Software that Crunches Numbers Needs Personality, Too

Jesse Read, 40, is an illustrator at FreshBooks in Toronto.

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Software that Crunches Numbers Needs Personality, Too
, New York Times
Jesse Read, 40, is an illustrator at FreshBooks in Toronto.
Q: You work for a cloud-based accounting software company. Accountants and engineers are the job descriptions we might expect. What does an illustrator do there?

A: I provide artwork for the software and our blog. And I draw event logos and add sparkles to text in how-to videos, and pops of color. As another example, I might personalize a mail message to our clients to encourage them to try a new feature. I’ve painted murals for our office, and once I illustrated a children’s book about homonyms. The company distributes it at conferences and in customer meetings.

Q: As a kid, were you always drawing?

A: I doodled so much it would get in the way of listening to the teacher. I attended a high school with an arts program, graduated from Ontario College of Art and Design, and spent an additional two years studying graphic design at Humber College in Toronto.

Even today, my favorite part of a project is the doodling phase, where I sketch an idea. I put headphones on, find a corner, and do what I’ve always done.

Q: What memorable project have you worked on?

A: Our product allows customers to connect to their bank and automatically import expenses, such as debit card transactions, into the software so they can easily track them. I designed a friendly, animated squirrel that appears the first time you try to connect. It does a breakdance move with a little wave when the connection is successful. Rather than have a standard message or figure, the squirrel adds some humor to the procedure.

Q: Where does your inspiration come from?

A: I like a lot of things people consider old-timey: old illustrations, music and movies, nondigital art materials and methods like life drawing and silk screening.

My co-workers get a kick out of seeing what’s on my computer screen when they walk by. I look at everything from 1940s animated videos explaining science or predicting the future, to after-school specials from the ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of my influences are from before the 1990s, so I’m a strange fit for a modern technology company.

Q: What challenges are you facing?

A: I’m the only artist here, and we’re growing, so I try to convince my boss I should put my energy where it will have the most impact. I can’t plan a project that will take a week to complete when there’s a lot of work to be done. Also, I try to stick to one style. At home I’m much looser.

Q: How do accounting software customers respond to your art?

A: We serve small business owners who are pursuing their passions, so adding quirkiness and passion to our material rather than using stock images shows we know where they’re coming from.

If you want to surprise and connect with your customers, and you’re willing to make the investment, illustrations are a powerful medium. They convey the human side of the business really well, and that’s something you don’t expect from an accounting software company.

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