DesignOpp’s Grace Enemaku on why there’s no wrong path to creative success
Designer and illustrator Grace Enemaku’s creative journey is a testament to the power of resilience. Despite early setbacks while starting out, Grace overcame her fear of failure to build a portfolio to apply for creative courses, eventually graduating from Technological University Dublin in 2016. Since then, her multidisciplinary approach has caught the eye of clients like Facebook and Science Gallery Dublin, amongst others. As well as working on her own streetwear brand, KTSCH, and being part of creative collective GXRLCODE, Grace is also the co-founder of the DesignOpp – an initiative and directory championing creative voices of colour in Ireland. We speak to Grace about why fellow Black women are her muses, and how personal projects have helped to shape her career.
Multidisciplinary Designer and Illustrator
Facebook, Science Gallery Dublin, Gill Books, Arnotts, St. Patrick’s Festival, Hen’s Teeth, Elastic
Designer and later Design Manager for three years at Thinkhouse, Ireland’s leading Youth Agency
Place of Study
BA Visual Communication, Technological University Dublin (2013–2016)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an independent multidisciplinary designer and illustrator. I specialise in creating and shaping brands that people want to obsess over, and I absolutely live for building rich, imaginative worlds within my work.
The types of projects I do vary quite a lot lately, from conceptual branding for Facebook to illustration for the local arts, like my record covers for Dublin Vinyl. Though I work mostly in illustration I often end up pursuing a multidisciplinary approach, integrating photography, illustration and design when I’m directing a project.
Outside of my day job I’m a very busy bee. I’m part of a collective called GXRLCODE, I run a streetwear brand called KTSCH and I’m co-founder of DesignOpp. I do all this from home – even before the pandemic. I quite enjoy being alone and having my own little workspace sanctuary, so I’ve never considered co-working spaces.
“We want to revamp design education in Ireland and decolonise the curriculum.”
Can you tell us more about your initiative, DesignOpp?
DesignOpp is an IDI (Institute of Designers in Ireland) initiative championing diversity for people of colour in the Irish design industry. Our ambitions for the project are pretty lofty, we want to revamp design education in Ireland and decolonise the curriculum. We want to create more opportunities in the industry for POC through mentorships and other resources, we’ve already launched our directory for creatives of colour in Ireland. If you’re a creative of colour based in Ireland, head over to designopp.ie to submit your work! We’re always on the lookout for more creatives of colour to feature.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s death last summer really made us look at our lives and our industry and think, “How can we do better?” Mic Chikanda, one of the co-founders, reached out to me and we hatched a plan to try to create something that would address the imbalances in the industry. We contacted the IDI – a professional body who promote and advocate for designers in Ireland – and they were incredibly receptive to supporting us in changing the face of Irish design.
“Casually doing my work but having compulsions to start new projects and monetise my hobbies. The eternal millennial struggle.”
If you could sum up your job in an meme, what would it be and why?
(Above) I was going to choose a pic of Captain Holt from Brooklyn 99 running and screaming hearts because it would represent me plastering all my work with hearts and sparkles. But, actually, when I looked through my memes I realised that this is a much more accurate description of my day-to-day life; trying to casually do my work in a chill manner but having stray compulsions to start random new projects and monetise my hobbies. The eternal millennial struggle.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I’m influenced by a lot of things. Black women have become my muse more and more as I’ve gotten older, and I branched out from working in an agency to being freelance so I have the ability to dictate the type of work I can do for myself. Anime has been a huge influence in my life, you can especially see the influence in my pastel colour palettes.
I often think that I may have ended up in another career if I hadn’t developed an obsession with drawing the characters’ outfits from Cardcaptors on Nickelodeon in the 90s. Fashion and streetwear influence me daily and I try to make sure my characters are decked out wherever possible.
What’s been your favourite thing to work on, from the past year, and why?
Science Gallery Dublin recently approached me to be curatorial advisor for their new Rapid Residency program specifically for people of colour. They agreed that galleries had been complicit for too long in allowing their programming to sideline Black artists and people of colour and so they wanted to do something about it and change.
I came on board to make sure POC were accurately represented, provide guidance and judge applications. It felt like a great honour to share everyone’s ideas and provide feedback. I also created the lead imagery and mark for the program, which was exciting.
The project was big for me because it was my first time being involved in curation but also because it felt like the ripples we were creating in DesignOpp had started to take effect in other industries in Ireland too.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Yes and no. For my design work, having a formal education helped a lot for honing my skills. Typography in particular is something that’s difficult to master without having someone to guide you through the process and force you to reiterate until you reach perfection. But in general I think that you can learn almost anything online if you’re disciplined and able to be honest with critiquing yourself. I learned all my illustration skills and digital art entirely on my own, though I had built the skill up over the years from drawing everyday instead of paying attention in class.
I would say that typography skills are essential to my work as a designer, as well as being able to handle colour for my illustration work. But there are also lots of soft skills that people often don’t consider. This may sound a bit wishy-washy, but I believe being nurturing can be a real asset in design. Creating successful brand identities requires you to be able to nurture other people’s dreams and ideas without letting your ego get in the way. Communication, empathy and curiosity are all skills that have made me who I am today.
“You can learn almost anything online if you’re disciplined and able to be honest with critiquing yourself.”
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
I actually really floundered in my early career and I struggled with college. I was working at the same time and found it really difficult to find the time to apply myself. I also had a debilitating fear of failure which meant that I procrastinated so much.
“There’s not one straight path to a design career. There are lots of different avenues to get to where you need.”
I started off doing a portfolio course to get into a BA visual communication degree and I did 80% of the portfolio in the two weeks beforehand, I was a mess. Obviously I didn’t get any of my first choices but that turned out to be a blessing because it made me realise how hard I needed to work if I really wanted to pursue a career in art and design. I needed grants to get through college and if I didn’t progress, that was it for me. I knew I couldn’t go back.
Luckily I got into a smaller PLC design course in Ballyfermot which was incredible and with that I could move into the second year of a visual communication BA in DIT (now TU Dublin). In the end, it took me six years to get a four year degree! I think it’s important to tell these stories because it gives hope to those who may think there’s only one straight path to college or a design career, when really there are lots of different avenues to get to where you need.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
When I work I play YouTube videos in the background from The Futur, they have so much great information about the business of design and pricing your work, and they have a podcast too. It was a godsend when I started freelancing and I still learn a lot from them every week.
There’s an initiative called Where Are The Black Designers? who are all about featuring Black designers and addressing the representation issues for Black people in design. I follow them online and they are a huge inspiration. At DesignOpp our goal is to one day achieve their level of impact for designers of colour in Ireland.
“Ireland is an incredibly diverse and creative place filled with inspiring people.”
I struggled to think of a third thing-thing but realised that I’m inspired everyday by all the incredible creative people around me. My GXRLCODE partner Mona Lxsa who is a powerhouse of creative ideas, the other DesignOpp co-founders Mic Chikanda, Greg Osborne and the rest of the DesignOpp crew for their dedication to the cause, and so many other creatives in Ireland across industries. Megan McGuigan, the designer of printed textile brand Seeking Judy; Charlot Kristensen whose illustrations inspire me everyday; musicians like Monjola and Celaviedmai in the music scene and so many more. Ireland is an incredibly diverse and creative place filled with inspiring people.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge is definitely over-extending myself and failing hard at maintaining a good work-life balance. I really do love what I do so I’m always trying to do more and more. I get excited about new projects and fill my schedule to the brim with work, community projects and then random ideas I just want to try out. But I get short periods of burnout as a result and I know that’s not sustainable long-term. So I think this year I’m going to take self-care seriously and focus on reconnecting with my friends and loved ones and taking time to just breathe.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
Social media is pretty important to my work, as much as I hate to admit it! I’ve gotten a lot of work from Instagram and I think that people subconsciously use it as a metric for success. Most of my work comes from referrals now so I don’t need to post as much as I used to for generating income – which is great, because I’m an introvert at heart and can find it a little draining.
Despite that, there’s no better way to get a message out to people and DesignOpp would not have been able to reach people during the pandemic without it. It can be a great tool for building communities and encouraging social change. Press has also been great, I got some press for my Black Girl Magic series that led to a lot of new work for me.
My advice for young designers starting out would be to not only post your work but also share a little about yourself. Comment on and share the work of others too and in time you’ll find yourself a part of the creative community in your area. Also if you have a project that you’ve always wanted to try, go out and do it, and then share it online. Even better if you can collaborate with people. You’ll find yourself surrounded by like-minded people in no time. That’s the best thing about social media, connecting with other creative people around the world.
“If you have a project that you’ve always wanted to try, go out and do it and share it online. You’ll find yourself surrounded by like-minded people in no time.”
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
My design work fully sustains me, which is fantastic, so I haven’t needed to take on any supplementary work. Though I started a streetwear line during the pandemic as an extra income stream with my free time, which turned out to be incredibly fun.
My advice for making money as a creative is to brand and position yourself well and have a defined idea of the type of work you want to do. The type of work in your portfolio is the type of work new clients will come to you for. If you’re struggling to get the type of work you want, consider doing a self-directed project that would be your dream project, or reaching out to someone who would benefit from a brand, poster or record cover and offering to do it for free for 100% creative control.
The personal projects I’ve done have ended up influencing my career massively and led to new clients finding me and asking me to do the type of work I love. And as above, nestle yourself in your local creative community. People often hire or refer people they know and busy designers always refer their friends.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
The best career-related advice I’ve ever received is from my good friend and previous boss Shane Kenna. He taught me to always negotiate your pay and to have faith in your self-worth. Going into a new job, always aim high and don’t give in to self-doubt. They’ll talk you down if it’s too much but you may end up with a lot more than you would have expected. As designers we generally hate the money dance and tend to undersell ourselves because we love what we do. But we deserve to be fairly compensated for our work as well.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
I would recommend that anyone who is self-taught or coming into the industry straight from college to work at a studio or agency for a couple of years before going freelance. The experience you’ll gain from working with clients and connections will be invaluable for your future career.
I worked at an agency for three years and saved around €5,000 before going freelance which gave me time to build up my practice. €5,000 is actually quite low so if you’re going to do this, try to have six to twelve months saved – I was just impatient and excitable! I also had clients lined up who were connections or friends I’d made at the agency so I had a bit of a plan ready for my great foray into the unknown.
Mention Grace Enemaku
Interview by Lyla Johnston