“Making pictures is how I make sense of the world”: Illustrator Hayley Wall
As a child, illustrator Hayley Wall used drawing as a way to regulate their hyperactivity. Later diagnosed as neurodivergent in their adulthood, Hayley has since learned to value the difference in the way their brain works – and celebrate it in their practice. Now drawing professionally as a freelance illustrator, Hayley’s work looks to reframe preconceptions of disability and queerness, with The New York Times, It’s Nice That and Them all helping to spotlight their perspective. Here, we speak to Hayley about hustle culture, redefining success and the bookshop visit that led to their first clients.
New York Times, The New Yorker, Scientific American, It’s Nice That, Them, AIGA Eye on Design
Place of Study
MA Illustration, Camberwell College of Arts (2012–2014)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an illustrator whose work reframes perspectives on disability, queerness, gender and mental health to celebrate the resilience of othered identities.
As a queer artist living with invisible disabilities and learning difficulties, I often use my first-hand experience to carefully approach illustrations that handle delicate topics, such as the wide spectrum in which disability and queerness exists. Making pictures has always been how I make sense of the world.
If you could sum up your job in a meme, what would it be and why?
This meme (above) from @creativechamps on Instagram captures the feelings I have around class and capitalism that I have felt as an artist.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk right now?
My favourite is a photograph of my nan and a folder full of drawings of mine that she kept from when I was a kid. This feels particularly significant as she recently passed away.
When I was growing up I was a very hyperactive child and found it difficult to sit still; which I now understand to be because I am neurodivergent. However, drawing helped me to regulate myself and I went into hyperfocus [when a neurodivergent person focuses on a specific thing or task for a long period of time].
My nan would sit with me whilst I drew, she had all the patience in the world. She would encourage me and let me take the lead.
“Making pictures has always been how I make sense of the world.”
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
My community: queer and disabled bodies. The feeling of movement and continuation through a still image. Evoking feelings of hope.
I’m interested and inspired by other contemporary artists and illustrators; how they use their individual visual language to explore their opinions and in doing so offer new perspectives of the world through imagery.
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
There have been so many! I have to mention two that come to mind:
Firstly, my initial big editorial which was a series of illustrations commissioned by It’s Nice That for an article titled “We’re innately creative because the world isn’t built for us”: Working in the creative industries with chronic illness.” I enjoyed that I wasn’t given much direction and was offered the opportunity to respond to the article in any way I wanted. So I created a jelly fantasy world, with a sequential narrative representing the potential for social change around disability.
Secondly, I was asked to illustrate the cover for The New York Times At Home section. Most of the time I am engaging with some sort of text, however for this commission I was asked to respond to how I felt about the easing of lockdown and the emergence from the pandemic. What I liked most about the work that I produced was how it allowed me to process the unsettling situation that we were collectively thrust into.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Illustration is a skill and you can learn theory and practical methodologies. But overall it’s your individual voice and visual language that sets you apart from others. You also have to get very comfortable with rejection.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
It’s been a long journey and one where I was consistently in my overdraft. The word hustling sums it up, taking on any work I could, both creative and not. I had to be patient and allow myself time to figure out where I wanted my work to sit within the illustration world.
It’s taken me a long time to reach a point where I am able to say no to commissions that I do not find fulfilling or do not pay fairly. Doing this has really helped me to value what I do and understand my own self worth.
How did you go about landing your first commissions?
After graduating I took anything and everything that came my way. Then one day I asked myself what I really wanted to do. I knew that I wanted work in editorial illustration so I went to Housmans radical bookshop and took down every editorial magazine that I felt aligned with my values. I collated the information for these places I wanted and reached out to them.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Firstly, my community and the optimism that comes from people who resist and push back against rigid structures that oppress us. It continues to inspire me.
Music for emotion and hyperfocus – I cannot work without it.
Movement, and in particular, dance has always been a large part of my life. As my body can no longer move in the way it used to, I now find this potential for movement in my work.
“Being neurodivergent can take a toll on your self worth... I am now beginning to appreciate and value the way my brain works.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
After being diagnosed as neurodivergent as an adult, I recognise that I spent years trying to mask the fact that my brain works in a different way to neurotypical people, which is the socially accepted model.
Being neurodivergent can really take a toll on your self worth so I’ve struggled a lot with imposter syndrome. I am now beginning to appreciate and value the way my brain works.
I also need to mention the challenges of pricing and negotiating rates that reflect the value of my craft. Along with this, is learning to set boundaries with clients. I feel that there should be more access for people to learn about how to navigate these issues before you are taken advantage of.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
Instagram is the platform I use, and although I hate its censorship, algorithms and the echo chambers we find ourselves stuck in, it is a great way to connect with other artists and art directors.
As an image-led platform it is useful to use as a visual diary and portfolio. I would say be selective of what you share, curate it in a way that is authentic and don’t be afraid to reach out to others in the industry. So far, I have found the illustration world to be extremely friendly and welcoming.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I am in the process of learning to set fair costs that reflect my self worth and honour my craft. I do this by saying no to unfairly paid work unless it’s a community-based project. I have a part-time job and being someone who doesn’t come from wealth, I don’t feel like that will change any time soon. And as a result of the current climate, sometimes I question whether I will, one day, be able to sustain myself through my practice alone.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
It wasn’t necessarily career advice given to me but it’s something that I heard recently that really made sense. A favourite illustrator of mine, Derek Abella, spoke about how he is constantly redefining what success is for himself.
Although I had already questioned what success looks like for me, Abella’s words showed me that success is not something fixed. Your own definition of success can transform, change and adapt.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Ask yourself what it is you are trying to say and who you are trying to reach. Always keep your integrity.
Mention Hayley Wall
Interview by Lyla Johnston