Rafael Medeiros on enduring the Hollywood strikes as a freelance graphic designer

How have the Hollywood writers' and actors' strikes impacted visual creatives? Graphic designer and art director Rafael Medeiros shares his experiences.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Rafael Medeiros moved to LA in 2012 after graduating in Brazil in graphic design. He's since worked on several global campaigns and for well-known international brands, including Disney+ and Apple TV+.

Upon arriving, Rafael secured an internship at DISTINC, a branding and design firm that later sponsored him for a work visa. He proceeded to climb the immigration system, securing five different visas before finally getting a green card.

After gaining residency without needing an employer sponsorship, he quit his job and pursued freelance full-time. Rafael has now been self-employed for just shy of four years, and his goal is to stay independent and continue to grow his practice.

But it's been anything but a smooth ride. First came the pandemic. Then, in 2023, just as the world was getting past Covid-19, Hollywood took a big hit from the writers' and actors' strikes. While the first has recently been resolved, the latter remains ongoing. We chatted to Rafael about what it's been like and how he's stayed positive.

The importance of entertainment

Rafael might not be a filmmaker, but working in LA, he couldn't fail to be affected by the strikes. "Los Angeles depends so much on the entertainment industry," he explains. "In one way or another, it feels like everyone here needs the Hollywood machine to work, or else there's significantly less work. That said, music is doing great, and there are lots of shows happening. It's like this year is the year of the music industry. But we can't say the same for film and TV."

Having built much of his career designing creative marketing for movies and TV series, from digital and social media campaigns to one-sheets and OOH, this has posed a big problem. "As a freelancer, I work with agencies that normally hire me during their peak times or when they can't solve a project internally," he explains. "But with the slowdown caused by the strike, I have experienced fewer bookings and demand in general."

To give a practical example of how things are slowing down, he notes that currently, actors cannot approve images of themselves used in a piece of key art. "So that stops the development of campaigns for shows that have already wrapped production."

Finding work elsewhere

Rafael has consequently been forced to look for work outside his usual niche. "So far, I have relied on the general advertising industry, and it's kept me busy," he says. "I've been working directly with creative agencies to develop campaigns for a range of consumer products, from pet care products to coconut water."

And it's not been all bad. "I honestly like the flexibility to move across industries and bring my expertise to them, as well as learning from different spaces, people, brands and clients," he says.

Overall, though, he's really missing his normal work, designing key art in strike-free times. "I love it, I really do!" he says. "I get to read scripts and know first-hand what's in store for theatrical releases and streaming. It keeps me very up-to-date on what's happening culturally."

Getting started

He explains how he first got into it. "My first job in LA was working for a branding firm that worked for non-profit and cultural organisations," he recalls. "One of their clients was a theatre, and we helped promote their cultural calendar of events, performances, shows and plays.

"That's when I started shifting my work from prints, book designs and brand identities to key visuals to promote a certain play or show," he continues. "I liked how it was more image-driven than my other work. I could get creative with these images and infuse my own ideas into these campaigns by manipulating photography and mixing them with illustration and graphics."

Later on, seeing his work on bus shelters and billboards was a real thrill. "Especially because I was very new to Los Angeles, which gave me a sense of belonging. My work was up on the streets and across the city. That was very welcoming to me.

"Designing for a show or movie that I genuinely like sends me down a rabbit hole of fully immersing myself in the story," he continues. "I feel lucky to be involved in such projects. I'm bogged down with what's happening now and just wish we could all reach the necessary agreements and get back to work soon."

Big break

He first broke into the entertainment creative marketing industry when he met someone who ran a key art agency. "They did everything from campaigns for American Horror Story to Oscar-worthy movies. And having done the work to promote theatre plays, I felt I had enough of a portfolio to pursue him and ask him for a job.

"I emailed him my work and had an in-office interview, and a few days later, they offered me a job. During that time, I really learned about key art making and the process from concept to completion."

Still in his early twenties, he realised he had much to learn. "But I've found people are very open to hiring people with the right attitude," he says. "Even if you lack certain skills, if you show determination to succeed, that goes a long way.

"These days, I'm on the other side," he notes. "I have subcontracted junior designers before, and I always choose attitude versus hard skills. And that has never disappointed me."

Despite the strikes, he's still seen some entertainment work published in 2023. "One of my favourites was the teaser key art for The Muppets Mayhem on Disney+, done in collaboration with IGNITION creative," he says. "I especially like this project because the key art rolled out in unusual ways and had very cool applications.

"If you've ever been to LA, you know Angelenos love their selfies, especially if there's a mural or backdrop involved. And this time, the marketing team at Disney+, along with the creative agency, did an activation at a well-known coffee shop in LA. The result was so cool.

"The art took over the cafe from coffee cup sleeves to a huge mural. If you ordered a latte, you could get a muppet portrait painted out of froth. It was such a playful activation and so perfect for the show and a brand like The Muppets and Disney+. I designed the art, and the mural was painted by Mural Ops."