Q&A Gemma O’Brien

On 3 June 2023, the Now23 conference will take place in Paris. On that day, more than a dozen graphic lecturers, artistic directors and type designers are expected. Join to attend talks by international speakers around graphic design, web design, motion design, publishing, visual identity, communication and type design. If not already done, register now to take advantage of the best rates.
It seemed interesting to us to make you discover the profiles of our guests. Discover Gemma OBriens interview and register her Workshop Nº 17 Experimental Lettering!
Biography Gemma OBrien is an internationally renowned designer and artist known for her bold graphics, illustrative lettering and murals. Her work has been commissioned by Apple, Nike, Google, and is held in the permanent collection of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Outside her commercial design work, she explores language, nature and the human experience through her art practice.


Describe your typical day?

Gemma O’Brien Wake up, get out in the sun and move, black coffee, fruit, then to the art studio to begin the day.

Then, what is the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?

Gemma O’Brien Often as I’m in Australia and working with international clients I do calls early in the morning, then put on some music,  knock out emails for a few hours in the morning then have the afternoon for freer creative work. Clock off in time to see the sunset, and one drawing before bed!

What is your work environment?

Gemma O’Brien I like to do admin(tax, emails) in transit, in cafes or hotel lobbies, but anything that’s more analogue and physical is better in my art studio.

Have your work habits changed notably after the lockdown and the later pandemic restrictions?

Gemma O’Brien The biggest impact of the pandemic is realising I need more structure than I did in the past. Habits and routine help fend off the distraction demons. I still need a lot of variety in my day: a mixture of computer work, movement, inspiration, walks etc. When I am deadline or really need to get things done I use time-limit power work sessions and use music to boost my energy.

“Bring your unique way of seeing the world, your life experiences and background into your work.”
– Gemma OBrien

Favourite kind of music to listen to while working?

Gemma O’Brien It changes – when I need to concentrate(planning, quoting, writing) I need silence, otherwise I swing between upbeat playlists that are a combination of pop, funk, and grime. I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts.

Do you read news?

Gemma O’Brien Not any more. After the pandemic I became really sensitive to external input that affected my energy flow. I only look at the news when passing newspaper stands, tvs in cafes etc.

Do you practice any sports?

Gemma O’Brien I run, ride my bike, go for a swim in the ocean and love looking in bookstores and going to a little cinema in my neighbourhood called the Golden Age.

What made you choose design?

Gemma O’Brien I was a year into a law degree and very unhappy. I wanted to be an artist, but I enrolled in a design degree instead.

Do you sketch–draw on paper?

Gemma O’Brien Yes, I often begin with both words, sketches, thumbnails in pencil. I also refer to my visual diary for ideas and then move into digital work.

“Don’t be swayed by the noise, keep moving forward in line with your vision.”
– Gemma OBrien

What is your ratio of self-initiated projects vs. commissions for clients?

Gemma O’Brien The balance shifts all the time, but I do like having both. Often my artworks, installations and personal work fuel the client commissions that come in a year or two later.

Redrawing type classics or inventing new forms?

Gemma O’Brien As my career as progressed more towards art and illustrated letterforms I tend to either use existing fonts(often strong, bold sans serifs) as the starting point for my pieces or steer completely in the opposite direction where elements are more organic and inspired by nature.

Who had the most impact on you?

Gemma O’Brien More recently I’ve been inspired by artists have dedicated a long life to art, something I aspire to: Patti Smith, Katharina Grosse and Hilma af Klint.

Do you have words of wisdom for someone who wants to become a designer?

Gemma O’Brien Bring your unique way of seeing the world, your life experiences and background into your work. Don’t be swayed by the noise, keep moving forward in line with your vision.

Thank you very much, Gemma!

– Interview by Yi Shen

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