27 Minutes with Typographer Gemma O’Brien


"I like to work at night."

Her hand-drawn designs might be surprisingly fresh, but Gemma O’Brien confesses she goes hunting for inspiration in the dustiest of places.

How did you get started?

I’ve been working as a typographer/illustrator for about five or six years now. I was originally studying law when I finished school and then decided to take more of a creative path, so I switched over to design. In my first year of studying I became really interested in typography after learning how to do letterpress (old-school type setting) by hand.

How much control do you have in the creative process with your clients?

It really depends on what the job is. More and more over time, as I’ve developed my own work in my personal projects, that’s meant a lot of the styles art directors or commercial clients want is more dictated by the work I create outside of the commercial world, which is quite good because it means it’s come from a place of my own experimentation with different techniques and styles.

In some instances, when a brief comes in there’ll be references from existing projects I’ve done where they want a similar style. Other times it can be more open – they’ll describe what they need and then I might put forward different conceptual approaches. It really just depends on what the project is and who the client is. [It’s] different each time.

What kinds of things inspire you in your work?

As much as possible I try to look for inspiration outside of solely the illustration and typography world and look more at arts and things from history, like old type specimens. Going into old bookstores and having a look at something you might not [see] on the Internet every single day on Tumblr or Instagram.  I also like travelling to different cities and seeing the way design or different elements are used in their environments.

What’s your creative process like? Do you like to work to music or do you keep it quiet?

After the initial discussion with the client, the process [starts] quite wide with sketches or looking at references and gathering a lot of key points that will be drawn into the work.

I like to work at night. I usually work between 10pm and 3am when there’s no emails and phone calls and distractions. I get into a pretty focused headspace and work like that. Sometimes I listen to music. Other times I’ll listen to podcasts or the radio. [I] usually have something on in the background. I’ll rarely work in silence.

Do you have a preferred tool or platform to use?

Pretty much every project I do involves some element of the handmade, whether it’s ink or pens and detailed drawings.

I often use a computer but it’s usually in an initial phase of planning or setting up reference guides and grids and then printing them out and using them as the starting point or I’ll start completely by hand and then move in and refine the final piece digitally.

A key part of my process is drawing, so that’s my preferred method. I definitely enjoy working with watercolours, ink, pencils and pens, and drawing and experimenting with [the] different textures you can get from different papers.

Having said that I do some projects where it’s vector files, especially with typography stuff if they need a logo that can be blown up to a certain size. Often there is a digital component but working with my hands is a key part of my process.

What have been some of your favourite pieces?

[They] change all the time. I did a brush, kind of handwritten logo mark for Angus & Julia Stone’s new album, which was pretty cool. I’ve been doing more murals recently. Big, large scale painted works for my solo shows. I did one for Volcom over in America in June this year and one for Adobe in Salt Lake City last month.

I guess at the beginning of my career… you’re always looking to work with big clients and that’s a draw card, whereas now it’s more things that stimulate me, like a new idea or stuff that’s challenging and is pushing my work to a new level. [They’re] the things I find most rewarding.

What does a typical day look like for you?

My practise is broken up into commercial work [and] art based projects… I also host hand-lettering workshops and [talk] at design conferences so it’s quite diverse in the places that it takes me, which is really good because it’s stimulating and exciting.

If it was a standard day in my studio, usually I will have stayed up quite late the night before working until 3am or 4am and then I’ll get up around 10am and reply to emails and respond to more production side, admin stuff. I like to ride my bike and exercise and go outside while it’s daylight and then I’ll come back and get into studio mode overnight and really focus on different projects.

Have you got anything exciting coming up that you can tell us about?

I’m speaking at TYPO Berlin which is a big design conference over in Germany, and at a conference in Barcelona, so I’m going to try and work toward spending a lot of time in the studio coming up with and experimenting with some new stuff before travelling again. And maybe look at having another solo exhibition with some new ideas that I’ve developed.

We would love to hear your thoughts