Tell us about yourself.
I’m Lotta Nieminen. I’m a graphic designer, illustrator and art director. I am from Helsinki, Finland, but have called New York home for the last three years. I studied at the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Rhode Island School of Design. After working for fashion magazine Trendi, Pentagram Design and RoAndCo Studio, I am now a full-time freelancer, working on a wide array of clients from various fields.
What is beauty to you and how do you define beauty?
Beauty can be so many things – an act, a friendship, a color, a specific light at a specific time of the day. To me, beauty is most of all an emotional experience.
Were you always creative growing up?
I come from what one could call “artistic family”. My mom’s a painter, her mom was a painter, my dad is in music, my sister’s in fashion. By the time I was twelve, I was first asked what I wanted to be when I grow up. Obviously like any normal teen, I resorted to rebellion and wanted to be everything but what my family represented. I spent a lot of time parading against everything art related and said I wanted to be a doctor or lawyer instead. Needless to say, the rebellion didn’t really affect my future career path.
Looking back, it was already at twelve that I got my first proper contact with graphic design. The pencil-drawings had gradually been replaced by daydreams of a computer. In order to win the first prize – a huge, grey, bulky PC – I entered a competition where kids were invited to design their own magazine. I won with Frendi, my girly magazine featuring self-staged fashion shoots modeled by friends and epic stories from seals to Spice Girls. The whole layout was made by hand, with pencil-illustrations, hand-lettered type and cut-and-pasted photographs.
What was the defining moment when you realized you wanted to pursue art occupationally?
The most concrete defining moment in my career was probably realizing that graphic design was the thing I really wanted to do. After I had grown out of my rebellion phase, and it came time to apply for college, I had slowly become passionate about movie directing. At the university, they had an open door event to learn more about the school. I went there with a huge stack of questions about the entrance exams for the movie department, ready to fulfill my dream. There was a girl talking about the school and after the presentation, I went up to her and started asking all my questions. Turned out she was from the graphic design department and didn’t know anything about the movie department. She offered to present me her department instead. The funny thing is that I had heard of graphic design, but had never bothered to really understand what it comprised of — turned out it was everything I had always been interested in doing. I also realized the thing I actually liked most about making my little movie projects was designing the beginning titles and end credits — obviously not really the core job of a movie director.
What about your transition into illustration?
I realized that I could do illustration and work in more than one field at once. Up until then, I had built my professional identity heavily on being solely a graphic designer. It took me a while to realize I could be something else at the same time. My studies at the University of Art and Design Helsinki had mainly consisted of graphic design courses, as the possibility to focus on illustration is minimal. As an exchange student, RISD offered a broader choice than my university in Helsinki to study in a cross-disciplinary way. The illustration classes at RISD played a big role in me continuing working as a freelancing illustrator after returning to Helsinki: after that, I started doing illustration just as seriously as I was already doing graphic design, although always as a freelancer, on the side of a full-time graphic design job. In 2009 I was invited to join the illustration agency Pekka Finland, which took my illustration career to a whole new level, moving away from working on solely editorials on to bigger commissions and bigger clients.
Do you identify yourself as an illustrator or graphic designer?
Realizing I can identify as both a graphic designer and an illustrator was a big revelation for me. When I started my graphic design studies, I built my professional identity heavily on being a designer. Nowadays, I feel like my professional identity is very loose: I’ll wear whatever hat the project I’m working on makes me wear. Besides design and illustration I currently do art direction, photography and prop styling. For my personal motivation, I find it important not to have to be stuck to one specific discipline and way of doing.
In what way has the evolution and advancement of technology affected your art trajectory?
I’ve always been very open to technology, so I feel like it’s been developing with and alongside my work. I won a computer at twleve from a competition where kids were invited to design their own magazine and have been intrigued by digital image making since then.
And you love working with handmade pieces.
I think this shows in my illustration work, where I want to use a tactile texture instead of a fully digital surface. I like the depth texturing adds to the work, and I love it when people can’t quite figure out how my illustrations are done. For a long time, I didn’t want to work on any projects that wouldn’t become physical objects at the end. Now, I can’t imagine not working with both print and digital. To me, they complement each other. There are 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.
Tell us about your work with The National, which happens to be one of my favorite bands.
Whenever I’m commissioned by a client or brand I’ve looked up to since being a student makes a project very special. For that reason when The National, a New York band I’ve been a huge fan of for years, contacted me and asked if I could do a tote bag illustration for their upcoming tour, I thought it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I did a victory dance around my computer after reading the email (like you always do, right?), sat down, and forced myself to send the kind of super cool, non-fan-girl reply you have to send to super cool people.
Let’s talk wine: What’s the inspiration behind the simple branding and designs for Marks & Spencer’s Barossa wines?
The branding for the Barossa wine labels was done by Marks & Spencer, who approached me to illustrate buildings for the four different bottles. Each of the illustrations feature a different Lutheran church from the Barossa area, with a restricted color palette of 3 colors for each. I had only recently started making building illustrations, so it was a very exciting job!
Do you consider your work simple, with regards to the conceptual facet and also the physical aesthetic?
In graphic design my style is rather minimalist and deliberately colorful. I aim for a strong feel of space in my compositions. I also have a weakness for details and small type. Materials are very important to me, and I take great pleasure in choosing the right ones for each project. In illustrations, my style is more generous, with lots of elements and details. I find it easier to play with colors and patterns in illustration than in graphic design, where my taste is more simple.
To that regard, how do you define minimalism?
To me, minimalism is something that’s been idea-wise narrowed down to the core. Minimal design can be very quiet or very loud. What makes it minimal is how little elements suffice to convey the message. I think design ceases to be minimal when there’s more elements than what’s necessary to express the core message. In a simple design every piece and its position becomes more important. A good idea pictured through minimal design can be communication at its most effective. On the other hand, a simple design is way more merciless for a bad idea or concept.
According to your own definition, would you categorize your own work as minimalistic? Why or why not?
Based on my definition of minimalistic design, I think my graphic design work tends to fall within those parameters. I think Scandinavian design often veers towards a rather minimalist approach, and retain that aspect in my work from visual heritage. My illustration work is a big contrast to that, being more generous, with lots of elements, details and color.
What are some common misconceptions about artists?
In commercial arts, I’ve sometimes encountered the rather insulting misconception of working for free because “you love drawing anyway, right?”. Designers should be rightfully compensated for their work, even if it’s creating for the love of creating – the same obviously applies to any profession.
What were some of the most valuable classes you’ve taken in art school, either at Aalto University or RISD?
I’ve had some very influential teachers along the way. One was Tapio Vapaasalo, who was the head of the graphic design department at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki — he just retired a couple of years ago. I had him my first year and he was this design father figure that helped me become certain that graphic design was really what I wanted to do. There is always this uncertainty at first when choosing your career path, when you ask yourself, “Is this it?” He encouraged thinking – graphic design is not just pretty pictures. It’s mostly brain work.
What about at RISD?
I took this editorial illustration class with Chris Buzelli and it was a much needed boost for my self-confidence. For the first time, I got some good, proper feedback on my illustration. I think the other students were somewhat intrigued with my work because my style was different thanks to a completely different cultural heritage. After that, I started doing illustration just as seriously as I was already doing graphic design.
Beyond design and illustration you penned and illustrated “Walk This World”, a children’s book. When did you decide to create a book catered to a younger audience? What inspired the book?
I got approached to illustrate “Walk This World” by Big Picture Press, an exciting new imprint of the British publisher Templar. They wanted a book about a child walking around the world in one day, and singled me out for the project because of my portfolio of cityscape illustrations. It was by far the most time extensive project I’ve ever undertaken, and also probably the most fulfilling. The text was created by Jenny Broom from Big Picture Press. It was a great collaboration: There is something really different about working on a book for kids: the impact it can have on someone can be huge! I still remember some images from my favorite books that I read over and over again as a kid. How amazing would it be that 20 years from now, someone could still remember my book because they loved reading it when they were little? It’s hard to think of other projects outside of children’s books with potentially such a long-lasting impact.
What’s a day in the life of Lotta?
It’s a bad habit, but I start my morning by reading my emails. I would love to be one of those people that made green tea and did yoga and then checked email two hours after being awake. I’m in my bed; I hit my alarm clock; grab my iPhone; email. It’s really sad. I just can’t give that up. Because of the time difference, I usually have a nice full inbox from Europe to go through. I start my day at work around 10.30am. Since going freelance, I have worked from Studiomates, a collaborative workspace of designers, illustrators, bloggers, writers, and developers located in Dumbo, Brooklyn. I like being around people – when I first went on my own, I was working form home, but that wasn’t my cup of tea at all! I would just work from bed, not get out of my pajamas all day and ventrally get terrible cabin fever. I noticed a social place outside of home worked a lot better for me. If I have to meet up with a client, I try to plan it around lunch time. In the evening, I try to get my mind off of projects and go out with friends for dinner or to openings. Other nights I’ll cook at home with my boyfriend and watch a good movie. That would be a pretty typical day at the moment.
Writers have writer’s block. How do you get over designer’s block? What always gets you inspired?
For a long time, I tried fighting creative blocks. At one period of my life, it was long walks. At one stage, watching an episode or two of my favorite TV show before getting back to my desk (never really helped, but I liked to believe it did). My apartment really benefited from the time when I was trying to beat creative ruts by clearing my head by cleaning. My biggest revelation in terms of overcoming a creative block was to realize my best pieces were the outcomes of my biggest struggles. The ones during which I had spent countless hours staring at a wall or crying about how nothing in this piece made sense. Since my creative blocks had mainly been performance related stress, coming to realize these ruts were actually crucial to performing better and coming up with more innovative and less expected results, completely changed my take on them. Now, when hitting a creative dead end, I overcome it by seeing it as an opportunity to rethink, re-evaluate and make something great.
What are your favorite locations around Helsinki?
I go back to Helsinki a couple of times a year, usually for Christmas and once in summer. In summer, Flow Festival is definitely a Helsinki event not to miss out. Other places I usually hit up when I’m visiting are Kuurna (an amazing little restaurant in Kruununhaka) and Putte’s (pizza and beer hangout). A summertime picnic in Suomenlinna (a fortress island just outside of Helsinki), a fresh Karelian pirogue (a Finnish delicacy) from Cafe Hopia, and a cocktail at Torni (Helsinki’s attempt at a sky scraper) are also definitely worth trying when in Helsinki.
What about in New York?
My New York favorites are pretty hard to narrow down – this city has an overwhelming selection of things to see, eat and do! My ideal day would probably start by grabbing an avocado toast at Cafe Gitane in Nolita, followed by book browsing at McNally Jackson. Two of my favorite clothing stores are close by: Creatures of Comfort and Opening Ceremony. I would then pop by Sprout in Williamsburg for their beautiful fresh cut flowers, and head for dinner at Battersby. Hands down the most delicious meal I’ve had in a while. I went there after being asked to work on their upcoming cookbook – I was sold on the first bite. And make sure not to miss their kale salad – it is to die for!
What culturally Scandinavian habits do you still practice to this day?
Take my shoes of when I walk into an apartment! I still think it’s weird to walk inside with your shoes on. I think my family’s habits are definitely a weird mix of all the places we’ve been to. We lived in Paris for five years when I was a kid, and have never thought that I’m just the outcome of one specific culture. Currently only my youngest sister lives in Finland: my parents live in Portugal, and my middle sister in Paris. I think Christmas and midsummer are the only events when we practice something that feels remotely Scandinavian.
What songs are on your personal playlist?
Lately, I’ve mostly relied on Spotify Radio to hit me up with good tunes. I base them off of anything from Grimes to classical, Cat Power to MIA, Joni Mitchell to Haim – different projects call for a different mood and soundtrack!
What are some unchecked items on your bucket list?
At the moment: visiting Japan. I usually try to fulfill my dreams as I come up with them – I think life is a little short for postponing doing the things you love.
What are three things most people don’t know about you?
1. I won a French spelling bee in second grade.
2. Up until I was 10, I didn’t listen to anything else but classical music. I played the piano for 12 years, before starting my graphic design studies.
3. I have dark, curly hair (the blonde, straight do is all the work of a good hairdresser and a powerful straightening iron).
For more of Lotta’s work, check out her website.