Listed as the only graphic designer on Forbes prestigious 30 Under 30 list in 2014, graphic designer, illustrator and art director Lotta Nieminen is one of the most inspiring young creatives on the design scene today.
Her detailed and colorful illustrations have graced the pages of The New York Times and Le Monde, and her delicate minimalistic graphic designs can be seen on apps such as Beautified. Here she shares her design process, her journey from designer to studio owner and how moving to New York from Finland was on of the hardest but best decisions she ever made.
Lotta, if you could describe your work in just three words what would it be?
Designer / illustrator / art director. But if possible, I’d rather not describe my work in a few words only. I strive to work in as much of a multidisciplinary way as possible, trying on new hats and have that constantly develop and evolve what my work is.
What was one challenge that you faced as a creative entrepreneur and how did you get over it?
Most of my time goes into the day-to-day responsibilities of running a business; I enjoy it and want to do it, but it does take away from the time I have to create. Ideally, I’d like to work on only one project at a time so I can focus on what I’m doing. In busy times, I don’t have room for trial and error, which to me is the core of what being creative is. If I’m too short on time to try and fail, then I don’t get the same satisfaction from the outcome.
To me, that’s creativity –which unfortunately quite often now gets lost into the admin that goes into running a business. I’m pretty diligent with email, but at the end of the day, the more emails you answer the more you’ll get. When I first went full-time, I could easily spend the whole day just taking care of things. I quickly realized no one else will make room in my day for the actual creative work than me. I now try to split my work day in two: admin before lunch, and creative work after. I also try to avoid it by keeping good track of my schedule, and focusing on the quality of my projects, rather than productivity.
“I now try to split my work day in two: admin before lunch, and creative work after. I also try to avoid it by keeping good track of my schedules, and focusing on the quality of my projects, rather than productivity.”
What is one accomplishment you are most proud of?
I’m proud of taking the risk to move to New York. It was a big decision for me, but something I’m glad I pushed through. It taught me to really listen to my gut. I realized that it’s always worth giving a shot to something you want: if things didn’t work out, there’s generally always a way to return to how things were. I think in that way the decision was a page turner for my work too – after realizing that good things generally come out of (healthy) risk taking, it’s been easier to take on professional and stylistic challenges as well.
“I’m proud of taking the risk to move to New York. It was a big decision for me, but something I’m glad I pushed through. It taught me to really listen to my gut. I realized that it’s always worth giving a shot to something you want: if things didn’t work out, there’s generally always a way to return to how things were.”
What advice would you give to your 20 years old self?
Don’t stress. It’ll only get better.
Tell us about your design process. How did you get the inspiration for one of your latest projects, and how long did it take from the idea to the final product?
In graphic design projects, It’s important for me to really believe in the product or company I work with. I think I owe it to the client to be genuinely excited about the work, as I would have a hard time to do my best otherwise. I strive to be very upfront about this when I get inquiries, and prefer to recommend a more suited designer if it sounds like I would not be the best fit for what they’re looking for. For that reason, I always make sure to properly meet and discuss with my client before kicking off. Sometimes visual references are helpful in initial meetings to figure out what someone means. “Simple” can mean a very different thing to different people.
I design first and foremost with gut, but like to have an intellect behind it all so that if and when needed, I can back up my concept with more than “you know, I just personally really like it”. For that reason, I find it important to teach my clients about design and make them understand what they’re buying – how different typefaces tell a different story, and how you can play an identity and the overall mood of your branding with that. I want my clients to understand why I’ve designed things to look the way they do.
“I find it important to teach my clients about design and make them understand what they’re buying – how different typefaces tell a different story, and how you can play an identity and the overall mood of your branding with that.”
What are three things you learned while running your own agency?
- That sitting at a computer is not the place to get inspired – it’s where you put the inspiration to work. Therefore not seeking any experiences outside of the desk can quickly result in a terrible creative block. When I wasn’t working from home, I made sure not to bring any work files home, which made maintaining the balance a lot easier. Now it’s easier for me to slip into working on evenings and weekends, as my office is at home. I try to avoid that by schedule enough things outside the studio – meeting friends on weeknights and going to the movies or exhibitions on the weekends. I think stepping away from the desk is the best way to get new ideas and perspective to the work you do.
“Sitting at a computer is not the place to get inspired – it’s where you put the inspiration to work.”
- That keep your files in order is important. This one is a very practical one. I sometimes feel like a crazy person with my almost-too-meticulously organized folders and systematically named files, but it’ll go a long way when you need to find or share files later on.
- That I’m glad I worked for other people first. I’ve never regretted doing that, instead of going full-time freelance straight after graduating. I have learned most from other people: watching them work in different ways, manage in different ways, get inspired in different ways. After working in a fashion magazine, a big design company and a boutique design studio, I think I started getting a pretty good idea of how I’d like my own practice to be once going solo. I think it’s really important to explore different working environments and learn from other people to really be fully equipped to go on your own.
“I think it’s really important to explore different working environments and learn from other people to really be fully equipped to go on your own.”
What is your advice for somebody just starting out, and how do you see the field of design evolving in the five next years?
I think successful designers have always needed to be adaptive to change. Refusing to evolve through new mediums and technologies won’t take you far. I find it fascinating to see how a style grows and evolves as the industry does. To me, the digital and the analog complement each other. There’s things that can only be done in digital mediums, and some things that would never be the same if they weren’t printed. I think it’s important to move between mediums and be open to new techniques.
Especially when starting out, I think it’s all about experimenting and having fun – trying out everything to find the things that work for you. I do think the pressure to have a portfolio online immediately upon starting out can be limiting too, as you’ll probably still be looking to play around as opposed to limiting and curating the work too much. What personally helped me when deciding to go full-time freelance was that I had been doing it on the side of full-time jobs for quite a long time. Because of the financial safety of having a day job as a designer, I was able to freelance on only work that I thought to be truly inspiring. This helped me develop my style without a rush and build a portfolio with work I was really proud of.
Three favorite book on your bookshelf?
- A General Theory of Love – neuroscience, psychology and arts combined into one fantastic book delving into why we love. It brings great insight into the complex science of human emotions and their role in our lives – while rooted in scientific research, it’s a moving read.
- A gorgeous children’s book by Kazue Takahashi I don’t know the English name of, that I purchased during a recent trip to Japan – it involves a cat and fridge, all wonderfully illustrated.
- Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (Author), Donald Urquhart (Illustrator). The main reason this is one of my favorites on our bookshelf is the gorgeous, simple, super pink cover design by John Morgan.
What is your favorite website, blog or app?
The GoogleMaps app – boring, perhaps, but I honestly think my life in New York and while traveling would be different without it.
What is your daily routine & what are your productivity tricks?
I currently work from a home studio. I start my work day by reading emails off my iPhone in bed, when I’ve turned off the alarm. It’s a terrible habit, that I haven’t been able to get rid of. Pro tip: don’t answer work emails half asleep.
“I start my work day by reading emails off my iPhone in bed, when I’ve turned off the alarm. It’s a terrible habit, that I haven’t been able to get rid of. Pro tip: don’t answer work emails half asleep.”
Working from home, I found out taking a shower and getting dressed first things is a miracle maker. I learned this the hard way the first time around when working from home the first time around when I started freelancing: you’ll hate yourself if you work all day in your pajamas and order delivery food for every meal of the day. So the real secret to an efficient work day? Taking a shower and getting dressed. I exercise a couple of days a week as well, always in the morning – one of the easiest ways to detach oneself from work and acts as a great way to prevent stress.
“You’ll hate yourself if you work all day in your pajamas and order delivery food for every meal of the day.”
That’s where the routines probably stop. Sometimes I’ll be running between many meetings, sometimes sitting at the desk the whole day. I like that my work days aren’t similar – it’ll depend a lot on the projects I’m working on at that time.
What do you like doing when you are not in front of your computer?
Seeing good friends and meeting new people. Walking around New York or sitting in a park. Going to the movies. A good, long lunch or dinner date.
Five fun facts about you:
- I have dark, curly hair – my blonde, straight do is all the work of a good hairdresser and a powerful straightening iron.
- I have a terrible Diet Coke addiction, and can easily eat the exact same lunch every single day for months and months straight.
- Up until I was 10, I didn’t listen to anything else but classical music. I played the piano for 12 years, but stopped upon starting my graphic design studies.
- At twelve, I won a competition where you had to design your own magazine, and got to take home the grand prize: a big, bulky PC, which was also the first computer in our household.
- I’ve lived in New York for 5 years, but still haven’t learned to properly pronounce “literature”.
Portraits by Elina Simonen for Gloria Magazine courtesy of Latta
All illustrations and design by Lotta Nieminen