Posted 14 April 2022

What we learned from graphic designer for film, Erica Dorn

Our latest Pep Talk featured lead graphic designer for The French Dispatch, Erica Dorn, who answered all of your questions on working in graphic design for film. Hosted by Steph Fung, Erica discusses her experience as a graphic designer, becoming versed in both digital and physical design, collaborating with Wes Anderson and the things needed in a graphic design portfolio for film. Here, we collate just a few things we learned from this wide-ranging discussion.

The big talking points:

  • What does a graphic designer’s role entail in a film? (10:12)
  • The briefing to production process in graphic design for film (13:40)
  • Erica shows us her workspace and tools (21:10)
  • The journey to working in graphic design for film (24:00)
  • How to network and prepare when entering a new industry (27:18)
  • Skills needed as a junior graphic designer (34:30)
  • What projects to include in a portfolio (37:13)
  • How much creative freedom is there on a Wes Anderson film? (41:55)
  • Transferrable skills from illustration to working in film (44:50)

1. Being open to change leads to new opportunities

Erica’s career beginnings blossomed out of a love for illustration. So in describing her journey to graphic design – and later graphic design for film – Erica says “I don’t really see myself as an artist because I just love communicating other people’s messages in a creative way.”

This, along with her love for the “rational and practical” side of graphic design and the ability to be “creative within the framework of good communication” has been a proven guide throughout her career. Climbing the ranks of such a mysterious and overlooked pocket of the industry comes with many questions from emerging graphic designers, though.

“Don’t be afraid of redirection; to turn down work, reassess your priorities or switch directions.”

When asked how she pivoted into graphic design for film and became a two-time collaborator of writer-director Wes Anderson, Erica initially chalked it up to luck or her ability to fit the criteria as a Japanese-speaking designer: “I sometimes call myself lucky – but actually it was a time in my life when I was open and receptive to a change.”

But she arrived at a place that wonderfully sums up her Pep Talk: “Don’t be afraid of redirection. Don’t be afraid to turn down work if it doesn’t serve you, to reassess your priorities or switch directions with your career.”

2. Networking starts with the people you work with

Regardless of the stage you’re at in your career or the amount of connections you’ve made so far, navigating events and meeting new people can be a daunting feat. As an experienced designer, Erica is aware of the benefits of meeting new people and utilising those connections. Despite this, Erica says that she’s “not very good at networking” and that when she went to design events she “just spoke to the person I came with.”

Thankfully, there are alternative ways to navigate your career when you find networking challenging – building connections with your colleagues. And Erica reminds us that it can be as simple as “going to the pub with people you work with.” A practice that got her a two-week trial on the Isle of Dogs design team and later the role as a senior designer.

But if you’re past the stage of building a rapport and connection with your colleagues, adapting this mindset to the wider pool of creatives in your industry can be a helpful next step. “Don’t feel like you’re bothering somebody by asking about their work” – a standout piece of advice that can get your work in the eyes of more experienced creatives and broaden your horizons, bringing about new projects.

3. For budding graphic designers for film, it pays to specialise

Erica discussed one of the main things that every graphic designer who wants to work in film should consider – figuring out what kind of films you’re interested in designing for. “Don’t see film as one big category, look at the type of films you want to work on.” Is it period? Is it contemporary? Is it animated? These will further influence your portfolio and the projects you apply for.

Understanding what kind of films you want to work on can also be a way to get in touch with both the digital and physical design process. What objects are there on a historical film set versus a contemporary set? “How does 20th century handwriting differ with modern day handwriting?” Essentially, Erica believes that as a junior designer, understanding what part of the film industry you want to develop designs for is extremely important – driving your research, design skills and portfolio.

4. Showcasing both physical and digital skills can strengthen your portfolio

Later on in the Pep Talk, Erica was asked about the all-important portfolio and what to include. Erica stressed the importance of having both physical and digital skills, including “the skill of turning a digital design into a physical thing.”

Erica explains that it’s useful to put your designs on physical objects and props, including bottles, letters or anything else specific to your chosen genre. A skill that was much needed for a film like The French Dispatch, where Erica worked with action props such as cigarette boxes, newspapers and bottles.

And if you’re looking for tips on how to get started, Erica also advises visiting places like flea markets for inspiration and references, which can “help with getting vintage letters and objects.”


What is Pep Talk?
Pep Talk is our monthly Instagram Live event to share relatable, easy-to-process tips in conversation with inspiring creatives.

Each session begins with a ‘pep talk’, where a chosen creative gets to share their ultimate advice for anyone who might be feeling a bit stuck, before answering questions submitted by you, our readers.

Mention Erica Dorn
Written by Creative Lives in Progress