Danielle Ridolfi

Danielle Ridolfi, a 2020 UMSL graphic design graduate, created “Slowly But Shirley” with Eugene Morrison. The book tells the story a turtle who finds herself left behind by her faster animal friends. She sets off on a long journey and learns more about herself than she expected. (Photo courtesy of Danielle Ridolfi)

As a girl, Danielle Ridolfi illustrated her own books. It was a hobby she loved but something she never expected to go beyond her own notebook.

“Children’s book illustration is something I’ve always been interested in but never had the time or background knowledge I needed to really bring my ideas to life,” she said.

That was until she went back to school for graphic design at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Ridolfi, a psychologist turned graphic designer, and collaborator Eugene Morrison self-published “Slowly But Shirley” in 2020.

Morrison authored the story, while Ridolfi served as illustrator. The children’s book tells the story of Shirley, a turtle who finds herself left behind by her faster animal friends. She sets off on a long journey and learns more about herself than she expected.

In addition to publishing “Slowly But Shirley,” Ridolfi has kept busy since graduating last spring with freelance projects for a variety of small businesses including a travel agency, a financial services start up, a French language school and a photography studio.

Most recently, her freelance work for New Honor Society, a creative boutique with offices in Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis, led to a full-time time position. Despite these successes, it took some time before Ridolfi realized that she could be a graphic designer.

“I always had a desire to do something creative for a career, but when I went to undergrad for the first time, my school didn’t have a graphic design program,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone who was a graphic designer. The idea never really crossed my mind that I could build a viable career with a fine arts degree.”

After graduating from Saint Louis University, Ridolfi learned more about the graphic design field through friends who had followed that career path. These relationships demonstrated that there were many applications for a fine arts degree, and the new perspective inspired her to enroll in UMSL’s graphic design program.

“Graphic design felt like a nice fit because it includes a lot of the things that I enjoyed about my previous career: problem solving, research and working with a client to create a solution,” Ridolfi said. “Research and problem solving was a big part of my job as a psychologist. Graphic design offered the possibility to infuse some of my creative drive into my new career, as well.”

The UMSL graphic design program also provided opportunities for Ridolfi to explore her passion for illustration. One course on image making encouraged experimenting with mediums such as water color and collage to create imagery. In other classes, she gravitated toward illustration-heavy projects in her branding, typography and book design work.

Ridolfi graduated from the program amid the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly picked up freelance work. She helped a local cloud-based tax software company solidify its branding and did illustration work for a travel agency to make its itinerary documents more visually engaging.

She also developed a series of virtual learning materials for a French instructor. As the holiday season approached, Cheree Berry Paper enlisted her as well.

“I had done an internship with Cheree Berry Paper when I was a student at UMSL,” Ridolfi said. “So, I was excited when they invited me to come back to help with design during their busy holiday season. From October until after Christmas, I worked with them fulfilling design orders for customized holiday cards. The designers at Cheree Berry Paper also create personalized stationery, wedding invitations and print materials for corporate events, and I was thrilled to gain so much experience in print-based design there.”

This period also gave Ridolfi time to work on “Slowly But Shirley.” The idea for the book began while she was at UMSL, but she was focused on finishing her degree. She credits the graphic design program for teaching her the illustration, layout and typography skills necessary to make the book a reality.

“The book didn’t progress as quickly until I graduated and had this unique period of time where I was home all the time due to the COVID-19 quarantine,” she said. “I was doing some freelance work remotely but just had a lot of open time to fill. It was a nice opportunity to finally bring that project to life.”

During Shirley’s journey, she learns that it’s OK that she’s slower than her friends and her patience is actually a virtue.

“I enjoy creating stories that have a life lesson or character-building lesson embedded in them,” Ridolfi said. “I think that’s a little bit of my background as a psychologist coming out, wanting to create stories that help kids learn how to cope with things they may be struggling with in their own lives.”

Ridolfi and Morrison’s goal was to finish the book by this past Christmas because friends and family were interested in purchasing it for the holiday. They met that goal and are excited to start working on a sequel.

Shirley’s next journey may take her to the ocean where she’ll encounter different types of turtles along the way. The story will show children that all turtles – even if they look different and live in unfamiliar places – have something in common. Ridolfi thinks it’s a “lovely life lesson” for us all.

Near the Christmas deadline for the first book, Ridolfi also waded into new territory like Shirley, and her courage was rewarded.

“I was ready for a fresh start and thought that it couldn’t hurt to try reaching out to some local agencies again after the start of the new year,” Ridolfi said. “When I reached out to New Honor Society, the timing was perfect because they had some freelance work right away. After a couple of months of consistent work with them, they invited me to interview for a full-time position with their team. It feels really validating to finally get a full-time design position after all the challenges that 2020 brought.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe