Jen Levario Cieslak, freelancer

Jen Cieslak is founder of JLCieslak Creative, LLC.
Jen Cieslak is founder of JLCieslak Creative, LLC.

Jen Levario Cieslak is the founder of JLCieslak Creative, LLC. While studying for her bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of Arizona, Cieslak joined the staff of the Arizona Daily Star, designing inside entertainment pages and eventually the front page. She took a hiatus in the summer of 2001 to intern with the San Jose Mercury News as part of the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund copy editing program, returning to the Star design desk in the fall. After graduating, she moved to Phoenix to work as a designer at the Arizona Republic, where she worked on most (if not all) sections of the paper, from news design to agate prototyping. She finally landed on the Republic’s “First Amendment” and A1 teams, working with a group of editors and designers on the Sunday front page and other special projects. She left the Republic in 2011 to pursue a degree in web design from Arizona State University, although things didn’t work out quite as planned.

I was very fortunate that as soon as I was a “free agent,” I had a list of clients who needed print design,” she said. “I was busy enough that I never did finish that web degree, but am self-taught in many things WordPress and use that for my clients’ web design needs. Now I do print, web and logo design, social media consulting, and contract newspaper design.”

Ceislak’s first real exposure to SND was through coworkers at the Daily Star, the convention in Phoenix where she heard a photographer speak about his experiences at Ground Zero on 9/11, and the convention in San Jose. Since then, she’s been involved with the formation of SND Region 2 (led by Shradda Swaroop) and setting up a social media strategy that best served the region. She also served as a judge for the annual SND best of news design print competition in 2013.

It was an amazing experience,” she said of her time in Syracuse, “and I never would’ve imagine how much I’d learn by just being in the room with design legends and amazing pages.”

How has your involvement with SND helped you grow professionally or personally? Personally: I’ve met and spent time with some of my best friends because of SND. Sometimes the only way we can connect outside our busy schedules is to see each other at a conference (or this year, judging). There’s something wonderful and tremendously fun about being in a room full of like-minded font aficionados who, at least in my experience, all also love dogs.

Professionally: I’ve learned so much. About the industry. About how to connect with a team of people. About software and hardware. About news, graphics, photography, and the people who make those things happen. And frankly, about what it takes to win an SND award (hint: it’s not easy). I’ve certainly learned a lot of skills through my work with SND, but the biggest take-aways for me are knowledge of the industry, knowledge of the leaders in the design world, and an amazing network of design professionals. Also, News Page Designer (now hosted on SND’s web site) got me noticed by an editor at the Republic, who eventually hired me. That was pretty awesome.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? Cross train. I don’t know that anyone ever sat me down and said “cross training is the best thing you can do for your career,” but it was certainly there in practice at the Daily Star, the Mercury News and the Arizona Republic.

Having experience on the copy desk helped make me a better designer, and gave me a better relationship with copy editors, reporters and desk editors. The same was true when a photographer took me out to art direct a photo shoot and put the camera in my hands. When I had the opportunity to talk with a social media coordinator or web producer about their jobs, I learned as much as I could about what they do. Finally, it was also beneficial to work alongside (gasp) advertising and marketing teams at the paper on single-copy initiatives and learn their reasoning and motivations.

I need every piece of that knowledge every day I work as a freelancer. Much like a paper with a small staff, you learn that you need every skill you can get — on top of being a good designer — to have a successful career.

What’s one thing you want people to know about you? A lot of people want to know how they can be a freelance designer in a place like San Diego (or city of your choice). What worked for me: building a client base where I already lived and transferring after I established strong face-to-face relationships. Some advice: Research health insurance options in the place you want to live. Figure out how much money you want/need to make to pay yourself a salary, office/tech needs, 401k, health insurance — and the rate and hours you’ll need to work to make that. Identify people you admire and trust, and ask them how they did it. There are also some great resources from freelancer-turned-mogul Shane Pearlman at

Instagram or Vine? Vine. I have yet to see a 15-second video that was worth more than 6 seconds. I also think it Instagram video gunks-up a showcase of beautiful still photography.

What typeface would you be? My first inclination is Giza Five Five, because I love a slab serif and it reminds me of my first job. But I’d love to find a serif font where the capital “R” and “A” kern well together (ala “IRAQ”). Huge pet peeve of mine. 🙂

jencieslakproject1Tell us about one of your favorite projects. Coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.

As a news designer, it’s weird that some of your “favorites” are also the most tragic events either regionally or globally. Whether it’s right to call this a favorite, the first two weeks of Giffords coverage produced some of my most memorable pieces of work for several reasons:

One, it was my home town. I grew up in Tucson, had gone to the same school as many of the victims, had shopped at that Safeway with my family, and had lived down the street from the shooter. The Tucson shooting and subsequent coverage was emotional for me in a way I think a lot of journalists experience workplace emotion: work-work-work-work-work, make deadline, then realize the horrible magnitude of the news. On this one, I don’t know how many straight days and nights we all worked, but it was a lot. And when that was over, it finally hit home. Literally.

Two, this was real team work. Reporters and editors came from every section of the paper to help with this coverage. At the time, Chris George and I were the designers on the Republic’s “First Amendment” team, which was made up of editors, reporters, designers and a graphic designer. Having worked closely together for years, we’d hit a stride for putting out the best work we could, as quickly as possible. The team — along with the photo desk — collaborated on the coverage and presentation. We could predict each others’ needs and could rely on everyone to put out consistently good work. I’m pretty sure no one had to make the call to come in the morning of the shooting; we just all showed up to get started. It really felt like the kind of journalism you learn about in J school.

Three, we won an SND award. I know a lot of people say awards don’t matter, but heck — it sure feels good to win one. I mean, why else would everyone tape all those submissions together every year? A judge was kind enough to share the thoughts of the voting panel, and it just gave me a real sense of confidence that we were on the right track. I’ve designed many poster pages and performed flashy Photoshop tricks to try and win SND awards over the years. But the times I’ve won are actually the times I’ve completely forgotten about the awards and just tried to do the best journalism I could — and serve the readers the best ways I know how.

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