Freelance creative Nicole Chui on sewing, social media, and starting out
Freelance artist, creative and embroiderer, Nicole Chui, works across a pretty varied set of tools in her practice. Switching seamlessly between physical and digital tasks, on any given day, Nicole can be carefully embroidering artwork for the likes of Nike and Tinie Tempah using her needle and thread; or coming up with designs and layouts on Photoshop and InDesign for a range of creative agencies. Here, Nicole looks back on her journey to share some of her career learnings so far – from using early internships and university work to help build her network, to filling the quieter periods of freelance life with personal projects.
Freelance Artist, Creative and Designer (2018–Present)
Nike, Converse, Tinie Tempah, NOW Gallery, gal-dem, The Hepworth, It’s Nice That, The Digital Fairy, BBC
Visual Artist and Designer, TINIE @ Parlophone Records (2020)
Freelance Creative and Community Manager, Anyways Creative (2019)
Freelance Creative, The Full Service (2019)
Image Assistant, Nicholas Kirkwood (2017–2018)
Freelance Artist and Illustrator, gal-dem (2016–2019)
Place of Study
BA Creative Direction for Fashion, London College of Fashion (2014-2017)
How would you describe what you do?
It’s a mixture! For my art and design work I mostly create custom content and artwork for brand campaigns, written articles, or social media. In addition to that, I sell my art and design and host embroidery art workshops for clients, whether it’s for events in a gallery, in-store, or more recently: online!
Finally, as a creative, I help agencies with concept ideation and creative research for projects about youth culture.
How are you right now and how has this period changed the way you work?
I’ve become much more focused on doing more workshops and selling more art, compared to before the pandemic. My workshops have all become digital, which is completely new for me, and I’ve taken more time to further my skills in video editing and animating, which has been useful for this!
This period of time pushed me to create a course about my version of embroidery art, with a platform called Clear Water (run by Cortex Creatives), which was really challenging yet exciting – which wouldn’t have happened so fast normally.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Generally I work from my home studio unless I’m freelancing at an agency or studio.
If I’m creating artwork or designing things for a brand, I’ll usually sign NDAs, get the brief, jump on a call or communicate via email to discuss the outcome, expectations and fee. Then I’ll sign a contract once all is agreed, and spend a day working on options.
“I make sure to post new personal work online regularly, because I get the majority of my commissions that way.”
The hours spent creating the art depends on the deadline and how many options they want; for example, one embroidery option can take most of the day, whereas with graphic design for a poster or visuals, I can make multiple options within a day. From that point it’ll be a back and forth with the client, which can take days or weeks, to finalise the visuals.
I spend mornings diving into admin work and pitching to new clients. Admin work usually involves updating my money spreadsheet, press, chasing and sending invoices, prepping CVs, paying bills or answering DMs and emails, updating Instagram and my website. I make sure to post new personal work online regularly, because I get the majority of my commissions that way.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I learnt a lot from working with Tinie Tempah which was a really exciting experience, because my main goal this year was to work on something in music.
Also, being selected by Nike to design a pair of sneakers has definitely been another highlight. It was such a great platform to continue exploring my work and amplify my voice and what I stood for.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Knowing how to use the Adobe Creative Suite has been a huge benefit to what I do, because it gives me the flexibility to work between graphics, art, social media and creative conception.
I’d also say pitch-deck making and having a proactive attitude is a huge asset, because I send proposals or respond to briefs nearly every week.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator for retouching, logo-making, editorial layouts, posters, deck-making. Google Slides for deck making. WeTransfer for transferring large files. Embroidery thread, needles, photo prints and magazines for making artwork, developing ideas. Canon printer for printing images, scanning work.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
Run the check has been extremely useful because it helps me learn about new art commissions and creative jobs out there. It’s really nice to see how big it has grown and become useful for so many of my mates who are curious about other creative jobs.
How I Got Here
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My parents always wanted me to pursue a career that I was actually passionate about, because it was something they never got the chance to do.
I learnt a form of embroidery called English Smocking from my grandma and had always wanted to be a fashion designer, which was where my curiosity for creative work started. I was never in a position where I had family or friends who could just hand me a job or internship at a creative company, so I truly needed to earn my stripes.
It forced me to write a terrible fashion blog, take on many unpaid internships, and use them to network and build my way into fashion, which was a lot of trial, error and frequent humiliation. But that only made me grow a thick skin and those experiences showed me that I could make it work in the end. This is why I felt confident in jumping from full-time to freelance at this stage of my career.
“I was never in a position where I had family or friends who could just hand me a job or internship at a creative company.”
Do you feel you need formal education for what you do?
I went to university, but I want to stress that just because you have a degree, it doesn’t make you a better person. I don’t like that some people think this way.
I learnt so many things from interning and working in the industry while I was still at uni. For me, I wanted to get my degree in fashion to prove to myself, and people who doubted me, that I was passionate and was going to make a damn-good career out of it.
Formal education is not the only way into a creative career, but for me it was a chance to learn about the history and culture of fashion in an academic context.
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
Right after I submitted my final major project, I sent application after application. It took me about three or four months to get an interview somewhere, so I did paid assistant work in fashion until I got a full-time job at a luxury footwear brand in their art department, as an image assistant.
I was one of the last people they interviewed and got along really well with the head of art during the interview. I then completed an animation task for her, and a few weeks later I received a call to offer me the job.
At the time, their art department was brand new, so I was their first image assistant hire and worked with the lead graphic designer and head of branding.
How did you go about landing your first clients or commissions
While I was in my final year at uni, I sent an email of my portfolio of artwork to my sister’s tutor, who was working at Complex UK at the time. That led to being invited to take part in a private zine workshop with Complex and Nike.
From there, I got to meet their PR team and some of Nike London, and soon after I landed my first campaign, where they used my artwork as their main image.
My advice is seriously to just go for it and take opportunities you are curious about to find your way in.
“My advice is to just go for it and take opportunities you are curious about to find your way in!”
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Anytime where it was the ‘right time and right place’, it’s always been a matter of being prepared to show work and talk about what I have to offer creatively.
For example, my final uni project Fem Fam zine helped start my relationship with Anyways Creative, because they noticed it on my CV and it happened to be something they had come across during their research. That project demonstrated my skills in creative research, design and engagement with DIY and streetwear, which also allowed me to network.
How important would you say social media has been to establishing your career?
Really important! I can show people what I’m all about instantly, especially when I’m meeting new people. It’s given me the opportunity to be in contact with people I want to work with from all around the world.
What’s been your biggest challenge in navigating the industry?
Understanding and navigating the irregular (sometimes empty) periods of freelance work. I’ve used those times to do personal projects and collaborations, which I can add to my portfolio. But the irregularity is still something I’m constantly trying to make less drastic.
What would you like to do next?
I want to do so many things! I would like to work on a global campaign that allows me to bring my embroidery art and voice to the global stage.
I have big ambitions to have my own space, be featured at Art Basel and visible in communal spaces. I would also love to work with contemporary East- and Southeast Asian singers and producers. And honestly, continuing to earn a living from my creative work.
I would also love to takeover a magazine’s front cover with my style of art for their next issue!
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Just start! Find your way into the industry you’re curious about, and be willing to learn from from the ups and downs of any jobs that come your way.
Mention Nicole Chui
Interview by Marianne Hanoun