We chat with talented (ex Aussie!) Portland based illustrator Rilla Alexander. Rilla tells us about how Rinzen came about back in the day, all the cool places she has lived (many), some of the mistakes she learn’t along the way and why self-initiated projects are key to creativity.
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started?
I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer when I was eight and I was in hospital after I had my appendix out. My dad’s best friend was a graphic designer and he made me a gigantic card at work. On the front was a koala in a hospital bed and the message “How much can a Koala bear?”. From that point on I would give my drawings job numbers and pick up my toy phone and say something like “Your drawing of a koala in a christmas stocking is done. Please come and pay for it”. Then I’d add my imaginary money up in my mum’s old ledger books.
Where did you study and what were some of your first jobs?
After I graduated (QCA, Griffith University) I threw myself into corporate identity design and worked for a number of Brisbane (Australia) firms. I still remember the horror of being given tasks I didn’t know how to do, working on it at home all night and pretending I had solved it during work hours without drama. Eventually I relaxed and came to love the process of rebranding a company and designing and producing every last thing from beginning to end. I designed elaborate annual reports with every print technique possible, as well as packaging, signage systems, massive pylon signs, websites… After five years I moved to London which was a shock because nobody could believe a 25 year old could do everything I claimed. They wanted to know what I specialised in – and when I said “everything” they didn’t call back! Only a German company believed me, and (long story short) that’s how I ended up in Berlin where I lived for 8 years.
What was your plan for graduating and what actually happened?
When I was in college some young designers came to visit. They had started their own company straight out of college and their advice was “Get a job and learn from your mistakes while someone else is paying for it”. I took that very seriously (even though I secretly thought they must not have been very good or smart). As it turned out, one of my employers tried to make me pay for one of my printing errors anyway!
In any case, I learnt more in the first five years after I graduated than I had ever learnt before, or ever again. When I was ready to take the step into self-employed it wasn’t really a decision – I just knew it was time. Then I went back to my original vision of what being a graphic designer was – which was combining all my design skills with….drawing koalas. That’s when we started Rinzen – a design and illustration collective working on projects of all kinds, combined with doing our own exhibitions and books. Over the last few years I have been devoting most attention to working on my own picture books and learning more about that world.
Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and if and how it shapes your practice?
Every year I teach at the Pictoplasma Academy in Berlin – which is an 8 day character design masterclass. People from all around the world come and, along with a team of other designers/illustrators/artists/animators/sculptors, I help them develop their stories and projects into books, animated series, products and toys. I also teach Illustration at the PNCA (Art College in Portland). Explaining the process and sharing everything I have learnt (and also realising the things I don’t know and still have to do) is extremely valuable to my own process.
What is the design landscape like on your city and where do you fit in?
One of the wonderful things about being a designer/illustrator is that you don’t have to really fit in anywhere. I have lived in Brisbane, London, Berlin and now, Portland. Sitting here at my desk, I could be anywhere (although to be fair, the view out of my studio window here is the best I’ve ever had). When I venture outside, I learn something new about myself and continuously ponder the differences in approach and attitude.
What has been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
1. Every year make or do something you are proud of. In December 2016 be able to say “2016 was the year of……”. Better that it’s not a client job (in 20 years you’ll forget that client you stayed awake all night for, even existed).
2. Always set yourself self-initiated projects. If you are feel like you are wasting time unless you are working on a client project, remember these projects feed back into client work and keep your creativity flowing.
3. Always FINISH those self-initiated projects. In the long run they are things you will be most proud of, even if, right now, you don’t like what you have made one little bit.
4. What you put out into the world is what you get back. Put out the kind of work you don’t want to do, and you will always be doing it.
5. No matter how long you have been doing this, you will always feel like you could have done better. That dissatisfaction is essential to creativity. If you could do everything perfectly there would be very little reason to keep going.
I am not always good at remembering my own advice.