati, was exciting as well. Outside of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with my church to mobilize over 1000 volunteers to pack seeds so that 500,000 families in Zimbabwe can grow their own food. That was an awe-inspiring operation, volunteering with others gives me a real sense of purpose.

Who do you most want to meet and why?

There’s lots of people I would like to meet because I admire them in some way. But, I think it would be even more significant to actually have the opportunity to work on a really amazing project or cause with some of the following folks…musicians Peter Gabriel, Bono, Steven Delopolous and Sufjan Stevens. Their music and lives seem to embody an intentional and creative lifestyle. I would also like to work with Baz Luhrman, he’s one of my favorite movie directors and I love how he designs movies and sets and tells stories. I also think Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission is inspiring and the work they do is so important.

What is the most important lesson in life that you have learned?

Don’t go it alone. Independence is so over-valued here in America, it’s taken me a long time to undo the “I’ll do it my way” mentality burned into my psyche. It’s better to rely on others, help others, ask for help, and be part of a community that’s sharing ideas, resources and energy.

What book are you reading right now, and do you have a book you would like to recommend?

I’m reading “Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri Nouwen. It’s a book about the painting by Rembrandt in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I would recommend Holy Discontent by Bill Hybels.

Where do we find you and your artworks? 

(online portfolio)

(recent project work)

(Shedd Aquarium portfolio)

(additional images)

(book design)

(font design)

(patterns and borders for holiday cards) (look up Molly Z. Art+Design) (look up 1241 Illustrators Group)

Keychains-Shedd Aquarium
Vinh Van Lam
the authorVinh Van Lam
Vinh Van Lam, co-founder of ArtSHINE, is a visionary art coach and entrepreneur with a passion for fostering creativity. With a diverse background in art and business, he brings a unique perspective to empower emerging artists, enabling them to thrive in the dynamic art industry through the innovative platform of ArtSHINE.


  • Molly has a true vision. i love how she captures the energy in both color and design in her creations. The musical designs for her company Orbit are personal favorites.

  • Molly,

    You are very inspirational and I love what you do.

    What a great way to earn a living doing what you love.

    Vinh where do you meet all these artists and designers.

    Fantastic close up with Molly.

    All the best


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.