Gemma O’Brien & her career in typography

career in typography

The lovely Gemma O’Brien has been chatting to us about her fascinating career in typography. Gemma is an Australian artist and designer, specialising in lettering, illustration and typography. She splits her time between advertising commissions, gallery shows, speaking engagements and hosting consumer facing workshops around the world. Here Gemma chats to us about her career in typography and how she got started.

What was your big break in establishing a career in typography?

While I was studying in 2007 I began a blog called For the Love of Type. It was really just a space to channel my passion for all things type-based. I would post pictures of signs on the street, design ephemera I liked and some of my university projects.

One of these projects was called “Write Here Right Now” and was a video of myself inscribing hand lettering over my body. It caught the eye of the marketing manager of Germany’s Font Shop Jürgen Siebert and he wrote a blog post that was skeptical about the work on my blog. He thought it was derivative and was suspicious of who I was (I was working under the pseudonym “Mrs Eaves”).

However, the blog post received many positive comments from the readers and months later I was contacted by Jürgen to see if I’d be interested in speaking at Typo Berlin – the biggest typography conference in Europe. I was only 21 at the time and hadn’t even finished my degree! It was quite a funny series of events, but undoubtedly a lucky set of circumstances that was my big break in the typography world.
career in typographyIn recent years, the profile of typography has risen which has enabled me to collaborate with big brands like Officeworks, and bring more awareness/attention to the art of handwriting.

Officeworks offers a wide range of brush pens that are now readily available to everyday consumers. So whether you’re just starting out or consider yourself more of an expert, the art supplies range at Officeworks will inspire you to push your artistic limits.

How did you discover your passion for typography?

I initially became interested in a career in typography when I was studying at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. It was my second year of a design degree there and I learnt to set type by hand in the letterpress studio.

I became fascinated with type and from that point forward started researching the history of typography, photographing signs in my environment and drawing letterforms. This passion eventually became my career and now I create type treatments for commercial clients and art projects.

Over the years my interest has shifted away from fonts and the history of typography and more to the expressive nature of calligraphy or exploring new ways to approach type-based artworks from an illustrative point of view.

Experimentation is a big part of my practice and I like to play with different styles and tools. I also like to work at a range of scales, from small detailed drawings to large-scale murals.

career in typography

Do you think technology killed handwriting?

I wouldn’t say its killed handwriting; however I think that with the rise of technology, handwriting’s role in our lives has shifted from something very functional to something a bit more romantic.

I still believe that there is nothing nicer than a handwritten note, but that said I could not live without my iPhone or computer. I think the two can live harmoniously together.

Technology has made the means of producing text neatly and quickly very accessible – this is perfect for fast communication. However, when you want your communication to be meaningful, authentic and unique, handwriting, custom typography and lettering are a way to achieve this.

What are the most important skills for a career in typography?

The history of typography is based on the history of writing which dates back thousands of years. This means that there is a wealth of knowledge, rules and norms to draw from. I think that theory is important to typography as it helps to give context to what you’re creating rather than being solely shaped by trends of the time.

The tools you use to create and develop your work is very important, hence why I was really excited when Officeworks invited me to explore its new art supplies product offering at its newly expanded Fitzroy store.

Officeworks has a wide range of top quality art supplies including sketching materials (visual art diaries, sketch books, pencils etc.), paint materials (paint, brushes, canvas surfaces etc.) and accessories (rubbers, easels, charts).

Gemma O'Brien typography

What has been the biggest challenge for you, so far, in your career?

I think there are little creative challenges everyday: coming up with new ideas and trying to overcome design trends which saturate social media. Often when I try to push myself and try something new, there is the initial fear of the unknown which can hinder the progress.

The first time I made the shift from small illustrations to large scale murals I found it quite daunting. However I think ultimately these challenges are necessary parts of the creative process, and I feel very grateful to work in a profession that allows me to be creative, work with my hands and hopefully bring some positivity to the world.

What advice would you give creative mums out there who own a business on how to promote their products (and themselves) on social media?

My advice is to firstly focus on making your work the best it can be. Find something that is unique to you and put that passion into your work. From that point forward social media is a great tool to connect you with an audience and promote your pieces.

For me, Instagram has played a big role in exposing my work to a larger audience. It has facilitated collaborations with brands and opened up a range of commercial opportunities. Most social platforms allow you to share elements of your practice that traditionally might not be seen.

I like to share behind-the-scenes images, things that inspire me, what my creative process looks like and even my work space. It’s also a fantastic way to build a community around your work and brand – you can speak to your audience directly and be more equipped to make pieces that connect to their needs.

Gemma has created work for clients including Woolworths, QANTAS, Heinz, Volcom, Angus & Julia Stone and The New York Times. A number of her projects have been recognised by the New York The Type Directors Club with Awards of Typographic Excellence and in 2015 she became an ADC Young Gun. Gemma is now an ambassador for Officeworks. 

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